MOUNT VERNON -- We tend to think of dramatic things bringing down political careers: scandal, assassination, unpopularity.
But for Mount Vernon's Robert C. Kirk, disgrace was a lesson in self-deflation: His own pride did him in.
Robert Crothers Kirk was born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, in 1821, and made strong strides in the early years of his business career, which saw him settling in Mount Vernon and operating a dry goods store that sold Kirk's own special-recipe elixir.
He became interested in politics, and worked his way up rather quickly to the elected post of Democratic state senator. But as the new Republican party began to emerge, Kirk — a strong abolitionist — changed his allegiance, causing the Mount Vernon Democratic Banner editor Lecky Harper to call Kirk “a blustering, brainless demogogue.”
The Republicans, however, were on the rise, and Kirk was rising with them. In 1859, he was put on the ballot with William Dennison, who won election as Ohio's governor, with Kirk as his lieutenant governor. It was a precipitous climb for Robert Kirk.
But Kirk's ambitions weren't done.
He circulated his name for diplomatic posts, and thus in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln selected Kirk for the post of Minister (what we today would call “Ambassador”) to Argentina. He managed to both engineer deals where Argentina repaid the U.S. for old debts dating back as far as 1814, while at the same time hitting it off personally with the Argentinian president, Bartolomé Mitre.
Kirk's future as a diplomat looked promising.
Unfortunately, like many Republicans of the time, Kirk did not get along well with Abraham Lincoln's successor, the southern politician Andrew Johnson, and as his relationship with the home office grew rocky. Kirk was either dismissed from his post or voluntarily left. But Johnson himself didn't last long in Washington, D.C.
The unpopular president was swept out of office by the incoming war-hero president, Ulysses S. Grant.
Seeing his opportunity, Kirk threw his hat back into the ring, and by popular acclaim of many of Grant's advisors (including U.S. Senator John Sherman of Mansfield), and also apparently by enthusiasm in Argentina, Kirk was returned to his post, this time with a dual appointment also making him Minister to Uruguay, another South American nation.
At this point, Kirk's diplomatic career was thriving, and it would have been expected that he'd eventually be moved on to other, more prominent posts. This, however, was where Kirk's pride got in the way. When his Uruguay post was taken from him in 1870 and given to another diplomat named Stevens, Kirk was offended.
He decided to do something about it.
One of Grant's most trusted advisors was also a Mount Vernon man, Columbus Delano, who was serving as Secretary of the Interior under President Grant. Delano was a mover and shaker, a real power behind the thrones held by the Republican party in the 1860s and 1870s.
Indeed, he may well have been instrumental in getting Kirk noticed by Lincoln in the first place. Kirk wrote Delano and said that he wanted to resign his post in Argentina. He said he would prefer being appointed to a more distinguished post such as Brazil, or even Portugal in Europe.
“Delano,” Kirk wrote, “every American in this part of S. America feels that the appointment of Stevens was an act of great injustice to me — and I can say to you, confidentially, that he has no influence whatsoever, and the Americans have no respect for him.”
Instead of keeping it confidential, Delano forwarded Kirk's letter along to the Secretary of State, who had appointed Stevens. Delano must have been frustrated with Kirk not playing the political game of flattery and favors, so he simply forwarded the letter, noting Kirk's wishes, but not endorsing them.
To put Kirk in his place, the Assistant Secretary of State J.C. Bancroft Davis wrote him a frosty little letter:
“The Secretary of the Interior has communicated to this Department a copy of the letter which you addressed to him under date the 10th of June, last, in which you offer your resignation to the office of Minister Regent to the Argentine Confederation. A copy of the letter was also communicated by Mr. Delano to the President, who directs me to say that your resignation is accepted.”
And, just like that, Robert C. Kirk was out of the diplomatic corps.
He returned to Mount Vernon, chastened, and inquired about any other possible federal appointments. President Grant took pity on him and offered him a position as regional tax collector, a far fall from international diplomacy.
Kirk knew that he had shot his career in the foot.
In 1875, he appealed to Grant.
“I am very grateful for what you have done for me, and I know I committed a great mistake, when I resigned my mission at Buenos Ayres! I ask you to give me the mission to Belgium.
"It is a small matter to you but it is so important to me. I know you have a warm heart, and when you can confer happiness, you will gladly do it. God knows I have always discharged my duties faithfully, honestly, and to the credit of my Government.”
That last bit seems to be an indirect reference to the scandals that plagued Grant's second term in office. While the general himself was scrupulously honest, the same wasn't being said about many of the other people in his administration — Columbus Delano included.
As Kirk continues, his tone gets more desperate and he even talks about Grant's problems.
“Oh! Mr President, I know the cares and duties which surround you, and I don't wish to importune you or annoy you, but I make this my last appeal, and ask you to grant my request.”
But perhaps Grant already saw Robert Kirk as being too closely connected with Columbus Delano, despite their falling out. No appointment was forthcoming. No other diplomatic commission would ever be forthcoming for Kirk.
He lived out his days in Mount Vernon, dying in 1898. One wonders if anyone at that late date in Argentina remembered the American who brought the two nations closer together.
Robert Kirk's Italianate villa house still stands at the corner of Newark and Kirk.
The house was built in 1868 for Jonathan Weaver, then later passed to Percival Updegraff, a relative of Weaver's wife. Robert Kirk bought it in 1882 and lived the rest of his life there. The Kirk family sold the building to Harry Strodtbeck in 1924, then it came to the Dowds family in 1953, who opened it as a funeral parlor, still operating today.