Visitors from Congress: William D. Kelley (1814-1890)

"Pig Iron." William Kelley served as a Philadelphia congressman from 1861-1890. Loyal Lincoln ally and frequent White House visitor, Kelley was a fervent critic of General George B. McClellan. His 1864 renomination became a major political quarrel in which President Lincoln had to intervene.

Kelley was one of the Republican delegation that traveled from Chicago to Springfield officially to inform Mr. Lincoln of his nomination. He was not initially “very favorably impressed. The face was in perfect repose...As he uttered the first sentence, a smile played round his large mouth, his eyes lit up, and his face declared the nature which we have learned in some measure to comprehend and revere.“1 After meeting the new candidate, Kelley said: “Well, we might have done a more brilliant thing, but we could hardly have done a better thing.”2 He soon began a correspondence with Mr. Lincoln that continued until his death.

Kelley frequently sent the President recommendations and introductions. He sometimes sent him advice. “I would not write to you of politics if I did not believe that the success of your administration is the only possible means of saving my country,” Kelley wrote the President in July 1862.
It is after midnight & I am weary; but I see a busy day before me and must say a few words to you before I retire. I would not write to you of politics did I not believe that the success of your administration is the only possible means of saving my country, and that this is dependant on the results of the coming legislative and congressional elections. I have now mingled enough with my constituents and the people at large of the city to understand the state of things.
It is not, I am sorry to say, encouraging. The democratic party is as thoroughly, and more perfectly, organized than I have ever known. It will not probably hold a general meeting during the campaign, as it is efficiently organized in every precinct. None of its men are enlisting. Their local leaders discourage enlistments-- If they can retain their own people while 30 000 or more of ours go to the field they achieve a grand political result.
The commander of the Army of the Potomac, is, though his popularity has diminished vastly in the last week, their future candidate for the Presidency; and while he has been burying our once proud army in the swamps of Virginia, his brother -- & friends have been spreading sedition and impairing public confidence in your administration, by their assaults upon Mr Stanton, and upon you for retaining him, and not sending [Irvin] McDowell and his entire corps from before Washington. Meanwhile our own people are confused by the fact that you do retain Mr S. and the assertion that you found the Army of the Potomac in fine condition and admirable position, and are but executing McClellans wishes in taking Genl Halleck in to your counsels.
My only hope is that the army may soon move as it should have done last Oct. That an exhi[b]tion of warlike spirit, and a regard for the laws of war, which require us to strike our enemies & avail ourselves of their resources, may demonstrate the imposture from which we have suffered, and impart confidence and energy to the people. They should know who are responsible for that most gigantic blunder or crime the Peninsular campaign, and that you have determined that the war shall be carried on for the good of the people rather than the glory of a titular general. Pardon the freedom of this communication, and accept it as the honest expression of one who is proud of the title of your Devoted friend 3
Kelley recalled a conversation with President Lincoln in which he pressed for a replacement of General George B. McClellan in October 1862. Kelley wrote: “On the third day after the Pennsylvania election of October,1862, I was the President’s first visitor, and had just entered upon an earnest conversation with him on the subject of McClellan’s mismanagement in permitting the battle of Antietam to cease before the sun had set and while Fitz-John Porter’s corps – numbering 35,000 men – was still in reserve, with its entire supply of ammunition, when my colleague from the Gettysburg district, Hon. Edward McPherson, entered the Executive Chamber. Though there was no concert of action between us, McPherson was quickly followed by our colleague, Hon. J.K. Moorhead, who, having left Pittsburg the previous morning, had spent the night at Harrisburg in consultation with leading citizens of State, and hastened by the morning train to Washington for conference with the President.”4

After Kelley pressed his case against McClellan, “The kind-hearted President, who had not been offended by my manner, turned to me and said: ‘Kelley, if it were your duty to select a successor to McClellan, whom would you name?’ I evaded a direct reply, and said: ‘My advice to you, Mr. President, would be to make up your mind to change, and to let it be known that the loss of a great battle would be to the general the loss of his command, and to go on changing until you find the right man, though he prove to be a private with a marshal’s baton in his knapsack.’ ‘Well,’ said he, ‘but you are talking about an immediate successor to McClellan, and I ask you whom you would name for his position if the duty were yours.’ ‘I think, sir,’ said I, ‘my judgment would incline to Hooker, whose sobriquet of ‘Fighting Joe’ would convey the impression to the impatient country that the change meant ‘fight,’ which the people would believe to be synonymous with ultimate and early success.’ ‘Would not Burnside do better?’ said the President. ‘I don’t think so,’ said I; ‘you know I have great respect for Burnside, but he is not known to the country as an aggressive man, and in that respect I think Hooker would be better in the present conjunction of affairs.’ ‘I think,’ said he, ‘Burnside would be better, for he is the better housekeeper.’ With uncontrollable impatience I exclaimed with an expletive, which I hope was pardoned elsewhere as freely as it was by the President, ‘You are not in search of a housekeeper or a hospital steward, but of a soldier who will fight, and fight to win.’ ‘I am not so sure,’ said Mr. Lincoln quietly, ‘that we are not in search of a housekeeper. I tell you, Kelley, the successful management of an army requires a good deal of faithful housekeeping. More fight will be got out of well-fed and well-cared-for soldiers and animals than can be got out of those that are required to make long marches with empty stomachs, and whose strength and cheerfulness are impaired by the failure to distribute proper rations at proper seasons.’”5

When Kelley heard rumors that McClellan might be given command of the Union army just before the Battle of Gettysburg, he wrote the president to “to resist this unwise and embarrassing suggestion...” He signed his letter “your sometimes troublesome but always devoted friend.”6

In 1864, Kelley concentrated on his own reelection – and that of the President. Kelley felt that the Philadelphia Postmaster Cornelius A. Walborn was undermining his reelection on order from Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. In June it became a newspaper controversy as well as a political one. Kelley complained to the President.7 Walborn issued a public denial of the allegations. As a result, President Lincoln called in Walborn for a White House interview on June 20. Afterwards, the President wrote the following memorandum of their meeting: “Complaint is made to me that you are using your official power to defeat Judge Kelley’s renomination to Congress. I am well satisfied with Judge Kelley as an M.C. and I do not know that the man who might supplant him would be as satisfactory; but the correct principle, I think, is that all our friends should have absolute freedom of choice among our friends. My wish therefore is that you will do just as you think fit with your own suffrage in the case, and not constrain any of your subordinates to do other than he thinks fit with his – This is precisely the rule I inculcated, and adhered to on my part, when a certain other nomination now recently made, was being canvassed for.”8

Republican politics continue to boil, however, and Kelley grew agitated. At the beginning of August, Kelley ally John W. Forney wrote President Lincoln: “The political condition of the district represented by the Hon Wm D. Kelley is such that your immediate interposition is necessary. He is clearly the choice of the Union people of the district for renomination, and I greatly fear if he should be defeated, for that renomination, by the malpractice of partisans who claim to be your friends, that we may lose the election in October next.”9 Two days earlier , Kelley himself sent a letter to President Lincoln inclosing a note indicating the disloyalty of Philadelphia Postmaster:
I send it because it shows that the writer though dissatisfied with "Baltimore & Lincoln"1 is not prepared to support "Cleveland & Fremont"; and because it expresses distinctly the accountability Mr. Walborn is fixing upon you in spite of your instructions to him.
It has so happened that the writer and I have had no communication since the evening of the day on which we visited you, except that she wrote me a note last week to which I replied and to that reply received the enclosed as rejoinder.
That she will support the Balto [Baltimore] nominees I have no doubt. She may put it as a choice of evils but she will do it. Meanwhile Walborn is giving her, and all such discontented people, daily proof of your hostility to radical men and anti slavery measures. For the sake of our great cause silence him by removal.10
President Lincoln sought an intermediary – Morton McMichael, editor of the North American in Philadelphia. After repeating his June memo to Walborn, the President wrote: “He promised me to strictly follow this. I am now told that, of the two or three hundred employees in the Post-Office, not one of them is openly for Judge Kelley. This, if true, is not accidental. Left to their free choice, there can be no doubt that a large number of them, probably as much or more than half, would be for Kelley. And if they are for him, and are not restrained, they can put it beyond question by publicly saying so. Please tell the Post-Master he must find a way to relieve me from the suspicion that he is not keeping his promise to me in good faith.”11

Walborn fell into line on August 9, writing the President: “Since my interview with on the 19th & 20th June I find myself continually misrepresented as to my action with the employees of this office in regard to controlling their influence & [sic]. In order to avoid any missunderstanding [sic] on this point, I herewith enclose to you, a copy of what I have this day caused to be put up in this office, and its several stations; and trust it will convince you of my disposition to carry out the views expressed by you in person and put at rest all cavil in the matter.” The notice read: “Whereas I am charged with coercing you to oppose the nomination of Wm D Kelley [sic] for Congress. Now this is to notify you that you are expected to sustain men of known loyalty only, for all offices, but you are at liberty, as far as I am concerned to exercise your own views in reference to who should be nominated for Congress, or any other office in the gift of the people.”

In September 1864, John W. Forney reported to Lincoln: “Kelley is electrifying the town with his speeches. He is a grand fellow.” 12 A few days later, Kelley wrote the President:
I care not what committees may report our state is not safe. It is very doubtful. The campaign is not being conducted by the state committee with reference to your election, but to so organising legislative and committee and other influence as to constrain you to accept Simon Cameron as Secty of War - or if that fail to restore him to the Senate. I am not mistaken on this, nor do I utter the language of prejudice. Our State Com. is ignoring every man, and every influence that is not devoted to Cameron. In my district though he knows he cannot defeat me, he is organising a movement to have me cut as a means of impairing my influence-- He is also engaged in an attempt to defeat Col [Alexander K.] McClures election to the Legislature. He is everywhere courting the impression that he alone of Pennsylvanias sons is potential with you, and that he is certain of going into the Cabinet.
This impression must be removed, or you will in certain districts fail to win with the congressional ticket , and may lose the state -- Let me particularise these districts Take those composed of Montgomery & Lehigh, of Schuylkill & Lebanon, and Berks Co. which is a district itself. I hope you will remember them & test my judgment by the results.
What can be done? A paragraph that I read the other day suggests the remedy. It suggested the possible appointment of Secty [John Palmer Usher] to a judgeship. Make that appointment and put a Pennsylvanian in Usshers [sic] place. Let it be a man acceptable to the Gov & his friends. This will quiet Camerons intrigue, and silence their hostility to Stanton, who, spite of his brusquerie is one of the truest & ablest counselors you have.
The man for the place is Joseph J Lewis. His name is the synonym for honesty throughout this state, and who is able and devoted to you.
No human being knows, or shall know from me, of this letter. It is of my own impulse, and I know that my suggestions are judicious.13
At the end of October, Kelley again wrote President Lincoln: “I would gladly have seen you for a few moments on Tuesday and given you the reason for my conviction that we will carry the state in Nov. by not less than 10,000 on the Home vote.”14

Kelley recalled introducing actor John McDonough, a committed Democrat, to the President. “Mr. McDonough was to play an engagement at the National Theatre, in which he was to play an engagement at the National Theatre, in which he was to appear as ‘Mrs. Pluto,’ in an extravaganza entitled The Seven Sisters. After much persuasion, he consented to go with me to the White House the evening preceding the opening of his engagement. Pursuant to promise he called at my rooms, and found with me Rev. Ben. R. Miller, a devoted Wesleyan, and chaplain of the 199th Pennsylvania Volunteers, who had proposed to devote the first evening of a brief furlough to a conference with his personal friend and Congressional representative."
The night was terribly stormy, but in spite of the wind and rain I proposed an early start for the White House, the more certainly to secure the interview I hoped to bring about. Thanks to the condition of the weather, we found the President alone; and disclaiming any desire for employment or patronage of any kind, I said we might, however, vex him with some problems, as we represented the stage, the pulpit, and the forum, and introduced my friends as ‘Parson Miller’ and ‘Mrs. Pluto.’ After a playful remark or two about the possibility of discord in a household that embraced ’Mrs. Pluto’ and an orthodox clergyman, the President turned to the chaplain and created not a little surprise on the part of my friends, showing that it was not necessary for him to inquire from what corps a representative of the 199th Pennsylvania came, by asking about the condition of certain officers and bodies of troops of whom the chaplain of a regiment in their division would probably be able to tell him.
Having thus for the present disposed of the chaplain, Mr. Lincoln turned to Mr. McDonough, who seemed lost in contemplation of the grave and dignified man who, despite the cares of his great office, was so easy in social intercourse, and said, ‘I am very glad to meet you, Mr. McDonough, and I grateful to Kelley for bringing you in so early, for I want you to tell me something about Shakespeare’s plays as they are constructed for the stage. You can imagine that I do not get much time to study such matters, but I recently had a couple of talks with Hackett – Baron, Hackett, as they call him – who is famous as Jack Falstaff, but from whom I elicited few satisfactory replies, though I probed him with a good many questions.’
Mr. McDonough avowed his willingness to give the President any information in his possession, but protested that he feared he would not succeed where his friend Hackett had failed. ‘Well, I don’t know’ said the President, ‘for Hackett’s lack of information impressed me with a doubt as to whether he had ever studied Shakespeare’s text, or had not been content with the acting edition of his plays.’ He arose, went to a shelf not far from his table, and having taken down a well-thumbed volume of the plays of Shakespeare, resumed his seat, arranged his glasses, and having turned to Henry VI, and read with fine discrimination an extended passage, said, ‘Mr. McDonough, can you tell me why those lines are omitted from the acting play? There is nothing I have read in Shakespeare, certainly nothing in Henry VI, or the Merry Wives of Windsor, that surpasses its wit and humor.’ The actor suggested the breadth of its humor as the only reason he could assign for its omission, but thoughtfully added that it was possible that if the lines were spoken they would require the rendition of another or other passages which might be objectionable.15

Kelley was a lawyer who had previously served as a prosecutor and judge in Philadelphia. Two decades after the Civil War, he came to the defense of President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in a response to publication of George B. McClellan’s memoirs of the Peninsula campaign in Century magazine. The years had not dulled his bitterness over McClellan’s inadequacies.