The Diary of George Templeton Strong, Post-War Years, 1865-1875 (Vol. 4). Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds.
This is the final volume of the edited and published diaries of George Templeton Strong, a lawyer and social figure in New York City. Last year I read the first three volumes, covering the years 1835-1865. But I put off reading this last one, in part because I was distracted by other books and in part because I didn't want to read the end of the story.
If the third volume (1860-1865) is naturally the "Civil War" diary, this is the "Reconstruction" diary, and it covers some very grim years in American history. When the war ended, Strong was exhausted and ill after four years of intense effort as the treasurer of the Sanitary Commission. The "Sanitary" was a private organization that in effect managed the health and medical care of Union soldiers. Strong had all but given up his legal practice to devote himself to this work and to other patriotic causes. His work with the Commission did not end with the war, since there were still soldiers to be cared for. The Commission also had to prepare a report on its work, the completion of which dragged on for years, a continuing worry and aggravation.
Strong's entries trace the course of "Reconstruction" from the point of view of a Northerner and a loyal Unionist. "Reconstruction" meant the political process by which the former Confederate states were readmitted to full participation in the Union, the social and political process by which the newly-freed slaves were admitted (or not) as citizens of the southern states and of America, and the rebuilding of the devastated South. It was a complex situation that would have taxed the leadership even of Abraham Lincoln. His hapless successor Andrew Johnson could not cope with the demands of Radical Republicans for social and political equality for the freed people of the South, while some former Confederates tried to force former slaves into quasi-slavery or serfdom. The clash with Radicals led to Johnson's impeachment in 1868 and assured the election of General Ulysses Grant as president that year. Like many others in the North, Strong enthusiastically supported Grant, the great Union war hero, only to watch in dismay as his administration became mired in corruption. That corruption was mirrored in New York City itself, where the notorious "Tweed Ring" and Tammany Hall stole millions, assisted by notoriously corrupt judges and city officials. The legendary greed and corruption of these years, dubbed "The Gilded Age" by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, fed a mania for stock speculation that crashed in the Panic of 1873, setting off a six-year depression.
Like the third volume of the diaries, this final volume also focuses on war, but in this case foreign wars. While Strong wrote about the war between Austria and Prussia in 1866, he spent much more time discussing the Franco-Prussian War. It dominates the entries for 1870-1871 (at least those selected by the editors for publication). According to the editors, Americans tended to favor the Prussians, due in part to the large German immigrant presence and also to dislike of Napoleon III. It was interesting to read Strong's writings on the war and the American viewpoint, after the very different perspective in the letters of Prussia's Crown Princess Frederick (Princess Victoria of England), which I read last year. Strong also chronicled the Italian unification movement, rejoicing at its success and Pope Pius IX's loss of Rome and the Papal States. As an Anglican, Strong was unimpressed with the Vatican Council of 1869-1870 that proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility, as the pope's temporal power in Italy was crumbling.
In addition to domestic and foreign politics, the editors highlighted three themes in Strong's life in these years. The first is his work as a trustee of Columbia College. As an alumnus, Strong wanted passionately to see the college prosper and expand, but other more conservative trustees blocked progressive moves. Nevins and Thomas, the editors, were themselves on the faculty of Columbia, and this was clearly a topic that fascinated them. It is less interesting to general readers, or at least to me. A second theme is Strong's involvement with the Anglican Church. He served for many years as a trustee of Trinity Church, and in 1870 he was elected a warden. Two years later he accepted a position as Comptroller of the parish, a salaried post for which he gave up his place in the family law firm. With the long hours given to trustee work for both the college and the church, I'm not sure how much time he had for his law practice anyway. But he found time for yet more volunteer work in his passion for music, one of the constant themes through the forty years of his diaries. Strong was a founding member of the "Church Music Association," which aimed to introduce New York audiences to the masterpieces of sacred music, and he later accepted the chair of the Philharmonic Society.
I appreciate how important all these aspects were in Strong's life. I also appreciate the monumental task that the editors faced, in editing Strong's voluminous writings for publication. But I have to take issue again with some of their editorial choices. They write in their introduction, "Many interesting personal entries, dealing with the diarist's family circle, have been left out; but these would make another kind of story." It is not just that they have excised entries dealing with personal matters in favor of college or church politics (as I noted in my review of the second volume). Prioritizing the public over the personal means that the men in Strong's life would get more attention, appear more frequently, than the women. The editors have exacerbated that situation by themselves ignoring or sidelining the women that do appear. To take one example, Strong's niece Lucy came to live with his family, becoming it seems almost a surrogate daughter (the Strongs' first child, their only daughter, was stillborn). "Lucy" is never identified or given a last name, even in a footnote, unlike Strong's nephew Richard Henry Derby, an opthamologist who settled in New York City, who is introduced in the "Dramatis Personae" yet also rates several footnotes. Finally, in the "Genealogical Note" that closes this volume, I learned that Lucy was Richard's sister, the daughter of Strong's sister Eloise. It was only in the same genealogy that I learned that Strong's wife Ellen Ruggles Strong died in Paris in 1891 (she is listed under her parents, by the way). The editors provide no information about her life after her husband's death, while outlining the careers of her three sons. How did she end up in Paris? Still, Ellen and Lucy fare better than "Miss Rosalie Ruggles," who appears constantly in three of the four volumes yet is never identified (she may have been Ellen's aunt or cousin). If I ever win the lottery, I intend to offer Columbia University a substantial grant for a new edition of Strong's diaries, one that will better balance his personal life and public career.
That rant aside (and I do feel better for saying it), I still enjoyed this volume and Strong's company even in these difficult years, so crucial in American and European history. Strong was a man of his times, with conservative views of women; as a trustee of Columbia, he opposed the admission of women students and he derided the "strong-minded women" of the suffrage movement. He continued to refer to African Americans by the n-word, and he despised the Irish immigrants who flooded New York City (in part of course because of their support for the Democrats and Tammany Hall). To balance that, he showed great concern for the poor, Irish immigrants included, and for the freedmen and women of the South. He had a reputation for honesty, for public service, and for scholarship, particularly in music. He loved his family, taking great pride in Ellen and their sons. The last months of his life were haunted by a break with the middle son, Templeton. The editors claim that they cannot explain what happened "because the pertinent passages have been obliterated from the diary." This may be editorial discretion, since they presumably could have asked the family members who helped in the editing of the diary.
Strong's entries always make entertaining reading. He had an acid and a witty turn of phrase. Reporting a new enthusiasm among New York Anglicans for building a cathedral, he noted that his father-in-law Samuel Ruggles was "cathedral-mad, as though bitten by a rabid transept" (October 1872). He left one concert early "for nobody offered me fifty dollars to stay and listen to Berlioz's "Dramatic Symphony," Romeo and Juliet, and I would not undergo that majestic work for a cent less" (May 1868). Though not a fan of the later books of Charles Dickens, he noted the author's death in June of 1870: "I feel [his] death as that of a personal friend, though I never even saw him . . ." I felt the same way after reading the last page of diary entries, and the note that George Templeton Strong died on July 21, 1875.