I heard of Billie Clagget first about 1864 as a bright lawyer and marvelous orator of Humboldt County. An old California friend who lived in Humboldt county, but who was making a brief business visit to Virginia City, said to me : “We have a young man out in Humboldt whom you are going to hear about one of these days. He is the son of the famous Judge Clagget of Iowa, splendidly grounded in the law. but it is as a speaker that he is going to win. When he talks he is sometimes a whole orchestra playing, sometimes just a great baritone chanting a battle hymn with organ accompaniment.”
After a while we all knew him better. After Nevada was admitted into the Union his business often called him before the supreme court at Carson City. About 1866 he was a candidate for Congress, but so many of us had made pledges to help friends who were candidates that we had to beat him in convention, and have been grieving over it ever since.
The man nominated was a lawyer and in broad experience the superior of Clagget, but none of us loved him so much. Had any one else been defeated on that day we would all have forgotten it, but when Clagget’s defeat is thought of a feeling of sorrow is awakened yet in the hearts of the very few who are left of that convention.
I suspect it was that faculty of winning the sympathy for the cause he advocated, that gave the chiefest charm to his eloquence.
He was a fine lawyer and natural great orator, but he never made a masterful success because of certain idiosyncrasies of his mind.
For instance, his idea of his own political sagacity in the handling of a campaign was like Richelieu’s idea of his own poetry. He thought it the clearest evidence of his genius ; it was his utter weakness. An ordinary ward politician could beat all his combinations and shiver to atoms his most cherished plans.
He was often the same way about business matters. I remember that on one occasion he was sanguine that he had secured the key which was going to make him a millionaire. He explained it to me. He told me of the hundreds of thousands of acres of worn-out lands that were in the state of Virginia alone. He further explained that the land was not really worn out, but that because of the steady rotation of one crop certain of the original elements of the soil had been leached out or exhausted, that the alkali soil in places in Nevada possessed those very elements, and that with the alkali soil for a fertilizer the lands which were now practically almost valueless, would increase in value four or five hundred per cent.
I asked him how much of the fertilizer he proposed to apply to the acre. He replied, “Oh, some hundreds of pounds, you know, it will cost nothing here in Nevada.”
“But,” I asked, “how much will the freight upon it be from Nevada to Virginia?”
He had never thought of that.
He practiced law for a good many years and held his place up in the front rank of the marvelous bar of that state, but his charm was his eloquence. He had every attribute of an orator. His voice was glorious, there was a grace in every movement that was an enchantment and his mind was so equipped that he could draw his illustrations from every mine of knowledge. On the rostrum he was perfectly at home, while before a great, cheering crowd, one watching him thought instinctively of Job’s war horse, “whose neck was clothed with thunder” and “saith among the trumpets, Ha, Ha ; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains and the shouting.”
After a while he left Nevada and settled in Montana, when it was a territory. There the people sent him as a delegate to Congress. But a delegate from a territory has not much chance. He is expected to talk very little, save on questions pertaining to his own territory, and it must have been a torture to Clagget to listen in half-enforced silence as chump after chump, in a lumbering way, discussed themes which they but half understood and to which they could lend no inspiration.
After a while Clagget visited Salt Lake and because of illness in his family remained in that city several months the greater part of one winter.
Toward spring he told me one day that he was going to Oregon. I asked him if he believed that was a good state for a lawyer, whereupon he confided to me that he did not care about practicing law any more, but added : “I have money enough to buy 160 acres of land in Oregon and fix myself comfortably. I intend to plant 100 acres of the land to apples. There is no such country for apples as Oregon. I shall plant 100 trees to the acre, plant them wide apart, so they will have plenty of sunlight. After eight years they will bring me net $10 to the tree. There is never any failure of crops there. Ten dollars to the tree will give me $1,000 per acre, and 100 acres will make my income $100,000 per annum, and that is as good to a prudent man as a million.” It was a good thought.
I saw him three or four years later and he told me the climate of the Willamette valley was too damp for him, that it gave him rheumatism, and that he had made his home in Idaho.
Two or three years later he was a candidate for United States senator, and when the legislature met it was expected that he would be elected. The late O. I. Salisbury of Salt Lake City, who was very fond of him, went to Boise to help him.
He returned after two or three weeks and told me that it was no use ; that Clagget had a plan which he was sure would win and would take no advice from friends, and added the belief that he would be defeated, or if elected it would be in spite of Clagget’s management. He was defeated and two or three years later died. The greatest sorrow that his death caused his friends was the thought that he died without ever having found the place where what was greatest in him could be made clear. What was masterful and grand in him seemed always under the domination of that part of his brain that was not infrequently weak. Men with half his legal learning ; not half his scholarship, possessing not one tithe of his eloquence, have made for themselves immortal names.