ON March 12, 1969, eight days after the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant as President of the United States, the press of the nation announced the appointment of Hamilton Fish of New York as Secretary of State. To many politicians, watching jealously the initial steps of a new and unpredictable Chief Magistrate, the choice was a staggering surprise. To the press and public it was a decidedly refreshing surprise. But it astonished nobody more than Hamilton Fish himself.
For until the announcement came this quiet ex-Governor and ex- Senator had believed that he was in permanent retirement from public life. A gentleman of old American lineage, ample wealth, and conservative temperament, he had spent nearly twenty years in active politics. He had served the Whig Party as Congressman and lieutenant- governor; after a term as governor, he had been Seward's colleague in the Senate. In these offices his work had been able, though never conspicuously brilliant and never connected with dramatic events. To no office had he been reëlected. When he had retired from political life twelve years earlier, in 1857, he had intended to devote himself to general civic and philanthropic labors. Now, in 1869, he was sixty years old. His sudden elevation to the first place in Grant's Cabinet, in the midst of all the turmoil of Reconstruction, and with grave problems in foreign affairs confronting the nation, was an honor so totally unanticipated as to be startling. And if he could have foreseen that for eight years to come he would sustain a crushing load of toil--that he would have to face repeated crises in external relations, would be compelled to ride the storms of party warfare, domestic maladministration, and general corruption, and would in the end become the strongest figure in one of our most troubled Administrations--he would have been more than startled; he would have been dismayed.
Yet this was to be his rôle. He had closed a modestly distinguished career. Now, on the threshold of age, he was to begin another and far greater one. Few other men in our history have thus superimposed an impressive work as statesman, between sixty and seventy, upon an inconspicuous early service; and no other has ever bridged two eras in quite the way Hamilton Fish did.