“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.

What Archival Silence Conceals—and Reveals: Recovering Princeton University’s 19th-Century African American Graduate Alumni

Archival silences distort the past, shaping our current and future self-understanding, so preserving Princeton’s history sometimes means attempting to correct the work of our predecessors. My struggle to bring 19th and early 20th-century African American graduate alumni to light illustrates one way white supremacy of that era continues to influence us today. It also supports the argument that archives are not neutral, so researchers and archival staff must pay close attention to the ways archival work reflects the values of those who did the preserving and discarding.

In our Graduate Alumni Records collection, I found files for Irwin William Langston Roundtree, George Shippen Stark, and Leonard Zechariah Johnson, African Americans previously known to have received masters degrees from Princeton. Contents were sparse. Stark’s and Johnson’s consisted primarily of the evidence that they had paid fees and earned course credit. Roundtree’s file had no information about the classes he took, but included an obituary that indicated he was a longtime resident of Trenton.

(Click to enlarge.) Academic record of Leonard Zachariah Johnson, graduate class of 1904. Graduate Alumni Records (AC105).

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This Week in Princeton History for November 27-December 3

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, undergraduates protest the presence of African Americans in chapel, a computer virus is spreading all over campus, and more.

November 28, 1868—Students at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) begin circulating a petition to ban African Americans from chapel exercises after James McCosh allows a black student from Princeton Theological Seminary to attend his lectures on the life of Jesus, but few faculty are willing to sign it and McCosh remains unmoved.

Clipping from New York Tribune, December 8, 1868. The relevant portion reads as follows: “A young man (colored), of fine abilities and address, a graduate of a Western college, and at present a student of the Theological Seminary of this place, has dared to present himself at the College Chapel on Sunday afternoon for the purpose of listening to the President’s [McCosh’s] lectures without the permission of the sympathizers of the ‘Lost Cause,’ who feeling themselves deeply injured are now circulating a protest, which being duly signed, will be presented to the Faculty protesting against the further privilege of colored men entering the Chapel during any Chapel exercise. Thus far no movement has been made by the more liberal minded against this pernicious protest, for they have confidence in the good sense of the Faculty, and believe that such an article will be treated by them with contempt.”

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This Week in Princeton History for August 7-13

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Chelsea Clinton visits the campus, a graduate wins an Olympic medal for soccer, and more.

August 7, 1996—As Chelsea Clinton considers potential colleges, she and First Lady Hillary Clinton visit Princeton.

Photo from Daily Princetonian.

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Lobby Exhibit Highlights Some of Princeton’s Connections to Slavery

A small exhibit currently on display in the lobby of Mudd Library contains archival material highlighting Princeton’s connections to slavery. The exhibit includes an offer of financial support on the condition that students be admitted “irrespective of Color” rejected by the Board of Trustees in 1835 and an 1861 note in a student’s autograph book signed “Though your deadly foe in public I am in private life your friend,” among other items.

Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 23, Folder 5.

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Tracing Princeton’s Connections to Slavery through Intentional Serendipity

The Princeton and Slavery Symposium, a presentation of several years of “scholarly investigation of Princeton University’s historical engagement with the institution of slavery,” is scheduled for November 17-18, 2017. As we lead up to that date, we will be blogging about Mudd’s involvement in this larger project.

Last November, the University of Houston-Downtown Archives wrote about their staff’s annoyance at headlines about items “Found Buried in the Archives!” Articles like these often rub staff in archives the wrong way, because they render their ongoing efforts (necessary for scholars to uncover such material) invisible. Working day-to-day in the archives of a university, we often know a lot more about our institutions than we’re ever able to share in writing, leaving it to the researchers who visit us to record most of the stories that the materials we show them reveal. It is sometimes our jobs to tell the stories of our schools, but not always; even when it is, there will never be enough time for us to write them all down. My multi-page list of blogs-in-progress attests to this.

Even so, there are still discoveries made on a daily basis, “buried” materials or not. Not everything is easily found. My work at Mudd often highlights our collections from new angles and/or reveals forgotten stories about Princeton’s past. In order to do this, I keep records of what I discover in the course of my workday. Themes sometimes emerge and eventually become social media posts, blogs, or exhibit fodder as I transform the messy notes in my legal pads and Word documents and the connections in my head into more coherent pieces for public consumption. I also recruit my student assistants to help in this endeavor. Just as I do, they sometimes intentionally set out to tell a specific story, but we also write the stories that find us rather than vice versa. Our discoveries about Princeton’s connections to slavery reflect this kind of intentional serendipity (not quite the oxymoron it seems). The work of Mudd’s Public Services is both visible and invisible to the patrons who use our library. In today’s blog, I will reveal some of the invisible work that we do to support Princeton’s educational mission.

The first such item I want to highlight is one I uncovered in the course of collecting items for the weekly blog feature, “This Week in Princeton History.” The notice of a slave sale held on the Princeton campus in 1766 was worth including in this weekly roundup of events in mid-August 2015 in part because I had talked with students in the “Princeton and Slavery” course about their research and knew it was of interest to the public we serve. The professor for the course, Martha A. Sandweiss, referred to the slave sale in an article about her class that appeared in The Nation a few months later.

Clip from the Philadelphia Journal, August 14, 1766.

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This Week in Princeton History for July 11-17

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the logistics of emancipation are debated, plans for a School of Science are approved, and more.

July 11, 1944—Robert S. Ward ’42, a forward artillery observer, is killed in action in France.

July 12, 1968—The Committee on the Education of Women at Princeton gives its final report to the Board of Trustees, urging that the University “move as quickly as possible to implement coeducation…”

July 13, 1792—Students at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) debate this question: “Is not the emancipation of slaves, without preparing them by proper education to be good citizens[,] inconsistent with humanity & sound policy?” (Source)

July 15, 1864—In recognition of the changing needs of the student body, the Board of Trustees of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) approve a plan to establish a second course of study at Princeton within a special School of Science. This marks the first time that undergraduate education at Princeton will not require the same coursework of all students regardless of their future careers.

School_of_Science_Interior_1881_AC111_Box_MP81_No._3283

Interior of the School of Science, 1881. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP81, Image No. 3283.

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.

This Week in Princeton History for August 17-23

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a prisoner of war says he deserves credit for independent study while held captive, the U-Store breaks ground on a new home, and more.

August 18, 1944—Lt. Nicholas Katzenbach ’43 writes to the War Service Bureau that he has been studying 8 hours per day in a German prison camp and feels he has completed the requirements for his A.B. despite missing the final three semesters with his class at Princeton. After submitting a thesis and passing a series of exams given by Princeton faculty the following year, he will be given given credit for ten courses and awarded his degree with honors in October 1945. Katzenbach will ultimately achieve his greatest fame as the U.S. Attorney General who will confront segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace in an incident that will be known as the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.”

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“Princeton College Bought Me”: The Life of a Fugitive Slave in Princeton

Many nearly-forgotten legends surround James “Jimmy Stink” Collins Johnson, who lived in Princeton for most of his life after escaping from slavery in Maryland. Today it is impossible to completely separate fact from fiction, but this is our best reconstruction:

The sources tell us that two slaves in Easton, Maryland, welcomed a baby on October 2, 1816. Early in his childhood, their mistress gave the boy, James Collins, to their master’s son, Teakle Wallace, who was only a month older than James. James married a freedwoman in Church Hill, several miles away, in 1836. Frustrated with captivity, James began planning an escape. When Wallace gave James five dollars for some reason, James seized the opportunity and left Easton on foot at midnight on August 8, 1839, never to return. After stopping to say good-bye to his wife and promise he would send for her when he could, he continued walking to Wilmington, Delaware, where a portion of his money bought him fare on a riverboat to Philadelphia. At this point, he changed his name to James Johnson. In Philadelphia, he bought a train ticket to Trenton. Legend has it that he had just fifty cents left when he arrived in Trenton, which he spent on train fare to carry him as far north as possible. His destination was Princeton, New Jersey, where he arrived on August 10.

In Princeton, Johnson found work at the College of New Jersey, colloquially called “Princeton College,” as a janitor in Nassau Hall. A few years later, Simon Weeks (Class of 1838), a student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a friend of the Wallaces, saw and recognized Johnson and wrote back to Maryland to report on this. Some weeks passed. Then, as Andrew Clerk Imbrie later wrote for the Nassau Lit, Johnson’s master confronted him at the local post office. Johnson “stood quaking before young Teakle Wallace a picture of abject misery. Visions of the old days came back to him … he had tasted liberty since then, and his whole nature revolted at the idea of going back to once more become a slave.”

James_Johnson_AC67_BoxMP4

James Johnson and unknown young man, ca. 1890, Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series (AC67), Box MP4.

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Mudd in Print

Have you ever wondered what our researchers are up to in the reading room? Many of them are working fervently towards producing highly esteemed, ground-breaking, and sometimes award-winning books.

This entry features a sample of recent publications, each developed through extensive research at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. Drawing from material found in the Princeton University Archives, as well as the Public Policy Papers, these works demonstrate the varied research potential of the collections housed in our library. (All descriptions from Amazon.com.)

Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder

Ebony and Ivy

In Ebony and Ivy, Craig Steven Wilder, a rising star in the profession of history, lays bare uncomfortable truths about race, slavery, and the American academy.

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War by Stephen Kinzer

TheBrothers
A joint biography of John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, who led the United States into an unseen war that decisively shaped today’s world.

Wilson by A. Scott Berg

Wilson

From Pulitzer Prize–winning, #1 New York Times–bestselling author A. Scott Berg comes the definitive—and revelatory—biography of one of the great American figures of modern times.

George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis

kennan

Three decades in the making, the definitive, authorized biography of one of Cold War America’s most prominent and most troubled grand strategists.

Princeton: America’s Campus by W. Barksdale Maynard

americascampus

Neither a straightforward architectural history nor a simple guidebook, it weaves social history and the built fabric into a biography of a great American place.

These books are also on display in the lobby case at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.

by: Amanda Pike