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News February -March 2021


A politician who said more with fewer words

Maury Thompson


U.S. Rep. John Davis Long built his career as a politician and statesman in the late 19th century on his way with words.

The Massachusetts Republican was among those who talk less but say more, to paraphrase the words of an old Vermont proverb that became the title of a 1986 book by the University of Vermont professor Wolfgang Mieder.

“He was one of the most polished debaters in Congress, his speeches being noted for their literary excellence, and a dry humor which made him popular as a dinner speaker,” the Associated Press reported at the time of Long’s death on Aug. 28, 1915.

Long’s skill with words earned him a reputation beyond his native New England and, some said, distinguished him from many of his peers.

“The most anxious moment for a new member of Congress is just before he is to make a speech,” the Granville Sentinel of Granville, N.Y., wrote on April 30, 1886. “Some members are anxious at all times to get in the record, but these men generally do not make speeches. They simply interrupt others to ask questions ­­— sometimes very silly ones.”

When Long spoke on the House floor, his two “ardent admirers” often listened from the gallery.
“They are his pretty daughters, one about twenty-two and the other sixteen,” the Sentinel reported on May 21, 1886. “The elder is a typical Boston girl, dressed in exquisite taste, intellectual looking and wearing eyeglasses. The younger is a bright-eyed, red-cheeked young miss, who keeps up a constant chatter with her stately sister.”

A third young woman was expected to join the admirers in the gallery soon. Long, a widower, was engaged to marry Agnes Peirce, a 21-year-old schoolteacher from North Attleboro, Mass.
“Though Mr. Long is forty-seven years old, he looks rather younger,” the Sentinel wrote in an editorial. “Indeed, if it were not for that perpetual bane of public men, baldness, he would pass for thirty-five. The match is all for love, too.”

Long, who served three terms in Congress, from 1883 to 1889, and was governor of Massachusetts before that, was skilled as a writer as well as an orator. His friends continued to call him “Governor” throughout the rest of his life.

Long is perhaps best known today for his stint as secretary of the Navy during the Spanish American War, a role in which he clashed at times with his assistant secretary, Theodore Roosevelt.

It was Long who dispatched the message on April 25, 1898, to Commodore George Dewey, who was awaiting orders at Hong Kong: “War has commenced between Spain and the United States. Proceed at once to the Philippine Islands. Capture or destroy the Spanish ships. Use the utmost endeavor.”

Long was a poet, a playwright, an author and editor of books about military and political history. He also translated Virgil’s “Aeneid” into blank verse.

“In his speeches, Mr. Long has the literary gift of grace and poetic feeling, but still he has the power to comprehend and express the popular sentiment, not with effort, but from true understanding,” Mary E. Robbins wrote in a biographical essay published in 1915 in “A History of Buckfield, Oxford County, Maine.

Although Long was born in Maine, it was Massachusetts that claimed him as one of its distinguished orators.

“Boston … gets her great politicians and lawyers, Daniel Webster, Jeremiah Mason, Benjamin F. Butler, Henry W. Paine, the Hon. John Davis Long, Eben F. Pillsbury, from New Hampshire and Maine,” The Sun of New York City wrote on Jan. 31, 1886.
Long left Maine at age 14 to attend Harvard University, and he set up a legal practice in Massachusetts after graduating Harvard Law School.

Long retained a devotion to his birthplace of Buckfield, Maine, however. In 1900, he established a public library at Buckfield in memory of his father, Zadoc Long.

“We can see, though Buckfield was too small to long hold a man of his caliber, how his roots are there, how his heart ever returns thither,” Robbins wrote.


Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor, and media in the region.