When Mr. Cleveland was inaugurated in 1893, I was Auditor of the Treasury for the Navy Department. Hon. J.G. Carlisle, of Kentucky, had been made Secretary of the Treasury. My resignation had been tendered, the acceptance of which I expected to see announced any day, but the change did not take place until August of that year.
While seated at my desk one day a messenger from the White House made his appearance, and I was informed that the President desired to see me in person. When I arrived at the White House I was immediately ushered into the President's private office, where he was seated alone at a desk engaged in reading a book or a magazine. It was at an hour when he was not usually accessible to the public. He received me in a very cordial way. He informed me that there was an important matter about which he desired to talk with me—to get the benefit of my opinion and experience. He assured me of his friendly interest in the colored people. It was his determination that they should have suitable and appropriate recognition under his administration. He said he was very much opposed to the color line in politics. There was no more reason why a man should be opposed or discriminated against on account of his race than on account of his religion. He believed it to be the duty of the Democratic party to encourage the colored voters to divide their votes, and the best way to do this was to accord to that race the same relative consideration, the same treatment, and to give the race the same recognition that is given other races and classes of which our citizenship is composed. The party line is the only one that should be drawn. He would not appoint a colored Republican to office merely for the purpose of giving official recognition to the colored race, nor would he refuse to appoint a colored Democrat simply because he was colored. If this course were pursued, and this policy adopted and adhered to by the Democratic party, the colored voters who are in harmony with that party on questions about which white men usually divide, could see their way clear to vote in accordance with their convictions upon such issues, and would not be obliged to vote against the party with which they may be in harmony on account of that party's attitude towards them as a race. "In other words," he said, "it is a well-known fact that there are thousands of colored men who vote the Republican ticket at many important elections,—not from choice but from what they believe to be a necessity. If the views entertained by me on this subject should be accepted by the Democratic party, as I hope and believe they will be, that necessity,—real or imaginary,—would no longer exist, and the gradual division of the colored vote would necessarily follow."
He went on to say that he had not hesitated to express himself fully, freely and frankly with members of his own party on the subject, and that he had informed them of the course he intended to pursue; but that he had been advised against appointing any colored man to an office in which white women were employed.
"Now," said the President, "since you have been at the head of an important bureau in the Treasury Department during the past four years, a bureau in which a number of white women are employed as clerks, I desire very much to know what has been your experiences along those lines." I informed the President that I would take pleasure in giving him the information desired. I assured him that if my occupancy of that office had been the occasion of the slightest embarrassment to anyone connected with the public service,—whether in the office over which I presided or any other,—that fact had never been brought to my notice. On the contrary, I had every reason to believe that no one who had previously occupied the position enjoyed the respect, good-will and friendship of the clerks and other employees to a greater extent than was enjoyed by me. My occupancy of that office had more than demonstrated the fact, if such were necessary, that official position and social contact were separate and distinct. My contact with the clerks and other employees of the office was official, not social. During office hours they were subject to my direction and supervision in the discharge of their official duties, and I am pleased to say that all of them, without a single exception, have shown me that courtesy, deference and respect due to the head of the office. After office hours they went their way and I went mine. No new social ties were created and none were broken or changed as the result of the official position occupied by me. I assured the President, that, judging from my own experience, he need not have the slightest apprehension of any embarrassment, friction or unpleasantness growing out of the appointment of a colored man of intelligence, good judgment and wise discretion as head of any bureau in which white women were employed.
I could not allow the interview to close without expressing to the President my warm appreciation of his fair, just, reasonable and dignified position on the so-called race question.
"Your attitude," I said, "if accepted in good faith by your party, will prove to be the solution of this mythical race problem. Although I am a pronounced Republican, yet, as a colored American, I am anxious to have such a condition of things brought about as will allow a colored man to be a Democrat if he so desires. I believe you have stated the case accurately when you say that thousands of colored men have voted the Republican ticket at important elections, from necessity and not from choice. As a Republican, it is my hope that colored as well as white men, act with and vote for the candidates of that party when worthy and meritorious, but as a colored American, I want them to be so situated that they can vote that way from choice and not from necessity. No man can be a free and independent American citizen who is obliged to sacrifice his convictions upon the altar of his personal safety. The attitude of the Democratic party upon this so-called race question has made the colored voter a dependent, and not an independent, American citizen. The Republican party emancipated him from physical bondage, for which he is grateful. It remains for the Democratic party to emancipate him from political bondage, for which he will be equally grateful. You are engaged, Mr. President, in a good and glorious work. As a colored man I thank you for the brave and noble stand you have taken. God grant that you, as a Democrat, may have influence enough to get the Democratic party as an organization to support you in the noble stand you have so bravely taken."
The President thanked me for my expressions of good-will, and thus terminated what to me was a remarkable as well as a pleasant and most agreeable interview.
A few days later a messenger from the State Department called at my office and informed me that the Secretary of State, Judge Gresham, desired to see me. Judge Gresham and I had been warm personal friends for many years. He had occupied many positions of prominence and responsibility. He had been a major-general in the Union army, and was with Sherman's army during that celebrated March through Georgia. He was one of the leading candidates for the Presidential nomination before the National Republican Convention at Chicago in 1888, when General Benjamin Harrison, of Indiana, was nominated.
I was a member of that Convention and one of Judge Gresham's active supporters. In the campaign that followed Judge Gresham gave General Harrison his active and loyal support, but, for some unaccountable reason, he supported Mr. Cleveland against General Harrison in 1892. Mr. Cleveland was not only elected, but, contrary to public expectation, he carried the State of Illinois,—a State in which Judge Gresham was known to be very popular, especially among the colored people of Chicago; many of whom, it was said, voted for Mr. Cleveland through the efforts and influence of Judge Gresham. Mr. Cleveland evidently believed that his success in Illinois was due largely to Judge Gresham, and as evidence of that fact, and because Judge Gresham was known to be a very able man, Mr. Cleveland paid him the distinguished honor of appointing him to the leading position in his cabinet,—that of Secretary of State.
When I called at the State Department the Judge invited me to a seat in his private office. He said there was an important matter about which he desired to talk with me. My name, he said, had been the subject of a recent conversation between the President and himself. The President, he said, was well aware of the cordial relations existing between us, and believed that if any man could influence my action he, Gresham, was that man.
"Now," said the Judge, "the President has formed a very favorable opinion of you. He is anxious to have you remain at the head of the important bureau over which you are now presiding in such a creditable and satisfactory manner. But you understand that it is a political office. As anxious as the President is to retain you, and as anxious as I am to have him do so, he could not do it and you could neither ask nor expect him to do it, unless you were known to be in sympathy with, and a supporter of, his administration,—at least in the main. Now, you know that I am not only your friend, but that I am a friend to the colored people. I know you are a Republican. So am I; but I am a Cleveland man. Cleveland is a better Republican than Harrison. In supporting Cleveland against Harrison I am no less a Republican. As your friend I would not advise you to do anything that would militate against your interests. Knowing, as you do, that I am not only your friend but also a good Republican, you can at least afford to follow where I lead. I want you, then, to authorize me to say to the President that you are in sympathy with the main purposes of his administration as explained to you by me, and that his decision to retain you in your present position will be fully and keenly appreciated by you."
In my reply I stated that while I was very grateful to the Judge for his friendly interest in me, and while I highly appreciated the President's good opinion of me, it would not be possible for me to consent to retain the position I then occupied upon the conditions named.
"If," I said, "it is the desire of the President to have me remain in charge of that office during his administration or any part thereof, I would be perfectly willing to do so if I should be permitted to remain free from any conditions, pledges, promises or obligations. The conditions suggested mean nothing more nor less than that I shall identify myself with the Democratic party. The President has no office at his disposal the acceptance or retention of which could be a sufficient inducement for me to take such a step as that. I agree with what you have said about Mr. Cleveland, so far as he is personally concerned. I have every reason to believe that he has a friendly interest in the colored people and that he means to do the fair thing by them so far as it may be in his power. But he was elected as a Democrat. He is the head of a National Democratic Administration. No man can be wholly independent of his party,—a fact recognized in the conditions suggested in my own case. I don't think that Mr. Cleveland is what would be called in my part of the country a good Democrat, because I believe he is utterly devoid of race prejudice, and is not in harmony with those who insist upon drawing the color line in the Democratic party. In my opinion he is in harmony with the Democratic party only on one important public question,—the tariff. On all others,—the so-called race question not excepted,—he is in harmony with what I believe to be genuine Republicanism. Still, as I have already stated, he was elected as a Democrat; and, since he holds that the office now occupied by me is a political one, it ought to be filled by one who is in political harmony with the administration. I am not that man; for I cannot truthfully say that I am in harmony with the main purposes of the administration."
The Judge remarked that my decision was a disappointment to him, and he believed that I would some day regret having made it, but that he would communicate to the President the result of our interview. In spite of this, my successor, Morton, a Democrat from Maine, was not appointed until the following August.