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MR. MADISON BEGINS HIS LONG PUBLIC CAREER-THE
'HERE is no evidence that Mr. Madison ever
seriously contemplated entering one of the professions. The dissenters from the Church of England were neither numerous nor respectable in Virginia at the time he took his Bachelor's degree at Princeton, and it is quite evident that, for the clergy of the establishment, he had little esteem. Constitutional law and history he studied extensively at this period, but this had a direct bearing on the extraordinary tendencies of the times, and did not point to his professional inclinations. The study of the law in its small and every-day business applications had no attractions for Mr. Madison. His object was very different. The circumstances of his family favored any view of life he was likely to adopt for himself. And the condition of the British American colonies pointed to the no uncertain demand about to be made on American talent in a way thereto unknown. Without departing from the respectable and peaceful pursuits of his family, Mr. Madison was carefully preparing himself for the great struggle which was to give rise to a race of statesmen in the New World.
Resistance to the Stamp Act, and other so-called encroachments, had given way to a comparative quiet only to be succeeded by more alarming events in colonial history. Britain still claimed the right to tax America, and, in the few calm years, the colonists had earnestly fostered the spirit of resistance. In 1773, the conflict broke out with increased power from the attempt of the “home government” to force cargoes of duty-imposed teas upon the colonies. But the tea was thrown into the sea or sent back to England. The British people were amazed at this unheard of spectacle in human conduct, and set about at once preparing other means of irritating the stubborn Americans.
In the following year the famous bill for closing the port of Boston was put into effect. This was looked upon, on this side, as a direct stroke at the liberties of all the colonies, and made a common cause
Virginia immediately exhibited her hand. The House of Burgesses entered into pledges to resist British taxation, and sent out a call for a general congress of all the insulted and burdened colonies. A Virginia convention was also appointed to meet on the first day of August, 1774, at Williamsburg.
This convention met, and its members pledged themselves not to import British merchandise after the 1st of November, and not to send exports to England after the 10th of August, of the following year. At this meeting delegates were appointed to represent the colony in the first session of the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, in September, 1774.
The aspect of affairs in the “Old Dominion became warlike. In the fall and winter of 1774 independent military companies were organized in most of the counties; and the general preparations for de
fense were accompanied and pointed by strong notes of dissatisfaction with the course of the British government. All this activity in Virginia was the source, indeed, of the lazy Patrick Henry's inspiration, and was, of course, in advance of his praiseworthy efforts in the convention at Richmond, in the spring of 1775. The colony of Virginia was filled with as brave men as Mr. Henry, but with few having his lack of caution. When the fire had been kindled, fortunately for his reputation, his thunder only could be heard in the remote parts of America.
County committees were appointed over the State, whose duty it was to organize the militia and other resources. At the head of the committee for Orange County was James Madison, Sen., and in this committee his son, James, first began to take an active place in the history of the times. He was a member of the committee, and the author of most of its written reports, resolutions, and acts, some of which exhibit more of the belligerent and vindictive spirit than could ever again, in riper years, be found in the writings and conduct of Mr. Madison.
While a member of this Orange County commitiee Mr. Madison, in the letter of January 20, 1775, to Mr. Bradford, a part of which is given in the preceding chapter, says that it was the judgment of Virginia politicians generally that the State should prepare for the worst, and that by spring the committees would have several thousands of trained men, men of principle and determination, ready for any emergency.
This was two months or more before Mr. Henry, on the 20th of March, in the Richmond Convention, gave vehement tongue to the note of preparation which had gone before him, but which erroneously went mainly or wholly to his credit in the history and tradition of the times.
At the opening of the Revolution Virginians made the same use of the term “gentleman” which has always been in vogue in England. It was simply a matter of blood. Men of family and wealth only were “gentlemen.” To some extent, this contemptible usage prevailed in other colonies, especially to the south.
Without stopping to inquire whether Patrick Henry belonged to that class or not, it sounds strangely enough to hear him saying in the resolution of March, 1775, in the convention, “A well-regulated militia, composed of gentlemen and yeomen, is the natural strength and only security of a free government.”
Although these “gentlemen” had been planted in this colony by ancestors who had been zealous supporters of the British Crown, and prided themselves on their loyalty and their similarity to the “home government,” yet it was perfectly in keeping with their character to be among the first and most stubborn enemies of that country, when they believed themselves to be unjustly and injuriously pressed. Notwithstanding the special differences in the origin of the people of this colony and those of Massachusetts, they led, side by side, in support of the cause of the colonies in the struggle for national independence.
The Cavaliers enjoyed peculiar and exalted privileges from the Crown in England, and this fact begat pride and independence, not submissiveness. Their descendants and followers in Virginia, besides inheriting these traits, acquired a vigorous, stately, and domineering character by their patriarchal or baronial style of life. They were the last men who could brook aggression of any kind, from any source. Naturally chivalrous, they readily made common cause with the other colonies; and only required the indiscreet, tyranical, and finally piratical, conduct of the last royal governor to fan them into armed defiance and war.
While the moral tone of the “gentlemen” of Virginia may not always have been, strictly speaking, up to that of the Puritan New Englanders, and their indolent and careless lives compared unfavorably, in some respects, with those of the eastern colonists, yet all things in their circumstances combined to make them honorable, courageous, high-minded, independent thinkers. Without this race of cultured, bold, knightly men, writing the history of the Revolution would have been an easier task. Yet it would be a fruitless task to undertake to draw an invidious balance between the men of that period, at the North and the South, or to show that a vast proportion of the fire, spirit, and force of the great struggle, from first to last, did not spring out of and depend upon the strong, virtuous, brave, principle-loving, and noble old Puritan character.
Yet the province of this work is not to compare, but to place the colonies, their people, generally, and their leading men, in that light which the actual condition of the case and the importance of events seem most truly to indicate.
As in other colonies, so in Virginia, affairs were fast approaching a crisis. In resisting the course of the governor, Mr. Henry was fortunate enough to put himself in great favor, and was appointed by the con