Breaking Up General Grant

Many times MT told his family and friends that he would stop "speechifying" and save the time and energy these performances cost him. Invariably he went back to the banquet scene for another dose of the elated sense of mastery that he gained whenever a room full of well-dressed notables loved him. In the fall of 1879 he went all the way to Chicago, to speak at a dinner in Grant's honor, because, he wrote Howells in early October, "My sluggish soul needs a fierce upstirring." He got it. To him, the toast he delivered "To the Babies" was his greatest triumph as an after-dinner speaker.

On the left is the text of MT's toast, from Paine's edition of his Speeches. On the right, a brief account of the context, including MT's written (and ecstatic) accounts of his performance. The speech was widely reprinted -- it was even reprinted as a pamphlet by "George B. Harfield, chemist," who obviously used it as advertising; this version of text includes [audience reactions]. The banquet was also widely reported in the papers.


The fifteenth regular toast was "The Babies. -- As they comfort us in our sorrows, let us not forget them in our festivities."

I LIKE that. We have not all had the good fortune to be ladies. We have not all been generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the babies, we stand on common ground. It is a shame that for a thousand years the world's banquets have utterly ignored the baby, as if he didn't amount to anything. If you will stop and think a minute -- if you will go back fifty or one hundred years to your early married life and recontemplate your first baby -- you will remember that he amounted to a good deal, and even something over. You soldiers all know that when that little fellow arrived at family headquarters you had to hand in your resignation. He took entire command. You became his lackey, his mere body-servant, and you had to stand around too. He was not a commander who made allowances for time, distance, weather, or anything else. You had to execute his order whether it was possible or not. And there was only one form of marching in his manual of tactics, and that was the double-quick. He treated you with every sort of insolence and disrespect, and the bravest of you didn't dare to say a word. You could face the death-storm at Donelson and Vicksburg, and give back blow for blow; but when he clawed your whiskers, and pulled your hair, and twisted your nose, you had to take it. When the thunders of war were sounding in your ears you set your faces toward the batteries, and advanced with steady tread; but when he turned on the terrors of his war-whoop, you advanced in the other direction, and mighty glad of the chance, too. When he called for soothing syrup, did you venture to throw out any side-remarks about certain services being unbecoming an officer and a gentleman? No. You got up and got it. When he ordered his pap bottle and it was not warm, did you talk back? Not you. You went to work and warmed it. You even descended so far in your menial office as to take a suck at that warm, insipid stuff yourself, to see if it was right -- three parts water to one of milk, a touch of sugar to modify the colic, and a drop of peppermint to kill those immortal hiccoughs. I can taste that stuff yet. And how many things you learned as you went along! Sentimental young folks still take stock in that beautiful saying that when a baby smiles in his sleep, it is because the angels are whispering to him. Very pretty, but too thin -- simply wind on the stomach, my friends. If the baby proposed to take a walk at his usual hour, two o'clock in the morning, didn't you rise up promptly and remark, with a mental addition which would not improve a Sunday-school book much, that that was the very thing you were about to propose yourself? Oh! you were under good discipline, and as you went fluttering up and down the room in your undress uniform, you not only prattled undignified baby talk, but even tuned up your martial voices and tried to sing! -- Rock-a-by Baby in the Tree-top, for instance. What a spectacle for an Army of the Tennessee! And what an affliction for the neighbors, too; for it is not everybody within a mile around that likes military music at three in the morning. And when you had been keeping this sort of thing up two or three hours, and your little velvet-head intimated that nothing suited him like exercise and noise, what did you do? You simply went on until you dropped in the last ditch. The idea that a baby doesn't amount to anything! Why, one baby is just a house and a front yard by itself. One baby can furnish more business than you and your whole Interior Department can attend to. He is enterprising, irrepressible, brimful of lawless activities. Do what you please, you can't make him stay on the reservation. Sufficient unto the day is one baby. As long as you are in your right mind, don't you ever pray for twins. Twins amount to a permanent riot. And there ain't any real difference between triplets and an insurrection.

Yes, it was high time for a toast-master to recognize the importance of the babies. Think what is in store for the present crop! Fifty years from now we shall all be dead, I trust, and then this flag, if it still survive (and let us hope it may), will be floating over a Republic numbering 200,000,000 souls, according to the settled laws of our increase. Our present schooner of State will have grown into a political leviathan -- a Great Eastern. The cradled babies of today will be on deck. Let them be well trained, for we are going to leave a big contract on their hands. Among the three or four millions cradles now rocking in the land are some which this nation would preserve for ages as sacred things, if we could know which ones they are. In one of those cradles the unconscious Farragut of the future is at this moment teething -- think of it! -- and putting in a world of dead earnest, unarticulated, but perfectly justifiable profanity over it, too. In another the future renowned astronomer is blinking at the shining Milky Way with but a languid interest -- poor little chap! -- and wondering what has become of that other one they call the wet-nurse. In another the future great historian is lying -- and doubtless will continue to lie until his earthly mission is ended. In another the future President is busying himself with no profounder problem of state than what the mischief has become of his hair so early; and in a mighty array of other cradles there are now some 60,000 future office-seekers, getting ready to furnish him with occasion to grapple with that same old problem a second time. And in still one more cradle, somewhere under the flag, the future illustrious commander-in-chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind at this moment to trying to find out some way to get his big toe into his mouth -- an achievement which, meaning no disrespect, the illustrious guest of this evening turned his entire attention to some fifty-six years ago; and if the child is but a prophecy of the man, there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded.


When U.S. Grant and his family returned in 1879 from a two-year journey around the world, Chicago decided to throw a huge welcome home party. It lasted three days, and included a parade with over 80,000 Civil War veterans. MT attended all the festivities, and his speech felt like the climax of the whole event. It was the fifteenth and last speech delivered at the banquet at the Palmer House on November 14, the last day of the celebration. At around 2 a.m. MT stood on a table amidst 500 men who had been eating, drinking and listening to oratory for more than six hours, and gave this toast. The topic was his own idea. He'd been asked to respond to "The Ladies," but turned that down as too familiar to his audiences, and proposed "The Babies" instead.

He wrote this to Livy several hours after the event, while the shouts and laughter of the crowd were obviously still ringing in his ears:

A little after 5 in the morning.

I've just come to my room, Livy darling, I guess this was the memorable night of my life. By George, I never was so stirred since I was born. I heard four speeches which I can never forget. One by Emory Storrs, one by Gen. Vilas (O, wasn't it wonderful!) one by Gen. Logan (mighty stirring), one by somebody whose name escapes me, and one by that splendid old soul, Col. Bob Ingersoll, -- oh, it was just the supremest combination of English words that was ever put together since the world began. My soul, how handsome he looked, as he stood on that table, in the midst of those 500 shouting men, and poured the molten silver from his lips! Lord, what an organ is human speech when it is played by a master! All these speeches may look dull in print, but how the lightning glared around them when they were uttered, and how the crowd roared in response! It was a great night, a memorable night. I am so richly repaid for my journey -- and how I did wish with all my whole heart that you were there to be lifted into the very seventh heaven of enthusiasm, as I was. The army songs, the military music, the crashing applause -- Lord bless me, it was unspeakable.

Out of compliment they placed me last in the list -- No. 15 -- I was to "hold the crowd" -- and bless my life I was in awful terror when No. 14 rose, at 2 o'clock this morning and killed all the enthusiasm by delivering the flattest, insipidest, silliest of all responses to "Woman" that ever a wearied multitude listened to. Then Gen. Sherman (chairman) announced my toast, and the crowd gave me a good round of applause as I mounted on top of the dinner table, but it was only on account of my name, nothing more -- they were all tired and wretched. They let my first sentence go in silence, till I paused and added "we stand on common ground" -- then they burst forth like a hurricane and I saw that I had them! From that time on, I stopped at the end of each sentence, and let the tornado of applause and laughter sweep around me -- and when I closed with "And if the child is but the prophecy of the man, there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded," I say it who oughtn't to say it, the house came down with a crash. For two hours and a half, now, I've been shaking hands and listening to congratulations. Gen. Sherman said, "Lord bless me, my boy, I don't know how you do it -- it's a secret that's beyond me -- but it was great -- give me your hand again."

And do you know, Gen. Grant sat through fourteen speeches like a graven image, but I fetched him! I broke him up, utterly! He told me he laughed till the tears came and every bone in his body ached. (And do you know, the biggest part of the success of the speech lay in the fact that the audience saw that for once in his life he had been knocked out of his iron serenity.)

Bless your soul, 'twas immense. I was never so proud in my life. Lots and lots of people -- hundreds I might say -- told me my speech was the triumph of the evening -- which was a lie. Ladies, Tom, Dick and Harry -- even the policemen -- captured me in the halls and shook hands, and scores of army officers said "We shall always be grateful to you for coming."

MT was back in Hartford on November 17 when he wrote Howells about the event, but his sense of triumph remained vivid. He was especially proud of the way he had cracked up Ulysses S. Grant:

Grand times, my boy, grand times. Gen. Grant sat at the banquet like a statue of iron & listened without the faintest suggestion of emotion to fourteen speeches which tore other people all to shreds, but when I lit in with the fifteenth & last, his time was come! I shook him up like dynamite & he sat there fifteen minutes & laughed & cried like the mortalest of mortals. But bless you I had measured this unconquerable conqueror, & went at my work with the confidence of conviction, for I knew I could lick him. He told me he had shaken hands with 15,000 people that day & come out of it without an ache or pain, but that my truths had racked all the bones of his body apart.

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