Mary Clemmer Ames and “Ten Years in Washington”

March being “Women’s History Month,” it seems appropriate to say a little something about a woman whose name is more than likely unknown to most present-day Americans. She wasn’t a leader in the abolitionist movement or a suffragist. She gained no fame as an advocate of temperance. She was, though, a lifelong resident of the District of Columbia, and chronicled the Washington scene from the 1860s into the early 1880s.

Her name was Mary Clemmer Ames (1839-1884) and her book Ten Years in Washington, first published in 1874, is an engaging account of the notable buildings and agencies centered in the nation’s capital, and the people whose activities breathed life into them. Her descriptions of the many individuals, male and female, prominent and not, who set the social standards of the political class, or who did the everyday work of the federal bureaucracy, are intelligent, sympathetic, at times witty, and fully human portrayals.


Mary Clemmer Ames, author of Ten Years in Washington.  (Frontspiece of the book Ten Years in Washington.)

This post will pay most attention to the commentary of Mrs. Clemmer that particularly illustrated the role of women of “Gilded Age” Washington. However, as James A. Garfield is inevitably the subject in some way of what you read on this page, what Mary Clemmer had to say about him will not be neglected.

Ten Years in Washington covers a wide variety of topics. There is a historical treatment of the designation of ten square miles of land given by the states of Maryland and Virginia for the establishment of the District. Mrs. Clemmer goes into great descriptive detail about the Capitol building, “the President’s House,” the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. The inner workings of the U.S. Treasury, the Post Office and the Patent Office and other agencies are a prime focus of her writing. The State Department, the Army, the Navy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Interior Department all came into view.

Mrs. Ames had something to say about every mistress of the White House, whether she was the President’s wife or daughter (there is a highly complimentary portrayal of Martha Patterson, daughter of Andrew Johnson). Her portrayal of Sarah Polk includes the following:


Sarah Knox Polk, First Lady of the United States from 1845-49.  (Wikipedia)

Mrs. Polk, intellectually, was one of the most marked

women who ever presided in the White House. A lady of

the old school… her attainments were more than ordinary…

Never a politician, in a day when politics… were forbidden

grounds to women, she no less was thoroughly conversant

with all public affairs…

She was her husband’s private secretary, and, probably,

was the only lady of the White House who ever filled that

office. She took charge of his papers, he trusting entirely to

her memory and method for their safe keeping… [and when

needed] it was Sarah’s ever ready hand that laid it before his


Conjured by Mrs. Clemmer’s pen, Mrs. Grant, the then-current First Lady, was a worthy object of the respect and admiration of that generation of Americans.

First Lady Julia Dent Grant in the White House

Julia Dent Grant, First Lady of the United States, 1869-77.  (Wikipedia)

Mrs. Grant’s morning receptions are very popular, and

deservedly so. This is not because the lady is in any sense

a good conversationalist, or has a fine tact in receiving, but

rather, I think, because she is thoroughly good-natured, and

for the time, at least, makes other people feel the same. At

any rate, there was never so little formality or so much

genuine sociability in the day-receptions at the White House

as at the present time.

Ten Years in Washington is full of interesting facts and anecdotes. Many of these illustrate the contributions and the plight of female federal workers. Here, in her chapters on the Treasury Department, Mrs. Ames lauds the ability of the women who performed their work so well:

“After the great Chicago fire in 1871, cases of money to the value of one hundred and sixty-four thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-seven dollars and ninety-eight cents, were sent to the United States Treasury for identification… All these charred     treasures were placed in the hands of a committee of six ladies… What patience, practice, skill, were indispensable to the fulfillment of this task, it is not difficult to conjecture… After unpacking the money… the ladies separated each small piece with   thin knives made for the purpose, then laying the blackened fragments on sheets of blotting paper, they decided by close scrutiny, the value, genuineness, and nature of the note.  Magnifying glasses were provided, but seldom used…’”

Mrs. Ames identified the members of this committee of six as Mrs. M. J. Patterson, Miss Pearl, Mrs. Davis, Miss Shriner, Miss Wright, and Miss Powers. “The most noted case [Mrs. Patterson] ever worked on was that of the paymaster’s trunk,” that sank with the Robert Carter, in the Mississippi River.


Martha Patterson, daughter of President Andrew Johnson.  (Andrew Johnson National Monument, National Park Service.)

“After lying three years in the bottom of the river, the steamer was raised, and the money, soaked, rotten and obliterated, given to Mrs. Patterson for identification. She saved one hundred and eighty-five thousand out of two hundred thousand   dollars, and the express company, which was responsible for the original amount, presented her with five hundred dollars, as a recognition of her services.”


Female workers at the U.S. Treasury Department during the period Mary Clemmer Ames describes in Ten Years in Washington.

And yet, the familiar refrain best summed up in the old adage, “The more things change, the more they remain the same,” was as pertinent in the distant 1870s as it it today.

Of the forty-five ladies in the Internal Revenue Bureau,

there is but one, and she is fifty years of age, who has not

more than herself to support on the pittance which she is

paid. Nevertheless, whenever a spasmodic cry of

‘retrenchment’ is raised, three women are always dismissed

from office, to one man, although the men greatly out-

number the women, to say nothing of their being so much

more expensive.

Today’s crusaders for “equal rights for equal pay” have soul mates going back 140 years and more. There are connections between we, the living, and past generations of Americans. History is not bunk. The past is not entirely past. It is not dead.

For many years Mary Clemmer authored a column called, “A Woman’s Letter from Washington.” This journalistic exploit for the New York Independent encouraged her passion for description, and her interest in the common man and woman. Her delight in limning the social elite sprang from that same reportorial flare.


James A. Garfield, from an engraving in Ten Years in Washington by Mary Clemmer Ames.  (Ten Years in Washington)

It then comes as no surprise that in the March 27, 1879 issue of that column she presented a word portrait of Congressman James Garfield that mixed reservation with admiration:

“In mental capacity, in fine, wide, intellectual culture, no Republican for the last decade has equaled, much less surpassed him… Were it possible to honor his moral purity as one must his intellectual acumen, he would  be as grand in personal and political strength, that no whim of man, no passion of the hour, no mutation of party could depress, much less overthrow.”

A month later, Garfield learned of the column’s complex account of his character through a letter from a Boston, Massachusetts correspondent, Jeremiah Chaplin. According to Garfield’s diary entry for April 27, 1879, Chaplin quoted the column, which “criticizes me in a vague, unjust, and indefinite way.” Calling on Mrs. Ames a few days later, he left [Chaplin’s] letter “for her to read at leisure and to let me know what she meant by her language. She asked me to call on Wednesday evening to see her about it. I am curious to know what she will say.”

Two days later, Garfield called on Mrs. Clemmer at seven o’clock in the evening. “I had a strong conversation with her on the subject,” he wrote afterward. Did she remind him of the marital infidelities of which he had been accused some years earlier? Did he refute these as unjust? Did he invoke the current state of his relationship with his wife as his defense? Alas, the content of that conversation is not known.

What is known is that in 1882, the year after President Garfield’s assassination, a new edition of Ten Years in Washington appeared. It now featured, “A Full and Authentic History of the Life and Death of President James A. Garfield.”


Title page of the 1882 edition of Ten Years in Washington, featuring “A Full and Authentic History of the Life and Death of President James A. Garfield.”  (Ten Years in Washington, Hartford Publishing Co., 1882).

Was the inclusion of the Garfield biography intended as a well-deserved homage to the late president whose character the author had once questioned, or, (more cynically) was it designed to boost new sales of the original book?

The biography includes passages on First Lady Lucretia Garfield, who, returning from her own convalescence at Long Branch, New Jersey

bravely took her place by her husband’s side, and

comforted and cheered him during his long and weary

fight for life. How grandly she rose to the occasion,

how tenderly she endured the weary weeks, always

wearing a cheerful face, while her heart was breaking

with its cruel load, the whole world knows. Her heroic

devotion to her husband grandly typified the loyal and

self-sacrificing spirit of wifehood, which finds no more

conspicuous illustration than in our American homes…


Lucretia Rudolph Garfield, First Lady of the United States, March 4-September 19, 1881.  (Library of Congress)

Cognizant of all that had occurred between 1879 and 1882, driven perhaps by the changed perspective that death brings, Mrs. Ames concluded in 1882 that, “President Garfield was large-framed, large-brained, and large-hearted.”

He was six feet tall in height and was a splendid picture

of a man. His personal character and habits were clean  and

pure, and his home life at Mentor or Washington as

simply delightful. … In a word, James A. Garfield was a

man physically, intellectually, and morally who was an

honor to his country and … no more imperishable name

will ever adorn our country’s annals.

It was not long after this writing that Mary Clemmer herself died at the age of 45, only a year after her 1883 marriage to Edmund Hudson, editor of the Army and Navy Register. Her earlier marriage to Daniel Ames ended in divorce in 1874, the same year in which Ten Years in Washington was first published.

Death came early to Mary Clemmer Ames Hudson, but she has left behind a wonderful chronicle of Gilded Age Washington.


-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

Why We Laugh

Good friends and casual visitors often remarked about James Garfield’s passion for books and their contents. A visitor to the Congressman’s home on I Street in Washington, D.C.:

“The books… overflowed the library. And undoubtedly the overflow has been regular, as you can go nowhere in the general’s home without coming face to face with books. They confront you in the hall when you enter, in the parlor and the sitting room, in the dining-room and even in the bath-room, where documents and speeches are corded up like firewood.” (quoted in Leech & Brown, The Garfield Orbit, p.182-183)

Garfield’s life-long friend Burke Hinsdale described his reading habits:

“In his later years, he read everywhere—on the cars, in the omnibus, and after retiring at night. If he was leaving Washington for a few days, and had nothing requiring immediate attention on hand, he would go to the great Library of Congress and say to the librarian, ‘Mr. Spofford, give me something that I don’t know anything about.’ A stray book coming to him in this way would often lead to a special study of the subject.” (quoted in TC Smith, James Abram Garfield, Life and Letters, p. 747)

And in the spring of 1881:

Visitors noticed that the White House now seemed filled with books: “Everywhere—in every nook and corner,” a reporter wrote. “A case in the parlor contains editions of Waverly [sic—referring to the Waverly novels by Sir Walter Scott.] and Dickens,” along with “French history in the original, old English poets and dramatists richly bound in black and gold” in the hallways and dining room. (Kenneth D. Ackerman, Dark Horse, p. 322)

Now, all those books (except, we hope, for the ones borrowed from the “Congressional Library” as Garfield called it) fill the shelves of the President’s home in Mentor, Ohio. The Waverly novels are in the parlor, Dickens is in the boys’ room. About half of the books are in the Memorial Library—an eclectic collection that includes law, religion and philosophy, political history and biography, poetry, and interesting titles like Hygiene of the Brain, Mizpah, and Natural Laws of Husbandry. On a low shelf in a corner hides Why We Laugh, by S. S. Cox.

Samuel S. Cox, Congressman from both Ohio and New York during his career, presented this copy of his book "Why We Laugh" to his House of Representatives colleague James A. Garfield in 1876.  It is now on the shelves of the Memorial Library in the Garfield home here at James A. Garfield National Historic Site. (National Park Service)

Samuel S. Cox, Congressman from both Ohio and New York during his career, presented this copy of his book “Why We Laugh” to his House of Representatives colleague James A. Garfield in 1876. It is now on the shelves of the Memorial Library in the Garfield home at James A. Garfield National Historic Site. (National Park Service)

Samuel S. Cox was born in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1824; practiced law in Cincinnati; edited the Ohio Statesman in Columbus; and served as a Democratic Member of Congress from the Columbus area for four terms, from 1857 to 1865. Outspokenly opposed to the Civil War, and to President Lincoln, Cox’s political fortunes in Ohio waned, and he moved to New York. Democrats in New York elected him to Congress in 1868, and he served there until 1883. So, Cox served alongside James Garfield in the House of Representatives for fourteen years. On March 29, 1876, Mr. Cox presented Gen. J.A. Garfield with a copy of Why We Laugh.

Perhaps to impress his readers with his scholarship, Cox begins his book with a classical definition of humor. “Humor, in its literal meaning, is moisture. Its derived sense is different; but while it is now a less sluggish element than moisture, we still associate with humor some of its old relations. In old times, physicians reckoned several kinds of moisture in the human body—phlegm, blood, choler, and melancholy. They found one vein particularly made for a laugh to run in, the blood of which, being stirred, the man laughed, even if he felt like crying…” It quickly becomes apparent that the “We” in Cox’s title refers to Americans in general and legislators in particular.

Samuel S. Cox was born in Zanesville, Ohio.  He served in the House as a Demoract and was vocally opposed to both the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln.  He and James A. Garfield were Congressional colleagues and social friends in Washington, D.C.  (National Archives and Records Administration)

Samuel S. Cox was born in Zanesville, Ohio. He served in the House as a Democrat and was vocally opposed to both the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln. He and James A. Garfield were Congressional colleagues and social friends in Washington, D.C. (National Archives and Records Administration)

He asserts repeatedly that American humor is based most often on exaggeration. “The Declaration of Independence is a splendid exaggeration…’all men are created equal’…’all government derives its powers from the consent of the governed’…With such a chart[er], and with such a grand initial momentum, need we wonder at the magnitude of our ideas, the magniloquence of our orators, and the exaggerations of our humor? Our large lakes, our long rivers, our mountain ranges, our mammoth conifers, our vast mineral treasures, our wide prairies, our great crops, our growing cities, our enlarging territory, our unrivaled telegraphs, our extensive railroads and their equally extensive disasters, our mechanical skill and its infinite production, our unexampled civil unpleasantness and its results, would seem to call for an aggrandized view of our political and social position, and, as a consequence, for a broad, big, Brobdingnagian humor.”

Eighteen of Cox’s twenty-five chapters are about legislative humor. Filled with quotes, quips and epigrams, it is quite apparent that Cox found his colleagues to be his most important source of material; this volume is a classic study in the fine Washington art of name dropping. Garfield’s name only appears a few times, most notably in the chapter called Legislative Retort and Repartee: “ It was a railroad grant. ‘Where is all this to lead?’ exclaimed Washburne. ‘To the Pacific coast,’ said Garfield. ‘To the bottom of the treasury rather,’ was the prompt rejoinder.” It doesn’t seem to me that Garfield was an active participant in the repartee. I wonder if every man named between the covers of Why We Laugh received a signed copy.

James A. Garfield had a good sense of humor and loved to laugh.  This image can be found in the exhibits at James A. Garfield NHS and show the future President of the United States laughing and rolling on the ground with his son and a family friend.  (National Park Service)

James A. Garfield had a good sense of humor and loved to laugh. This image can be found in the exhibits at James A. Garfield NHS and show the future President of the United States laughing and rolling on the ground while his friend Charles Henry and Henry’s son laugh with him. (National Park Service)

Were Cox and Garfield friends? In his diary Garfield mentions a number of dinners with other members of Congress, including S. S. Cox. And he notes, “Some of the best men socially in Congress are political adversaries.” But the journals also indicate that in the work of Congress, Garfield found amusement in different places than Cox.

Tuesday, March 5, 1872: On the Judicial Fund a brisk debate sprung up, which drifted off into questions of Ku Klux, in which an amusing passage at arms occurred between Cox of N.Y. and Rainey, a colored member from South Carolina. Cox got the worst of it.

Wednesday, February 9, 1876: In the House the debate continued on the Diplomatic Appropriations Bill and nothing was accomplished. Springer if Illinois and Cox of N.Y. attempted to make fun of the Diplomatic Service and got off a good deal of stale wit, with a little that was bright.

Monday, November 19, 1877: The day was spent on the Paris Exposition Bill. Cox made a carefully prepared speech devoted to witticisms, pleasant to hear but very uncomfortable for the man who indulges in it. I do not believe it is possible for such a man to have a pleasant reputation for good judgment.

This last is after Garfield accepted Cox’s book. Had he read it? Does this entry reflect Garfield’s reaction to Cox’s thesis, or is it more a comment on their political differences?

Samuel S. Cox's message and signature in the copy of "Why We Laugh" he presented to James A. Garfield on March 29, 1876.  (National Park Service)

Samuel S. Cox’s message and signature in the copy of “Why We Laugh” he presented to James A. Garfield on March 29, 1876. (National Park Service)

House colleagues and social friends, Cox and Garfield seem to have had very different senses of humor. Toward the end of his book, Mr. Cox finally explains why he feels levity is so important to legislating:

“Our enjoyments in this life should antedate our future bliss. We have enough clouds of sorrow here. Let us fringe their dark edges with sunshine. Let us mellow and brighten them for the solace of others, if not for the joy of our own heart. Grief and melancholy are selfish. All nature calls for hilarity…In that province of human activity in which life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the ostensible objects of guarantee—the province of statesmanship—where the collisions of prejudice, interest, and passion are in constant debate, while there may be no need for the cap and bells of the fool or the acrobatic entertainment of the harlequin and clown, there is ever an urgency for those gifts which cheer, brighten, and bless, and which suffuse through society their soft radiance like the sweet, hallowing influences of sunset.”

Perhaps Mr. Garfield could agree with that.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide