Looking Back

The U.S. Capitol Building, watercolor painting by artist John Rubens Smith, 1830. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

BENJAMIN BROWN FRENCH arrived in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Dec. 21, 1833. He had left his wife Elizabeth at home in New Hampshire so that he could relocate to a city where he would have a chance of finding a good-paying job that would enable him to repay the debts he had accumulated. Trained as a lawyer, he had owned and edited a newspaper, had served in the state legislature, and had proven himself to be an able administrator in government posts.

French was an outgoing person who thrived on being in the thick of things. In 1833 he had enjoyed a taste of what life in Washington might offer in terms of social and political contacts, as he was able to meet renowned politicians including President Andrew Jackson and Vice President Martin Van Buren. The same day that he arrived in the capital city, French toured the local sights with two friends from New Hampshire, Congressmen Franklin Pierce and Henry Hubbard.

That day the two men introduced French to Amos Kendall, one of President Jackson’s most valued advisers. A native of Massachusetts, Kendall had graduated from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. An influential newspaperman in Kentucky and Washington, Kendall was instrumental in promoting the principles of Jacksonian democracy. In his journal, French described Kendall as “undoubtedly, the best political writer in the country.”

In later years Kendall would play a significant role in Benjamin’s life.

During the following week French spent time in the Capitol Building, and was able to witness some of the great political figures speak, including Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, a New Hampshire native, and Tennessee Congressman James K. Polk (who would be elected President in 1844). Also, likely through the influence of Congressmen Pierce and Hubbard, French was hired as a clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives.

He started his new job on Saturday, Dec. 28, 1833 and would continue working for the U.S. Congress into 1845.

When he wasn’t busy handling some task or other in service to the House of Representatives, French spent much of his time watching debates in the House and Senate chambers. After a day’s work, he would often stay up late into the night writing down his thoughts about what he had witnessed. He was a journalist by nature, and as he didn’t need to worry that his words would face immediate scrutiny, he was free to write with total honesty. His descriptions of the goings-on in Congress, and his vivid sketches of elected officials, are important historical records.

In his early weeks in Washington, French wrote of Sen. Isaac Hill, his long-time acquaintance from Concord, N.H., “He is about 43 years of age … and is considerably lame, one leg being shorter than the other. His countenance is cadaverous … He is a man of undoubted talents but has, most unfortunately for himself, a hesitancy of utterance which renders it almost impossible for him to speak with fluency …” He went on to describe that Hill was excellent at reading from prepared notes, so he would carefully write out his remarks ahead of time.

He also observed that Hill “will hardly admit that any man whose political views are different from his own can possess any political honesty.”

Isaac Hill went on to win three elections as governor of New Hampshire.

French separation from Elizabeth was temporary. She arrived in Washington on Jan. 23, 1834, after having traveled for a week accompanied by her brother-in-law Henry French.

Benjamin wrote, “There are feelings which cannot be described and such were mine upon the arrival of the dearest being to me on earth, my own cherished wife.”

A shocking incident took place on the House floor on Feb. 11, 1834. As French recounted, “(Virginia Congressman) Hon. Thomas T. Bouldin arose to speak … he had proceeded but a few sentences when he fell into the arms of a gentleman next to him, and in a few moments expired. Mrs. Bouldin was in the gallery. She came down, and upon being told that her husband was dead her shrieks were truly heartrending. I was present during most of the awful scene, and I never saw men so agitated. I never saw so many pale countenances.”

Next week: New Hampshire’s Benjamin Brown French, eye-witness to history.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter.