Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men in Chicago, Photographically Illustrated by John Carbutt, 1868,Pages 671-689
John Wentworth is one of the very few men now living who attended the meetings called in the winter of 1836-7, to consider the expediency of applying to the Legislature, in session at Vandalia, for a
He was secretary of the first political meeting ever called in the First Ward to make nominations preliminary to the first municipal election, and at which meeting Hon. Francis C. Sherman was one of the nominees for Alderman. In August, 1837, he was secretary of a convention held at Brush Hill (now of Du Page County), to nominate officers for the then county of Cook, and at which Walter Kimball, the present City Comptroller, was nominated for Judge of Probate. In 1838, he was appointed School Inspector; and he held the same office, under the new name of Member of the Board of Education, when he was last elected to Congress. He has met among the scholars, whilst making his official visits, the grandchildren of those he met as scholars in his first year of service. He was the first corporation printer of Chicago, elected in 1837, and he held the position for about three-fourths of the period of the twenty-five years that he was sole editor, publisher and proprietor of the “Chicago Democrat.” He commenced making public speeches at our first municipal election, when Hon. W. B. Ogden was elected Mayor.
He was in the then town of Chicago at the Presidential election of 1836, but was not a voter, as he had arrived only the 25th of October, of that year.
He was born in Sandwich, Strafford County, New Hampshire, March 5, 1815. Taking his first lessons in life amid the hardy sons of the Switzerland of America, he was sent, in the winter of 1826-7, to the academy at Gilmanton, New Hampshire; thence to Wolfborough, New Hampshire; to New Hampton, New Hampshire; and to South Berwick, Maine. In 1832, he entered Dartmouth College, and graduated there in 1836. That institution has since conferred the degree of LL. D. upon him. Senator Grimes, of Iowa, was a member of the same class with him, and James F. Joy, of Detroit, was one of their teachers. The winter previous to his entering college, he taught school at New Hampton, New Hampshire, and three of the winters he was in college, he taught at Hanover, Grafton, and East Lebanon. Whilst at the latter place, he was elected a delegate to the County Convention, and was made chairman of the committee upon resolutions, and his report, and remarks accompanying it, were highly commended in the papers of the day as displaying the true “Jackson grit.” He became of age whilst in college, and gave his first vote for Isaac Hill, the Jackson candidate for Governor. He had been a writer for Jackson newspapers before entering college; and whilst there, his contributions to them were frequent. At his College Commencement, Governor Hill, Franklin Pierce, John P. Hale, and Edmund Burke were upon the stage, and publicly congratulated him upon his performance, the three latter little dreaming what relations to each other they were so soon to occupy. In seven years, he was the colleague of Messrs. Hale and Burke in Congress, and he was again in Congress when Mr. Pierce was President.
Mr. Burke, as editor of the “Newport (N. H.) Spectator,” speaking of the exercises at this commencement of Dartmouth College, said:
- Some of them gave evidence of a high order of talent, among whom we would mention that of John Wentworth, of Sandwich.
The “Vermont Chronicle” of August 31, 1836, the organ of the Congregational denomination of that State, congratulated young Wentworth “On the possession of a voice of uncommon strength, compass and melody,” and said: “We hope that voice will do good in the world, and not evil; for either of which purposes it may be signally adapted.” As his pen has written more than that of any other one man in Chicago, so his voice has spoken more; and there are two prominent subjects upon which it has given no uncertain sound, viz.: Liberty and Economy.
On Monday, October 3, of the same year, he left his father’s house, with one hundred dollars in his pocket, “bound West.’ So undetermined was he as to his place of destination, that he did not know where to advise his friends to direct their letters. The Governor of his State gave him a letter to some one man in each of the new States and Territories, but which he never had occasion to use. Two of these letters we copy,
the first addressed to Governor Henry Dodge, of Wisconsin, and the second to Hon. R. J. Walker, United States Senator from Mississippi:
- Concord, N. IL, September 29, 1836.
Sir: Permit us to introduce to your friendly attentions, Mr. John Wentworth, a graduate of Dartmouth College, of the present year. Mr. Wentworth possesses merit ai a scholar and a gentleman, and has already discovered talents as a politician which give him the first rank among our young men. He goes to the West in pursuit of fortune and fame. Should he take a stand in your Territory, I cannot doubt that he will receive, as he will merit, the patronage and friendship of the pioneers of your flourishing country.
I am, with high respect, your obedient servant,
- Concord, N. II., September 29, 1836.
Dear Sir: This will introduce Mr. John Wentworth, of this State, of whose talents and worth I had occasion to speak to yourself during the last session of Congress. I cannot doubt he will be encouraged on his way by all such aids as you may conveniently give him. Believe me,
Your friend and obedient servant,
His route was by stage over the Green Mountains to Schenectady; thence by the only railroad between Chicago and the East, as far as Utica; thence by canal to Buffalo; and by steamer to Detroit, where he arrived Thursday evening, the 13th. He advertised himself as a school teacher, the day after his arrival, in the “Detroit Free Press,” and walked into the country as far as Ann Arbor, going and returning by different routes. Meeting with no success, he shipped his trunk for Chicago, by Oliver Newberry’s new brig (Manhattan), and, his feet being sore from previous traveling, he took the stage across the country to Michigan City, where he arrived October 22. Thence he traveled on foot to Chicago, around the beach of the Lake, there being, at that time, no other road, where he arrived Tuesday, a. m., the 25th, and took his dinner at the United States Hotel, kept by John Murphy (afterwards Alderman of the city), at the corner of Lake and Market streets, on the site of the Wigwam, where Mr. Lincoln was first nominated for President.
About this time, a New Hampshire acquaintance purchased the “Chicago Democrat,” and made arrangements with Mr. Wentworth to conduct it while he returned East. The “Democrat” was established in 1834, having been the first paper in the city, and there was but one other. The late Daniel Brainard, M. D., was his immediate predecessor in the editorial chair. As the paper was only published weekly, he devoted his leisure time to the study of law, at the office of Henry Moore, then a lawyer of great promise, but whom consumption carried to a premature grave, in his native Massachusetts. On the 23d of November, the first number, under his management, appeared. Although he labored under the disadvantages of youth and inexperience, having been less than four months out of college, and less than thirty days in the State, he soon created a desire among the leading politicians of the Jackson school in the Northwest, that he should become sole proprietor of the establishment. And an opportunity was soon offered him, for misfortune attended the new proprietor at the East, and he was unable to meet his Western engagements. The liabilities for the Democrat were two thousand eight hundred dollars, and it was the wish of all the creditors that Mr. Wentworth should contrive in some way to liquidate them. But his total means when he arrived at Chicago were but thirty dollars, and he had received nothing since. He was unacquainted with business, and was not a printer. It was proposed by some of the creditors that he write to his father, who was a gentleman of respectable means for his locality, for assistance. But his reply was: “I am the oldest of a large family of children, and when my father has educated the others as well as he has me, it will be time for me to ask for further favors.”
They then assured him that it was the wish of all that he take the paper, but they wanted him to tell how he was to pay for it. His answer was characteristic of the future man. Although now surprising no one who knows Mr. Wentworth’s peculiarities, yet it then created a great deal of surprise. He said, “I propose to pay for it out of my earnings and savings. Come in every Saturday night and get what I have left after paying the week’s expenses. Determine among yourselves what debts shall be paid first, and I propose to own the fixtures, types and presses, as fast as I pay for them and no fiister. But I propose to OAvn the columns from the start. Although young, I have very settled convictions, originating in inheritance, perhaps, but certainly confirmed by education, and I propose to make the ‘Democrat’ their organ.”
The result of this negotiation Avas, that in July of 1837, the words, “Agent for the Proprietor,” which had thus long been beneath his name, were dropped, and he continued sole editor, publisher and proprietor, until 1861, when his responsibilities growing with the rapid growth of our city and others outside, incident, not only to his public life, but to the means which he had accumulated, required him to give it up. He had become largely interested in agriculture, having a farm of 2,500 acres, and he would have nothing to do with a newspaper unless he could have all to do with it. It must reflect his sentiments in every column. If public sentiment was wrong, instead of catering to it, he thought it his duty to correct it, and the earlier that correction was undertaken, the better. The war had begun, and new questions were suddenly springing out of it, which had to be promptly met, and he was unwilling to trust them in the hands of those who might happen to be in his employ, when important midnight dispatches might arrive, and, in particular, as he knew that whatever was written would be attributed solely to him. And it is a wonder how an independent editor like Mr. Wentworth could ever have secured so many public positions as he has. For it is the fortune of independent editors to be treading upon the toes of influence. Mr. Wentworth, whilst an editor, was ten years elected to Congress, and two years elected Mayor, with his paper in full blast upon every question that agitated the public. Call over the roll of fearless political writers, and see who have been more successful.
Having made up his mind to pay off the indebtedness of the “Chicago Democrat,” and to own it, he brought to bear all those indomitable energies which have ever characterized the descendants of the earliest settlers of New England; and although this had to be done in the midst of one of the severest financial crises through which the country ever passed, and although his views upon all the questions growing out of such a crisis were considered radical and extreme, his paper never lost that bold and defiant tone with which a conviction of right ever inspires a man. It ought before to have been stated, that he is a descendant on both sides from the old Puritan and revolutionary stock of New England, men who left their native land, over two and a quarter centuries ago, to enjoy freedom of opinion, and whose descendants have all been members of the same church which they came to New England to establish.
His maternal grandfather, Colonel Amos Cogswell, had served through the entire war of the Revolution. His paternal great-grandfather, Judge John Wentworth, had presided at the first revolutionary convention in New Hampshire. His grandfather, John Wentworth, Jr., at the age of thirty-three, was a member of the Continental Congress. And the pastor of the church of which his parents were members, and by whom he was christened, had been a soldier of the Revolution and had prayed in the camp of Washington. He brought his New England habits and inspirations to bear upon the work he had undertaken. He made his bed among the types and presses, and became not only editor, but folder, pressman, clerk and mail boy. There was no industry that could have surpassed his. By continuous daily and nightly toil, by denying himself everything that the most pressing necessity did not demand, he had paid the last dollar by the summer of 1839, and was then enabled to visit his native New England, the sole proprietor of the leading administration paper in the Northwest. During that visit, he delivered his first literary address at the commencement of Norwich (Vt.) University, taking for his subject, “All education should be practical,” which was highly commended by the papers of the day as a literary production; and he was the guest at the time of General Truman B. Eausom, one of the Professors, who fell on the battle fields of Mexico, and who was the father of our own General Ransom of the War of the Rebellion.
The foresight of Mr. Wentworth, in early securing the entire control of the columns of the “Democrat,” Avas apparent when the financial crisis of 1837 overtook the country, and which was attributed by many to the Jackson-Van Buren policy, but which he attributed to a redundant paper circulation and its natural consequences, speculation and extravagance; claiming, as he has so often done since, amid similar crises, that the specie redemption point should be the measure of paper circulation, and that all excesses of paper issues must result in a disastrous inflation of prices. An extra session of Congress was called, and the entire Democratic delegation from Illinois in the House went over to the opposition, for which the “Democrat” vehemently denounced them, and took the most decided administration ground. Its articles were copied into the “Washington Globe,” the “New York Evening Post,” and all the leading administration papers. The business men of Chicago, and the speculators universally, were against President Van Buren, and so, of course, were against the “Democrat,” and so became many of its old creditors, who refused to have it left at their doors. It was then, as it many times afterwards Avas, upon the agitation of similar questions, denounced in public meetings for creating an erroneous public sentiment, and threats were made of throwing it in the river. But it kept up an unremitting fire, and defied all denunciation. The excitement was increased by the early call of a Congressional Convention at Peoria, the denunciation of the member of Congress, and the nomination of Stephen A. Douglas in his place. Mr. Wentworth was pressed as a candidate by many delegates who were acquainted with him through his paper, but did not know that he was under the required age. One of them would insist upon voting for him, and made the prediction in the Convention that he would some day be in Congress.
The friends of the incumbent made a personal matter of the proceedings of the Convention, and his son-in-law publicly shot down one of the Committee upon Resolutions. Douglas and his opponent canvassed the District together on horseback, and their discussions, confined entirely to financial questions, were attended with great bitterness on the part of the audience, which occasionally broke out into personal collisions. Douglas made his headquarters, in Chicago, at the “Democrat” office, during this canvass, and it was the necessity of defending the administration that induced Mr. Wentworth to laboriously study the principles of governmental finance, and wliicli qualified him to write and speak so determinedly upon them in after years.
As early as February, 1840, in answer to an invitation to address the Bay State Association, at Boston, he wrote a letter upon the relation of banks to the Government, which was extensively circulated in pamphlet form, and copied into the administration papers. The “Boston Post” of that day said: “An ample apology for its great length will be found in the sound doctrines it contains, and the powerful and eloquent style in which they are communicated. Mr. Wentworth’s views of the banking system, statesmanlike and equitable as they are, cannot fail to meet with approbation from all Democrats, and from none more fully than the generous sons of the West.”
It was not until 1840 that Mr. Wentworth commenced addressing public assemblies outside of the city. The Presidential election was to take place that year; and, looking upon the prospects of Mr. Van Buren as unfavorable, he started the first Democratic daily paper in the Northwest, and having got it well under way, he commenced addressing the people in Northern Illinois, and so continued until the end of the campaign, often riding in the same conveyance, and speaking from the same stand, with Douglas. But the adnunistration of Mr. Van Buren was overthrown, and with it all those measures of finance to which Mr. Wentworth had become so early a devotee. Rut when the term of the new administration had half expired, Douglas and Wentworth entered Congress together, and assisted in restoring them to the national code. At the close of the contest, he received a very complimentary letter from Governor Thomas Carlin for his services, enclosing a commission as his Aid-de-Camp, signed by Stephen A. Douglas, as Secretary of State. Hence is derived his title of Colonel.
He continued his legal studies as political excitement subsided, and in the spring of 1841 entered the Law School at Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the intention of remaining a year, and had secured the services of the late Judge George Manierre, as editor in his absence. But, in the autumn his friends became uneasy lest his absence should provoke competition for the nomination to Congress, and prevailed upon him reluctantly to return home. Calling to take leave of Judge Story, one of the Professors, he was asked why he left before the close of the term. “Private business,” was the reply. Scarce had two years elapsed, before he met Judge Story, as Congressman, who observed: “Your private business has assumed public importance. Two years ago, my student; now, my law-maker. Truly, a young man of rapid growth.”
Soon after his return, he was examined by the late Governor Thomas Ford, whilst holding court at Sycamore, DeKalb County, and the late Thomas C. Brown, who was holding court at the same time in Dixon, in the adjoining county of Lee, and admitted to the bar. But his early election to Congress, and long continuance therein, with his other public positions, have left him with only the name of lawyer.
In August, 18-13 (the election being a year later than usual in consequence of a delay in the apportionment), before he had been in the State seven years, he was elected to the twenty-eighth Congress, the youngest member of that body. Before that time, there had been no Member of Congress from Illinois north of Springfield, and none from any State, who resided upon Lake Michigan. He was in Congress eight years under the census of 1840, two under that of 1850, and two under that of 1860. He was in the Twenty-eighth, Twenty-ninth, Thirtieth, Thirty-first, Thirty-third and Thirty-ninth Congresses, comprising a period of Tyler’s, Fillmore’s and Johnson’s administrations, being that of all the Vice-Presidents who ever acted as Presidents. He was under the Speakerships of Jones, of Virginia, Davis, of Indiana, Winthrop, of Massachusetts, Cobb, of Georgia, Boyd, of Kentucky, and Colfax, of Indiana; and under the administrations of Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Johnson. His first District was composed of the counties of Cook, Boone, Bureau, Champagne, DeKalb, DuPage, Grundy, Iroquois, Kane, Kendall, Lake, LaSalle, Livingston, McHenry, McLean, Vermillion and Will; and from these new counties and parts of counties have since been created. This territory is now represented, in whole or in part, by seven different Members of Congress. when first elected, the canal was not completed, and there was not a railroad in the State. The northern part of the State did not contain the population that Chicago now does. Wisconsin and Iowa were not admitted into the Union, and Minnesota was only known as a part of Wisconsin Territory. But little more than half the public land in the State had been sold. He could only canvass his District in a buggy, and oftentimes his appointments could not be fulfilled from the rise of streams by sudden rains. This District extended from the Wisconsin State line about two hundred and fifty miles south, and from the Indiana State line about one hundred miles west; and there were distances which would require from eight to ten hours’ travel without meeting a single inhabitant.
The history of his public acts would require a review of the history of the times. The journals of the House will speak for his votes, and the “Congressional Globe” for his speeches. He entered public life with his present motto—”Liberty and Economy.” He constituted one of the small majority that rescinded, during his first term, on the motion of John Quincy Adams, the rule that prohibited the reception of all petitions upon the subject of slavery. He was present in the House when John Quincy Adams fell, and was one of the committee to escort his remains to Massachusetts. In all measures of finance, he took an equally early stand with the most radical of the anti-debt and anti-repudiation, as well as of the specie-paying and low-taxation party.
The local legislation required for his District, and the business of his constituents with the various Departments at that day, can hardly be appreciated at present. There was no telegraph, and but very little railroad communication between Chicago and Washington, and the water communication was very circuitous. The postage on an ordinary letter was then twenty-five cents. He had to get maritime jurisdiction extended over the Lakes, harbors constructed, light-houses erected, ports of entry established. United States District Courts and court-houses, marine hospitals, post office buildings, etc., etc. New mail routes and post offices were wanted; and all over Northern Illinois towns and villages have assumed names that Mr. Wentworth gave to their original prairie post office. Contested land cases, arising under the various pre-emption laws were numerous, and required time at the Departments, as well as in Congress.
The Mexican war was begun and ended whilst he was in Congress, and this brought the claims of soldiers and their heirs for back pay, pensions, bounty, etc., etc.; and Mr. Wentworth ever took pride in being the gratuitous agent for all of his constituents.
He never relaxed his efforts, until they were crowned with success, to repeal the non-resident speculators’ law, exempting lands from taxation until five years after they were sold, and to enact pre-emption, graduation and homestead laws. He was the first man from the West to introduce a bill in favor of the bonded warehouse system.
The premature adoption of an extensive railroad system had brought upon the State financial embarrassments, from which it seemed impossible to extricate it, unless Congress should make a railroad grant of land similar to that made for the canal. The Illinois delegation labored industriously for this, but they found almost insurmountable obstacles in the way. One party, to keep the tariff low, wanted to apply all the proceeds of the public lands to defraying the expenses of the General Government. The other, to keep it high, wanted to divide the proceeds of their sales among the States. Three Congresses had passed away in ineffectual attempts. The Senate had been favorable; but the House, where the older States where in greater preponderance, was immovable. Whilst the finally successful negotiations were pending to get the Illinois bondholders to complete the canal, Mr. Wentworth had formed the acquaintance of many very influential bondholders in New York and Boston; and, from the complexion of the House, he believed these men had influence enough to gain the necessary votes to pass the bill. The canal had been a success, and the registered canal bonds were far above the others in the market. Mr. Wentworth opened a correspondence with them to show that a railroad grant could be so managed as to complete the road and bring the bonds to a par with the canal bonds. They sent a delegation to Washington, who soon made the report that the tariff question was in the way. “And what I sent for you for was because, as tariff men, I supposed you could get it out of the way,” said Mr. Wentworth. A few days more, and they brought to him a notification that a distinguished Member of Congress from Massachusetts had been chosen mediator, and would insist upon a slight modification of the tariff bill, as a condition of passing all the Western land bills. Mr. Wentworth called a meeting at his room, and made known the proposition. He took the ground that the modification of the tariff might work well, and, if so, there would bo no censure attached to its passage; and, if not so, then it could be repealed; whereas the land grants could not be repealed.
It was arranged to furnish votes enough to pass the bill, which was called up early next morning, and defeated by the absence of a few of the strongest tariff men in the House. So, to all appearances, ended the Illinois land grant, and Mr. Wentworth felt the discomfiture keenly. It was his fourth Congress of labor for it, and he had declined a re-election. He felt that the tariff bill was lost through no fault of his, or his Western allies. They had all worked up to their agreement, and he resolved on an appeal to the magnanimity of the tariff men. He suggested that they pass the Illinois bill, and thereby show what they could do, and then keep back the other bills until the tariff bill should pass. This policy was approved, and the gentleman from Massachusetts, Hon. George Ashmun, engineered the bill safely through the House. But the tariff bill could not be passed, and its friends would allow no other land grant to pass, and this fact made the Illinois grant still more valuable, as the company that secured it had no competition at its organization in disposing of that class of securities. The men who were thus instrumental in securing the passage of the bill where not long in submitting to Mr. Wentworth the original draft of the present charter, which still exists, interlined in Mr. Wentworth’s own handwriting, making the Governor an ex-officio director, and strengthening the clause making the State’s income therefrom applicable to the liquidation of Illinois indebtedness. President Polk pocketed the harbor and river bill that passed the Twenty-ninth Congress; and Mr. Wentworth, thinking that he saw a disposition to make opposition to such bills a party test, deemed some immediate popular action necessary, and consulted Members of Congress upon the subject, and the result was the calling of a convention at Chicago, July 5, 1847. Mr. Wentworth, as Chairman of the Citizens’ Committee, drafted the address. The most prominent of the party with which Mr. Wentworth acted gave the convention the cold shoulder, as tending to injure the administration. But this only inspirited him, and nothing that he could do through his newspaper, or by public speeches or private letters, was left undone. The magical effects of that convention are proverbial.
He resisted with all his energies the surrender of the United States claim to any portion of the Pacific Territory south of the Russian Possessions, and was one of twelve who voted that our right to the whole country should not be the subject of negotiation or compromise. He was one of the few Democrats who attended a private meeting under Mr. Polk’s administration, and resolved to defeat any measure looking to the acquisition of new territory unless slavery was prohibited therein, and the fruits of which meeting was the celebrated “Wilmot Proviso.”
Wheeler, who was at Washington during all these eight years, in his Biographical and Political History of Congress, Volume II, says:
- We mark him down a man of untiring energy, whose mind, once fixed upon a project, is not apt to be diverted from it, but will make every consideration secondary to its accomplishment. Possessing a good knowledge of parliamentary tactics, and conversant generally with the means of success in any movement he may make, he calculates coolly and afar off, and turns every little circumstance to good account. We have seen him stand up in the face of denunciation and excommunication fierce enough to awe into submission any mind accustomed to acknowledge the obligations of that austere discipline which is characteristic of the Democratic party. If he has winced, we never saw him.
And the “United States Democratic Review,” published about the same time, said of him:
- Colonel Wentworth’s political career has been marked by untiring industry and perseverance; by independence of thought, expression and action; by a thorough knowledge of human nature; by a moral courage equal to any crisis; by a self-possession that enables him to avail himself of any chance of success, when on the very threshold of defeat; and by a steady devotion to what he believes the wishes and interests of those whose representative he is.
Under the census of 1850, Chicago was placed in a District composed of the counties of Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Kane, Lee, Whiteside and Rock Island, the three latter counties not having been in the District formerly represented by Mr. Wentworth in Congress. He was its first Representative. He and Senator Douglas canvassed the entire District in company, both urging the claims of General Pierce to the Presidency. But the introduction of the Missouri Compromise Repeal, by Senator Douglas, and the support given that measure by General Pierce, soon separated them politically. Mr. Wentworth left them with regret. He had been an admirer of Douglas ever since he had known him, and hoped to see him President of the United States. And his admiration for President Pierce was inherited, as his own father (Hon. Paul Wentworth) had been a supporter, not only of the President’s father (Governor Benjamin Pierce) for every public position he had held, but in the Legislature, the son Franklin, when he was first elected Speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and also when elected United States Senator. His sense of public duty overcame his personal attachments, and when the administration added to its slavery policy opposition to harbor and river improvements, he could not see upon what living question he sympathized with the dominant party. So he took sides with the opposition at the next election, and supported General Fremont for the Presidency.
The public records prove Mr. Wentworth one of the most efficient opponents of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, as well as of every other measure that could be construed, by even the most fastidious, to lessen the influence of free labor upon the country. The scene when he outgeneraled the opposition to Colonel Benton in the House, will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. The great Missourian, after having served so long in the Senate as to have acquired the title of Pater Senatus, was transferred to the House, and was about making his debut upon the repeal question. The friends of that measure knew that,mwith his slow, Senatorial style of speaking, he could not produce much effect in a single hour, and they were determined that the “hour rule” should be enforced upon him. The audience was such a crowded one as only a man of his eminence could call out. He had hardly laid out his ground-work, when the presiding officer raised his hammer; but, before it fell, Mr. Wentworth addressed him, and was recognized, and he desired to give the gentleman from Missouri such a portion of his time as would enable him to finish. Objections from the administration men rang throughout the House, and as loudly rang appeals in his favor from the others. Amid the general melee, Colonel Benton seemed nonplussed. He had been in the habit of surmounting all obstacles, but the relentless hour rule was now in his way. Mr. Wentworth loomed up amid the crowd, holding the floor with a coolness that satisfied those who knew him, that he was either going to find a way for the Colonel to deliver his speech, or else he was going to take his sheets and read them himself. Mr. Wentworth passed him a note to move an amendment, as none was pending. To use Colonel Benton’s own words afterwards: “I obeyed orders; I was in the woods; I did not know how to get out; I had been in the Senate too long for that hour rule.” “Can I offer an amendment?” said he. “With the consent of the gentleman from Illinois,” was the reply. He passed up his amendment, and Mr. Wentworth passed to him another note, saying: “Now explain it.” He asked if he could explain his amendment. “If the gentleman from Illinois surrenders the floor,” was the reply. There was deep sensation in the ranks of the Administration, their leaders looking at each other as if to inquire: “Can this be done?” The more experienced gave it up; and Colonel Benton was allowed to finish his last great speech in the halls of legislation. Senator Douglas Avas present, and, with John C. Breckenridge, came to Wentworth’s seat, after Colonel Benton had resumed, and said: “The Abolitionists are quite successful under their new leader.” Douglas then little dreamed that the time was not far distant when Breckenridge was to taunt him in the same way, for opposing Mr. Buchanan’s administration, as Mr. Wentworth did that of General Pierce. Colonel Benton gave a large dinner party in honor of his extrication by Mr. Wentworth from the embarrassments of the “hour rule,” and entertained his guests to a late hour with a most interesting account of incidents in his life, but every little while declaring that he never lost his composure so much as when the nullifiers drove him up against the hour rule. And when he made his last visit to Chicago, while Mr. Wentworth was Mayor, to deliver his lecture, he described his feelings very glowingly to a large collection of ladies and gentlemen in the Tremont House. He said he had been in many trying emergencies; he had traveled on horseback from Missouri to Washington when the country was a wilderness; he had had conflicts with personal enemies; he had fought the enemies of his country on the battle-field; he had met its great men in Senatorial debate; but he had never appreciated assistance so much as when his friend here (taking Mayor Wentworth by the hand) piloted him past the gag-law. After much labor he had prepared his speech, and he wanted to deliver it; and he never published one that he did not deliver; but after all his labor, and with all his anxiety, it would have been an abortion but for the Chicago Representative.
In 1857, and again in 1860, Mr. Wentworth was elected Mayor of Chicago, and as such had an opportunity to prove how sincere he had been, as editor and Congressman, in advocating the most rigid economy. He found a large floating debt against the city when he entered upon each of his terms; and, when he closed each of them, he left not a dollar of it outstanding. He stopped all rows at the elections, and made access to the polls as easy as to private dwellings. He reduced both the number and salaries of officials. He summarily cleared our streets and sidewalks of obstructions. He demolished the houses of infamy upon the “Sands.” He compelled persons erecting, repairing or removing buildings to give bonds protecting the city against damages to individuals. He established the present grade of the city. He introduced steam fire-engines, in spite of the most violent opposition. He reduced the people’s taxes, and raised the credit of the city.
In co-operation with the English Embassy at Washington, he went to Montreal, in 1860, to induce the Duke of Newcastle to change the intended route of the Prince of Wales through the Western British Possessions to the United States, and submitted a programme, so far as Chicago was concerned, that proved satisfactory to our citizens and to the royal party. Lord Lyons, the British Minister to the United States, afterwards wrote him a letter of thanks, as also did the Duke of Newcastle, and he repeated them in different letters afterwards. And the Prince himself sent a man, at his own expense, expressly to deliver to him a pair of Southdown sheep for his Summit farm, as a testimonial of his esteem.1
In 1861, he was elected a delegate to the convention to revise the Constitution of Illinois, upon a fusion ticket, composed of half Democrats and half Republicans, both parties waiving nominations.
In 1863, he was appointed one of the Board of Police Commissioners, and in that capacity he became associated with the military authorities in ferreting out and bringing to justice the conspirators to liberate the rebel prisoners in Camp Douglas, who were to burn the city on the night prior to the election, and thus came in possession of facts that he successfully used, while a Member of Congress, to defeat the application of their leader for a pardon. In that capacity, also, it was his duty to aid in the maintenance of law and order while the great concourse was here which nominated General McClellan for President. Fears were entertained that violence would ensue if Mr. Vallandigham, of Ohio, undertook to address our people in the open air; and upon the evening announced for his address, Mr. Wentworth went amongst the most excited portion of the audience and successfully urged them to quietude. At the close of Mr, Vallandigham’s address, he stepped upon the Court House steps and claimed for himself the same courtesy that had been extended to Mr. Vallandigham. He then made a speech to the assembly, which was opposed to him in politics, in support of Mr. Lincoln’s administration, which ranked among his very best efforts, and was circulated through several States as a campaign document.
He was elected to the Thirty-ninth Congress, in 1864, from a District which, under the census of 1860, was composed only of the County of Cook. He was upon the Committee of Roads and Canals, and upon the Committee of Ways and Means. As a member of the former, he labored successfully to get the Niagara Ship Canal bill through the House, but it failed in the Senate. The latter committee is a little Congress of itself. It is there where all financial bills are framed, and where representatives of all the trades and industries are in constant attendance. It sits most of the time while the House is in session, and mornings and evenings besides. Finance was the main question when he first wrote for the “Chicago Democrat,” and when he first entered public life. The slavery question had overshadowed it for many years. Upon this subject, from first to last, he had made but one record. The war being over, and slavery abolished, reconstruction was the prevailing question, and upon it Mr, Wentworth signalized himself among the most radical of the radicals. As reconstruction began to be settled, finance loomed up as the next question. How to pay the debt, and resume specie payments with the least distress to the people, were questions of great interest to him; and so, whenever he could leave the House without detriment to pending questions, he was always in the committee room, supporting every measure of retrenchment and economy, and listening to the suggestions of its numerous visitors. No measure looking to an increase of public, expenditures, the repudiation of the national debt, violation of contracts, or to a postponement of the resumption of specie payments, ever received any encouragement from him.
Mr. Wentworth, all through his editorial and official life, has shown himself not only a man of decided convictions, but has proved, on many notable occasions, that he had, under the most adverse circumstances, the courage to follow them. He has ever looked upon parties as only necessary organizations for the accomplishment of desirable ends, and has had no party attachments beyond his decided convictions of right, always having principles which he wished sustained by the legislation of his country, and always seeking that political organization which would best promote this object. And, although he has been more highly honored that any other citizen of Chicago by official positions, he has in many instances flung away such honors, against the remonstrances of highly valued friends, when their attainment required a compromise of well settled convictions. In 1854, the opposition to the Democratic party was not consolidated into a single organization, as it now is, and Mr. Wentworth belonged to the “Free Soil Democratic Party,” in contradiction to that of the Americans, the Abolitionists, the Democrats, and the Whigs. It was the unanimous desire of the Free Soil Democrats that he should be returned to Congress, and the Abolitionists were willing to gratify that desire. But these two organizations could not alone elect their candidate. It required the concurrence of the Americans to enable these two organizations to outnumber the Whigs and Democrats, each of which party was determined to run a separate candidate. The Americans were desirous of fusing with the Free Soil Democrats and Abolitionists, but required that the candidate should be pledged to their peculiar views as to the rights of foreign born residents. A committee of three leading citizens called upon Mr. Wentworth, inviting his private initiation into their order, with the assurance that they Mould support him for Congress. He promptly declined the candidacy upon such terms. Again, in 1866, he had warm advocates; but the laboring classes required that he should sign a pledge of his honor as a man to introduce, advocate, and vote for the eight-hour law, but he preferred to stand by the rule from which he had never deviated, to make no pledges, except that which every honorable man gives when nominated for office, viz: to abide by the platform adopted by the convention at the time of his nomination. He contended that it would be no honor to himself, and no triumph to the Republican party, if he had to be pledged to an outside organization to get his election. When he was Mayor, all the city patronage was in his hands; and he, being besought to make some pledges beforehand, said he would respond at the next public meeting; and in Metropolitan Hall, before an immense audience, he denounced all such attempts, and declared that under no circumstances would he appoint any man to office who ever even insinuated that he ever had the least encouragement from him that he was to have an office. When he was leaving for Congress, at one time, a clergyman said to him, “I pray God to give you courage!” Mr. Wentworth responded: “You need not do that; but pray God to give me light—to show me the right; I have the courage already to follow it.”
Mr. Wentworth is one of the most enterprising agriculturists in the Northwest, having a farm of two thousand live hundred acres, grazed by the choicest selections from foreign herds, six miles from the city limits; and he was member of the Agricultural Board from the State at large at the time of his election to the Thirty-ninth Congress.
At the time of the consolidation of the old Galena and Chicago Union Railroad Company with the Northwestern, he had been for some years a Director in the former company, and won the admiration, not only of the stockholders, but of the people all along the line, by his unflagging zeal to avoid all unnecessary expenses, to correct all abuses, and to accommodate the public—developing the same administrative ability in private as in official affairs.
Mr. Wentworth has been remarkable for habits of untiring industry, and for keeping such control of his private business that lie has ever been independent of political results to himself personally; and therefore he has always made his own time more valuable when devoted to his own private pursuits than when devoted to official positions, with even the highest emoluments. He has always stepped from public to private life with profit to himself. Nor has he ever been concerned in any means of legislation that would result in private benefit to himself or any of his friends; the volumes of private laws passed by the Illinois Legislature will be searched in vain for his name; and the originators of the numerous indignation meetings in Chicago, against different schemes of private legislation, have never failed to call upon him for his immediate co-operation. He has always combated that system of morals which would excuse a man for doing in his corporate capacity what would be unjust or dishonest in his individual capacity—that system which is continually making individuals very rich, while the corporations which they manage become proportionately poor. After the disastrous explosion of the Illinois State General Banking System, which Mr. Wentworth had opposed from the beginning, many of its supporters undertook to protect themselves from the consequences of their measures by deducting from the dues to their depositors the difference between good and the depreciated money; and a bank in which Mr. Wentworth had a small interest so far imitated this example as to make a comparatively small deduction in such cases. At the first meeting of the stockholders thereafter, Mr. Wentworth took the ground that this deduction should be refunded, and the measure was carried, although no other institution similarly situated has ever made such a restitution.
Mr. Wentworth has also been remarkable, as a writer and speaker. for conveying his ideas in the fewest possible words, and for his success in commanding the closest attention of promiscuous audiences. His portrait, painted by Healy, in 1858, for the Common Council Chamber, is pronounced one of the best works of that distinguished artist.
1After retiring from Congress in 1868 Wentworth purchased about 5,000 acres of land in what is today part of the Chicago neighborhood of Garfield Ridge and suburban Summit. His country estate was near the 5400 block of South Neva. It was demolished in 1968 after years of falling into disrepair.