The Life and Times of SAM WARD, Man-About-Washington in the Gilded Age

Kathryn Allamong Jacob
Book cover


Always hungry for acclaim, Sam Ward savored the attention his testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee brought his way via stories in the nation's major newspapers. To his best friend of 40 years, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he crowed that this "business which people imagined must have been unpleasant has turned out profitably...and has made me famous.... My box is full of letters of congratulations and my fingers sore with hand grips...I have had offers for a book from several publishers and have felt half inclined to ramble on with my pen...."1

Two years earlier, in 1873, Philadelphia newspaperman John Forney had observed: "What a delicious volume that famous man of the world, Sam Ward, who is every body's friend, from black John who drives his hack to the jolly Senator who eats his dinners and drinks his wine—from the lady who accepts his bouquet to the prattling child who hungers for his French candies—what a jewel of a book he could make of the good things he has heard at his thousand 'noctes ambrosianae!'"2

Although there were many times when he desperately needed the money a volume about his life surely would have fetched, Sam Ward never did write his autobiography. That is a pity. Such a book would indeed have been delicious, and, while any book the "King of the Lobby" wrote would no doubt have been as self-serving as his testimony, it would also have opened a window onto the lobby in Washington after the Civil War.

Sam's reign in Washington coincided with the post-war years disparaged as the Gilded Age, the Great Barbecue, the Age of Excess, and the Saturnalia of Plunder. Waves of scandals broke over the first and second Grant administrations, uncovering congressmen, Cabinet members, and lobbyists in the muck on the ebb tide. Ruthless men like railroad mogul Collis Huntington arrived at the beginning of each Congress, it was rumored, with trunks full of cash with which to buy votes on Capitol Hill, while brazen representatives of ship builders bought the souls of congressmen with stock certificates right outside the Senate and House chambers.

It is easy to lump these years all together and dismiss them as an irredeemably corrupt era, with little to mark it save scandal after scandal. A closer look, however, makes clear that there was much more going on in the late 1860s and 1870s than the looting of the Treasury. These were years during which the federal government and the nation were undergoing profound changes, and these were the true big story of the era. The period of transition from a pre-war federal government that was relatively invisible in everyday life to a strong post-war federal government, with broad new powers reaching into its citizens' lives, was extremely rocky. While these changes were underway, conditions would be ripe for the rise of all sorts of mechanisms, among them the lobby, to cope with unsettled times, and Sam Ward would succeed in Washington as he had never succeeded anywhere else before because of them.

This is not to suggest that these years were not corrupt. They were. There were venal politicians, rapacious robber barons, and wily lobbyists, contract-selling, vote-buying, and election-rigging aplenty. There was, however, little unique or new about post-war corruption except its scope and audacity. What was new was the public's awareness of corruption and a fear fanned by an increasingly powerful press that corruption threatened the Union for which hundreds of thousands had so recently died.

By the 1870s, as a serious depression deepened and despair over the future of the Union reached near-hysteria, everyone was looking for someone or something on which to pin the blame for this sorry situation. The lobby proved a perfect scapegoat. As is often the case, although a scapegoat bears the brunt of the blame, far more complex forces were actually at work, but in a post-war Washington that seemed to be crawling with lobbyists—one reporter did portray the lobby as "this dazzling reptile, this huge, scaly serpent...."—many Americans were certain that in the lobby they had found the culprit behind the nation's woes.3

By 1865, the term "lobbyist" had already been used in the United States for decades, rarely favorably, to describe those exercising their First Amendment right to petition the government. In the 1820s, "lobby-agent" was the term for favor-seekers crowding the lobby of the State capitol building in Albany, and, by the early 1830s, "lobbyists" were doing the same in Washington. In his 1874 tell-all book about the capital, Washington, Outside and Inside, reporter George Alfred Townsend explained the origin of the term: it derived, he wrote, from the lobbies outside the House and Senate chambers, the entrances to which were "guarded by doorkeepers who can generally be seduced by good treatment or a douceur to admit people to its privacy, and in this darkened corridor the lobbyists call out their members and make their solicitations."4

The first edition of the Dictionary of American Politics in 1892 included this definition of the lobby: "...a term applied collectively to men that make a business of corruptly influencing legislators. The individuals are called lobbyists. Their object is usually accomplished by means of money paid to the members, but any other means that is considered feasible is employed."5

And then there was Sam Ward, in a class by himself. Even while the popular press railed against the wickedness of the lobby in the 1870s and self-righteous politicians blamed the agents of special interests for the imminent downfall of democratic government, the outlines of a changing lobby, a lobby still recognizable today, were beginning to take shape. It was personified by this charming and disarming son of one of New York's most distinguished families, against whose well-cut suits no mud seemed to stick.

While it never entirely abandoned all of its old, crude, and sometimes still effective, methods, this emerging new lobby was more subtle, more focused on providing information than bribes, and more social. The latter was precisely Sam Ward's forte. No one was more social than he. One reporter dubbed him not only "The King of the Lobby" but "The Prince of good livers" as well. His Washington dinners, where he brought captains of industry, cabinet members, and congressmen together for "conversation and education," were legendary: "ambrosial nights," gushed one guest. When they produced the desired results for his clients and profits for his pocket, his methods did not go unnoticed by his colleagues, who began to crib pages from Sam's book.6

As a host, Sam Ward was as delightful as his dinners were delicious. He carefully salted the conversation at his table with stories from his highly variegated life. He was, claimed Vanity Fair, "The one man who knows everybody worth knowing, who has been everywhere worth going to, and has seen everything worth stepping aside to see." Henry Adams, who, while despising the lobby could appreciate this lobbyist, declared that Sam Ward "knew more of life than all the departments of the Government together, including the Senate and the Smithsonian." The son of one of New York's most respected bankers who won then lost not one, not two, but three fortunes; a man who, while on the State Department's payroll, entered into secret agreements with the President of Paraguay; a Northern Democrat who leaned toward the South but put his life on the line to reconnoiter for the Union and his Republican friends—Sam had a deep well of experiences from which to draw.7

By the time he testified in 1875, the press had been hailing Sam Ward as the "King of the Lobby" for several years. "Rex Vestiari," he called himself, and he earned his bread, as he tweaked his disapproving but devoted sister, Julia Ward Howe, "by the oil of my tongue."8 The circuitous story of how this California '49er/poet/secret agent landed in Washington, how the "King" earned his crown, how this son of wealth and privilege helped to change a questionable profession in a suspect city, is one of many stories of the Gilded Age.

Sam Ward was one of the most delightful guests at the Great Barbeque, an era crowded with larger-than-life personalities. His story mirrors a hurly-burly time when anything could happen to a charming, resourceful man with a well-oiled tongue, a trove of tales, and a dazzling sapphire ring.


1. Sam Ward (hereinafter SW) to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (hereinafter HWL), January 25, 1875, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Letters to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Houghton Library (hereinafter HWLL, Houghton), Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

2. John Forney, Anecdotes of Public Men (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1873), 394.

3. Emily Edson Briggs, The Olivia Letters (New York: The Neal Publishing Company, 1906), 91.

4. George Townsend, Washington, Outside and Inside (Cincinnati: James Betts & Co., 1874), 75.

5. Everit Brown and Albert Strauss, editors, The Dictionary of American Politics (New York: A. L. Burt, 1892), 315.

6. Vanity Fair, January 10, 1880.

7. Vanity Fair, January 10, 1880; Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: The Modern Library, 1931), (1918), 253.

8. SW to Julia Ward Howe (hereinafter JWH), March 6, 1860, Howe Family Papers, Houghton Library (hereinafter HFP, Houghton), Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

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