10 Feb 2020


Lost Capitol Hill: The Lobbyists of the 1860s

Dipping into Ellis’s Sights and Sounds of the Capital again this week, I came across his section on “The Lobby.” It is a fascinating read, and starts with a couple sentences that will resonate with my readers

Every man, woman, and child in Washington, is a politician. The people inhale politics with the air they breath, and talk and think of but little else. Every man seems to be under the impression that he has influence in some part of the Government, did he but choose to exert it; and as for the women – ah! They would like to see the official or Congressman they cannot win over.

Ellis then goes on to describe those that do the above for a living: “the lobby.” The author argues that most schemes do not have “sufficient vitality” to succeed on their own and thus need support from some government entity or other. Because most citizens are averse to spending government money on private enterprises, there is a great need for underhanded ways of supplying support without making it too obvious. And this is where the lobbyist comes in.

Forthwith, an agent with full powers is dispatched to the Capital. This person is generally a man, but is sometimes a woman. Almost all important schemes, however, have agents of both sexes, who are persons of education, intelligences, and great powers of insinuation and fascination. Women make excellent lobbyists, as they are more plausible than men, and cannot be shaken off as rudely.

Once in D.C., they set about befriending those with power, in hopes that they can convert the official to their cause without them ever really knowing that they have been converted. And there is always Plan B: “If the man fails, the female lobbyist is called in to exert her arts, which are more potent than those of the sterner sex.”

Female lobbyists at work. Detail of the front page of an 1888 edition of Frank Leslie’s Magazine (LOC)

Not only the politicians are approached, but also their family, in hopes that they will pressure their relative. Which brings us to the most remarkable story (and one that, as far as I can tell, only Ellis tells)

Mrs. Lincoln [pictured above] was much sought after by the lobbyists, who, knowing that they would not dare to hint at a bribe to the President, loaded her with flattery and presents. She was not deceived by them, however, and made good use of them to secure the reelection of her husband. She once said to one of her friends, in discussing the matter: “I have an object in view. In a political canvass it is policy to cultivate every element of strength. These men have influence, and we require influence to reelect Mr. Lincoln. I will be clever to them until after the election, and then, if we remain at the White House, I will drop every one of them, and let them know very plainly that I only made tools of them. They are an unprincipled set, and I don’t mind a little double-dealing with them.”

“Does Mr. Lincoln know what your purpose is?” asked her friend.

“No! He would never sanction such a proceeding, so I keep him in the dark, and will tell him of it when all is over. He is too honest to take proper care of his own interests, so I feel it to be my duty to electioneer for him.”

Sadly, there is no hint who this friend might be, and so determining whether Mrs. Lincoln really operated this way is not determinable. But we can hope, it is exactly the kind of comeuppance that we wish on the “huge, scaly serpent of the lobby” as Emily Edson Briggs called lobbyists right around the same time.

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