In early March 1867 Benjamin Brown French lost the prominent federal appointment he had held since September 1861. His position as the Commissioner of Public Buildings for Washington, D.C. had been eliminated through legislation passed by the U.S. Congress. This move was meant to punish French for his loyal support of President Andrew Johnson, whom many in Congress loathed for his unyielding opposition to the Reconstruction measures affecting the southern states.
French earned some income from corporate investments, but he also needed a steady job to support himself, his wife Mary Ellen, and her younger sister Sarita Brady; and to be able to host the numerous family members and friends who visited his spacious home on East Capitol Street in Washington. In mid-March 1867 French formed a business partnership with two friends — former Virginia and West Virginia Congressman Kellian V. Whaley and Ezra L. Stevens, a clerk in the Interior Department. The men rented an office on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the law firm of French, Whaley, and Stevens began operating on April 1, 1867. The partners planned to specialize in representing clients who had claims against the government.
At first, the prospects appeared promising, but neither Whaley nor Stevens seemed interested in making a go of it. On June 4, 1867 French wrote in his journal, “I am getting to be about tired of my business connection. I find the burden both of purse and labor is on me, and I cannot stand it much longer. Both my partners are absent and I have all the work to do.” In mid-September French dissolved the partnership.
In February 1868 French felt compelled to take the only job he could find, as a minor clerk in the Treasury Department. After arriving in Washington from New Hampshire in 1833, French had risen up to become a leading figure in the city’s political and social scene. He had served as the Chief Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1840s, and as the Commissioner of Public Buildings in the administrations of Presidents Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. Now he felt “as humble as a whipped spaniel to think that after holding the offices I have, I should humiliate myself so much as to accept a 4th class Clerkship! But, my experience is that money is very uncertain … and I need the $1,800 per annum to live. So, I shall descend to do it with as much grace as possible.”
Though his work offered him little pleasure, French found great enjoyment in his personal life. He continued, as he had for many years, to be involved in fraternal organizations and he enjoyed attending plays and receptions in Washington, and taking trips to New York and New England to visit family. On Aug. 22, 1868 French arrived in his home town of Chester, New Hampshire with his half-brother Henry Flagg French. There they spent time with Henry’s mother Sarah Wingate Flagg French and other relatives.
Benjamin French later wrote in his journal, “We found Chester very much as it was 20 years ago, only the trees have the natural growth of that time, a few houses have been built, and a few removed. Still it is Chester — good old Chester — and there are few towns in these United States that can show such a half a mile of street, shaded on one side by noble trees. Elms, maples, ashes, and I think other varieties of forest trees, green and luxuriant, adorn the wayside over which my ancestors moved in all the glare of the summer sun!” He recalled that Henry had planted many of those trees when he was a young man.
French resigned his post in June 1870. Now, at the age of 69, he was truly retired, but sadly he was also ill. As he grew sicker from “congestion of the lungs,” he continued, as he had for over 40 years, to record his thoughts in his journal. He made his last entry while resting in his chamber in his Washington home on Aug. 8, 1870, “Mrs. French has come up and says I must not write any more. I obey.” Benjamin Brown French passed away soon after putting his pen down.