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The Life of Thomas Ewing has yet to be written, and what we can glean of his career must be drawn from the scattered records of the political history of his times, and from the brief memoir, compiled with filial affection by his daughter, Mrs. General Sherman, and recently issued from the press of the Catholic Publication Society.
His family was of Revolutionary stock, and we find them first settled near Greenwich, in Cumberland County, New Jersey, where the family mansion still stands. His father, George Ewing, enlisted, in 1775, in the New Jersey line, where he obtained the rank of lieutenant, and was present at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, and spent the winter at the memorable camp at Valley Forge. While in the army he sold, on credit, the property which he inherited, and when his bonds became due was paid in Continental money, then a legal tender, but rapidly depreciating, and soon becoming totally valueless, in consequence of which he determined to reinstate his shattered fortune by migrating west of the Alleghanies, and in 1786 settled on a farm near West Liberty, Ohio County, Virginia, where his son Thomas was born December 28th, 1789. In April, 1792, the family removed to the mouth of Olive Green Creek, on the Muskingum River, where, three years later, they were obliged to take refuge in a blockhouse, in order to avoid the danger of being massacred by the Indians, who were rising in all directions. An elder sister had taught young Ewing to read, and while he was in the garrison, he cultivated an assiduous acquaintance with the only book it afforded-the Biblewhich caused him to acquire the cognomen of "The Bishop," which clung to him for many years. Indeed, his mind seems to have, very early, taken a semi-religious turn. His cousin and school-companion,
Edward G. Morgan, relates how, on one occasion, Tom Ewing and the relator's brother enticed and locked him in the corncrib, in order that they might not be disturbed by him while reading the Bible, which they did aloud, verse and verse about, and being discovered at such pious mischief, escaped the merited punishment of their prank. This occurred in 1797, when young Ewing had been taken to West Liberty, and there went to school for seven months. months. His garrison education had given him a preliminary insight into that standard colonial schoolbook, Dilworth's Spellingbook, which he now proceeded to master thoroughly, at a school which is described by his cousin, Mr. Morgan, as being conducted by a Presbyterian minister, who used to summon to class by calling out, with a loud shrill voice, the word "Books;" something, perhaps, in the same style as Dominie Sampson was wont to whistle "Prodig ious!" The master's authority was enforced by a fearful array of instruments of torture, such as switches, roasted in hot ashes to make them tough, a dunce-block and leather spectacles, and a strong cord fastened to the joists, for use under extraordinary infractions of the rules. Those who have used Dilworth's Spelling-book will remember, says Mr. Morgan, to whom we are indebted for the story, that it contains many short quotations from Scripture, one of them being, "The wicked flee when no man pursueth, but the righteous are as bold as a lion." One evening on returning from school, when Tom had got in sight of home, he ran forward and called out, "Uncle, uncle! I have turned over a new leaf, and have got to the wicked flea ;" and he strutted around as proud as a peacock. Forty years after he was heard to say that it was the proudest day of his life.
On leaving West Liberty, he re
turned to his father, who had then removed to Federal Creek, in what is now Athens County, Ohio, the heart of the wilderness, seventeen miles from the frontier settlements, where, for nearly three years, the family was shut out from any intercourse with the world, and where young Ewing was able to superadd to his Bible but two books, "The Vicar of Wakefield," and "The Fool of Quality." In the year 1800, a few other families, from New England, settled on the Creek, and the same winter a school was opened, under the superintendence first of Moses Everett, a graduate of Cambridge, who was succeeded by Charles Cutler, from the same college. Ewing studied one quarter under each, the rudiments of an English education, his knowledge of poetry being received from an eccentric neighbor, who, like Moses Everett, had been banished from society by intemperance, and this was his total schooling until 1812. The enterprising community on the Creek determined, however, to establish a library, and a fund being raised, to which Ewing's contribution was ten coon-skins, they sent it to one of the Eastern cities, to be invested in books. This was probably the first library ever formed in the then Northwestern Territory.
The books were brought across the mountains on horseback, and in a sack, and on being tumbled out proved almost as motley a company as Falstaff's recruits. Goldsmith's works, Plutarch's Lives, treatises on philosophy, and religious controversial works, were supplemented by fashionable and highstrung romances, with startling titles, all of which young Ewing devoured with a literary appetite which can only be appreciated by those who can adequately imagine the dulness of frontier life, or who have practically experienced, under almost insurmountable diffi
culties, a similar craving for knowl edge.
From the age of thirteen, Ewing's life had been laborious, both as an assistant and principal manager of his father's farm, yet he al ways possessed a strong literary taste, an insatiable thirst for a complete education, and with these, a laudable and almost passionate ambition. His history is that of nearly all the struggling pioneers of our country's early days; the pearls of education were not then cast indiscriminately to swinelike minds, to train up a generation of cultivated rascals, hence the boon of learning was valued at its true price by those who were capable of appreciating it. All Ewing's spare hours by day were devoted to reading, and at nights the inevitable pineknot or the crusts of shellbarks thrown on the flame furnished light for the same occupation; having heard that a mutilated copy of Virgil was to be obtained from a friend, he went twenty miles to obtain it, and would gather his farm companions around him to hear him repeat the Æneid. One night while reading the passage wherein Æneas tells Dido that Jove had sent Mercury to bid him leave her, one of the men startled the company by rising and exclaiming vociferously, that it was all a lie, and he only wanted to get rid of her, which was
shame after all she had done for him." Many a time did hope sink within the heart of the youth, doomed thus to spend his best days in apparent fruitlessness, many a time were his tears his only relief, little did he know that God by this trial was building up the strength of his moral character, and fitting him not only for his future grand public career, but also for that unworldliness which is the distinctive characteristic of men whose path through life has been strewn, not with the roses of pleasure, but the thorns of trial, thus pre
paring him to be the worthy recipient of Heaven's first and greatest gift, FAITH.
In 1808, a lad who had travelled considerably, and who for some months had been employed on the farm, aroused, by his narrations of life, young Ewing's determination to see the world, and make some practical efforts towards the high ends he had in view. He was accordingly induced to abandon the farm, and travelling back to Virginia, received employment at the Kanawha salt works; he was so successful that in a short time he returned home with sufficient means to pay off his father's debts. Returning again to the Saline Mines, he earned sufficient to pay for a period of desultory schooling, at the Athens Academy, and kept on alternating between the two places, until his labor at the mines broke down his health, which a period of rest and laughter, engendered by the reading of "Don Quixote," eventually restored him. He returned to Athens, and except for a brief interim, during which he taught school in Gallipolis, perfected himself in English, French and Latin belles-lettres, and the sciences, but especially in mathematics, for which he had peculiar aptitude, and while the former gave him in after years a bright reputation for exquisite literary taste, the latter served to develop those logical powers of the mind which made him so celebrated as a profound and concentrative lawyer.
In 1815 his goal was reached and he graduated from Athens, taking ex aequo with a fellow-pupil the first degree of A. B. ever conferred in the State of Ohio. His choice of a profession was decided upon from his overhearing the Hon. Elijah B. Merriam delivering an argument of uncommon ability, in the courthouse at Marietta. For the first time in his life Ewing felt the power of eloquence, but be
lieved that he could have worked up a better legal defence, and throwing up his trade of salt-selling, entered the law office of Philemon Beecher, at Lancaster. Shortly after his admission to the bar, while travelling about in search of a place to locate, he, in company with several companions, stopped at a wayside. tavern for refreshments, when as he rode off the village Solons assembled as loungers around the door, began to make sarcastic remarks on the young attorney's appearance, one of them, a lawyer, remarked that his immense head showed that he was only "a booby," whereupon one William Bridges, an old settler thereabouts, remarked prophetically, in a quotation from Burns:
"There's many a ragged colt been known
So he may some day fill a throne,
The prophecy was fulfilled, and Mr. Ewing's rise at the bar was rapid and brilliant. One of his first clients was Judge Sherman, father of General William Tecumseh Sherman, who afterwards became his ward and son-in-law, and whose magnificent success in the army was largely due to Mr. Ewing's kind tutelage of the early years of the future hero. He foresaw young Sherman's latent abilities, and just as firmly defended him, when attacked on his military policy during his campaigns. Mr. Ewing's repu tation as a lawyer, both in the local, State, and United States courts, was most brilliant. His great powers of research gave him profundity, while his ability in condensation enabled him to cover in a half hour's argument, the ground other great lawyers would require two days to go over, and earned for him the cognomen of "The great logician of the West." Having occasion to undertake same cases in St. Louis, the records of whose courts were entirely in the Spanish language, he shut himself up in his
room, and devoted himself for six weeks to the study of that tongue, after which brief period he was sufficiently proficient therein to make his own translations of the court documents. His compeers at the bar, notably among them the Hon. Henry Stanberry, have wellnigh exhausted praise on his legal attainments, and surely we should not look elsewhere for more competent or unbiassed judgments. He confined himself strictly to his profession, and it was solely the resplendent integrity of his private character, his high intellectual and legal ability, which induced the legislature of his State to elect him, in 1831, to the United States Senate. An election on such a basis would be almost as great a novelty in modern politics, as so brilliant an opening of political life is rare in the annals of American statesmanship. He immediately took rank with Clay, Webster, Calhoun, Benton, and all the brilliant array of statesmen who once adorned our Senate Chamber at Washington. He was not indeed as brilliant an orator as those great speakers, but he was a more terse reasoner, and it could be said of him, as was said of his compeer in the cabinet, the late Hon. William M. Meredith, "His reasoning was like a sledgehammer, and woe betide the antagonist who mistook its weight." His first term being ended he was succeeded by William Allen, who was elected by one majority. Mr. Ewing being always a stanch whig in politics, co-operated with Clay and Webster, in opposition to the policy of the then administration; one of his first speeches was in opposition to the confirmation of Martin Van Buren, as Minister to England. He supported the Clay tariff, advocated a reorganization in the postoffice department, a recharter of the United States Bank, and the passage of the Force Bill as a remedy for nullification. He introduced a
bill for the settlement of the Ohio boundary question, which had caused the famous "Toledo War," and was author of the act for reorganizing the Land Office. He also took a leading part in the discussion of the once famous "Specie Circular," issued by Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the Treasury, in July, 1836.
In 1837, Mr. Ewing resumed the practice of his profession, but was selected by President Harrison, in 1841, as Secretary of the Treasury, and continued under Tyler's administration until, bitterly resenting the partisan defection of Tyler, he, together with the rest of the cabinet, resigned, being prompt among his associates in the cabinet in his election between an adherence to the principles and promises of his party on the one hand and the allurements of place and power on the other, and the scathing letter of resignation with which he surrendered the keys of office did much to mark the boundaries that separated the President from the true men of the party he had, in Mr. Ewing's judgment, betrayed.
It is related that after the nomination of General Taylor, by the Whig Convention, the exultant Taylor men, anxious to conciliate Mr. Clay's friends, proposed Mr. Ewing for Vice-President, and it would have followed as a matter of course, had not Hon. L. D. Campbell, inconsolable and irritated at Clay's defeat, declared that "Ohio did not want any sugar-plums," and the nomination passed on to Mr. Fillmore. Had it rested on the former, it is hardly necessary to add, that Mr. Ewing would have become President of the United States. General Taylor, however, made him first secretary of the new Department of the Interior, one of the heaviest and most intricate in our government, but upon his death, a repetition of the "Tylerism" of his previous cabinet ex
perience caused him, together with all his fellow-members, to resign their portfolios to Mr. Fillmore. The celebrated "Tom Corwin" succeeded him in the cabinet, Ewing at the same time replacing Corwin in the Senate. His resolute adherence to the course that his own convictions marked out for him. was strikingly apparent in his opposition to Henry Clay's compromise measures, and all the great questions then arising under them, simply because he believed them, as Mr. Clay himself believed them, unconstitutional, and perversive of law and right, though Mr. Clay thought the end justified the sacrifice. On the question of his re-election to the Senate, Mr. Ewing lacked one or two votes of success, and was succeeded by a gentleman then but little known, but who possessed a few "fast friends," Benjamin F. Wade. The days of statesmanship were evidently on the wane. Mr. Ewing was in fact the last of the great galaxy of intellectual stars who then illuminated our country with their splendor.
In his retirement from official life he did not lose sight of public affairs. He was active in his profession, and his force of character and intellect gave him unsought conspicuity and influence. In 1861, he was appointed by Governor Denison to represent Ohio in the fruitless Peace Commission which sat in Washington. When hostilities broke out he took an active part in favor of measures for the support of the National government, and throughout the war was an earnest supporter of the administration, and a trusted counsellor of President Lincoln, whose regard for him amounted to veneration. On the seizure of the Trent, with Mason and Slidell, he urged their surrender in accordance with international law. In the brief space of a telegram to Mr. Lincoln, he condensed the whole law of the
case as follows: "There is no such thing as contraband of war going on a neutral bottom between neutral ports." Mr. Edward Everett urged their retention, and published an argument in support of his views, which Secretary Seward was inclined to favor; but Mr. Lincoln felt, from the first, doubts as to the tenability of that position. Mr. Ewing hurried to Washington, and by his great influence, exerted with unusual warmth upon the President and his Secretary, saved us from the terrible dangers of a most untimely war with England.
Always of a conservative tendency, though by natural disposition impetuous and imperious, he sunk the politician in the lawyer, and with a wholesome dread of revolutionary proceedings, set his face firmly against the Congressional Reconstruction Acts, as exercised over what the dominant party held to be yet sovereign States. His theory was that the effect of the rebellion was to reduce the Southern States to territories, and that they must be readmitted as such to the Union, and not as sovereigns be dictated to by the Federal government. Hence, the close of his days found him in accord with President Johnson and the Democratic party; thus finally succumbing to the system of “Tylerism" which he had so strenuously resisted through life, though he might have pleaded in extenuation that he was but following what would have been the policy of Mr. Johnson's predecessor had he continued in office.
His last notable public service was to preside over the "Wigwam" convention, called at Philadelphia, in 1866, to counteract the "Southern Loyalists' Convocation," held a few months previously at the same place.
In 1862, Mr. Ewing formed a new partnership, and entered upon the practice of law at Washington,