Cullen Sawtelle (1805 – 1887)

“In 1843, Norridgewock again furnished a Representative for her district at Washington, this time for two terms (1843-1845) (1849-1851).  Mr. Cullen Sawtelle, son of Captain Richard and Sally (Ware) Sawtelle, was born in Norridgewock, September 25, 1805; graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825; studied law and began practice in his native town.  He was Register of Probate (1830-1838), and member of the State Senate (1843-1844).

Mr. Sawtelle’s life was made up of the most interesting and varied events; it may be well said of him he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.  He had the honor of being one of the first men from his town to receive a college degree, and was also fortunate enough to receive his diploma with a class of men who later became prominent in law, literature and the pulpit; the most notable of whom were: Henry W. Longfellow, poet; Nathaniel Hawthorne, author; John S.C. Abbott, historian; James W. Bradbury, United States Senator from Maine; George B. Cheever, clergyman and author; Jonathan Cilley, representative to Congress from Maine; Samuel P. Benson, representative to Congress from Maine, etc.

Mr. Sawtelle completed his college course at the age of nineteen, and after a few weeks under the parental roof, announced to his father that he wanted the loan of one hundred dollars, that he intended to spend the entire amount in travel; then to work his way back and bring his father the equivalent of his loan to him.

He travelled leisurely as far south as Richmond, Virginia, when he found his funds were running low and he must bestir himself to earn some money.  Accordingly he advertised for a position as tutor and was engaged by Colonel Scott to fit his tow sons for college, with the understanding that he should work only four or five hours each day; that a saddle-horse should always be at his disposal and an intelligent servant should attend to his personal wants.

Colonel Scott was the owner of one hundred and fifty slaves, the greater part of whom had descended to him by inheritance.  During Mr. Sawtelle’s stay in Colonel Scott’s family he had a most excellent opportunity to study the institution of slavery, and to realize the insecure tenure of life of the slave.  He related the following incident as typical of some of the cases coming under his observation.  ‘Met a bright, intelligent, colored boy one morning,  I said to him: ” Whose boy are you?”  “Dunno! I belonged to Massa Brown this morning.  He got playing poker with another man, and I dunno whose I now is.” ‘

At the end of the year, Mr. Sawtelle arrived home, presented his father one hundred dollars in gold;had besides a gold watch in his pocket and a trunk full of clothing of better quality than he had ever possesses at any previous or later date.

He was ready to study law and entered the office of Judge Green of Athens, Maine, where he remained a year and a half; from there he went to Greenfield, Massachusetts, and spent one year in the office of Hon. Daniel Wells.  In 1829, he returned to his native town and opened a law office, where he spent several years practicing his profession under most favorable auspices.

In 1828 Mr. Sawtelle cast his first vote for Andrew Jackson for President of the United States; his first battle-cry politically was: ‘Hurrah! for Old Hickory!’  Of Andrew Jackson Mr. Sawtelle says:

He was truly a hero and a patriot, and his superior qualifications were equally manifest in all situations, in peace and in war; the Cabinet and in the field.  In that memorable battle of New Orleans, when the British were besieging ‘The Crescent City,’ General Jackson utilized a large number of cotton bales fro strengthening the redoubts on his line of defense; a part of said bales belonged to a Frenchman, who faring they might be injured, called upon General Jackson to demand delivery of the same back to him.  The General asked the Frenchman if he were employed in any military service.  To his reply that he was not, the General directed that a musket be put into his hands and ordered him to the front, remarking dryly that none had a better right to fight than those who had property to defend…

Mr. Sawtelle’s great admiration for Andrew Jackson and his interest in national affairs naturally tended to enlarge his political horizon.  While he was successful in his law practice, still he longed for a larger field–ambitious young lawyer that he was– and after serving his country as Register of Probate for eight years, his next move was a seat in the Senate.  Here he laid the foundation for his future career at Washington.

In 1841 Mr. Sawtelle was unanimously nominated by the democratic county convention as its candidate for the State Senate, and although Somerset County at that time had a large whig majority, he was elected by a very flattering vote, and re-elected to that same body at the next session.  During his second term of service in the  State Senate a bill for redistricting of the State for members of Congress was introduced, and for six weeks of the session this bill became the all-absorbing question,and was daily the subject of debate in both branches of the Legislature.

During this time Mr. Sawtelle was prominent in shaping the result that followed and the counties of Somerset and Waldo were classed together to elect a member of Congress.  Since the county of Somerset was whig, and the county of Waldo largely democratic, by this classification the district became democratic by a large majority.  From Mr. Sawtelle’s demonstrated ability to carry his own county(which had an accustomed political majority against his party), and on account of his conspicuous services to his party in obtaining a new classification so favorable to it, he became its logical nominee.  Accordingly, in 1843, he was called to the twenty-ninth Congress, which he says was a memorable one.  Never since the organization of the United States Government had there been more distinguished and influential statesmen, both in the Senate and House of Representatives.  In the former were Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Thomas H. Benton, who were called ‘the four kings of the national pack.’  In the House of Representatives were John Quincy Adams, Andrew Johnson, Hannibal Hamlin, Alexander and Thaddeus Stevens and a score of other brilliant men.

Mr. Sawtelle in his Memoirs records his great admiration of  Daniel Webster, of whom he says he had no superior, or may be safely said no equal, who battered down all opposition whenever and wherever it was made to him.  But, he continued, notwithstanding Mr. Webster possessed genius and intellect and a power of mind that could master all great subjects, still it was said of him that in his knowledge of minor affairs and transactions of every-day life, he was greatly deficient in many ways.

The following humorous example illustrates Mr. Sawtelle’s meaning.  Daniel Webster and his wife were invited to attend a social function in Boston.  A sumptuous collation was prepared.  Among other dainty viands were nice little apple-tarts of which Mr. Webster partook with great relish.  On his way home Mr. Webster commented on them to his wife, saying: ‘What delicious little pies those were; can’t we have some?’  To which his wife replied: ‘Yes, but I must have some green sour apples with which to make them.’  The next morning Mr. Webster sallied forth for his morning walk towards Faneuil Market in quest of sour apples.  He espied an old man seated on a market wagon, and accosted him thus: ‘Have you some sour apples, and what is your price?’  The man replied: ‘Yes, sour enough to set your teeth on edge, ninety bushels early pippins, fifty cents a bushel.’  ‘Very well,’ said Mr. Webster, ‘I will take them all.  Go directly to my house with them and call at my office for your pay.’  It is quite probable the great statesman had all the little pies he wanted for several weeks.

At the close of his second term in Congress, Mr. Sawtelle returned to his native town, quite content, as he expressed himself, to enjoy henceforth the quiet life of a civilian.  After the mild climate of Washington, the extreme cold of a winter in Maine did not appeal to him; for this reason he decided to seek a warmer habitation.

With his usual luck, a large mercantile house called him to New York, to take charge of their credit system and to aid in such matters as might be in litigation in courts, etc.  Here his opportunities were excellent for travel, as his duties often called him to the extreme South and West.  He remained in active business as long as he cared to and then retired to Englewood, New Jersey, to enjoy a quiet and serene old age, tenderly cared for by his two daughters, who still survive him.

But although retired from active service, his life was by no means over.  A rare treat was in store for him.  It was his wonderful privilege to be present at the fiftieth anniversary of that famous class of 1825 at Bowdoin College, when Henry W. Longfellow delivered his memorable poem, Morituri Salutamus, and Rev. Dr. Cheever gave an oration.

Mr. Sawtelle records a most pleasant incident which happened to him on his way to Brunswick, Maine.  His usual good luck attended him, and his reunion began on the railroad train.  To quote direct from his Memoirs:

‘Hardly was I comfortably seated in the car, bound for Brunswick, when an elderly gentleman with white hair,  flowing beard and placid countenance entered the car and attracted my attention.  He gracefully bowed to me and I returned the salutation, as he took the vacant seat next my own.  The stranger proved to be of a social turn of mind as well as myself, and as the train moved on we grew more confidential and I remarked: “I am going to Bowdoin College to attend the semi-centennial anniversary of my class of 1825.  Our class numbered thirty-eight; but only one-third of that number now survive.  We who still live are old men now.  I shall meet there Henry W. Longfellow, John S.C. Abbot, Horatio Bridge and others, all of whom I knew so well and loved so much.  I wonder if we shall know each other after so long a separation.”  To my Astonishment my travelling companion replied: “Friend, look me in the eye and see if you know who I am.  I too, am going on the same mission, but I have not the slightest idea who you may be, although the intonations of your voice carry me back fifty years and I am struggling to place you.”  In perfect silence we sat face to face for more than a full minute; then I said to him, “I cannot for my life name or place you.”  Finally my companion said hesitatingly: “I think this must be Cullen Sawtelle,” and as I asserted, he grasped my hand, exclaiming aloud: “John S.C. Abbott has met again the dear old friend of his youth.” ‘

Arriving at Brunswick, our travellers found eleven out of the thirteen surviving members were able to be present.  They went out into the wide world when life was young and sweet, but after fifty years they returned to their Alma Mater, gray-haired veterans.  Many was the touching incident related by each to the other of their past lives.

Of that wonderful class meeting, Mr. Sawtelle says it was a scene that baffled all description; the very silence of the moment was almost painful; the audience was made up of the most distinguished men in the country.  After a prayer by  the only surviving teacher of the class during their college days, Mr. Longfellow arose and took for his subject the words of the Roman Gladiator addressed to the Imperial Caesar:…

Just before leaving, the surviving eleven gathered in a retired college room for the last time, talked together for a half hour as of old, agreed to exchange photographs and prayed together, then stood for a moment in silence under the old Liberty Tree, took each other by the hand and separated, knowing full well that Old Bowdoin would never again witness a gathering of the famous class of 1825.

T the dedication of Memorial Hall at Bowdoin College, July 12, 1882, services were held in memory of the late Professor Henry W. Longfellow.  It was again Mr. Sawtelle’s good luck to be present.  Several distinguished men spoke on that occasion, but the best address was said to be by Hon. Cullen Sawtelle.  His remarks produced the greatest effect of any of the speakers.  After speaking of the object of this Memorial Hall, he described a meeting between the historian, John S.C. Abbott and himself, after fifty years’ separation, in a manner that drew tears from the eyes of half the audience.

Although over eighty years of age, Mr. Sawtelle again visited Washington.  ‘An aged Congressman again looks upon a changed scene in Washington.  A tall, white-haired old gentleman came to the floor of the House yesterday afternoon.  He looked around and found, like Rip Van Winkle on his return from the Catskill Mountains, that there was no one now in the House of Representatives who knew him, and yet forty years ago, in the twenty-ninth and thirty-first Congresses, Representative Sawtelle, from the Waldo District in Maine, was a prominent figure on the floor of the House.  Neither in the Senate nor House did he see a single member who knew him as a member of the Twenty-ninth Congress.  This shows how short and changeful is a political career in our system of Government.

The year following, Mr. Sawtelle passed ‘into the land of shadows,’ November 11, 1887, and was buried at Englewood, New Jersey.”

Source:  Maine in History and Romance, by Maine Federation of Women’s Clubs, Lewiston Journal Co., Publisher, Lewiston, Maine, 1915, pages 55-60.


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