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Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him
Chapter XVIII - William F. Mccombs
by Tumulty, Joseph P.

The election being over, the President-elect proceeded with the selection of his Cabinet and with that end in view immediately began those conferences with his friends throughout the country in an effort to gather information upon which to base a final selection. All sorts of suggestions began to flow into the Executive offices at Trenton. Tentative slates were prepared for consideration, and the records and antecedents of the men whose names appeared on them, were subjected to a searching scrutiny. Every now and then during this period the President-elect would discuss with me the various candidates and ask me to investigate this or that phase of the character of certain men under consideration.

One day as we were leaving the Executive offices at Trenton, the Governor said: "Tumulty, you have read Gideon Wells's 'Diary of the Civil War', have you not?" I told him that some months before he had generously presented me with those three interesting volumes that contained a most accurate and comprehensive inside view of Mr. Lincoln's Cabinet. "Who," he said, "in Wells's discussion of the Lincoln Cabinet reminds you of William F. McCombs?" I replied that, in some respects, William A. Seward, Mr. Lincoln's Secretary of State. Not, of course, in the bigness of Seward's mind, for I was not attempting to make any comparison between the intellects of the two men, but in the effort of Seward to dominate Lincoln and thus creating jealousies in other members of the Cabinet that were the cause of continual embarrassment to Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Wilson turned to me and said: "You are absolutely right, and that is one reason why I have not seriously considered the claims of Mr. McCombs for a Cabinet post. I am sure that if I did put him in my Cabinet, I should find him interfering with the administration of the other departments in the same way that Seward sought to interfere, for instance, with the Treasury Department under Salmon P. Chase. McCombs is a man of fine intellect, but he is never satisfied unless he plays the stellar role, and I am afraid he cannot work in harness with other men and that I should never get any real team work from him. There is another serious objection to McCombs for a place in my Cabinet. A few days ago he boldly informed me that he desired to have the post of Attorney General. When I asked him why he preferred to be Attorney General, he informed me that, being a lawyer, the Attorney Generalship would help him professionally after his term of office expired. What a surprising statement for any man to make! Why, Tumulty, many of the scandals of previous administrations have come about in this way, Cabinet officers using their posts to advance their own personal fortunes. It must not be done in our administration. It would constitute a grave scandal to appoint such a man to so high an office."

It has often been charged by Mr. McCombs' friends that Mr. Wilson showed a lack of appreciation of his services and an utter disregard of the fine things McCombs did in his behalf. Those of us who were on the inside and witnessed the patience of Woodrow Wilson in handling this most difficult person know how untrue such statements are. I personally know that during the trying days preceding the election most of Mr. Wilson's time was given over to straightening out McCombs and attempting to satisfy his mind that neither Mr. McAdoo, Colonel House, nor any other friends of Mr. Wilson were seeking to unhorse him and to take his place in the candidate's affections. Never did any man show greater patience than did Woodrow Wilson in his attitude toward McCombs. The illness of McCombs during the campaign fed fuel to the fires of his naturally jealous disposition. He suspected everybody; trusted no one, and suspected that the President's friends were engaged in a conspiracy to destroy him. Of course, it is true that Mr. Wilson refused to give him the post of Attorney General which he greatly coveted, for reasons I have fully stated above; but at the very time when McCombs' friends were saying that the President had ignored him and failed to offer him any place in his administration, the President had already tendered McCombs his choice of two of the most important diplomatic posts at his disposal--the Ambassadorship to Germany and the Ambassadorship to France. An interesting incident in connection with the offer of the French post to McCombs and his acceptance of it is worth relating.

The President arrived in Washington on the third of March and went to the Shoreham Hotel. McCombs had already received Mr. Wilson's offer of the French Ambassadorship, and on the night of the third of March he concluded he would accept it. He sent a messenger to the Shoreham Hotel with his letter of acceptance. Before the arrival of McCombs' letter at the Shoreham the President had retired for the night, and the message was inserted under the door of his room. However, it seems that shortly after sending the message of acceptance McCombs changed his mind and sent a friend to the Shoreham to recover the letter, and at twelve o'clock at night I found him outside of the President's room on his knees, busily engaged in digging out McCombs' letter of acceptance from underneath the door.

From that time on, with every changing wind, McCombs would first accept and then reject the offer of the French post. By his vacillation he prevented the appointment of an Ambassador to France for four months. He had easy access to the President and saw him frequently. As he left the White House after calling on the President one day, Mr. Wilson showed sharp irritation and said to me: "If McCombs would only discuss somebody else for office save himself I would be more interested."

That the offer of the French post was made by the President and rejected by McCombs is evidenced by the following letter, addressed to the President by McCombs, under date of April 3, 1913:
96 Broadway & 6 Wall Street
New York

April 3, 1913.

My Dear Mr. President:

Since I saw you on Saturday, I have been making continuous efforts to dispose of my affairs so that I might accept your very flattering offer. I have been in touch with Tumulty from day to day to find out whether my delay was embarrassing you in any way, and he told me it was not.

Of course, I did not want to inconvenience you. As I have told you before, my difficulty in accepting the post has lain in the adjustments of my financial affairs here and in the forming of a connection which would continue, in some degree, my practice. The clientèle which any lawyer has is very largely personal to himself, and it is almost impossible to arrange that the affairs of such a clientèle be handled by others. This is the difficulty under which I have labored.

After intimations to my clients, I find my absence would, in their view, be prejudicial to their interests and that they would each seek separate counsel. This would mean my return to New York without any clientèle whatsoever and a new start. After the statement which you so kindly issued, it occurred to me that I might make an arrangement under which my affairs could be handled. I am convinced now that it is impossible, and that I must remain here to maintain myself. During the past two years I have been compelled to neglect my business to a very large extent, and I feel that it is absolutely essential for me to recoup. In view of the very great honor of the French post, I was quite willing to sacrifice almost anything. I now know that the sacrifice would be complete.

I was sorry to see in the New York papers of yesterday, under Washington date line, that I had accepted the embassy. It has placed me in a most embarrassing position, and has caused general comment of vacillation. I cannot imagine how the fact that I was re-considering became public. The press clippings I get in the matter are most annoying to me, and must be to you. I suppose the only thing to say in the matter is that my position is the same as it was when my statement was given out in Washington.

Let me again thank you very deeply for the great honor you have conferred upon me. I sincerely wish it were within my power to accept. It is such a thing as rarely comes in a man's lifetime.

Believe me as ever,
Always yours to command,

The White House,
Washington, D. C.

[Illustration: A letter from the man who could not make up his mind [Transcriber's note: the illustration contains a reproduction of the above-quoted letter.]]

Even after McCombs had declined the French post, as recited in the above letter to the President, he continued to vacillate, and addressed the following telegrams and cables to me in regard to the French Ambassadorship:

New York, April 4, 1913.

Washington, D. C.

Confidentially, expect to come tomorrow. Please suspend on matter until I see you.

W. F. M.

* * * * *

New York April 25, 1913.

Washington, D. C.

Confirm understanding that nothing be done for the present and nothing sent in.

W. F. M

* * * * *

Sagaponac, N. Y., May 3, 1913.
Radio S. S. Olympic.

White House,
Washington, D. C.

Will cable about time sending name in when I reach Paris in acceptance our understanding.

W. F. M.

* * * * *

Paris, Via French, May 13, 1913.

White House,

Have been ill, improving. Cable you Thursday in matter.

W. F. M.

* * * * *

Paris, June 1, 1913.


Some better. Operation doubtful. Question delayed a few days.

W. F. M.
Then came the following cable to the President from Col. E. M. House:
Paris, June 12, 1913.


Damon [code name for McCombs] requests me to say that after he sees present incumbent tomorrow he will cable you. He is much improved.


* * * * *

Paris, June 18, 1913.


Am sending conclusive message through usual channel so you get it tomorrow morning. This confirms message today which was incomplete. Hope everything will be o. k.


* * * * *

Paris, July 6, 1913.


Accept if no previous arrangement cable at once care Monroe Banquier Paris.


* * * * *

Paris, July 7, 1913.


Better wait a little or leave out for another strictly confidential.

By this last message McCombs meant that the President had better wait a little for him to make up his mind, or to select another for the French post, which the President refused to do.

The kindest explanation of Mr. McCombs' distorted and entirely untruthful story is that his sensitive mind had brooded so long on fancied injuries that he had come to believe that what he deposed was true. He was sensitive to a pathological degree, jealous, suspicious of everybody, and consumed with ambition to appear as the sole maker of President Wilson politically. He is dead, and it would have been pleasanter to keep silent about him. I should have remained silent had he not left his embittered manuscript in the hands of friends, with directions to publish it after his death, when those whom he attacks in its various chapters would feel a hesitancy about challenging his statements and attempting in any way to asperse his memory. That he was abnormal was known to all who came into intimate contact with him during the campaign and after. His suspicions and spites manifested themselves in ways so small that he would have been laughable had he not been pitiable. The simple fact is that both the nomination and the election of Governor Wilson were in spite of Mr. McCombs, not because of him. Mr. McCombs was ill during most of the campaign, which had to be directed by the assistant chairman, Mr. McAdoo, with all possible embarrassing interference from the chairman's sick room.

The full force of McCombs' petty spite, malice, and jealousy was expended upon Mr. William G. McAdoo of New York, who at the time had established a high reputation for his courage and intrepidity in building the famous Manhattan and Hudson tunnels. Mr. McAdoo, in the early days of Woodrow Wilson's candidacy, took his place at the fore-front of the Wilson forces. At the time of his espousal of the Wilson cause he was the only leader in the New York financial world ready and courageous enough to take up the cudgels for Mr. Wilson. His influence thrown to the Wilson side strengthened the Wilson cause in every part of the country. Every intimation that reached McCombs during the campaign that Mr. McAdoo, as vice-chairman of the National Committee, was engaged in doing this or that thing in connection with his duties as vice-chairman, was always calculated to stir anew the fires of envy and jealousy which seemed always burning in the breast of McCombs.

I was in close touch with Mr. Wilson and all the phases of his campaign at the time, and on several occasions was asked to act as mediator in the differences between Mr. McAdoo and Mr. McCombs, and I am, therefore, in a position calmly to analyze and assess the reasons for McCombs' implacable hatred of Mr. McAdoo. I found that the motives which actuated McCombs were of the pettiest and meanest sort. At their base lay the realization that Mr. McAdoo had, by his gallant and helpful support of Mr. Wilson, won his admiration and deep respect, and now everything must be done by McCombs and his friends to destroy Mr. McAdoo in the estimation of the Democratic candidate for the Presidency. In the efforts put forth by McCombs and his friends to destroy Mr. Wilson's high opinion of Mr. McAdoo every contemptible and underhanded method was resorted to. Mr. McAdoo reacted to these unfair attacks in the most kindly and magnanimous way. Never for a single moment did he allow the McCombs campaign against him to stand in the way of Woodrow Wilson's advancement to the Presidency.

During the whole time that Mr. McCombs was engaged in his vendetta, Mr. McAdoo was generous, gallant, big, and forgiving, even suggesting to the Democratic candidate, in my presence, that it might be wiser for him (McAdoo) to withdraw from the campaign, so that "things at headquarters might run easier and more smoothly." Mr. Wilson would not by any act of his permit the sniping methods of McCombs to be rewarded in the withdrawal of McAdoo from his campaign.

After the election and when it was certain that McAdoo was being seriously considered for the post of Secretary of the Treasury, McCombs' jealousy began to exert itself in the most venomous way. He tried to persuade Mr. Wilson that the selection of Mr. McAdoo for the post of Secretary of the Treasury would be too much a recognition of the Wall Street point of view, and would be considered a repudiation of McCombs' leadership in the National Committee.

The campaign of McCombs to prevent the nomination of Mr. McAdoo for a post in the Cabinet failed utterly. His poison brigade then gathered at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington on the day of the Inauguration and, attempting to reform their broken lines, now sought to prevent his confirmation at the hands of the Senate. Every agency of opposition that McCombs could invoke to accomplish this purpose was put into action, but like all his efforts against Mr. McAdoo they met with failure. Mr. McAdoo was confirmed and took his place as Secretary of the Treasury, where his constructive genius in matters of finance was soon brought into play, and under his magnificent leadership the foundation stones of the Federal Reserve system were laid, the fruitage of which is now being realized in every business throughout the country.

Frequent conferences were held at Princeton with reference to the selection of the President's Cabinet, and in these conferences Colonel House and I participated. At a luncheon at the Sterling Hotel at Trenton Mr. Bryan was offered the post of Secretary of State.

On the first of March the post of Secretary of War was still open. It had been offered to Mr. A. Mitchell Palmer of Pennsylvania and had been declined by him for an unusual reason. The President requested Mr. Palmer to meet him at Colonel House's apartment in New York. When the President tendered him the position of Secretary of War, Mr. Palmer frankly told the President that he was a Quaker and that the tenets of his religion prevented his acceptance of any position having to do with the conduct of war. The President tried to overcome these scruples, but his efforts were unavailing. The President then telephoned me and informed me of Palmer's declination and asked if I had any suggestion regarding the vacancy in his Cabinet. I told him that I was anxious to see a New Jersey man occupy a place at his Cabinet table, and we discussed the various possibilities over the 'phone, but without reaching any definite conclusion. I informed the President that I would suggest the name of someone within a few hours. I then went to the library in my home in New Jersey and in looking over the Lawyers' Diary I ran across the name of Lindley Garrison, who at the time was vice-chancellor of the state of New Jersey. Mr. Garrison was a resident of my home town and although I had only met him casually and had tried a few cases before him, he had made a deep impression upon me as a high type of equity judge.

I telephoned the President-elect that night and suggested the name of Lindley Garrison, whose reputation as a distinguished judge of the Chancery Court was known to the President-elect. He was invited to Trenton the next day and without having the slightest knowledge of the purpose of this summons, he arrived and was offered the post of Secretary of War in Mr. Wilson's Cabinet, which he accepted.


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