By Fergus Bordewich. Originally published in The Wall Street Journal, December 2009.
AMERICANS HAVE NEVER had much good to say about lobbyists. In the 1850s, Walt Whitman lumped them with his least favorite members of the human race, together with infidels, secessionists and slave-catchers. Kathryn Allamong Jacob's trim and surprising biography of Sam Ward, who was widely acknowledged to be the "King of the Lobby" in the decades after the Civil War, will not change most people's view of what is essentially a hustler's profession. But she brilliantly shows how, in the hands of a master, lobbying can be lifted to the level of art.
No one who knew Ward in his youth could have guessed that he would wind up one of the leading power brokers in Washington. The son of an evangelical New York banker, born in 1816, he grew up as a spoiled, plutocratic brat, charming but lazy, and far more interested in the life of a flashy dilettante than in the business career that his family expected him to pursue. (His tamer sister Julia would later write "The Battle Hymn of the Republic.") A natural mathematician, he was offered a teaching post at West Point at the age of 18 but instead dashed off to Europe, where he studied at a German university, chased women and cultivated a taste for haute cuisine.
Back in New York, he quickly squandered his father's legacy and managed to ruin his marriage to an heir of the Astor fortune. Nearly penniless, he shipped out to California during the Gold Rush, where he invested his grubstake in tools, got rich selling them to miners and then lost everything when his warehouse burned down. He turned up next in central America, where he threw himself into a series of shady schemes, and then in Europe, hobnobbing with Henry James.
Ward at last came to rest in Washington in 1859, representing the government of Paraguay. (He had befriended the country's dictator on his way back from the goldfields a few years before.) Henry Adams would soon say of him that he "knew more of life than all the departments of the Government together, including the Senate and the Smithsonian."
Before the Civil War, the federal government was virtually invisible to most Americans. It expanded during the war-and kept on expanding in the decades after, as dynamic capitalism transformed the country into an industrial behemoth. Businessmen and their agents poured into Washington demanding action on a vast range of matters, from railroad charters and timber rights to Indian trading concessions and military contracts. Lobbyists served the practical purpose of bridging the gulf between constituents and Congress. "Individuals and businesses looking to break through the logjam," Ms. Jacob writes, "joined league with lobbyists, who were good at getting this done."
Opportunities for corruption were rife. Magnates such as Collis Huntington of the Union Pacific Railroad thought nothing of spreading hundreds of thousands of dollars around Washington to buy congressmen. Former members of Congress, who enjoyed floor privileges, boldly lobbied their one-time colleagues. Meanwhile, operators like Uriah Painter, a clerk to the House Committee on Post Offices, could be seen talking up their clients on the House floor. Newspapers, too, were for hire. "It is only a question of [the] price you will pay whether these editors will lie for or against you," commented one of Ward's fellow lobbyists.
AMID THIS "SATURNALIA OF PLUNDER," as contemporaries termed it, Sam Ward was a class act. He neither offered bribes nor took them, and in a jungle of venality he was famous for his trustworthiness. He did occasionally resort to clever ploys. Once, he recalled, "a client, eager to prevent the arrival at the committee of a certain member before it should adjourn at noon, offered me $5,000 to accomplish his purpose, which I did by having his boots mislaid, while I smoked a cigar and condoled with him until they could be found at 11:45."
Ward's preferred field of action was the intimate dinner party. "Sometimes for a fee, sometimes as a favor," Ms. Jacob tells us, "Sam brought guests together around his table and let a good dinner, good wine, and good company educate, convince, launch schemes or nip them in the bud." Each menu, as Ward vividly put it, was a "plan of campaign" aimed at reducing "the enemy . . . to capitulation."
His clients ran the gamut from European financiers and South American mining titans to the heads of railroad lines and buccaneer investment bankers. If the interests of a client were financial, Ward would make sure that he met key members of the appropriate House and Senate committees. Mining interests would call for a different set of guests. Guests never "talked shop," Ward told a congressional committee during a rare investigation into lobbying practices, "but they give people who have a taste in that way a right, perhaps, to ask a gentleman a civil question, and to get a civil answer." Once in a while, something of "real service" might get done, for which, Ward said, "compensation is due and proper."
Ward was never charged with any impropriety, and by the time he abandoned the field he was as close to beloved as a lobbyist could be. "Nothing was ever served at Sam's table that was half as delicious as himself," sighed one delighted guest. When Ward died in 1884, the New York Tribune noted that he had established himself "at the head of a profession which, from the lowest depths of repute, he raised almost to the dignity of a gentlemanly business."
Most of his achievements were lucrative but ephemeral: a railroad right-of-way altered, a few words tweaked in an obscure piece of legislation. Yet he left an indelible mark on a profession that has grown into an essential, if irritating, lubricant for the machinery of government. Ward would probably not be surprised to learn that the hundreds of lobbyists who toiled in Gilded Age Washington have now swelled to some 31,000, in tandem with the expanding federal government. "Whenever lobbyists, clients and congressmen meet over an excellent meal," Ms. Jacob writes, Sam Ward "is there, even though none present may know his name."