by Peter Bridges
The author, a retired career ambassador, over the years has carried out a number of studies of early American diplomats, those who predated the rise of a careerist structure in this profession. The subject presented here personifies the amateur diplomat of his day in the nineteenth century: he exercised political influence and showed qualities of energy and initiative, representing his country abroad ably, if but briefly.—Ed.
Donn Piatt was famous in the Gilded Age as an editor and writer who in articles, books, plays, and poetry attacked corruption in high places. He worked in many fields, including diplomacy, and maintained a lifelong interest in foreign affairs. His and his brother Abram’s twin chateaus, the Piatt Castles, still stand near West Liberty, Ohio, on land their lawyer father acquired in 1828, when Donn was not quite nine years old. Their parents named the place Mac-o-cheek, from a sub-nation of the Shawnees.
Young Piatt was educated in Cincinnati, then returned to Mac-o-cheek to read law under his father’s guidance. In 1840, as a young Democrat, Piatt started a fiery local newspaper that got him into fist-fights with local Whigs. In 1841, aged 22, he first visited Washington, and called on President John Tyler and other notables. Returning to Ohio, he practiced law in Cincinnati, and in 1847 married Louise Kirby, daughter of a Cincinnati businessman.
Piatt befriended a number of prominent Ohioans, including Salmon P. Chase, later Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, and Lincoln’s future Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. In 1852, aged thirty-three, Piatt became a Cincinnati judge. That year he campaigned around Ohio for Franklin Pierce, who won the White House that November.
Piatt wanted a reward: appointment as envoy to Portugal. He secured recommendations to the President from the governors of Ohio and Michigan, 57 members of the Ohio legislature, and several Ohio editors and Members of Congress.
The Lisbon job went to a New Yorker. Something had to be done for the Ohioan. Pierce decided to make Piatt secretary of legation at Paris. The United States then had no embassies or ambassadors; that was too high a level of diplomatic representation for a country eschewing foreign entanglement. American diplomatic posts were lower-ranking legations, headed by ministers. The minister at Paris was John Y. Mason, a Virginia Democrat who had been Secretary of the Navy and Attorney General. Piatt as secretary of legation would be Mason’s deputy.
In August 1853 Donn, Louise, and her younger sister Ella Kirby sailed to France. Donn received his commission only in April 1854, after Abram had reminded the President of his promise to his brother. Donn had spent his time writing for American newspapers and improving his French, while Louise, writing as “Bell Smith,” wrote sprightly pieces on Paris that appeared as a book, Bell Smith Abroad.
Minister Mason’s main contribution to American diplomacy was his meeting at Ostend in October 1854 with his counterparts from London, James Buchanan, and Madrid, Pierre Soulé, which produced the so-called Ostend Manifesto warning Spain that its misrule in Cuba might lead the United States to seize the island. The document reinforced Northern fears about Southern hopes—and there were such—of extending U.S. slaveholding territories into the Caribbean. Europeans saw it as a crude, not untypical example of American diplomacy.
Piatt wrote later in Harper’s that Ostend did nothing for Mason but helped Buchanan:
“Southern politicians saw in this man [Buchanan] a creature they could mold to their own traitorous purposes—even then clearly defined….The Minister who had unhesitatingly appended his signature…in the hope of such a reward as was eventually given him, occupied the Presidential chair in stolid indifference for four years; while, to his knowledge, the most active preparations were being made for the destruction of the government that had so honored him.”
Civil war came later. Meanwhile Piatt went to Washington with the ministers’ report on Ostend. He sailed from Liverpool to New York on the Baltic, the luxurious paddlewheel steamer of the Collins Line, delivered his dispatches to the State Department in Washington, and returned to Paris. Soon afterward Mason suffered the first of several strokes. For months Piatt ran the post as chargé d’affaires.
Mason finally returned to work in September 1855. Earlier, Piatt had respected Mason, who had recommended him for promotion. Piatt found Mason now aged and peevish, decided that he could no longer serve under him, and returned to America. Mason wrote his colleague in Turin, John Moncure Daniel, minister to the Kingdom of Sardinia, that Piatt had not even said goodbye; that he had left large debts; that he had degraded his position. Mason’s complaints were unjust. Piatt left Paris before the lease on his house expired, but thought the landlord did not mind; he made no farewell visit to Mason, but wrote him that he was leaving suddenly to catch a ship on which he had just been promised a stateroom. (Louise had already left.) He had asked a friend to forward any bills to him.
Piatt’s only known misconduct was to issue an American passport to an Italian republican revolutionary, Gaspare Belcredi. When in 1855 Belcredi was arrested by the Sardinian authorities for subversive activity, he showed a passport signed by Piatt in Paris, and was released. John Daniel heard of this and invited Belcredi to the Turin legation. The man hardly spoke English; was he really an American citizen? Daniel wrote Piatt, who confessed that “Belcredi (may he be hung) was I suppose a citizen of my creation.”
That was bad enough, but in London Minister Buchanan, former secretary of state and future President, did something of the same, signing a blank passport that ended up in the hands of another Italian revolutionary. Worse, Buchanan imprudently attended a dinner in London given by the American consul, George Sanders, that featured as guests almost every prominent European revolutionary from Herzen to Mazzini. If this had come out in public, it would have hurt American relations with the governments whose overturn was the goal of Sanders’ guests.
Among differences between Mason and his deputy was the fact that Mason was a Virginia slaveholder, while Piatt was strongly antislavery. Nor did Donn and Louise care for the wealthy American families in Paris who were Mason’s friends. These people’s greatest regret, Louise wrote, was that they could not buy themselves titles. For their part, the Piatts did much to help American residents and visitors in difficulty.
One of these was Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune. On a visit to Paris Greeley was arrested on the complaint of a sculptor whose work had not been returned after the recent New York world’s fair, of which Greeley was a director. Greeley got French bailiffs to take him to the American legation. Piatt came out and told the bailiffs heatedly that they must release Greeley; he would guarantee his appearance in court. Alas, Piatt wrote later,
“It was not wise to rush into that conflict without our diplomatic coat. Could we have added the cocked hat with national tail feathers of the American rooster, it would have been well. The French mind respects the diplomatic position, being a civilized, a polite nation, and finds in the clothes thereunto belonging conclusive evidence of mysterious powers. Now our diplomacy did not get beyond the legs…. We might have kicked a French official, but he in return, while respecting our diplomatic legs, could have punched our unofficial head.”
Greeley was taken to Clichy prison, where he was soon visited by the ailing Mason and then by Louise Piatt, bringing the editor’s wife and son. Greeley’s wife told him that Louise had come to her soon after Greeley’s arrest, to assure her she need not worry. Donn Piatt wrote that he had convinced Mason to intervene with the authorities for Greeley, although Mason’s initial reaction “…was graced with certain hard language, to the effect that said ‘Greeley was a black abolition son of a female dog,’ or words to that effect.”
The prisoner was released after a judge ruled he should not have been arrested in the first place. Greeley left for New York, and Piatt soon followed. The New York Times reported that Piatt planned a book on diplomacy that would describe how the American minister to France had sat, awkward and perspiring, for three hours at a state dinner without speaking or being spoken to. Piatt wrote Greeley to ask if the Tribune would report the sad state of affairs at the Paris legation. Greeley replied in a friendly letter, declining to do so lest it should appear that some blame should attach to Piatt. The amicable relationship between the two continued as time went on. Piatt’s book never appeared.
During Mason’s illness Piatt had engaged in additional representational activity, as interim head of the mission. He had paid out of his own pocket for his trip to Washington with the Ostend dispatches. Whether or not he had left bills unpaid in Paris, he was not wealthy then and it hurt him to expend thousands of dollars more than he earned. Two years later the U.S. Congress would reimburse him for some of this—and Piatt would see this, correctly, as justification of his conduct at Paris.
Piatt spent the next several years practicing law in Ohio. In 1856 he joined two other lawyers in Cincinnati in what Ohioans called “the Filibusters Case.” A filibuster then commonly meant not a long speech but a freebooter, who carried on unauthorized military action abroad. That famous filibuster William Walker had invaded Baja California three years earlier, hoping to set up a new republic in northwestern Mexico. Failing there, Walker invaded Nicaragua, and by the time of the Cincinnati trial had taken over the country. (Neither regime nor Walker lasted. He was executed in Honduras in 1860.)
Piatt and colleagues defended in Cincinnati a group of Irish-Americans who called themselves the Robert Emmet Branch of the Emigrant Aid Society. The Emigrant Aid Society brought Northern settlers into Kansas to produce an antislavery majority there. The Emmet branch—named after the Irish patriot who led an 1803 rising against the British—was secretly focused, the Government charged, not on Kansas but Ireland. They allegedly intended to violate the Neutrality Act by organizing an invasion of Ireland. Piatt was no doubt happy to take the case, as a democrat who opposed slavery and oppression—and had issued an American passport to a revolutionary. The strong prosecution team was headed by Tom Corwin, a former state governor. Piatt and his colleagues beat Corwin and secured the defendants’ discharge.
Like other antislavery Democrats, in 1856 Piatt joined the new Republican party. In 1860 he and his Ohio friend Robert C. Schenck, former Member of Congress and minister to Brazil, campaigned for Abraham Lincoln across Illinois. After Lincoln’s victory he invited the two men to dinner in Springfield. He would want an Ohioan in his Cabinet, and if the leading candidate, Salmon Chase, refused him Schenck and Piatt were possibilities. Piatt told Lincoln he foresaw war. Lincoln said he doubted there would be war; Southern politicians would never give up their stake in the Federal government.
Later in November the President-elect invited both Donn and Louise Piatt, and Robert Schenck, to travel with him to Chicago. Piatt thought Lincoln would invite Schenck to join his Cabinet; what was in store for him? Henry Villard of the New York Herald reported that Piatt “is hounding Lincoln, and trying to get a promise of something from him.”
In Chicago Piatt again told Lincoln that southerners planned war; that he doubted Lincoln would be inaugurated. Lincoln said the fall in pork prices at Cincinnati (hog capital of America) had affected Piatt. Piatt, irritated, said that soon the countryside would be white with army tents. Lincoln—perhaps irritated in turn—then said “Well, we won’t jump that ditch until we come to it….I must run the machine as I find it.”
Lincoln received an anonymous letter saying that Piatt was boasting he would be made minister to France, and that “Nothing could bring your administration into greater contempt here than your appointing such a man to office.” Lincoln brought into his Cabinet Piatt’s friends Chase and (later) Stanton, but gave no post to Piatt.
War began, as Piatt predicted, in the spring of 1861. Piatt enlisted as a private, but soon accepted an invitation from Robert Schenck, a new brigadier general, to become his chief of staff. Piatt proved himself at the first battle of Bull Run, standing firm and trying to stop Union troops fleeing the field. Rutherford B. Hayes, a major in Schenck’s brigade and future President of the United States, wrote home afterward that his friend Donn Piatt always had something funny to say. Piatt told Hayes that when shells were whistling around them he had tried to remember his prayers but could only recall “Oh Lord, for these and all thy other mercies, we desire to be thankful.”
In 1863 General Schenck commanded the Middle Department at Baltimore, with Piatt still his deputy. Maryland remained a slave state, although slavery had been abolished in Washington and the Emancipation Proclamation had proclaimed the end of slavery in rebel states. When an order came to recruit black Marylanders for the Union army, Piatt waited until Schenck left on a trip and then ordered that only slaves should be recruited. Slaves fled their owners to enlist.
Piatt wrote years later that he had been ordered to Washington, to meet with an enraged President. Lincoln’s aim was to save the Union, with or without slavery. Maryland’s loyalty was uncertain; the step Piatt had taken was worrisome. Lincoln refused to approve Piatt’s promotion to general, recommended by loyal Marylanders and the governor of Delaware. Piatt resigned his commission in 1864 and returned to Mac-o-cheek. Louise, his beloved wife, passed away that autumn.
After the war Piatt married Louise’s younger sister, Ella, who had lived with them in Paris. In 1868 the Piatts moved to Washington, where he became the correspondent of the Cincinnati Commercial, the top newspaper west of the Alleghenies.
Piatt’s interest in foreign affairs continued. One day he called on Secretary of State Hamilton Fish together with his friend James A. Garfield, Ohio Congressman and future President, to ask Fish about relations with Canada. There were reports that Canadians might sever their ties to Britain; that some Canadian provinces might join the United States.
Fish told his visitors that the reports were accurate and Britain might not oppose either U.S. annexation or Canadian independence. Piatt did not question the accuracy of Fish’s information, but told Fish that Midwestern states preferred freer trade to annexation. It soon became clear that Fish was not well informed; most Canadians did not want the neighboring republic to absorb them. Nevertheless, Piatt wrote later, as Canada’s West became more populated “the peculiar conformation of the country, with a possible breadth suitable for cultivation of only a hundred miles, will inevitably in time bring about its amalgamation with…the United States…they will be then compelled to seek absorption into our Union as the only means of affording them markets for their industry.” A North American Free Trade Agreement was then inconceivable.
In March 1871 Piatt founded a new Washington weekly, The Capital, together with George Alfred Townsend, famous for his coverage of the Civil War and the Austro-Prussian war of 1866. Townsend soon left for California, and The Capital was Piatt’s alone.
For the next six years, while Ulysses S. Grant remained President, Piatt’s paper attacked Grant and his administration. Grant, he said, had been the general who at Shiloh could expose his camp to horrible butchery while he remained drinking on a gunboat ten miles away. (Piatt did not invent the story that Grant was drunk at Shiloh. There seems little doubt that Grant drank heavily at times—but not at Shiloh.) Piatt found Grant a greater disaster as President than as general. His view was shared by many thinking Americans. Henry Adams wrote that “Grant’s administration outraged every rule of ordinary decency, but scores of promising men…were ruined in saying so.”
Piatt said so, and was not ruined. He called Grant “His Inebriated Excellency,” and claimed that the President could not be held responsible for scandals in his administration, because he was drunk. The scandals included the bribery of Vice President Schuyler Colfax and Secretary of War William W. Belknap in separate schemes, and the enlistment of Grant’s brother-in-law, Abel Corbin, by speculators Jim Fisk and Jay Gould in their attempt to corner the gold market.
If Piatt was not ruined, he was threatened. Grant’s son Frederick and brother-in-law James J. Casey barged into Piatt’s home in Washington, armed with heavy sticks. Piatt, away from home at the time, wrote in The Capital that it was “not customary in civilized communities to call one to a personal account in the presence of his family;” he would be happy to meet any aggrieved person at his office. The following year former Senator Zachariah Chandler, whom Piatt ridiculed as a drunk, stormed into another newspaper’s office, armed and looking for “Dion Pott,” but was talked into returning home. An editor wrote that notoriety made Piatt the best-known man in Washington after President Grant and another war hero, General William Tecumseh Sherman, whom Piatt despised.
Dissatisfaction with Grant reached the point that leading Democrats and Republicans, including Piatt, met in Cincinnati in May 1872 at a “Liberal Republican Convention.” The Convention resulted in Democrats nominating Horace Greeley to run against Grant in 1872. Some mocked Greeley as a candidate, but Piatt—who did not think Greeley would be an ideal President—defended him as far better than Grant. Greeley went down to defeat and soon died.
Piatt continued his dislike for America’s nouveaux riches. Louise Piatt had written of Americans who wished they could buy a title. For one such gentleman the dream came true: William Waldorf Astor, former ambassador to italy, moved to England and was rewarded with a barony for his largesse. Other rich Americans married off daughters to European nobles. Piatt reported in August 1874 that “One of those animated money chests…has lately sold his daughter to a nobleman….He answers…to the name of Jerome, and handicaps the poor girl with an immense fortune, that, in case of her death without issue, is to be the property of the noble purchaser.”
The father was Leonard Jerome, known as the King of Wall Street. His daughter Jennie had married Lord Randolph Churchill. She did not die without issue; that November she gave birth to a child whom the parents named Winston Spencer Churchill.
In 1875 Piatt traveled to Europe, sending home humorous contributions to his paper. He returned from Liverpool on the steamer Celtic, sharing a cabin with a gentleman named Keith whose cabin luggage included inconveniently large boxes. The boxes contained explosives. Keith intended to debark in Ireland, having set fuses to explode his boxes and destroy the ship after it sailed out into the Atlantic. The captain decided not to call at Queenstown, and Keith defused his devices as they sailed west. The Celtic, with Piatt and others unaware of Keith’s failed plan, reached New York safely.
President Grant took legal action against Piatt in early 1877, when Grant’s second term was ending. In the Presidential election the previous November, Piatt’s old comrade from Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes, had lost out to his Democratic opponent, Samuel J. Tilden, in both the popular and the electoral vote. Twenty electoral votes however remained in dispute in three Southern states and Oregon. An Electoral Commission awarded all to Hayes, giving him victory by one vote.
Piatt saw Hayes’ victory as corruption of the electoral process, and wrote an inflammatory editorial:
“…[I]f the people tamely submit we may bid a long farewell to constitutional government….If a man thus returned to power can ride in safety from the executive mansion to the Capitol to be inaugurated, we are fitted for the slavery that will follow the inauguration.”
Grant saw this as a call to assassinate Hayes. He had Piatt arrested for inciting rebellion and riot. Piatt, soon released on bond, insisted he had called only for popular resistance—whatever that might mean. After Hayes was, without incident, inaugurated in March 1877, he dropped the charges against Piatt. Soon Piatt was writing favorably of the new President, saying Hayes’ policies should have a fair trial. Hayes invited Piatt to his silver wedding anniversary; later Piatt asked the President for patronage favors and invited him to Mac-o-cheek.
Early in the Hayes administration Piatt helped improve relations with Mexico. Porfirio Diaz had appointed himself Mexico’s president in 1876. There were problems between the two countries, not least Mexican rustlers who, Congressional investigators claimed, had reduced American cattle herds by two-thirds and cost cattlemen nearly $28 million.
Diaz sent José María de Zamacona, who knew the United States well, as his envoy to Washington to seek formal recognition of his government, which the United States had not agreed to. The Mexicans also hired lobbyists, including Caleb Cushing, recent minister to Spain, and an Englishman named William Pritchard whom the American envoy in Mexico called “an unprincipled scamp.” The Mexicans paid Cushing $2,000 to lobby the Congress but he accomplished little. Pritchard, on the other hand, got Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun, to write pro-Mexican editorials.
Piatt at some point met Zamacona, who complained to him that “I am received in no gentleman’s house. I am here in a false position, without a place in respectable society. Senator Matthews, who lives across the street from my house, has never called upon me.” This seems disingenuous; Zamacona might more properly have offered to call on Matthews—Stanley Matthews, a good friend of Donn Piatt from Ohio.
Piatt got Matthews to call on Zamacona. Later, a friend of Piatt ran into Henry Banning—who was both Piatt’s brother-in-law and chairman of the military committee of the House of Representatives. Banning feared the Hayes administration was bent on war with Mexico. The friend told him he should talk with Piatt. Subsequently Banning, Zamacona, and Piatt had dinner, and Zamacona reported to Mexico City that Banning was responsive to Mexican interests and had even invited him to appear before his committee. Both Houses of Congress pushed for normalization of relations, and in March 1878 Washington extended formal recognition to Diaz. Soon American capital flowed into Mexico. The Santa Fe and the Denver & Rio Grande railroads were granted concessions to build lines from the U.S. border to Mexico City; former President Grant accepted an offer to become president of a line (never built) to run south from Mexico City toward Guatemala.
In 1880 Piatt retired to his new chateau at Mac-o-cheek, but kept on writing and politicking. In 1888 he went to New York as editor of Belford’s Magazine. When Robert Schenck died Piatt paid him tribute in Belford’s as a man who, “crowded out” of Lincoln’s Cabinet, had enjoyed a brilliant career in the army and in politics. Perhaps — but after the war, when Schenck served under Grant as minister to the United Kingdom, he had become enmeshed in scandal.
Soon after Schenck reached London, the British press attacked the envoy for allowing his name to appear as director of a Utah mining company trying to sell shares in Britain. At the request of Secretary of State Fish, Schenck resigned his directorship, but then publicly endorsed the mine—whose shares were soon worthless. Fish let him stay on in London. Later a Congressional investigation found he had disposed of his company holdings at a high price. Schenck returned to the United States in disgrace.
Although Piatt never criticized his old chief, he said his mind on the overall quality of American diplomats in an 1890 article for the American Press Association:
“…The so-called diplomatic agents sent abroad are really nothing but clerks….We reserve these places as rewards for political services, and the men selected are not only ignorant of the European diplomacy, but the history and nature of their own government. They cannot speak the diplomatic language; they generally cannot speak their own correctly….”
Donn Piatt died, aged 72, at Mac-o-cheek in November 1891. Little has been said of him in recent decades. We do well today, however, to take a new look at Piatt, a national gadfly in the Gilded Age and, not least, a diplomat and patriot.
The Piatt Castles, outside West Liberty, Ohio, are open to the public most of the year. For information telephone (937) 465-2821 or consult www.piattcastles.org .
Ambassador Bridges, a U. S. Foreign Service officer from 1957 to 1986, received assignments abroad at Panama, Moscow, Prague, and Rome, in addition to a posting as U. S. envoy to Somalia.