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Chapter 103: Taking his chances

November 2, 1905
The U.S. House of Representatives
Office of Congressman William Bailey Lamar
Washington, D.C
.

“Come on, Emmett,” Paul said, smiling at me, holding open the door to the House Chamber.

I felt the hairs along my arms stand up as I walked through the door; I gaped.

Photograph of the U.S. House Chamber, approximately 1898. The chamber would be renovated with upholstered seating instead of the desks in 1913 (the year Emmett was sworn-in as the congressman from Florida’s third district. Photo source: History.house.gov

“Desks?” I said, turning to Paul, grinning at me. “It looks like a giant schoolroom!”

“The way the congressmen bicker here, sometimes it feels that way,” Paul said, as we stood at the back of the room, scanning the huge House Chamber.

Although Congress was not in session, Paul was at the Capitol doing random business for his boss, Congressman William Bailey Lamar; Paul has been Lamar’s private secretary since he left Stetson in Fall 1903, and he loves the work. One of the perks of his job is that Paul has access to important people and places here in Washington, D.C. While I’m visiting, he’s giving me a personal tour of the U.S. Capitol.  So far, I’ve met several of his friends, who include other congressional private secretaries, newspaper reporters, and the like.

Paul H. Carter, Emmett’s best friend, from the 1899-1900 WFS yearbook, The Argo. Source: FSU Archives.

It’s been a wonderful visit so far, but this — the House Chamber — I’m awestruck.

No one is in the chamber; when Paul closes the door behind us, the noise echoes and reverberates, and I jump at the noise, smiling sheepishly at my friend. “Are you sure it’s OK to be in here?”

“Sure,” Paul said.

Tentatively, I walk down one of the aisles, touching a desk here and there. They are beat up and scuffed, something I didn’t expect for such an august and dignified room. Some of the desktops have initials, names, and dates engraved on them. As I go forward, Paul points out different seats in the chamber, naming different congressmen and where they sit. Out loud, I wonder which one was my grandfather’s. Paul shakes his head sadly. “I’m not sure. Sorry, Em.”

I walked up to the dais, and look up at the speaker’s chair. I turn around, in so much wonder, looking around the grand chamber, imagining it full of noisy talk, important men, with clouds of cigar smoke and raised voices, all in the business of getting work done for constituents. Again, I feel the hairs raised along my arms, and a chill.

“Go ahead,” Paul said, nodding at me with a grin. “Have a seat.”

I sit in one of the clerk’s chairs below the dais.

“No, Em,” Paul said. “In the speaker’s seat.”

I must have looked at him with astonishment. “What? No.”

“Go on. We’ve all done it when the chamber was empty, and the members are gone. No one cares.”

Hesitatingly, I walk up the two sets of marble steps. I run my hand along the edge of the marble around the speaker’s podium, then I touch the oak desk. It’s huge, solid; I wonder also if my grandfather stood here as well.

I pull the large leather chair out from under the desk, and I sit down, gingerly. The leather smells heavenly, I run my hands along the armrests; I look up, and I slowly scan the room, and the galleries above my head.

I picked up the gavel. I hesitate a moment; I look down at Paul, who is grinning at me. He nods.

I pound it three times on the block; the noise reverberated in the empty room, and it frightens me; I look around anxiously at the galley and the closed chamber doors out. I expect guards to come rushing in and order us out. But nothing happens. Paul continues to look up at me, grinning hugely.

“Just think,” Paul said, as I put the gavel down carefully, and reverently pushed the speaker’s chair back under the large desk. “One of us might actually sit in this room one day as a Congressman. Or even, sit here, he said, gesturing at the speaker’s chair.”

I just grin at my friend, and shake my head, as I step down from the dais. “I don’t know about that. I remember the stories Grandfather used to tell us of the goings-on behind the scenes, the wheeling and dealing — how he used to feel sick to his stomach and soul about the workings of the government in Washington. How he felt as a young fellow coming to Washington, thinking he was going to make a difference, and make a name for himself, only be caught up in the political machinery.” 

“But he did well while he was here,” Paul said.  “Judge Maxwell’s name is still recalled by some of the more senior congressmen, though it’s been at least, what, 40 years since his term?”

“Still. It’s not for me. I think I can get to a state Supreme Court one day without having to serve a sentence in Washington. I think I’ll have the connections and the experience one day soon.”

“You seem pretty sure of yourself”, Paul said. 

“I am.”

As we leave the chamber, we are stopped by a few of Paul’s friends, who invite us to dinner. We accept, and I suggest dining at my hotel, which was agreeable.

Emmett Wilson was registered at the National Hotel while visiting Paul Carter. The National Hotel was primarily the stopping place for visiting statesmen, senators, congressmen, and others; if a man wanted to see and be seen by the press or wish to meet persons of consequence, this was the place to stay. Source: The Washington Post archives, via the LOC database, November 1, 1905.

After dinner, Paul’s friends leave. Paul and I head in to the bar where we both order Scotch and waters, and smoke cigars.

“OK. Tell me about Sterling,” Paul said. 

I don’t leave out any details. I wax prolific about the beautiful and richly furnished offices, no expense spared, much finer than Ceph’s; Van Sant’s colleagues; the opportunities before me with the move; and, that no one seemed to care about my ‘southernness;’ all were gracious and accepting of my partnership with Van Sant.

“Paul, I will be running the law firm — all of it — as Van Sant is opening his bank in January. Oh, he’s a most interesting, powerful man, from a powerful family — it’s a great opportunity. I couldn’t say no. And in fact,” I said, chuckling, “There’s already an article in the paper the day I left about our new law practice.”

The announcement that Emmett will join Nick Van Sant as a law partner appeared inThe Sterling Semi-Weekly Gazette, on November 2, 1905, days after the interview, and before Emmett was back home in Marianna. Film photo by the author.

“This is a fait accompli,” Paul said.

“Yes.I said, with satisfaction. “It’s just the thing. And I’m ready for it.”

The waiter returns to our table. I ask for a refill. I am enjoying myself immensely. I feel empowered and grown up, no longer Cephas’ little brother, or the junior law partner at Wilson and Wilson. 

Paul says nothing, turning his half-full glass of Scotch around and around.  

“It’s good Scotch,” I said. “Aren’t you going to drink up? I say, as I take a large swallow, downing more than half of the glass.

It’s fine, he said.

“Well, something’s bothering you,” I said. 

“I know you’ve been thinking about this move all summer. I know you’ve been dissatisfied working with Cephas and being surrounded by family, telling you what to do, being in your business all the time. But why more than 1,000 miles away? Did you not look closer to home, like Tallahassee or Pensacola?”

I frown. “You know why. Neither Tallahassee nor Pensacola are far enough from the shadow of my illustrious brother the senator. Besides. The timing was serendipitous,” I said.

“Who did you meet?”

“Van Sant introduced me to the mayor, the city commissioners, some of his bank partners, some of his former partners in timber and shipping —”

“You didn’t meet the head of the local bar association, or any lawyers?”

“No.”  

“Anyone from the local Democratic organization?”

“No.”

“Did you go to the county seat, meet anyone in the courthouse? Judges?”

“No.  But everyone knows Van Sant, and that’s what he kept impressing upon me. He’s very important, and his acceptance of me as his partner carries quite a lot of weight. Given the way just about everyone we met deferred to him — well, it was the kind of adulation that Ceph would give his right arm to have. My affiliation with Van Sant is a good move, Paul. Everyone I met said so,” I reply, defiantly. 

Paul nods. “I’m sure. But what concerns me is that you were with Van Sant the entire time, right?”

“Of course.”

“So, of course Van Sant’s friends are going to hold back whatever reluctance or prejudice they will feel about you as an outsider, a Southerner, and a Democrat.” 

“Probably. But I can handle it, Paul.”

“You’re going to be an outsider for a while, whether you like it or not.”

“I’ll take my chances on that,” I said, evenly. “It will be better than Marianna.”

Paul nods. We don’t say anything for several minutes.

“Look. I’m going to do just fine, and be successful in all kinds important cases, and folks back home will see my name mentioned in both of the Sterling newspapers all the time, just like Cephas’ name is in the West Florida papers all the time. You’ll see.”

Paul nods again.

“Say Emmett. You remember Mr. Wiselogel, in Chipley?”

“Yeah. Lula’s father. Of course I know who he is. Everyone knows him,” I said, feeling the alcohol starting to affect my speech a bit. “He’s a wunnerful guy,” I slur. 

“My father used to talk about him all the time — how he was often alone, lonely, and the people of Chipley liked him very much. But he was an outsider for years and Father used to tell me that Mr. Wiselogel worked himself day and night for months, years, before he, one of the lone Republicans in Washington County, was fully accepted. 

“Em, I just don’t think you’ve thought this through as you usually do.” 

I push back from the table, feeling lightheaded with the Scotch. “I don’t want to talk about this move to Sterling anymore. It’s done. It’s going to happen at the end of this year, and I’m satisfied. Can’t you just be happy for me too?”

Paul nods. “I am, he said, giving me a flat smile. “And I really do wish you the best of success.”

Categories: Book Congressman Family Florida History In Emmett's Words

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jsmith532

Professor
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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