A Biography of John Magee
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.
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.
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,
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.