Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

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Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club

It is less than four miles from Harvard Square to Boston City Hall, a building rather exceptional for its fine architecture among public edifices, but the change in 1865 was like the change from one sphere of human thought and activity to another. In Boston politics was everything, and literature, art, philosophy nothing, or next to nothing. There was mercantile life, of course, and careworn merchants anxiously waiting about the gold-board; but there were no tally-ho coaches; there was no golf or polo, and very little yachting. Fashionable society was also at a low ebb, and as Wendell Phillips remarked in 1866, the only parties were boys’ and girls’ dancing-parties. A large proportion of the finest young men in the city had, like the Lowells, shed their blood for the Republic. The young people danced, but their elders looked grave.

At this time the political centre of Massachusetts and, to a certain extent of New England, was the Bird Club, which met every Saturday afternoon at Young’s Hotel to dine and discuss the affairs of the nation. Its membership counted both Senators, the Governor, a number of ex- Governors and four or five members of Congress. They were a strong team when they were all harnessed together.

Francis William Bird, the original organizer of the club, was born in Dedham, October 22, 1809, and the only remarkable fact concerning his ancestry would seem to be that his great-grandmother was a Hawthorne, of the same family as Nathaniel Hawthorne; but there was no trace of that strongly-marked lineage in his composition. As a boy he was quick at mathematics, but not much of a student, so that he was full eighteen years of age before he entered Brown University. His college course also left him in a depleted physical condition, and it was several years later when he commenced the actual labor of life. His father had intended him for the law; but this did not agree with his health, and his physician advised a more active employment. Accordingly we find him in 1835 engaged in the manufacture of paper at East Walpole, an occupation in which he continued until 1892,—always suffering from dyspepsia, but always equal to whatever occasion demanded of him. He was a tall, thin, wiry-looking man, with a determined expression, but of kind and friendly manners.

He must have been a skilful man of business, for all the great financial storms of the half century, in which he lived and worked, rolled over him without causing him any serious embarrassment. His note was always good, and his word was as good as his note. He always seemed to have money enough for what he wanted to do. In prosperous times he spent generously, although habitually practising a kind of stoical severity in regard to his private affairs. He considered luxury the bane of wealth, and continually admonished his children to avoid it. He was an old-fashioned Puritan with liberal and progressive ideas.

After his marriage in 1843 to Miss Abigail Frances Newell, of Boston, he built a commodious house in a fine grove of chestnuts on a hill-side at East Walpole; and there he brought up his children like Greeks and Amazons. Chestnut woods are commonly infested with hornets, but he directed us boys not to molest them, for he wished them to learn that hornets would not sting unless they were interfered with; an excellent principle in human nature. Mrs. Bird resembled her husband so closely in face and figure, that they might have been mistaken for brother and sister. She was an excellent New England woman of the old style, and well adapted to make her husband comfortable and happy.

The connection between manufacturing and politics is a direct and natural one. A man who employs thirty or forty workmen, and treats them fairly, can easily obtain an election to the Legislature without exercising any direct influence over them; but Frank Bird’s workmen felt that he had a personal interest in each one of them. He never was troubled with strikes. When hard times came his employees submitted to a reduction of wages without murmuring, and when business was good they shared again in the general prosperity. As a consequence Mr. Bird could go to the Legislature as often as he desired; and when he changed from the Republican to the Democratic party, in 1872, they still continued to vote for him, until at the age of seventy-one he finally retired from public life.

On one election day he is said to have called his men together, and to have told them: “You will have two hours this afternoon to cast your votes in. The mill will close at 4 o’clock, and I expect every man to vote as I do. Now I am going to vote just as I please, and I hope you will all do the same; but if any one of my men does not vote just as he wants to, and I find it out, I will discharge him to-morrow.” One can imagine Abraham Lincoln making a speech like this, on a similar occasion.

Frank W. Bird, like J. B. Sargent, of New Haven, was a rare instance of an American manufacturer who believed in free-trade. This was one reason why he joined the Democratic party in 1872. He considered that protection encouraged sleazy and fraudulent work, and placed honest manufacturers at a disadvantage; though he obtained these ideas rather from reading English magazines than from any serious study of his own. He was naturally much more of a Democrat than a Whig, or Federalist, but he opposed the doctrine of State Rights, declaring that it was much more responsible for the Civil War than the anti-slavery agitation was.

The same political exigency which roused James Russell Lowell also brought Francis William Bird before the public. In company with Charles Francis Adams he attended the Buffalo convention, in 1848, and helped to nominate Martin Van Buren for the Presidency. He was, however, doing more effective work by assisting Elizur Wright in publishing the Chronotype (the most vigorous of all the anti-slavery papers), both with money and writing; and in a written argument there were few who could equal him. He appears to have been the only person at that time who gave Elizur Wright much support and encouragement.

In 1850 Bird was elected to the State Legislature and worked vigorously for the election of Sumner the ensuing winter. His chief associates during the past two years had been Charles Francis Adams, the most distinguished of American diplomats since Benjamin Franklin, John A. Andrew, then a struggling lawyer, and Henry L. Pierce, afterwards Mayor of Boston. Now a greater name was added to them; for Sumner was not only an eloquent orator, perhaps second to Webster, but he had a worldwide reputation as a legal authority.

Adams, however, failed to recognize that like his grandfather he was living in a revolutionary epoch, and after the Kansas struggle commenced he became continually more conservative—if that is the word for it—and finally in his Congressional speech in the winter of 1861 he made the fatal statement that personally he would be “in favor of permitting the Southern States to secede," although he could not see that there was any legal right for it. This acted as a divider between him and his former associates, until in 1876 he found himself again in the same party with Frank W. Bird.

During the administration of Governor Banks, that is, between 1857 and 1860, Bird served on the Governor’s council, although generally in opposition to Banks himself. He went as a delegate to the Chicago Convention of 1860, where he voted at first for Seward, and afterwards for Lincoln. From that time forward, until 1880, he was always to be found at the State House, and devoted so much time to public affairs that it is a wonder his business of paper manufacturing did not suffer from it. Yet he always seemed to have plenty of time, and was never so much absorbed in what he was doing but that he could give a cordial greeting to any of his numerous friends. His face would beam with pleasure at the sight of an old acquaintance, and I have known him to dash across the street like a school-boy in order to intercept a former member of the Legislature who was passing by on the other side. Such a man has a good heart.

Frank Bird’s abilities fitted him for higher positions than he ever occupied; but he was so serviceable in the Legislature that all his friends felt that he ought to remain there. He was inexorable in his demand for honest government, and when he rose to speak all the guilty consciences in the house began to tremble. He was the terror of the lobbyist, and of the legislative log-roller. This made him many enemies, but he expected it and knew how to meet them. He was especially feared while Andrew was Governor, for every one knew that he had consulted with Andrew before making his motion. He was the Governor’s man of business.

He came to know the character of every politician in the State,—what his opinions were, and how far he could be depended on. In this way he also became of great service to Sumner and Wilson, who wished to know what was taking place behind their backs while they were absent at Washington. Sumner did not trouble himself much as to public opinion, but this was of great importance to Wilson, who depended on politics for his daily bread. Both, however, wanted to know the condition of affairs in their own State, and they found that Frank Bird’s information was always trustworthy,—for he had no ulterior object of his own.

Thus he acquired much greater influence in public affairs than most of the members of Congress. When Mr. Baldwin, who represented his district, retired in 1868, Frank Bird became a candidate for the National Legislature, but he suffered from the disadvantage of living at the small end of the district, and the prize was carried off by George F. Hoar, afterwards United States Senator; but going to Congress in the seventies was not what it had been in the fifties and sixties, when the halls of the Capitol resounded with the most impressive oratory of the nineteenth century.

Frank Bird did not pretend to be an orator. His speeches were frank, methodical and directly to the point; and very effective with those who could be influenced by reason, without appeals to personal prejudice. He hated flattery in all its forms, and honestly confessed that the temptation of public speakers to cajole their audiences was the one great demon of a democratic government. He liked Wendell Phillips on account of the manly way in which he fought against his audiences, and strove to bring them round to his own opinion.

He was as single-minded as Emerson or Lincoln. In November, 1862, Emerson said to me: “I came from Springfield the other day in the train with your father’s friend, Frank Bird, and I like him very much. I often see his name signed to newspaper letters, and in future I shall always read them.” Strangely enough, a few days later I was dining with Mr. Bird and he referred to the same incident. When I informed him that Emerson had also spoken of it he seemed very much pleased.

If any one paid him a compliment or expressed gratitude for some act of kindness, he would hesitate and become silent for a moment, as if he were reflecting whether he deserved it or not; and then would go on to some other subject.

His acts of kindness were almost numberless. He assisted those whom others would not assist; and if he suspected that a small office-holder was being tyrannized over, he would take no rest until he had satisfied himself of the truth of the case. In February, 1870, he learned that a high official in the Boston Post-office, who was supported in his position by the Governor of the State, was taking advantage of this to levy a blackmail on his subordinates, compelling them to pay him a commission in order to retain their places. Frank Bird was furious with honest indignation. He said: “I will go to Washington and have that man turned out if I have to see Grant himself for it"; and so he did.

One evening at Walpole a poor woman came to him in distress, because her only son had been induced to enlist in the Navy, and was already on board a man-of-war at the Boston Navy-yard. Mr. Bird knew the youth, and was aware that he was very slightly feeble-minded. The vessel would sail in three days, and there was no time to be lost. He telegraphed the facts as briefly as possible to Senator Wilson, and in twenty-four hours received an order to have the widow’s son discharged. Then he would not trust the order to the commandant, who might have delayed its execution, but sent it to an agent of his own in the Navy-yard, who saw that the thing was done.

Frank Bird’s most distinguished achievement in politics was the nomination of Andrew for Governor in 1860. Governor Banks was not favorable to Andrew and his friends, and used what influence he possessed for the benefit of Henry L. Dawes. An organization for the nomination of Dawes had already been secretly formed before Frank Bird was acquainted with Banks’s retirement from the field. Bird and Henry L. Pierce were at Plymouth when they first heard of it, about the middle of July, and they immediately returned to Boston, started a bureau, opened a subscription- list, and with the cooperation of the Bird Club carried the movement through. It would have made a marked difference in public affairs during the War for the Union if Dawes had been Governor instead of Andrew. [Footnote: Dawes was an excellent man in his way, but during eighteen years in the United States Senate he never made an important speech.]

Frank Bird had this peculiarity, that the more kindly he felt to those who were unfortunate in life, the more antagonistic he seemed to those who were exceptionally prosperous. He appeared to have a sort of spite against handsome men and women, as if nature had been over-partial to them in comparison with others. He was not a pedantic moralist, but at the same time rather exacting in his requirements of others, as he was of himself.

The Bird Club was evolved out of the conditions of its times, like a natural growth. Its nucleus was formed in the campaign of 1848, when Bird, Andrew, Henry L. Pierce, and William S. Robinson fell into the habit of dining together and discussing public affairs every Saturday afternoon. It was not long before they were joined by Elizur Wright and Henry Wilson. Sumner came to dine with them, when he was not in Washington, and Dr. S. G. Howe came with him. The Kansas excitement brought in George L. Stearns and Frank B. Sanborn,—one the president and the other the secretary of the Kansas Aid Society. In 1860 the club had from thirty to forty members, and during the whole course of its existence it had more than sixty members; but it never had any regular organization. A member could bring a friend with him, and if the friend was liked, Mr. Bird would invite him to come again. No vote ever appears to have been taken. Mr. Bird sat at the head of the table, and if he was late or absent his place would be supplied by George L. Stearns. At his right hand sat Governor Andrew, and either Sumner or Stearns on his left. Doctor Howe and Wilson sat next to them, and were balanced on the opposite side by Sanborn, Governor Washburn, and two or three members of Congress. However, there was no systematic arrangement of the guests at this feast, although the more important members of the club naturally clustered about Mr. Bird.

N. P. Banks never appeared there, either as Governor or General; and from this it was argued that he was ambitious to become Senator; or it may have been owing to his differences with Bird, while the latter was on the Governor’s Council. In this way the Bird Club became the test of a man’s political opinion, and prominent politicians who absented themselves from it were looked upon with more or less distrust.

The discussions at the club were frank, manly, and unreserved. Members who talked from the point were likely to be corrected without ceremony, and sometimes received pretty hard knocks. On one occasion General B. F. Butler, who had come into the club soon after his celebrated contraband- of-war order, was complaining that the New York Republicans had nominated General Francis C. Barlow for Secretary of State, and that General Barlow had not been long enough in the Republican party to deserve it, when Robinson replied to him that Barlow had been a Republican longer than some of those present, and Frank Bird remarked that he was as good a Republican as any that were going. Butler looked as if he had swallowed a pill.

William S. Robinson was at once the wit and scribe of the club, and the only newswriter that was permitted to come to the table. He enjoyed the advantage of confidential talk and authentic information, which no other writer of that time possessed, and his letters to the Springfield Republican, extending over a period of fifteen years, come next in value to the authentic documents of that important period. They possessed the rare merit of a keen impartiality, and though sometimes rather sharp, were never far from the mark. He not only criticised Grant and the political bosses of that time, but his personal friends, Sumner, Wilson, and Frank Bird himself.

In 1872 Emerson said to a member of the club: “I do not like William Robinson. His hand is against every man"; but it is doubtful if Robinson ever published so hard a criticism of any person, and certainly none so unjust. Emerson without being aware of it was strongly influenced by a cabal for the overthrow of Robinson, in which General Butler took a leading hand. Robinson was clerk of the State Senate, and could not afford to lose his position; afterwards, when he did lose it, he fell sick and died. He preferred truth-telling and poverty to a compromising prosperity, and left no one to fill his place.

Frank B. Sanborn was for a time editor of the Boston Commonwealth, and afterwards of the Springfield Republican; but he was better known as the efficient Secretary of the Board of State Charities, a position to which he was appointed by Governor Andrew, and from which he was unjustly removed by Governor Ames, twenty years later. He was an indefatigable worker, and during that time there was not an almshouse or other institution, public or private, in the State for the benefit of the unfortunate portion of mankind where he was not either feared or respected—a man whose active principle was the conscientious performance of duty. He was also noted for his fidelity to his friends. He cared for the family of John Brown and watched over their interests as if they had been his own family; he made a home for the poet Channing in his old age, and was equally devoted to the Alcotts and others, who could not altogether help themselves. He was himself a charitable institution.

Henry Wilson is also worth a passing notice, for the strange resemblance of his life to President Lincoln’s, if for no other reason. His name was originally Colbath, and he was reputed to have been born under a barbery- bush in one of the green lanes of New Hampshire. The name is an exceptional one, and the family would seem to have been of the same roving Bedouin-like sort as that of Lincoln’s ancestors. He began life as a shoemaker, was wholly self-educated, and changed his name to escape from his early associations. He would seem to have absorbed all the virtue in his family for several generations. No sooner had he entered into politics than he was recognized to have a master hand. He rose rapidly to the highest position in the gift of his State, and finally to be Vice-President. If his health had not given way in 1873 he might even have become President in the place of Hayes; for he was a person whom every man felt that he could trust. His loyalty to Sumner bordered on veneration, and was the finest trait in his character. There was no pretense in Henry Wilson’s patriotism; everyone felt that he would have died for his country.

In 1870 General Butler disappeared from the club, to the great relief of Sumner and his immediate friends. He had already shown the cloven foot by attacking the financial credit of the government; and the question was, what would he do next? He had found the club an obstacle to his further advancement in politics, and when in the autumn campaign Wendell Phillips made a series of attacks on the character of the club, and especially on Bird himself, the hand of Butler was immediately recognized in it, and his plans for the future were easily calculated. It is probable that Phillips supposed he was doing the public a service in this, but the methods he pursued were not much to his credit. Phillips learned that the president of the Hartford and Erie Railroad had recently given Mr. Bird an Alderney bull-calf, and as he could not find anything else against Bird’s character he made the most of this. He spoke of it as of the nature of a legislative bribe, and in an oration delivered in the Boston Music Hall he called it “a thousand dollars in blood.”

“Who,” he asked of his audience, “would think of exchanging a bird for a bull!”

This was unfortunate for the calf, which lost its life in consequence; but it was not worth more than ten dollars, and the contrast between the respective reputations of General Butler and Mr. Bird made Wendell Phillips appear in rather a ridiculous light.

The following year, 1871, as the Bird Club expected, General Butler made a strong fight for the gubernatorial nomination, and the club opposed him in a solid body. Sanborn at this time was editing the Springfield Republican, and he exposed Butler’s past political course in an unsparing manner. Butler made speeches in all the cities and larger towns of the State, and when he came to Springfield he singled out Sanborn, whom he recognized in the audience, for a direct personal attack. Sanborn rose to reply to him, and the contrast between the two men was like that between Lincoln and Douglas; Sanborn six feet four inches in height, and Butler much shorter, but very thick-set. The altercation became a warm one, and Butler must have been very angry, for he grew red in the face and danced about the platform as if the boards were hot under his feet. The audience greeted both speakers with applause and hisses.

It was a decided advantage for General Butler that there were three other candidates in the field; but both Sumner and Wilson brought their influence to bear against him, and this, with Sanborn’s telling editorials, would seem to have decided his defeat; for when the final struggle came at the Worcester Convention the vote was a very close one and a small matter might have changed it in his favor.

The difference between Sumner and the administration, in 1872, on the San Domingo question accomplished what Phillips and Butler were unable to effect. Frank Bird and Sumner’s more independent friends left the club, which was then dining at Young’s Hotel, and seceded to the Parker House, where Sumner joined them not long afterwards. Senator Wilson and the more deep-rooted Republicans formed a new organization called the Massachusetts Club, which still existed in the year 1900.

The great days of the Bird Club were over. With the death of Sumner, in 1874, its political importance came to an end, and although its members continued to meet for five or six years longer, it ceased to attract public attention.

At the age of eighty Frank W. Bird still directed the financial affairs of his paper business, but he looked back on his life as a “wretched failure.” No matter how much he accomplished, it seemed to him as nothing compared with what he had wished to do. Would there were more such failures!


Preface  •  The Close of the War  •  Francis J. Child  •  Longfellow  •  Lowell  •  Cranch  •  T. G. Appleton  •  The Whip of the Sky  •  Pompeii  •  Doctor Holmes  •  Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club  •  Sumner  •  Chevalier Howe  •  The War Governor  •  The Colored Regiments  •  Emerson’s Tribute to George L. Stearns  •  Elizur Wright  •  Dr. W. T. G. Morton  •  William T. G. Morton  •  Leaves From a Roman Diary  •  My Last Visit to the Longfellows  •  Centennial Contributions  •  The Emerson Centennial  •  The Hawthorne Centennial  •  Hawthorne and Hamlet

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