By JOHN SELLERS
The Washington diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, recently presented to the Library of Congress by Mrs. Willoughby Davis of Falls Church, Va., has been in the possession of the Taft family since the author's death at Sag Harbor, N.Y., on April 14, 1888. Amazingly, the three-volume manuscript has never been read or discussed at length outside the Taft family. The only hint of its existence appeared in 1901 in a small but popular book, Tad Lincoln's Father, by Horatio Taft's daughter, Julia Taft Bayne (1845-1933).
Keeping the private diary of one's ancestors out of the hands of scholars and writers is not unusual; however, in this instance the decision is somewhat remarkable considering the interaction that existed between the children of Horatio and Mary Taft and the children of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. The Lincoln boys, William and Thomas, better known as Willie and Tad, were regular playmates of 14-year-old Horatio Nelson Jr., or Bud, and 11-year-old Halsey Cook Taft, called Holly. Until Willie Lincoln's death from typhoid fever in February 1862, the Lincoln and Taft boys, sometime in company with 8-year-old Willie Taft, were almost inseparable. When not at their studies, the boys played, ate and occasionally slept together, either at the White House or at the Taft residence on L Street near Franklin Square.
Julia Taft, who was then in her teens, also found a warm welcome at the White House. Julia was the oldest of Horatio and Mary's four children, and it naturally became her responsibility to see that her brothers got safely to and from the Executive Mansion. While waiting for the boys to finish their play, Julia would sometimes read a "French" novel, books that were forbidden in the Taft home and that the observant Tad Lincoln delighted in reporting to her parents. But to Julia's delight, Mary Lincoln took an interest in her, either engaging her in conversation or having her entertain the family on the piano. President Lincoln, perhaps mindful of the daughter he would never have, found Julia's long curls irresistible.
Horatio Taft was already a fixture in Washington when the Lincolns moved into the White House. The economic upheavals of the Panic of 1857 had forced him to abandon a struggling law practice in Lyons, N.Y. But Judge Taft, as Horatio was known throughout Wayne County, was well connected politically, and after some reflection, he decided to apply for a salaried position with the federal government. Over the years he had developed considerable expertise in steam power and weaponry, and he thought his knowledge could be put to good use as a patent examiner with the U.S. Patent Office. On Jan. 22, 1858, just nine days after his 52nd birthday, Horatio boarded a train for Washington. However, had Horatio known the extent of the lobbying effort he would have to undertake to win the desired appointment, it is doubtful that he would have made the trip. Success depended on far more than his lifelong membership in the Democratic Party.
To bolster his appearance, Horatio rented a room at the recently opened Willard Hotel, even though it threatened to exhaust his rapidly diminishing savings. The Willard was the best Washington had to offer. He then set about collecting endorsements. Twice he called upon President James Buchanan, and he made several appearances at the office of Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson. Also high on Horatio's list of potential supporters were Isaac Toucey, secretary of the Navy, and Aaron V. Brown, the postmaster general. He felt he could count on New York's Sen. William H. Seward as well as Rep. Daniel E. Sickles. In a moment of desperation, he offered to "fee" Sickles, who politely declined. Such popular New Yorkers as Horace F. Clark, former Rep. Hiram Waldbridge and Fernando Wood also heard Taft's ardent appeal for support and promised to use their influence on his behalf.
Still, nothing happened. Frustrated, Horatio continued his rounds. He spoke to such well-known people as Harriet Lane, Sen. Preston King, Duff Green, Benjamin Perley Poore, Persifor Frazer Smith, C.P. Kirkland, the artist, Clark Mills, and anyone else who would listen. His efforts were to no avail. Finally, one month to the day of his arrival in Washington, Horatio boarded the train back to New York. He traveled in the company of Sen. Charles Sumner, who, though still recovering from the beating he had received at the hand of Preston Brooks of South Carolina, attempted to revive the spirits of this spurned and dejected office seeker.
Two months passed before Horatio felt confident enough to resume his lobbying effort. But when he boarded the train for Washington a second time, he seemed more determined than before. He abandoned expensive hotels for the cheaper boarding houses so he could stay longer. He may even have decided not to leave Washington until he had accomplished his purpose. One day Horatio would call on the interior secretary and the next, the postmaster general. He talked to generals and judges, foreign diplomats and government officials. No one in authority escaped his solicitations. As the days turned into weeks, he worked even harder.
Toward the end of June, Horatio wrote, "Shall make a rush next week for myself," and two days later, "Shall use all the Democrats this week, they all favor me." The endorsements include every notable Democrat in the government. Finally, on July 1, a summons reached Horatio. He was to appear the next day before an examining board made up of three senior patent officers.
To his great relief, Horatio answered all questions put to him to the satisfaction of the examining board. Afterward, he returned to his quarters to await the result, which came the next day in the form of an announcement in the Washington Star. Judge Horatio Nelson Taft had been added to the list of patent examiners in the U.S. Patent Office. Horatio reported to the Patent Office early the following morning and was given the oath of office and assigned to the Class of Civil Engineering, Fire Arms, etc.
n the months that followed, Horatio Taft worked hard at his job. Applications for patents seemed to pour into the office. An almost constant flow of visitors proved distracting, but he quickly mastered the routine, and his colleagues, whom he described as gentlemen and scholars, mostly treated him kindly. In his spare time, Taft took in the sights of Washington and Georgetown. He especially enjoyed the Smithsonian Museum, Corcoran's new art gallery, the Capitol building, which was still under construction and the Congressional Library (the original name of the Library of Congress). Nothing escaped his notice. However, the citizenry disappointed him. The city did not "move," as he put it; the people lacked enterprise. They showed no distinctive character and seemed to look to the federal government for everything. Especially disappointing was the lack of enthusiasm over advances in the field of science, such as the successful laying of the Atlantic cable, which had Horatio on tiptoe awaiting the expected exchange of messages between Queen Elizabeth and President Buchanan.
Taft finished the year apart from his family, making only a brief visit home in late October to replenish Mary's supply of firewood and check on things generally. But he was also concerned about the November elections, which, as he probably foresaw, brought defeat to Democrats across the state of New York. Black Republicanism now reigned supreme, and according to Taft, it was just as well.
Horatio was back at his desk in the Patent Office by Nov. 10, more confident than ever in his ability to judge patent applications. Soon he was passing or rejecting cases as he thought proper, although he still liked to consult Dr. Henry King, with whom he shared an office. This growing sense of security caused him to think seriously of moving his family to Washington, and sometime after the first of the year he rented a house at 15th and L streets next door to John Philip Sousa. When Mary arrived with the children, Horatio leased two slaves from a Virginia slave owner to assist her with domestic chores. Both slaves slept in a shanty in the alley behind the house. He felt as though he had been given a new lease on life. Mary never really liked Washington, but Horatio was quite content. The work proved challenging, and the children had adjusted well to their new surroundings. Taft had to withdraw Julia from Elmira Seminary, but she was able to enroll in a fashionable French school near the White House grounds. His three boys were tutored at home. All in all, life looked good for the Taft family. Horatio's annual salary of $1,600 did not allow many luxuries, but carefully managed, it was adequate. And then the war came.
The diary begins on Jan. 1, 1861, and ends May 30, 1865. Entries are daily through Dec. 31, 1863. Beginning in 1864, the entries are irregular. Taft began to synopsize events that occurred over several days or even weeks. But the effect is no less fascinating. In some ways it is even more informative, for the resultant essays, however abbreviated, provided Horatio greater freedom of expression.
There is also a noticeable change in the tone of the diary following the tragic and untimely death of Willie Lincoln. In her grief, Mary Todd decided that she wanted nothing further to do with the Taft children. Immature and highly impressionable, Tad began to emulate his mother's least desirable traits, which included throwing himself on the floor and screaming when Bud and Holly appeared. Hurt and angry, and not knowing exactly what to do, Horatio finally sent his wife and children to Sag Harbor on Long Island to live with Mary's parents. For the remainder of his employment with the government, he lived in a series of boarding houses, visiting New York every three or four months. For Mary, the move was almost a relief. She had grown up in a seafaring family and felt quite at home in the quiet isolation of eastern Long Island. But the children suffered, especially Julia.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the diary of Horatio Taft is the vivid record it provides of life in Washington during the most traumatic period of our history as a nation. It was a time of rapid growth and change. Especially significant is the account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which may constitute the only new information on that tragic event to come to light in the past 50 years. Dr. Charles Sabin Taft, Horatio's son by his first wife, was in Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was shot. Charles was the physician lifted from the floor of the theater to attend the president, and he remained at Lincoln's side until he died.
For those who wish to compare the manuscript diary with the transcription, it should be noted that many "stray" marks have been largely ignored. They are treated as pen rests. A limited amount of punctuation and capitalization has been introduced, chiefly for clarification–Horatio's remarks often form a series of unpunctuated phrases–and at the beginning of new sentences. Inconsistent capitalization within sentences and misspellings have been left largely in the style of the diarist. Missing quotations have been supplied and confusing abbreviations expanded. Many personal names in the diary appear with variant spellings, all of which will be properly treated in the published version of the diary, which is being sponsored by the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.
Mr. Sellers is a historical specialist on the Civil War and Reconstruction in the Manuscript Division.