Paradise Lost: A Poet in the Political Labyrinth

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

During the nineteenth century, it was not unusual for promi­nent literary figures – authors, playwrights and, of course, poet laureates­ – to be awarded diplomatic posts as honors. Perhaps these appointments lent prestige to administrations or helped lessen suggestions of rank patronage. Writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was one of the best examples; he held several custom house appointments in the United States, and capped his diplo­matic career as consul at Liverpool – courtesy of his college classmate and four­teenth president of the United States, Franklin Pierce (1804- 1869). Washington Irving (1783-1859) served as ambassador to Spain; historian John L. Motley (1814-1877) was named ambassador to Holland; and editor William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was consul at Ven­ice. Several authors served more than once. Essayist James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) at various times was ambassador to Spain and to England, while George Boker acted as ambassador to Turkey and Russia. This illustrious group included Pennsylvania poet and celebrated man of letters Bayard Taylor, who, near the end of his career, was finally awarded the post he most coveted: minister to Germany.

An earlier flirtation with the vagaries of diplomatic appoint­ment must have come close to curing Bayard Taylor of any desire to serve in such a post. In 1862, after the Civil War had begun, Taylor was offered the secretaryship under the newly appointed minister to Russia, with the strong possibility that he would succeed the minister, who intended only a short stay in the post. The riveting saga of Taylor’s appointment, of his frustrated efforts at promotion, of the intense jockeying for the position, and of the political impulses at work, is not only sad, but almost comic. Of course, the process did not amuse Taylor, who seriously wanted the post, but the seem­ingly endless series of en­dorsements, broken promises, misunderstandings, lobbying, scheming, influence peddling, and ultimate outcome were heartbreaking.

Bayard Taylor was born in 1825 in Kennett Square, Ches­ter County, to a family of Anglo-German ancestry with Quaker leanings. His father, a farmer, later became a justice of the peace. Young Taylor, however, was not interested in farming and, showing early precocity, published his first article in a local paper at the age of fifteen. By the following year he had published his first poem in the Saturday Evening Post. At seventeen he was apprenticed to a printer in West Chester, and managed to publish a volume of his poems by subscription. Deciding to pursue a literary career, he purchased the remainder of his apprenticeship and em­barked on a walking tour of Europe to substitute for the college education his family could not afford. On his return Taylor achieved early fame with a book about his travels, Views A-Foot (1849), and using some of the profits he bought part-ownership of a newspa­per in Phoenixville, Montgom­ery County, This proved too sedate for the ambitious youth with great literary aspirations, and Bayard Taylor moved to New York to win fame and modest fortune as a poet, traveler, and writer. He fre­quently returned to Kennett Square, however, where he built a large mansion in 1860 which he christened Cedar­croft. He had by this time earned the plaudits of the nation’s literary giants, includ­ing Henry Wadsworth Longfel­low, James Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Low­ell, and many others with whom he was friendly.

Bayard Taylor was one of the country’s most prominent writers, a world traveler, poet, author of many books and numerous magazine and newspaper articles, and a familiar figure much in demand on the lecture circuit in the mid-nineteenth century. In the early 1860s he moved into Cedarcroft, where he intended to assume the lifestyle of a country squire. He had worked furiously to achieve his success, and lived largely on his earnings, which were­ – at very best – uncertain. With the Civil War, the publishing industry declined, and Taylor’s earnings plummeted. Even worse, the lecturing business, a significant source of his income, also dwindled, and Taylor found himself in tight straits. He had gone into debt to build his sprawling man­sion, and before long it was a strain to maintain it.

To Bayard Taylor the pros­pect of a comfortable position with a steady income and a good deal of time to continue writing would be welcomed as a godsend. To him, a diplo­matic post seemed the answer.

In March 1862, he was ap­proached by the new minister to Russia and fellow Pennsyl­vanian, Simon Cameron. Although he confided some apprehension to his wife, Taylor decided to accept the secretaryship, believing “the chargéship certain and the ministership very probable!’ His confidence soared be­cause, as he remembered, Pres. Abraham Lincoln “smiled and nodded his head” as he offered his reasons for undertaking the assignment. He told friends that he ac­cepted the appointment be­cause undertaking a study of the “almost unknown interior of the country” was “the great ambition of my life.” Indeed, Taylor had been to Russia, and although his 1859 book Travels in Greece and Russia was not notable, it was not unfriendly to the Empire, and helped support his claim that he pos­sessed some knowledge of the region.

Besides Simon Cameron, Pennsylvania’s political “boss,” another individual played a decisive role in determining Taylor’s fate: the flamboyant and irrepressible Cassius Clay, a Kentucky abolitionist fiercely loyal to the Union. Both Cam­eron and Clay had been rivals of Lincoln for the Republican nomination; both commanded loyal followings; and at an important juncture of the convention, both threw their support to Lincoln, helping him capture the nomination and, not incidentally, guaran­teeing important political ap­pointments for themselves.

Neither Cameron nor Clay was hesitant about reminding President Lincoln of his obliga­tions. The president appointed Simon Cameron Secretary of War. Cassius Clay, too, desired a cabinet position, but he decided to settle for a diplo­matic post, requesting the ministership to England (which was given to Charles Francis Adams), or France (which went to William. L. Dayton), or Spain (which was awarded to Carl Schurz). When the post in Russia was suggested, the desperate Clay seized it in March 1861, al­though not without many complaints about his treat­ment, and about the salary, which amounted to twelve thousand dollars yearly. His demand that the salary be raised to $17,500 to match similar American diplomatic posts in England and France went unheeded.

Despite this seemingly cavalier treatment, the Minis­try at St. Petersburg was con­sidered important. One historian brutally characterized this episode: “In his nation’s hour of need, Lincoln eagerly clasped the only hand ex­tended to him, even though it was the hand of a colossus of barbarism and reaction.” The president instructed the minis­ter to keep Russia a friendly neutral, and to prevent its joining with England and France in an attempt to ar­range a cease fire and negotia­tions, which would have divided the United States – exactly what many European nations wanted.

Even though he accepted the post in March, Cassius Clay seemed uncertain that he wanted it. While sailing to England he penned a brief missive to Lincoln, advising the president, “I think my talent is military …. Make me a general in the regular service … and I’ll return home at once …” When Clay assumed office in July, he immediately antagonized Secretary of State William Henry Seward (1801-1872). Clay routinely dis­patched unsolicited-and unheeded-advice to Seward and Lincoln on a wide range of subjects, including ways in which he thought the war should be conducted. He groused constantly about his salary, the climate, and living conditions. It was not long before he claimed he was sink­ing in debt and requested another situation – that of either a cabinet or military post. The obliging president named him a major general, since the recent turn of events had suggested someone else for Clay’s office: Simon Cameron.

Simon Cameron had, alas, proved incompetent as Secre­tary of War. Unwilling to hu­miliate him by an outright dismissal, Lincoln searched his administration for a more appropriate post for Cameron and named him Clay’s succes­sor in January 1862. Cameron considered the post an exile and, although he undertook the task, he made it clear that he had no intention of serving very Long. Three months later he made his proposal to Bay­ard Taylor. But the circuitous saga took another odd twist.

Between Cameron’s ap­pointment in January and his arrival with Taylor al St. Pe­tersburg in June, Cassius Clay had changed his mind and requested his original post. Advised that the office had been filled, Clay noted that Cameron did not intend to stay long and demanded that he be reappointed when Cam­eron resigned. He now alleged that, among other reasons, he owned property in Russia that he would lose if he left.

Bayard Taylor understood Clay’s intentions, writing to his wife, “Clay … now says that he wants to come back after Cameron returns, and has written to the President about it …. This looks threatening to my prospects; but I don’t be­lieve Clay will ever get back here again …” To Taylor and many others, Cassius Clay was, besides being a contest­ant for the diplomatic post, an inept vulgarian lacking social graces, manners, and common sense (although, oddly enough, he was a graduate of Yale). Taylor mocked Clay at every opportunity, and to a friend, James Lorimer Gra­ham, he described him as a buffoon.

Clay stayed three weeks after we came. He distinguished him­self by wearing his uniform (cocked hat and spurs also) in the public gardens, and dying his hair dark-green. He spoke French with the true Kentucky accent, and had much to say about his “rem’plikent” – remplacant! Lord, Lord, how our country is repre­sented abroad!

From the very beginning, Bayard Taylor found the as­signment easy enough. “I have now been here six weeks,” he wrote to Graham, “and am perfectly satisfied with the place and its duties. The diplomatic routine is easily learned:’ He was free to work on novels and other literary projects. Of the Camerons, he reported, “we get along pleas­antly,” noting that they “will leave for home in six weeks more.”

They all are heartily tired of St. P. and home-sick. The Genl. will certainly go home in the fall. Between ourselves, my chances for the succession improve. He is fully convinced that I am the proper person, and will urge my appointment. I have also received a letter from Hamlin, promising all his influence ….

True to his word, Simon Cameron – after only ten days in office – formally requested a leave of absence. Some time passed before it was actually approved, but in a letter to Thomas Moran, dated October 8, 1862, Taylor wrote that “Gen. Cameron and fam­ily left here about 18 days ago …. ” From mid-September, Bayard Taylor as charg&eacute d’af­faires was the ranking Ameri­can diplomat in St. Petersburg. In the midst of his work, he was busy jockeying for the appointment as minister, writ­ing to whomever he could for support, and optimistically telling his friends that all looked well for the “succes­sion.” In a letter to his brother Frederick written on August 18, he quoted Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, who assumed the task to “fa­miliarize Lincoln with the idea of appointing me, before the place is vacant.”

I had a full and free interview with the president, and presented your case earnestly to his consid­eration. The reasons which I urged seemed to impress him favorably, and while he gave me no positive assurance of what he would do, I am confident he feels at least well-disposed.

In October an optimistic Taylor wrote Graham that, “I have now had the Legation in my hands nearly six weeks, and enjoy my position better than I ever had. The work just suits me …. ” Nonetheless, he worried about Clay, who was “moving heaven and earth to get back, and still holds on to his Maj. Genl’s commission, though he manages to keep out of active service. If he can be checkmated, which Cam­eron undertakes to do, there is no other competitor whom I fear.” Taylor gleefully boasted that Lord Napier intended to write Seward about the succes­sion; insisted that Cassius Clay was not liked in St. Pe­tersburg; and confessed his own nervousness. “I am of course in great anxiety, for I staked so many hopes on the issue, and have therefore left no stone unturned to secure influence in my behalf.”

And to what influence did he turn? He mentioned politi­cians Cameron and Hamlin, as well as acclaimed literary fig­ures, such as orator Edward Everett, historian George Bancroft, and newspaper edi­tor William Cullen Bryant. ” …. perhaps the Geographical Society will also make an ap­peal in my favor,” he wrote Graham near the end of Octo­ber. “Besides, I have the politi­cal interest of Penn’s on my side, which is no slight weight, just at present.” How­ever, except for Simon Cam­eron and Hannibal Hamlin, Taylor’s list consisted mainly of literary figures, perhaps not the weightiest of allies. Of course, William Cullen Bryant was at this time recognized as the “Grand Old Man ” of American literature, and might carry some influence. Taylor wrote to Bryant, subduing his criticism of Clay.

I…have the highest apprecia­tion of what Mr. Clay has done heretofore. He has a claim to reward, for he has well deserved it. It will be better, however, both for himself and the country, if he can be furnished with some good position at home, where he can help bear the brunt of the struggle which is yet to come. He is not at all fitted for a diplomatic post. His residence here has neither ad­vanced his own reputation, nor the interests of our country ….

Taylor anxiously awaited word of Cameron’s return to Washington, D.C., in Novem­ber. By the middle of the month, he was beginning to feel doubtful. “I am not so sanguine,” he wrote Graham. “Our Uncle Abe is soft-hearted and easily imposed upon­ – moreover he is utterly ignorant of Europe – and I half expect that Clay will persuade him to do a foolish thing.” He took refuge in heavy irony. “The fact is .. .I am too well qualified for this post to get it. My dis­patches are written in correct English, and betray some knowledge of affairs – all of which will tell against me.” In mid-December, however; he was encouraged.

The chances are that Clay will not be sent back; the President is not disposed to reappoint him. Cameron has been requested to withhold his resignation until February, which secures me re­maining as charge until spring, in any case. Meanwhile, my friends are urging my claims, and appar­ently with some effect. My dis­patches have all been read by the Pres’t and have given great satis­faction. Prince Gortchacov also hinted to me that he will be very glad if I received the appointment.

By mid-January 1863, Taylor seemed to adopt a fatalistic attitude. “I have quite gotten over my anxiety about my appointment,” he wrote his sister Emma, appearing re­signed to taking whatever might come. To Graham, friend and confidant, he wrote again.

I don’t feel at all sure of the place – yet I now know that both Mr. Seward and the President are entirely satisfied of my ability to fill it. For that very reason, proba­bly, I shall not succeed. I feel quite easy about the matter. … I shall not know my fate before March ….

Meanwhile, in Washington, Cassius Clay was, as Taylor suspected, pressuring Presi­dent Lincoln and everyone else for reappointment. Not only was he pestering government officials, and prancing fop­pishly about in his general’s uniform, but he was con­stantly making speeches and public pronouncements favor­ing emancipation. He embar­rassed the president, since it was not yet Lincoln’s policy and he feared that states such as Kentucky might be pushed into the southern camp. Lin­coln, who “had been greatly troubled by Mr. Clay,” resolved to return him to Russia to relieve himself of a raucous, publicity-seeking supporter. Upon Cameron’s resignation, Clay gave up his generalship and was reappointed minister to Russia in March 1863.

By mid-February, Bayard Taylor apparently knew he had failed. “I have been again to Washington,” wrote Cameron, “and am sorry to say that it seems to be determined that Mr. Clay shall supplant you.” Dejected, Taylor complained to his publisher, James T. Fields, “I shall certainly not get the appointment …. Every evi­dence of fitness tells against me. I am not square enough to be put into this round hole.” To Graham he wrote, “Clay will probably be here in five or six weeks, when I shall instantly leave for the Caspian Sea.” Wistfully, he added: “If we could only shape our lives as we desire, how superb we might make them!”

All extant information seems to indicate that Lincoln did, indeed, respect Taylor and the manner in which he con­ducted the legation during the eight months he had sole responsibility. Furthermore, other high-ranking officials, including Vice President Hamlin and Secretary of State Seward, not to mention Cam­eron, wanted Taylor to be appointed minister to Russia. Taylor excelled at all phases of the work, and was respected and admired by the Russians with whom he dealt. Yet he lost to an individual not nearly so well qualified. Oddly enough, Taylor appeared to have most politicians on his side. Few of them favored Clay, yet Clay won because he was so fearlessly aggressive, so shamelessly self-aggrandizing, and so dangerously annoying. He was a man that had to be exiled-swiftly and immediately-from the na­tion’s capital.

To console Taylor, William H Seward tried to salvage something for him, and in­sisted that Clay keep him on as secretary. Clay, who wanted his own choice, exploded and launched tirade after tirade, but his efforts were wasted, as Taylor would not serve under him. “The Government (would you believe it?) actually asked me to remain as Secretary under him,” he wrote Graham on May 13, 1863. “I returned an immediate and peremptory refusal.” Taylor did remain long enough to make Clay “au courant in the business of the Legation,” and relinquished his duties in mid-May.

Simon Cameron (and possi­bly Seward) still tried to as­suage Taylor for his loss, and suggested some sort of diplo­matic mission to Persia, possi­bly to open a legation there. Taylor seemed interested, and waited at his wife’s family home in Germany for more information. He stayed for months but, finally, upon learning of his brother’s death at the Battle of Gettysburg, sailed home. He heard noth­ing further of the mission. During a visit to Washington, he found Lincoln surprised to see him. “T thought you were in Persia,” the president remarked.

Bayard Taylor grew stoic in facing – and accepting­ – disappointment. However much he desired the post at St. Petersburg, he shrugged his shoulders and turned to his other business when he realized the appointment would never, ever, be his. Yet the experiences must have rankled him, and made him much more cautious about promises and expectations.

Fifteen years later, in 1877, he began hearing rumors that he was again being considered for a diplomatic post, possibly to Russia or Belgium, by Pres. Rutherford B. Hayes. He im­mediately made it plain that he would consider nothing but the ministry to Germany, “take it or leave it.” His reputation as a German scholar had grown, largely through his translation of dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, and he could afford to be more ada­mant. Surprisingly, President Hayes did appoint him in 1878, and Taylor assumed the post he had coveted in May 1863. Unfortunately, his health be­gan to fail almost immediately, and he died in December. his dream of writing the definitive biography of Goethe unfulfilled.

If we could only shape our lives as we desire, how superb we might make them!


For Further Reading

Hansen-Taylor, Marie, and Horace E. Scudder. Life and Letters of Bayard Taylor. Bos­ton: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1884.

Hansen-Taylor, Marie. On Two Continents. New York: Double­day, Page and Company, 1905.

Krumpelmann, John T. Bayard Taylor and German Letters. Hamburg, Germany: Cram, de Gruyter and Company, 1959.

Prahl, A.J. “Bayard Taylor’s Letters from Russia.” Huntington Library Quarterly. IX (1946). 411-418.

Smyth, Albert H. Bayard Tay­lor. Detroit: Gale Research Com­pany, 1970.

Taylor, Bayard. Colorado: A Summer Trip. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1867.

____. The Dramatic Works of Bayard Taylor. St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Scholarly Press, Inc., 1971.

____. Eldorado, or, Adventures in the Path of Em­pire. New York: George P. Put­nam, 1850.

____. The Golden Wed­ding: A Masque. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1868.

____. The Lands of the Saracen, or Pictures of Pales­tine, Asia Minor, Sicily and Spain. New York: G.P. Put­nam, 1855.

____. Poems of Home and Travel. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1855.

____. Views A-Foot, or, Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff. New York: Wiley n11d Putnam, 1846.

____. Ximena, or the Battle of the Sierra Morena, and Other Poems. Philadelphia: Horace Hooker, 1844.

Thomas, Benjamin P. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.

Wermuth, Paul C. Bayard Tay­lor. New York: Twayne Pub­lishers, Inc., 1973.

Woldman, Albert A. Lincoln and the Russians. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1970.


Paul C. Wermuth of Swampscott, Massachusetts, is author of Bayard Taylor, published by Twayne Publishers, Inc., New York, in 1973.