“Subsequently Came to Grief”: Evidence and Stories of Corruption in the Autograph Book of Charles P. Stratton, Class of 1848, Part II

By Alec Israeli ’21

This is the second of a two-part series on the autograph book of Charles P. Stratton, Class of 1848, and its relationship to the scandal surrounding the career of William W. Belknap, Class of 1848, Secretary of War under President Ulysses S. Grant. Part one closed with the damning testimony of Caleb P. Marsh, which suggested Belknap had benefited from illegal kickback payments through a supplier of a Western fort. Here, after examining the shared racial politics of Belknap and the Pennsylvania congressman investigating him, I close with the response to Marsh’s testimony, as well as further considerations on the function and creation of historical evidence as relevant to Stratton’s book.

Pennsylvania congressman Hiester Clymer led the response to Caleb P. Marsh’s testimony in the corruption trial of William W. Belknap, Class of 1848. Clymer was a prominent politician, businessman, and another Princeton alum of the 1840s. Clymer graduated a year before Belknap, in the class of 1847. The two likely knew each other, as they both lived in “North College” (i.e., Nassau Hall; some secondary sources describing Clymer’s investigation claim that he and Belknap were actually roommates, but Princeton’s Catalogue suggests otherwise). And, like that of Edward Wall and William Belknap, the signature of Clymer can also be found in Stratton’s autograph book.

Hiester Clymer’s signature in Charles P. Stratton’s autograph book. Autograph Book Collection (AC040), Box 1.

The annotation next to his name in the book reads as almost laudatory, stating, “Has had a career. Has been in Congress from Reading; is there now (1877). Ran for Gov. in Pennsylvania. Was defeated; Is lucky, and knows how to make good use of small capital.” His “career” as a politician in the Democratic Party began even earlier than what is noted here. Before running for Governor in 1866, and before he was a US Congressman, he served in the Pennsylvania State Senate during the war. There, Clymer delivered fiery speeches against abolition and the Republican-led war effort. Before the Senate chamber, he maintained that slavery was not inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus, and that the nation’s founders had written a constitution which both recognized and protected slavery. Additionally holding that the war must only be for the preservation of the Constitution as it was (that is, as a pro-slavery document), he thus opposed Republican policy that would come to frame the war as one of explicitly for abolition— in his words, into a “visionary, fanatical struggle.”

For example, one of his speeches was in opposition to a Pennsylvania Senate resolution stating that “it is the unquestionable right and manifest duty of Congress to abolish Slavery in the District of Columbia; and instructing their Senators and requesting their Representatives to Congress, to vote for its total and immediate abolition in the said District, upon such terms as may be deemed just and equitable to the slave owners therein.” Here was a hardline stance indeed; he claimed (somewhat ironically) such abolition would “utterly enslave” the citizens of Washington DC, that it was a stripping “of property, of comfort and of many of the dearest relations of life.” All this, he said, even though the above resolution arguably provided for compensation for former slave-owners: abolition “upon such terms as may be deemed just and equitable to the slave owners therein.” This aspect of the resolution he commended.

Hiester Clymer speech on the Civil War to the Pennsylvania Senate, March 11, 1862. Undergraduate Alumni Records 1748-1920 (AC104).

Clymer further argued against this resolution on the grounds that abolition in Washington DC could not proceed without the consent of the voters of Maryland, which had ceded land for the creation of the District, and the District itself. This argument echoed the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” propounded by Stephen Douglas, famed Democratic opponent of Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, and the 1858 Illinois senate race. The doctrine held that the Western territories seeking statehood should decide whether they be free or slave states by popular election, a solution framed as democratic only to the extent that “democracy” as such was exclusive to white men. 

Though the investigation may have made the pair opponents, Belknap’s politics were not all that far from Clymer’s in some respects. Both advocated for policy to maintain the white supremacist status quo. Before the war, Belknap was a Douglas Democrat. And, as a Republican during his tenure as Secretary of War, he hardly seemed to identify with the more radical wing of the party, which demanded a more involved federal approach to supporting former slaves and Black Americans more generally. Secretary Belknap did little to address the persistent racist harassment faced by James Webster Smith of South Carolina, the first Black cadet at West Point. As Edward S. Cooper and William S. McFeely have written, Belknap’s weak response was not for lack of awareness; he knew in detail of Smith’s case, and as Secretary of War ultimately had the power to enforce discipline at West Point.

Belknap also opposed federal attempts to address post-bellum inequalities in the South through the Freedmen’s Bureau, a War Department agency established to support former slaves and refugees by building schools and hospitals, ensuring laws were enforced equally, and mediating disputes, among other responsibilities. He recommended to President Grant in November 1871 that the Bureau be dissolved, and within a few months Congress closed the agency. The prospect of racial equality materially embodied by the work of the Bureau, especially in the wake of emancipation, provoked panic in sectors of white America. Hiester Clymer played to such fears in his failed 1866 gubernatorial race, running an explicitly white supremacist campaign that took specific issue with Black suffrage and the very Bureau that Clymer’s old Princeton classmate would soon bury.

And yet, the ties of alma mater and shared racial politics did not keep Clymer from pursuing the investigation into Belknap’s corruption. Two days after Marsh’s testimony (which revealed the pay-off arrangement between himself, Evans, and the Belknaps), and one day after Belknap and his lawyer appeared before Congress in response, Clymer presented a report from the Committee on Expenditures in the War Department calling for Belknap’s impeachment. However, earlier in the day before the call for impeachment, Belknap had handed in his letter of resignation to President Grant, and Grant accepted, not fully aware of the circumstances. A debate over whether Congress now had jurisdiction over Belknap followed, as his resignation had made him a private citizen again. Nonetheless, Congress voted unanimously to impeach Belknap. His following Senate trial, however, resulted in acquittal. Though the majority voted to convict Belknap, it was not a two-thirds majority as was necessary. Many voted for acquittal on the legal grounds that the Senate did not, in the end, have jurisdiction over Belknap after his resignation.

Belknap’s fall and Clymer’s partial victory (partial, if only because Belknap’s resignation beat Congress to the punch) did not bring the intrigue surrounding the position of Secretary of War to a complete close, especially from a Princeton perspective. George Robeson, the corrupt Secretary of the Navy and of the Class of 1847, briefly served as interim Secretary of War after Belknap resigned. He was succeeded by Alphonso Taft, whose tenure lasted but a few months until he was replaced by James Donald Cameron. The Stratton autograph book, by some strange fate— or rather, by a combination of fortuitous timing and Princeton alum’s influence in national politics— seems to physically bind the Princeton figures of the Belknap scandal together: Cameron’s signature, like Belknap’s and Clymer’s, is in the book.

Cameron graduated with the Class of 1852, though he at first entered Princeton to graduate with the Class of 1850: in another autograph book, that of Robert Hollingsworth of the Class of 1849, Cameron wrote he was the Class of 1850, and the Catalogue seem to indicate he took two years of absence after his junior year before graduating. In the Stratton autograph book, the annotation beside his name indicates that this Cameron was the same that assumed the position of Secretary of War following the Belknap scandal, stating, “1876 U.S. Sec. of War under President Grant: U.S. Senator in 1877.” “Sec. of War” is written here above “Attorney General”, which is scratched out; the annotator may have made this mistake because Taft, Cameron’s predecessor, became attorney general once Cameron succeeded him as Secretary of War. 

James Donald Cameron’s signature in Charles Stratton’s autograph book (left) alongside Cameron’s signature in Robert Hollingsworth’s autograph book (right). Click to enlarge. Autograph Book Collection (AC040), Box 1.

As many connections as are visible in the autograph book, furnished by the combination of signatures and annotations, their true depth is not immediately apparent. Though the annotator provided a sort of timeline along which the lives of the signers could be compared, detail (especially in the case of the Belknap scandal) is surprisingly lacking. While the annotations for Belknap, Clymer, and Cameron do state each of the men’s relative positions in the scandal, and they do state that Belknap “came to grief”, none explicitly mention the connection between the three. And, this information is not there, even though the annotations on all three appear to have been written in 1877, the year after the very public, well-covered event. Of course, it is possible that the annotator did not know who led the investigation of Belknap, or who ultimately succeeded him (indeed, as stated, the annotator seemed to think Belknap was the Secretary of the Navy, not of War). Or perhaps they did know, and did not recognize the Princeton connection, or did know and did recognize, but merely chose not to add it. Whatever the case, the paucity of information points again to the difficulty of ascertaining intention in historical evidence.

Whether or not Stratton’s autograph book (or even any historical artifact) may be placed in one of Marc Bloch’s categories of evidence in The Historian’s Craft may then be beside the point; the categories serve more as a heuristic than a rule in any case. Rather, the pieces of the Belknap scandal to be found in the book point towards the work of historical investigation in connecting disparate dots, of consulting other sources in order to glean whatever possible from a given artifact. Evidence, indeed, does not so much as merely exist for us to find, but is something we instead must construct for ourselves.

Sources: 

Autograph Book Collection (AC040)

Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the College of New Jersey.

The Congressional Record (Bound Edition). (Esp. Vol. 4, Parts 2 and 7)

Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC104). 

Wall, Edward. Reminiscences of Princeton College, 1845-1848. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1914.

For further reading:

Bloch, Marc. The Historians Craft. Introduction by Joseph R. Strayer. Translated by Peter Putnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1953.

Cooper, Edward S., William Worth Belknap: An American Disgrace. Madison [NJ]: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.

McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1981.

Purcell, L. E. “The Fall of an Iowa Hero.” The Palimpsest 57 (1976), 130-145.

Wood, Forrest G. Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction. 1st paperback edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Alec Israeli is a history major in the Princeton University Class of 2021. Aside from working at Mudd Library over the summer, his extracurricular activities include being an editor and writer for Princeton Progressive Magazine and a pianist for the Jazz Vocal Collective.

This Week in Princeton History for May 20-26

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, married undergraduates face a housing shortage, two Charter Club officers are sentenced to prison, and more.

May 20, 1782—Princeton president Samuel Stanhope Smith signs a receipt for Peter Elmendorf, Class of 1782, for payment of the rent of his room for the year (40 shillings).

May 21, 1971—The Daily Princetonian reports on a housing shortage facing 96 married undergraduates.

May 24, 1864—Twenty-three-year-old Abram Zabriskie, Class of 1859, a colonel in the Union Army, dies from wounds originally sustained in the Battle of Drury’s Bluff on May 16.

Abram Zabriskie, Class of 1859, ca. 1860. Historical Photograph Collection, Alumni Photographs Series (AC058), Box MP10.

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This Week in Princeton History for October 29-November 4

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the Art Museum reopens in a modernized environment, the football team’s stunning victory over Penn sparks a riot, and more.

October 29, 1966—The Princeton University Art Museum reopens in its new home in a new McCormick Hall.

The new McCormick Hall was built on the site of the old McCormick Hall and Art Museum extension. The 1880 building, pictured here, was advanced for the 19th century but no longer a suitable home for Princeton’s collections. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box SP05, Image No. 1216.

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This Week in Princeton History for June 18-24

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, seniors warn underclassmen not to encroach on their singing territory, the School of Science is dedicated, and more.

June 18, 1930—Charles H. Rogers, Curator of the Princeton Museum of Zoology, catches a ride with the crew of a banana ship from New Orleans to Veracruz as the only passenger. He will collect bird and insect specimens on his summer trip through Mexico.

Charles H. Rogers, undated. Historical Photograph Collection, Faculty Photographs Series (AC067), Box FAC81.

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This Week in Princeton History for May 14-20

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the third term of the academic year begins, dining halls begin serving water instead of milk for lunch, and more.

May 14, 1975—The Eastern regional conference of Women in Higher Education Administration meets at Princeton.

May 16, 1859—James W. Reese’s Valedictory Oration for the Class of 1859 seems precognitive in its reference to the battlefield.

Robert Edgar’s Valedictory Ode to the Senior Class of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) May 16, 1859. Princeton University Class Records (AC130), Box 4. Though the third stanza of Edgar’s ode refers to a metaphorical battlefield, many of the Class of 1859 fought against one another on literal battlefields. About half (35) of the 73-member class fought in the Civil War, 15 for the Union and 20 for the Confederacy.

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This Week in Princeton History for July 10-16

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a sword fight breaks out between dorm residents, rumors about Paul Volcker ’49 circulate, and more.

July 10, 1804—William Robinson is suspended from the College of New Jersey following a fight that escalated to him attacking another student with a sword: “Upon asking them the cause of the disturbance, Mr. Robinson said that while he was conversing with his roommate, Mr. B came to his door and ordered him to make less noise, which he took as an insult, and went to his room to ask what he meant by it. …Mr. Barrat related the circumstances as just stated, with this addition, that Mr. R when he first came into his room, struck at him several times with the sword, but that he did not receive any wound except a very slight one on his arm. Mr. Robinson acknowledged the whole, but pled that he did not intend to strike Mr. B with the sword.”

July 11, 1861—Samuel P. Carter of the Class of 1839 receives orders to report to the Secretary of War for duty. Carter will organize an infantry brigade of other Tennessee residents loyal to the Union and adopt the code name “Powhatan.”

July 13, 1987—An article appearing in the Wall Street Journal today speculates that Paul Volcker ’49, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, will soon join the Princeton faculty, but the University declines to comment. (The Journal‘s reporting is accurate.)

Paul Volcker ’49, ca. 1991. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 121.

July 14, 1949—Over 60 Princeton alumni celebrate Bastille Day by holding a reunion at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The unusual crowd in orange and black ties draws local press coverage.

For last week’s installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

An Update on the Earliest Records of Jewish Students at Princeton

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the search to find the first Jewish student at Princeton. As I noted, the “first” student in any category is probably impossible to determine. However, I was able to find a record suggesting possible Jewish presence dating back to 1859, when Albert Mordecai of the Class of 1863 arrived to begin his studies. In today’s post, I support my own claims about the difficulty of determining “firsts” by showing that Jewish presence at Princeton goes back at least half a century further than initially thought. The earliest records I have found thus far now uncover the life of another Jewish student who began his work at Princeton in 1809, Mordecai Myers, but a handful of other Jewish students also attended Princeton in the antebellum period.

Follow up from our readers has prompted this update on two counts. The first concerns Albert Mordecai’s connection to Judaism. Yosef Razin ’11 wrote in with research he conducted on the Mordecai family in the U. S. Census records and other sources. There is conflicting data regarding the family origins, he says, but sources seem to agree that Mordecai’s origins through his paternal line were Jewish. His mother’s ethnic background may or may not have been Jewish. Those on campus or with a subscription can access these records through the Ancestry.com databases.

The second update makes it clear, however, that whether or not Albert Mordecai considered himself Jewish, he would not have been the first Jewish student at Princeton. Sven Henningson ’16 uncovered a reference to Mordecai Myers as a Jewish graduate of Princeton and alerted us to the possibility that he had been on campus much earlier than Albert Mordecai. Having done some digging, I have confirmed that Mordecai Myers, Class of 1812, was Jewish and earned his A.B. from Princeton in 1812. This research led down a path that uncovered a few other Jewish students at Princeton prior to the Civil War.

Mordecai Myers, the son of Levi Myers and Francis Minis, born November 9, 1794, was just shy of 15 years old when he arrived at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1809. Myers was advanced enough to skip his freshman year and was admitted to the sophomore Class of 1812. This proved fortuitous in terms of being able to finish his degree, because war broke out in 1812. According to a 1909 letter from his son to the Princeton University Secretary, when armed conflict began with Great Britain in June 1812, Myers returned home to his native Charleston, South Carolina, but this didn’t prevent him from graduating with his class the following September.

Myers,_Mordecai_Class_of_1812_AC104_Box_72

Mordecai Myers, Class of 1812. Undergraduate Alumni Records 1748-1920 (AC104), Box 72.

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This Week in Princeton History for April 18-24

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the campus mourns Abraham Lincoln, Fidel Castro pays a visit, and more.

April 19, 1865—Someone etches “We Mourn Our Loss” into a window on the third floor of Nassau Hall in reference to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. (More on campus reaction to Lincoln’s death here.)

Scrapbook ribbon

Ribbon found in the college scrapbook of Edward Wilder Haines, Class of 1866. Scrapbook Collection (AC026), Box 16.

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This Week in Princeton History for August 31-September 6

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, an increase in the cost of food inspires student entrepreneurs, the Civil War fells an alum, and more.

September 2, 1975—Prices on most items available at the Student Center go up by five cents. Empty cups, previously free, now cost a nickel. The move will inspire some students to form new student agencies to compete for food sales at lower costs.

Ad_Prince_25_July_1975

Ad from the Daily Princetonian, 1975.

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Princeton Mourns Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. exactly 150 years ago. As Americans did throughout the country, Princetonians immediately went into mourning. The loss was more profound given that the nation had emerged from a devastating Civil War less than a week before.

Princeton’s ties to Lincoln are reflected in various collections in Princeton University Library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. On his train trip to his inauguration in 1861, Lincoln made many stops in the Midwest and Northeast, where he often spoke to crowds. On February 21, more than 20,000 supporters received him in Trenton. William Stewart Cross Webster and Alexander Taggart McGill, Jr., both of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) Class of 1864, were among the throngs. In a letter to his mother a few days later, Webster expressed disappointment that he was unable to hear Lincoln over the roar of the crowd: “This was our sight of Abraham Lincoln: We saw great Lincoln plain; it can never be forgotten, the bowing very graciously right and left. In a few minutes Mr. L. appeared on the platform and said a few words. His manner was pleasant and a vein of humor pervaded his whole face. I was unlucky enough to hear nothing he said.” (Undergraduate Alumni Records 1748-1920 (AC104), Box 125)

Shortly after his reelection in 1864, the Board of Trustees voted to confer an honorary Doctorate of Law upon Lincoln. Lincoln was unable to attend Princeton’s Commencement, but wrote to College President John Maclean to thank Princeton for its honor “in this time of public trial.”

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