Like most Vice Presidential Nominees on losing tickets, “William Lewis Dayton” is no household name. At one time, he was perceived as being a better candidate for the second-highest office in the land than Abraham Lincoln; but today, no one knows his name.
William L. Dayton was born in Baskinridge, New Jersey on February 17th, 1807. Little is known about his early life, but his father, Joel, was a farmer and a man of good standing. William was the eldest son. His brother, Jonathan Dayton, was a U.S. House Speaker and U.S. Constitution signatory. His other brothr, Elias, was a General of Brigade.
William graduated from the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton) in 1825 and worked as a lawyer in Freehold. He was elected to the state senate in 1835. Interestingly enough, he presided over an area of staunch Democratic leaning, which goes to show his popularity.
In 1837, he was elected to the New Jersey Legislative Council and appointed “Judge Supreme” one year later. He made his way into the U.S. Senate following the death of Samuel L. Southard in 1842 as a member of the Whig Party. Records indicate that the speeches he gave were logical, well-researched and relevant to the times — and he earned great respect from his colleagues. His service ended in 1851 when he lost re-election to prestigious naval commodore Robert F. Stockton who arrived fresh off the conquest of California in the Mexican-American War.
Yet, don’t think Dayton disappeared into obscurity. In 1856, he was selected by the Republican Party as their very first Vice Presidential nominee — over Abraham Lincoln — at the Philadelphia Convention. John C. Frémont and William L. Dayton spoke out against the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act and the expansion of slavery, while James Buchanan and John C. Breckenridge argued that electing such “radicals” would plunge the nation into Civil War.
After losing to the Democrats in the election of 1856, Dayton served as New Jersey Attorney General. In February of 1860, he met President Abraham Lincoln on a train en route to Washington and made a big impression. A year later, he graciously accepted a post as Lincoln’s Minister to France, which he served throughout most of the Civil War until 1864. Even though he didn’t know a lick of France and appeared superfluous much of the time, he was described as “a man of character and ability… but prosaic, timid, and lacking in magnetism.” Perhaps that is why few remember him to this day!
Regardless of his early impressions, Dayton worked well with French-and-English-speaking journalist John Bigelow and together, they ensured that “all was quiet on the French front.” They successfully lobbied the government of Napoleon III to refuse recognition of the Confederacy as a legitimate government and to prevent them from using French ports.
By 1864, he was feeling quite good. He enjoyed a meal of fine French cooking with his wife and sat beside the fire to enjoy a glass of cognac when he received an odd letter from an unknown person that had been delivered to his caretaker’s lodge.
The letter read:
Sir: This is to inform you that your Secretary of Legation, Mr. Pennington, is jeopardizing your prestige and the honor of the United States by his scandalous liaison with the former Sophie Bricard, now known as Mrs. Eccles, a rebel spy. The undersigned knows for a fact that Pennington will be spending this evening alone with this ‘lady’ at her apartment at the Louvre Hotel. This ought to be stopped. It is your duty.
Mr. Dayton had, in fact, noted Mr. Pennington’s propensity to disappear at odd hours, but he presumed it was due to the social nature of his post. The young actress mentioned in the letter was well-known as a woman of ill repute. Imagining the scandal that would ensue and with a strong desire to protect The Union, Dayton took immediate action.
He went to the Louvre Hotel and charged up three flights of stairs. When a colored servant answered the door, Dayton asked to have a word with Mr. Pennington, declining to reveal his identity. At that point, Mrs. Eccles could be heard singing. She was shocked at the sight of Mr. Dayton and said that she was alone. “I beg your pardon,” Dayton reportedly said and then began to sway as if he would fall down. The young lady and her servant helped him into a chair and gave him a glass of brandy. As he recovered, Dayton explained his mission with candor.
Mrs. Eccles confessed that she had invested herself in the Southern Cause because the Yankees in Paris had given her a bad reputation. In fact, abolitionists referred to her as “The Jezebel of the Rebellion.” Yet, she soon found that the Southern gentlemen were “utter flatterers and hypocrites” who took care to avoid her, fearing that this woman of dubious morals would compromise the cause. She revealed to him letters from the consulate — with both Pennington and Bigelow’s signatures — that proved they were aware she had been a confederate spy, now handed over to the union.
According to the servant’s account, the woman opened a bottle of Champagne and the two spoke freely for some time. She began playing the piano and singing a tune from the play Florian, in which she had made her stage debut. Suddenly, Mr. Dayton fell from his chair — red-faced and tense, as though he had just suffered a stroke. The servant ran to fetch the concierge and find a doctor. Then, Mr. Pennington arrived at the scene and was shocked to find Dayton dead on the floor of his mistress’s apartment.
Realizing that a scandal was sure to follow, Mr. Pennington quickly arranged to have Dayton escorted via cab to the Legation of the United States. While it was an egregious offense to move a dead body without consulting the police, all parties involved agreed that it was “for the preservation of The Union” that this be done discreetly and without hesitation.
The next day, the newspaper reported that Mr. Dayton had died of an apoplectic stroke at the Legation. The true story came out years later when Sophie Brichart /”Mrs. Eccles” gave a notice titled, “The True Account of the Death of Minister Dayton” to Judge Walter Berry.
To this day, many questions remain unanswered. Who wrote the letter? Why did William L. Dayton go to the apartment to confront the couple, rather than waiting until the next morning to ask Mr. Pennington about the nature of his relations? Is there more to the story to indicate that Sophie and Mr. Dayton were having relations themselves and she called Mr. Pennington to help dispose of the body, when Mr. Dayton unexpectedly passed away from the exertion? We may never know for sure, but nevertheless, it’s a rather interesting tale from a Vice Presidential candidate who history has nearly forgotten.