The Crooked Lake Review

Spring 2001

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A Biography of John Magee

Chapter Six


Gary M. Emerson

Introduction, Chapter One and Chapter Two, Chapter Three
Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine

Running for State Senator

Politics are often associated with the word "dirty." The election for New York State Senator to the twenty-seventh district in 1861 served as a good definition of "dirty" politics. The Republicans nominated New York Assemblyman Charles Cook of Havana. He was also nominated by the People's Union Convention.278 Cook was influential in building and operating the Chemung Canal. He had successfully carved out the new County of Schuyler from Tompkins and Chemung Counties, was prominent in organizing the Bank of Havana, and had established the People's Academy (later called Cook Academy) in Havana. Charles Cook had also joined with his cousin, Constant, and John Magee in 1848 to form Cook and Company to build the Erie Railroad. Cook was an influential man and would be a formidable opponent.

The nomination from the Democrats went to a reluctant John Magee. He was also nominated by the Union Mass Convention, which was made up of representatives to the People's Union Convention who vehemently opposed the nomination of Cook. 279 Although his last association with politics stirred bitter memories of Sam Hammond reading "that miserable old basketmaker's letter," sixty-seven-year-old John Magee felt compelled to accept the nomination. In his acceptance letter to the Union Mass Convention he said:

While I feel deeply sensible of this mark of confidence and respect manifested by the selection of my name for the high public trust intended to be committed to my care. I cannot but regret that it has been deemed necessary to call again into the arena of politics…one who for more than twenty years voluntarily sought and maintained seclusion and retirement in the peaceful and more congenial pursuits of private life. Believing that the selection has emanated from the people, impelled by a desire to rebuke and check the corruption of political tricksters and spoilsmen I find myself embarrassed in deciding my course of duty…holding as I do that it is the duty of every citizen to share an d bear a portion of the responsibility necessary to the correction and reformation of existing evils, I yield acquiescence to the behest of the convention. However much personal discomfort, however great the neglect and sacrifice of my individual interests. I must submit to the obligation imposed upon me. I desire it to be clearly understood, that I hold no affinity or connection in a party sense with either of the old party organizations, nor wi l I obey the behests of either in conflict with my own views of rights.
It will be my purpose if elected to aid in the reformation of abuses, to bring both State and National affairs to their former peaceful and happy condition;… 280

With candidates chosen the mudslinging quickly began. The Corning Democrat endorsed Magee, and informed its readers that it was "a notorious fact that for the last ten or fifteen years Chas. Cook of Havana, has engaged in more schemes for plundering corporations and individuals, for the furtherance of his own interests than any other man in the State." 281 The Elmira Advertiser and Republican, which sided with Cook, commented on Magee's nomination: "It is too bad that perverse politicians should insist on nominating men for office for whom private life has so many charms! A friend remarked to us that he felt inclined to vote for Magee, but he sighed so piteously over his hard fate, that out of sympathy for Magee, he concluded to vote for Cook." 282

The Chemung Democrats claimed that a vote for Cook would surely help him in his quest to tear the town of Veteran from Chemung County and add it to Schuyler County.283 When Magee was promoted as a "friend of the canals," 284 Cook supporters retorted with: "If that be so why dont [sic] he transport his coal from Corning to Watkins through its channel instead of using the railroad. John Magee is a friend to his own interest;…" 285 Republicans also claimed that "Mr. Cook's little finger would be more influential in the Senate than John Magee's whole body head and all…" 286

The Civil War, then in its initial year, effected even state and local political campaigns. The most heated battle between the two factions in this State Senatorial race was over the patriotism of Magee. The Republicans effectively put Magee on the defensive concerning his support of the war. They indicated that "Mr. Magee's love for the Union…, is of very recent date, too recent to be deserving of such quick promotion." 287 Magee was accused of being "a Richmond Cagger Democrat;… a loud mouthed and bitter opponent of the Administration up to very recent date; and who made no bones of expressing his sympathy for the rebellion when it first showed itself." 288 Republicans also warned that if Magee were elected "then God save the nation for nobody else can. We might as well surrender to Jeff Davis at once for that will be the final result if the reins of Government are to be placed in such hands." 289 Voters were being challenged to prove their patriot-ism by voting against Magee.

Magee and his supporters struggled to undo the accusations of disloyalty. The Republicans were reminded that Magee had fought for his country in the War of 1812, and was wounded twice. It was also pointed out that "Mr. Magee, …has been active in support of the Government since the rebellion commenced. Knowing his fidelity to the Constitution and Union, Mr. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, appointed him agent of the government in Steuben County to raise the funds with which to carry on the war." 290 The Democrats gloated, "If Mr. Magee is a good enough War man to satisfy Secretary Chase, ought not he be good enough to satisfy such very fastidious gentlemen as can swallow the old Havana Lobbyist? Strain away at a gnat, gentlemen, and swallow a camel." 291

A stronger ploy was employed by the newspaper endorsing Charles Cook to further raise doubts about Magee's sympathies in the war. A letter from A. M. Clapp, editor of the Buffalo Morning Express, was published in the Republican papers. Clapp related, upon being requested to do so, a conversation he had with Magee on the train traveling from Corning to Bath. According to the letter, Magee had said: "This war, sir, is an unrighteous war on the part of the government. It is an unholy war, sir, got up by damned vagabond editors and politicians, and pushed against the southern States for their gratification. It should be stopped, sir!" 292 The Buffalo editor also claimed that when he chastised Magee for such declarations, Magee "stalked through the car like a maniac, brandishing his cane over my head, and threatening me with personal chastisement,…The Government, the war, and myself all came in for a share of his offensive denunciation, profanity, and abuse, during this paroxysm." 293 Clapp observed that such behavior was characteristic of a Southern sympathizer.

To counter the Republican "proof" of Magee's disloyalty, the Democrats also printed a letter. It was from Solomon A. Campbell of Painted Post, upon the invitation of John Magee. Campbell said he was present in the railroad car seated beside Clapp and Magee. In his account, Magee "expressed sorrow at the condition of the country, and said the war was unnatural and unjust, that it had been brought upon us through the management of corrupt, designing politicians, and that prominent men of all political parties on both sides of Mason and Dixon's line were to blame." 294 Campbell said that Clapp hinted to Magee that what had been said was disloyal and called Magee a traitor. Magee was puzzled and asked Clapp if he had not misunderstood what was said. 295 The Painted Post farmer felt that what Magee had spoken "did not justify an inference of disloyalty, but decided disapprobation of the men and the causes which had produced the war." 296 The letter also affirmed that Magee had said that the war must be won to preserve the government, and that he supported the Lincoln Administration.

Democrats played upon the fact that many prominent Republicans chose to endorse Magee rather than Cook. notices in large conspicuous type announced that Republicans such as Lucius Robinson (a future Democratic governor of New York), Elmira Post Master Daniel Pickering, Alexander Diven, and Judges Thurston and Brooks of Chemung County were openly in support of Magee. Attempting to discredit further the letter by Clapp, it was charged that H. H. Hull of Bath, to whom Clapp had written the letter, had suddenly become supportive of Cook after having once been a bitter enemy of him. 297 Hull was one of the Canal Appraisers who awarded Cook "large and exorbitant" damages caused by the state when the waters of Catherine Creek were diverted from the use of the Chemung Canal. 298 After the award was made to Cook, Hull was accused of suddenly being "the most sycophant and subservient tool Mr. Cook has in the State." 299

Although Magee had the Corning Democrat and the Steuben Farmers' Advocate backing him in Steuben County, the Bath Courier sided with Cook.

After the Union loss at the first Bull Run, the Courier quoted Magee as saying: "The South is too much for us." 300 It also said that "nobody calls Charles Cook a secessionist or a traitor, and that he does not find it necessary to swear or affirm that he is a loyal citizen; and that the reverse is true of John Magee. 301 Further insult was hurled when the Courier added:

Go where you will in Havana, and you will see evidence of Charles Cook's enterprise, public spirit, and liberality. Look at the People's College…; look at that Princely Hotel in Montour…, and last but not least, to that beautiful Church edifice…; and then search as you will in vain for their counterparts in this village, to attest the enterprise, liberality and public spirit of John Magee. His deserted mansion, with its cast iron dogs guarding with mock gravity its unsought gateway, is the only, but fitting monument of the enterprise and public spirit of John Magee." 302

As election day drew near, the abuses hurled by both sides grew more intense. More witnesses testifying to the validity of the Clapp letter were brought forth, Magee was accused of favoring the contribution of money to aid the Southern cause, and the story of the Senate investigation of Magee and Company in 1835 was dug up. It was also divulged that the tolls Magee paid to have his coal towed north on Seneca Lake, was half that for coal taken by way of the Chemung Canal. 303 The ultimate point being made was that Magee was not paying his fair share of supporting the canal, causing a greater burden on the taxpayers.

The newspapers for Magee fought back by publishing a letter from Republican Alexander Diven attesting to the honesty and patriotism of the Democratic candidate. Cook was pictured as a corrupt politician, and everything possible was done to assert Magee's support of Union victory in the war and remind voters that Republicans were defecting to Magee.304

Election day on November 5, 1861, decided the winner of the war of insults. Charles Cook was elected by the largest majority any candidate had received in the twenty-seventh district since its creation.305 Those who had supported Cook bragged that "the friends of Cook carried every Assembly district of Steuben, every county in the district, and had elected Mr. Cook by over Fifteen Hundred Majority;…" 306 Probably the reason "friends of Cook" carried so many areas was not due to the popularity of Cook, but that he was the Republican candidate at a time when the Civil War was being fought by a Republican Administration.

In Steuben County, Magee had received 4829 votes to Cook's 6237. He did well in Hornellsville, getting 472 votes to Cook's 254, and in Corning winning with 480 votes against Cook's 402. However, in his own village of Bath, Cook garnered 481 votes to Magee's 363. 307 Losing in one's backyard is always embarrassing. Cook won narrowly in Chemung and Schuyler Counties, but in his town of Havana he won easily.308

Democrats blamed Magee's defeat upon seven area newspapers that had "slandered" Magee. The power of outside newspapers that joined with Cook, such as the New York Tribune, Albany Journal, Buffalo Express, and Rochester Democrat, were also cited as influencing the voters against Magee.309 Solace was taken in that many Republican districts had voted for Magee.310

The victorious Republicans also reflected back on the election. They pictured Magee as a puppet of a few traitorous Republicans against Cook, who "got Magee so warmed up and so well assured of his election, that in the district he was like a 'furnace, heat seven times hotter than it was wont to be heat.'" 311 Republicans felt Magee was backed by monied interests out to destroy Cook. It was reported that: "Influential officers of the N. Y. and Erie Railroad, with several of its Directors and Managers, are said to have passed through the district in a special train, stopping at the stations, and notifying the agents "that it was the wish of the Erie Company that all of their agents and employees should vote for Mr. Magee!" 312

The election certainly did nothing to promote the reputation of politicians, but it did send Charles Cook to the New York State Senate for two years beginning in 1862. He was never re-elected, since in 1863 Cook was struck down with an attack of paralysis that he never completely recovered from. He died in October, 1866, while visiting Auburn, New York.313 Magee returned to Bath bitter about the election, and determined to make a change.

© 2001, Gary M. Emerson
Introduction, Chapter One and Chapter Two, Chapter Three
Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine

Notes to Chapter Six

278 - 279 Elmira Advertiser and Republican, Dec, 7, 1861.

280 - 281 Corning Democrat, Oct, 17, 1861, p. 2,

282 - 283 Elmira Advertiser and Republican, Oct. 19, 1861, p. 2.

284 Corning Democrat, Oct. 24, 1861.

285 - 287 Elmira Advertiser and Republican, Oct. 19, 1861, p. 2.

288 - 289 Elmira Advertiser and Republican, Oct. 26, 1861, p. 2.

290 Corning Democrat, Oct. 24, 1861, p. 2.

291 Corning Democrat, Oct. 31, 1861, p. 2.

292 - 293 Elmira Advertiser and Republican, Oct. 26, 1861.

294 - 299 Corning Democrat, Oct. 31, 1861, p. 2.

300- 303 Elmira Advertiser and Republican, Nov. 2, 1861.

304 Corning Democrat, Oct. 32, 1861, p. 2.

305 - 306 Elmira Advertiser and Republican, Dec. 7, 1861.

307 Corning Democrat, Nov. 28, 1861, p. 1.

308 Elmira Advertiser and Republican, Nov. 9, 1861.

309 - 310 Corning Democrat, Nov. 14, 1861, p. 2.

311 - 312 Elmira Advertiser and Republican, Dec. 7, 1861.

313 History of Schuyler County, 1879, p. 192.

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