In one of America’s first congressional sex scandals, a brave woman nervously publicized the open secret about “The Godlike” Sen. Daniel Webster’s sexual promiscuity—and, surprise!—got fired.
It was spring, 1850, and America was unraveling. Political arguments degenerated into personal insults, then escalated into permanent ruptures. The polarized country seemed to be suffering a nervous breakdown under a thin-skinned, aging, amateur president who had never held political office before and had never even voted for president before voting for himself.
Zachary Taylor’s America was splintering over slavery—with Jane Swisshelm’s help. As Congress debated what ultimately became the Compromise of 1850, this outspoken abolitionist journalist felt betrayed by the former secretary of State, perennial presidential hopeful, and magnificent orator, Massachusetts’ Sen. Daniel Webster. Disgusted by this Northern icon’s surrender to the Southern Slave Power, “sniffing” a “moral stench,” Swisshelm decided to publicize some hot gossip Washingtonians took as gospel.
Word had it, she later explained, using an epithet now thankfully retired, that in the capital lived a “family of eight mulattoes, bearing the image and superscription of the great New England statesman, who paid the rent and grocery bills of their mother.” Indeed, simmering below Victorian America’s odes to virtue, many men did nasty things. The Southern politician James Hammond, himself a respectable-seeming sinner, confided to his diary that “the very greatest men that have lived have been addicted to loose indulgences with women. It is the besetting sin of the strong, and of the weak also.”
For Swisshelm and other abolitionists, the issue ran deeper than Webster’s hypocrisy. Born in Pittsburgh in 1815, in 1838 she had followed her husband of two years to Louisville, Kentucky. She recognized the sexual violence underlying the “habitations of horrid cruelty” she now witnessed daily. She watched idle, churchgoing men, “the advance guard of a great army of woman-whippers,” living off “selling their own children.” She felt the pain of mothers mourning children who were torn from them, then beaten for mourning.
Swisshelm’s awakening came when she attended the trial of Martha, an elderly slave whose bejeweled mistress—“a leading member of the Fourth St. M.E. Church”—complained about the emotional and financial suffering she endured because her ailing slave “refused to work.” Seeing Martha punished for being sick was a “cruelty perfectly incomprehensible in its unconscious debasement.” Swisshelm recalled: “I promised the Lord then and there, that for life, it should be my work to bring ‘deliverance to the captive, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.’”
Over the years, including in 1850 as she weighed exposing Webster, Swisshelm would remember that Kentucky trauma as “my Red Sea.” Again and again, she soldiered on, thinking “Duty lies on the other side, and I am going over.” Remembering Martha emboldened Swisshelm in 1848 to go independent, founding the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter—misspelling intended—and risk scandal by working in the offices of a “handsome” married man. But, she reasoned, “I have been publicly asserting the right of woman to earn a living as book-keepers, clerks, sales-women, and now shall I shrink for fear of a danger any one must meet in doing as I advised? … The crimson waves of scandal, the white foam of gossip, shall part before me and heap themselves up as walls on either hand.”
Remembering Martha earned Swisshelm a treasured position writing Washington dispatches for Horace Greeley’s prestigious New York Tribune. In DC, by lobbying Vice President Millard Fillmore, she became the first woman reporter ever allowed in the Senate press gallery.
That Call to Duty would embolden her after 20 years to leave her dictatorial husband, and eventually initiate a lawsuit that helped set the legal precedent enabling women to keep their inheritances, even if they were married.
And that compulsion to lead the American people to “the other side,” would keep her focused seven years later, in 1857, when a pro-slavery mob trashed her new printing press in St. Cloud, Minnesota. When she confronted her assailants in a public meeting, she hired a gunslinger, Miles Brown. Courageous but not naïve, she ordered Brown to “shoot me square through the brain, if there was no other way of preventing me falling alive into the hands of the mob.” In fact, Swisshelm prevailed, besting the thugs. She recalled, “when I stepped from the platform, I was overwhelmed with congratulations, and more astonished than any one, to learn that I could speak in public.”
Nevertheless, Webster—and his devotees—intimidated Swisshelm. She knew she was risking everything by breaking the gentlemen’s agreement preventing political journalists from probing public figures’ private lives. “I hesitated,” she later confessed in words that sound familiar. “I was gratified by my position on the Tribune—the social distinction it gave me and courtesy which had been shown me… I dreaded changing popularity for public denunciation.”
First, Swisshelm double-checked with three journalists. They “assured me of the truth of what had been told me, but advised me to keep quiet, as other people had done.” Next, she consulted abolitionist allies, including Anne and George Washington Julian. They, too, confirmed the rumors but discouraged publication, fearing the “influence” she would “lose” in advancing their anti-slavery cause.
“You have no idea what his friends would say, what they would do.” Anne Julian, whose husband would soon help found the Republican party, warned. “They would ruin you.”
Swisshelm “thought a moment,” then declared: “I will publish it, and let God take care of the consequences.”
“Good!” Anne Julian cried. “I would if I were in your place.”
Remembering that the “prestige of his great name and the power of his great intellect were turned over to slavery,” she realized that “All the objections were for fear of the consequences to me.” With palms sweating and heart pounding, she published the controversial item.
Buckle your seatbelts: It was 1850. This feminist abolitionist used sexist and racist language in attacking “Black Dan.” Swisshelm wrote: “nearly everyone knows that [Webster] sometimes drinks to excess… His mistresses are generally, if not always, colored women—some of them big black wenches as ugly and vulgar as himself.”
Indeed, Jane Swisshelm was condemned widely—yet quoted just as widely. “I have never seen, in the history of the press, such widespread abuse of any one person as that with which I was favored,” she wrote; “but, by a strange fatality, the paragraph was copied and copied.”
Greeley fired her—although he continued publishing her as a freelancer. She lost her access to the Capitol press gallery—and stopped reporting from Washington.
Ultimately, however, Swisshelm was vindicated. Webster never challenged the accusation as libel—and it became popularly believed. The Lowell American, publishing in the heart of New England, navigated around the charges of infidelity and miscegenation. “We have never heard before that Mr. Webster’s ‘mistresses’ were ‘colored women,’” it editorialized. “But the fact that he has ‘mistresses’ of some color is, we suppose, as notorious as any other fact concerning him.” Most biographers find Webster guilty of multiple infidelities—but believe him innocent of that particular indiscretion.
When Webster lost the presidential nomination in 1852, wags asked: “Why is Daniel Webster like Sisera,” the Biblical general Yael impaled: “Because he was killed by a woman.” When Swisshelm attended the national convention forming the Free Democratic party, the chairman, descended from the podium and introduced himself, saying: “I want to take the hand that killed Daniel Webster.” In truth, the scandal was one of many reasons Webster joined Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun as the “Great Triumvirate” of the Senate, none of whom made it to the White House.
Still, the bedeviled Daniel Webster discovered what others who crossed Swisshelm professionally and personally realized in equally painful ways: this woman wouldn’t tolerate slavery apologists or misogynists.
Swisshelm’s feminism evolved more gradually than her abolitionism. It swelled during her unhappy 20-year marriage to James Swisshelm. Beyond their particular clashes, beyond the way he drained, then tried seizing, her inheritance, the assault on her privacy enraged Swisshelm. Understanding that her husband legally controlled everything she wrote, she regularly destroyed her diaries and letters.
And risking scandal daily by working in an office beside a married man, she improvised some sartorial armor. Once, her officemate asked: “Why do you wear those hideous caps? You seem to have good hair… why you do make yourself such a fright?” Swisshelm claimed she wore her “net scarf tied under the chin” to “protect my tonsils.”
Actually, she was protecting her reputation—and integrity. She didn’t want men’s attention. She wanted “votes! votes!! Votes for the women sold on the auction block, scourged for chastity, robbed of their children.” Praising the Catholic Church for wrapping up its nuns., she proclaimed: “When a woman starts out in the world on a mission, secular or religious, she should leave her feminine charms at home.” She knew she was pioneering for others. “Had I made capital of my prettiness,” she observed, “I should have closed the doors of public employment to women for many a year, by the very means which now makes them weak, underpaid competitors in the great workshop of the world.”
Possessing the crusader’s virtues and vices, Swisshelm’s severity often alienated allies. But she usually was on the right side of history, During the Civil War, she moved to Washington to become one of the first female clerks working in the Quartermaster’s office. In her spare time, she nursed wounded soldiers languishing in nearby field hospitals—arguing ferociously for more supplies. When she resumed her journalistic career, she lost that government job by criticizing Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson too harshly, for treating Southern rebels too leniently.
Swisshlem’s parting gift to America was writing up her remarkable life in Half a Century. Published in 1880, the memoir reminded Americans about the Union’s righteousness and women’s daily struggles. Ultimately, Swisshelm celebrated “the mutability of human character.” She kept breaking out of her shell—to help free America from some of its ruts.
This acerbic critic remained bullish on America. Amid the Civil War’s carnage, she recognized that “Our Government and people were very imperfect, but had developed a sublime patriotism”—that could make “almost miraculous growth in good.” Today, those who live in Pittsburgh’s Swisshelm neighborhood named after her, along with their fellow Americans, should be sobered. Racism and sexism persist. Nevertheless, seeing just how much “miraculous growth in good” has occurred should also inspire—and reassure.
FOR FURTHER READING
Jane Grey Swisshelm, Arthur J. Larsen, Crusader and Feminist: Letters of Jane Grey Swisshelm 1858-1865, 2010.
Jane Grey Swisshelm, Half a Century, 1880; reprint, New York: Sourcebook, 1970.
Sylvia D. Hoffert, Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life, 1815-1884, 2004.
Sylvia D. Hoffert, “Jane Grey Swisshelm, Elizabeth Keckley, and the Significance of Race Consciousness in American Women’s History,” Journal of Women’s History, 2001.