Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896/Chapter 8/Depew

VIII. Political Giants of the Present Day—

Chauncey Mitchell Depew

Chauncey Mitchell Depew


The Apostle of Sunshine and Cheerfulness

Chauncey Mitchell Depew was born at Peekskill, N. Y., April 23, 1834. His remote ancestors were French Huguenots, who founded New Rochelle, in Westchester county. His father, Isaac Depew, was a prominent and highly esteemed citizen of Peekskill, and his mother, Martha Mitchell, was a representative of the distinguished New England family, one of whose members, Roger Sherman, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Early Career


Chauncey spent his boyhood in Peekskill, where he prepared for college. He was a bright student, and at the age of eighteen entered Yale College, from which he was graduated in 1856, with one of the first honors of his class. In June, 1887, Yale conferred upon him the degree of LL. D. It will be noted that Mr. Depew reached his majority at about the time of the formation of the Republican party. Although of Democratic antecedents, he had been a close student of politics and his sympathies were with the aims of the new political organization, to which he speedily gave his allegiance.

Mr. Depew studied law in his native village, and was admitted to the bar in 1858. In the same year, he was elected as a delegate to the Republican State convention, this being an acknowledgment of the interest he had taken in the party, and the skill and energy he had shown in advocating its policy. He began the practice of law in 1859, and was highly successful from the first. Few men of the present day are so gifted with eloquence, wit, and the power of giving an instant and happy turn to the most unexpected interruptions or occurrences. In his early manhood, his striking power as a stump speaker, his readiness at repartee, and his never-failing good humor, made him a giant in politics, to which he was literally forced to give attention. But with all these extraordinary gifts, he could launch the thunderbolts of invective against wrong and stir the profoundest depths of emotion by his appeals. He loved liberty and hated oppression, and has always believed that the United States of America is the happiest and greatest country upon which the sun ever shone. His patriotic speeches are models of eloquence and power.

A Supporter of Abraham Lincoln


In 1860, he took the stump for Abraham Lincoln and added greatly to his reputation as a ready, forceful and brilliant pleader for that which he believed to be right. No speaker was so welcome as he to his audience, whether composed of scholars, of business men, or of the uneducated masses. He was sure to say something entertaining, something instructive and something worth remembering. He was never dull; he was logical and luminous, and no matter how lengthy his addresses, he was sure to be greeted with cries of “Go on! go on!” at their conclusion. It cannot be denied that he contributed much to the success of that memorable election.

In 1861, Mr. Depew was nominated for the Assembly in the Third Westchester County District and, although the constituency was largely Democratic, he was elected by a handsome majority. He fully met all the high expectations formed, and was re-elected in 1862. By his geniality, wit, integrity and courtesy he became as popular among his political opponents as among his friends. He was made his party's candidate for Secretary of State directly after the Democrats had won a notable triumph by the election of Horatio Seymour as governor; but by his dash and brilliancy and his prodigious endurance (he spoke twice a day for six weeks,) he secured a majority of 30,000. So admirably did he perform the duties of the office that he was offered a renomination, but declined.

Attorney of the New York and Harlem Railroad Company


During the administration of President Johnson, Secretary of State Seward appointed Mr. Depew Minister to Japan, but, after consideration, the offer was declined. He seemed to have decided to withdraw from politics and to devote his time and energies to his profession. That shrewd railway man and financier, Commodore Vanderbilt, had watched the career of Depew, and had, formed a strong admiration for him, while the eldest son, William H. Vanderbilt, became his firm friend. In 1866, Mr. Depew was appointed the attorney of the New York and Harlem Railroad Company, and three years later, when that road was consolidated with the New York Central, he was made the attorney of the new organization, being afterwards elected a member of the Board of Directors.

As other and extensive roads were added to the system, Mr. Depew, in 1875, was promoted to be general counsel for them all, and elected to a directorship in each of the numerous organizations. The year previous, the Legislature had made him Regent of the State University, and one of the Commissioners to build the Capitol at Albany.

President of the New York Central


In 1884, the United States senatorship was tendered to Mr. Depew, but he was committed to so many business and professional trusts that he felt compelled to decline the honor. Two years before, William H. Vanderbilt had retired from the Presidency of the New York Central, and in the reorganization Mr. Depew was made second Vice-President. The President, Mr. Rutter, died in 1885, and Mr. Depew was elected to the Presidency, which office he still holds.

His previous experience had made him thoroughly familiar with all the intricacies and minutiæ of the immense business, its policy, its relations with other corporations, its rights, responsibilities and limitations, and none was so well equipped for the responsible post as he. “The basilar fact in Mr. Depew's character is a profound and accurate judgment, and this asserts itself in all his manifold relations with men and affairs, and in every effort he puts forth in any direction. Practical common sense, tact, an exquisite sense of the proprieties, a singular aptitude for business, and an intuitive appreciation of the value of means with reference to their ends, are manifestations of this judgment; and if we add a strong will, great executive ability, untiring industry and instinctive love of order, and a readiness to adopt the best method, an intellect of astonishing range and remarkable promptness in the solution of intricate problems, we have a correct estimate of the qualities which place him in the first rank of railway managers.”

At the National Republican convention in 1888, New York voted solidly for Mr. Depew as its candidate for the Presidency, but he withdrew his name. At the convention at Minneapolis in 1892, he was selected to present the name of President Harrison, and made one of the best speeches of his life. When Mr. Blaine resigned as Secretary of State, President Harrison urged Mr. Depew to accept the place, but after a week's deliberation, he felt obliged to decline the honor.

Wit, Logic and Eloquence


It is impossible in a sketch like this to do justice to the remarkable versatility of Mr. Depew. His admirable addresses would fill several bulky volumes. As an after-dinner speaker he is without a peer, and his wit, logic and eloquence never fail him. What could be more apt than his words, when, upon entering a public hall where a number of leading men were straining themselves to prove the Christian religion a delusion and a sham, and there were instant and clamorous calls for him, he said: “Gentlemen, my mother's Bible is good enough for me; have you anything better to offer?” And then with touching pathos and impassioned words he made an appeal for the religion which they reviled, which must have pierced the shell of more than one agnostic heart.