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Sketches of the Virginia Convention of 1829-30.
BY HUGH R. PLEASANTS.
upon the walls around him. He must never lose his self-possession for one moment, or for one moment cease to remember that he is in the presence of an adversary who is always ready to take advantage of his slightest mistake. He must have a quickness of thought resembling inspiration, a promptness of decision like intuition, and a readiness of speech nearly allied to improvisation. Such a man was Charles James Fox, the most powerful debater, probably, that the world ever saw. He is said to have declared that his marvellous promptitude in debate was the result of long practice; that he came into the House of Commons determined to make himself a debater; that in order to do so, he spoke upon all occasions; that for five years he worried the House beyond expression; but that he finally succeeded in that which had been the great aim of his life.
The imperfect sketches of a few leading characters who figured in that illustrious body which framed the present Constitution of Virginia, having met with far more favor than the writer had any reason to expect, he has been induced to continue them. It is proper to say, that in disentombing these reminiscences of a by-gone day, he shall be careful to say nothing which shall offend any human being. When he can find nothing good to say of a distinguished personage. he will pass him over in silence. There were many persons, too, of distinction, whom he had not the pleasure of hearing speak, and of whom, If the late Wm. B. GILES was not so great a consequently, he can say nothing; for these debater as Fox, at least he had uo superior in the sketches are designed only to convey an impres. Ainerican Congress during his time, and that sion of what the writer saw with his own eyes, time embraced the best days of Madison, Bayard, and heard with his own ears. If the previous Dexter, and a hundred others, who have a right
will let me alone until I am dead."
career of any person coming under his notice be to be esteemed giants by us, who are posterity to alluded to, it will only be by way of illustration. them. There were some who could make au arHe will take care, in the meantime, to bring no gument as powerful-there were others who living character before the public, sympathising could speak as readily, and with as little prepadeeply with Chief Justice Marshall, who, when tiou—but there were none who combined the two told that some person was writing his biography, excellencies in so remarkable a degree-none said, with considerable agitation, "I hope they who could so successfully combat a new view of any question, sprung suddenly and in the very heat of discussion. He caught every movement of the sort, at the very first hop; he had no occasion to ask for an adjournment in order to collect his ideas. He was ready for the debate the instant the question was sprung upon him, and it made no difference to him whether he was caught in a parliamentary ambush, or had to fight the regular forces of his adversaries fore
Greece and Rome were both famed for the great orators to whom they had given birth. In his peculiar style of eloquence, it is doubtful whether either Demosthenes or Cicero has ever had an equal, even to this day. From the very nature of the occasions on which they spoke, their orations were set speeches, elaborated with the utmost care. They addressed popular assemblages, for the most part, and their style of speak-warned and forearmed. We have heard that on ing, therefore, more nearly resembles the stump some occasions, during the administration of the speaking of the present day than the eloquence elder Adams, Mr. Madison had prepared notes which may be expected in the British Parliament to answer a great speech made by some great or in our Congress. We doubt very much Federal leader, but was taken sick on the night whether the Greeks or Romans had any idea of before he was to have replied. As it was of the what we called a debater; of a man who does utmost importance that a reply should be made, not put his faith in long preparation, and elabo- he sent for Mr. Giles, and placing his notes in rate set speaking; but who is always ready, upon his hands entrusted the cause to his care. His the spur of the moment, to enter into any debate confidence was not misplaced. for with the little which may spring up, no matter what may be its time allowed him, Mr. G. made one of the ablest tendency, or what his previous degree of intimacy speeches which, at that day, had ever been made with the subject. The Anglo-Saxon Legislative in either House of Congress. bodies have given rise to this character, and it is At the time of the Couvention, Mr. Giles was doubtful whether he can be found anywhere else. Governor of Virginia. He was, moreover, sufIf he hopes to rise to the head of his class, he fering under the effects of long continued ill health; must possess qualities and talents of a very high but as it was understood that his mind still reand a very peculiar order. He must be as cool tained its elasticity, and his energy was altoand as calm, upon all occasions, as the pictures gether unimpaired by his sufferings, his old con
stituents of the Amelia District resolved once, many a local reputation. The cause was obvimore to trust their rights in his hands. We re- ous enough. The people turned out en masse collect to have heard him speak but once during every where, and sent their ablest men to reprethe session of the Convention, but we could very sent them. Party animosity and party preferenwell conceive that in his palmy days he must have ces were buried for the time. Persons, who for been a host in himself. It was in the great de- years had heen buried beneath the weight of bate to which we have more than once alluded, their obnoxious federal politics, were once more and which, as we never heard any thing like it. brought out upon an arena from which federal we feel sometimes disposed to call the combat of politics were excluded. Nothing was required the giants; for the smallest man engaged in the in the successful candidate but a character for conflict was a head and shoulders taller than the integrity and the acknowledged possession of majority of great men belonging to the present undoubted talents. In this way the State had era. His style of speaking was very different collected in one body all its best men. The from any thing we saw, even at that day, and man, therefore, who had only been great among evidently belonged to another period. He in small men, stood every chance of being small dulged in none of the frantic gesticulations with among great men. Nothing but talent of a high which orators of the present and of a long prece-order could make a reputation in that illustrious ding day, are and were wont to give force to their body, or secure one already made. It was the arguments. He neither vociferated until he was last place in the world for mediocrity to show unintelligible, nor grew hoarse of utterance, nor off, and the small man who attempted it was as became red in the face, nor sweated like a cart-uuwise as the knight of doubtful prowess, who, horse in the effort to give birth to his ideas. His in order to acquire lasting renown, should have manner resembled that of a man engaged in ear-enlisted among the Paladins of Charlemagne. nest conversation-his tone was animated, as Let him do what he might he was sure to find his genius rose, but it never became harsh or his match, and more than his match, in those boisterous. His words appeared to flow in a around him. What might have immortalized continued, uninterrupted, lucid stream, strong, it him on a less memorable field was scarcely nois true, but strong without fury-pregnant with ticed there. thought, but full without overflowing. The great powers of his understanding were apparent, from the very marked effect which he produced upon the Convention.
Among those who came off with fame not only undiminished, but even greatly enhanced, was PHILIP P. BARBOUR. This distinguished gentleman may indeed claim to rank among the very highest of those who made that Convention
The character of Mr. Giles' mind, and his peculiar tastes. qualified him in a very eminent so illustrious. He came to it with a repudegree for the part of a great debater. Contro- tation established by long experience in Conversy was the very element in which he existed. gress, where he had stood among the highest of Those who knew him in private life have often those great speakers who gave a tone and vigor spoken to us of this peculiar trait. If his speech- to the debates of that body in the times that imes. in the manner of their delivery, resembled pri- mediately succeeded the war of 1812. His vate conversation, so his conversation had very strength was well understood in the Convention, much the character of public speaking. He de- for his career had been so long national, that it lighted to introduce, in the private circle, topics was perfectly familiar to all. When, in conseof debate, which were, at the time agitating the quence of the inability of the illustrious gentlecountry, and he discussed them with all the en- man, who had been first chosen as President of thusiasm of a veteran soldier, fighting over his the body on account of the feebleness natural to battles by the fire-side. His memory was a per- his great age, to preside over its deliberations, fect record of all the events which had occurred he declined to serve any longer in that capacity, from the formation of the Federal Constitution; Mr. B. was chosen in his place. The Convenand where prejudice or passion, too often the in- tion had had an opportunity to estimate his tafirmity of great minds, did not warp his judg-leuts at their true value, for he had spoken on ment, no man was more capable of illustrating one or two of the questions which were before them, by argument, by anecdote, by reference to it. He had, moreover, presided over the House facts, and by deductions from first principles. of Representatives with great credit to himself There are few names upon the roll of that Con- and was well known to possess every requisite vention which will stand higher than his, when necessary to a presiding officer. Virginia shall have begun to make up herjewels.
Logical acuteness was the distinctive characteristic of Mr. B.'s mind, and it was that which prevailed throughout every speech which he the Convention of 1829-30 was the grave of ever made in Congress, in the Convention, or at
It was very justly said by John Randolph that
the bar. No man could reason from premises to of exercise, and no great actor ventures before conclusion with more unerring certainty, or was an audience without having first gone through a less liable to be diverted from his path by the rehearsal. To neither of these classes is habit chicanery of an adversary. The view which he of more importance than it is to that of public took of a subject was never very broad, but it speakers. The strongest mind loses its elasticiwas always strong, and he maintained it with au ty, for want of exercise, as certainly as machinery ability corresponding with its natural strength. of any description grows rusty from long neglect He was a most formidable adversary in argument, and disuse. When Mr. Calhoun returned to as we have heard from those who had the best the Councils of the Nation, after an absence of opportunities of estimating his powers. If there fifteen years, we have heard it said that those was any fault to be found with the material of who had known him in former days were much his public speeches, it may be said to have con- disappointed at the exhibition which he made. sisted in an inveterate habit of refining. The His mind had lost none of its original power, peculiar structure of his mind, and the skill which but the habit of thinking upon his legs had escalong habit had imparted, in handling the weapon ped, and it required several efforts before he of logic, no doubt led him into this error. From could recover it. True, he found it at last, and indulging in it too freely, he sometimes took what surpassed all that he had been in former days, the law-books call “a distinction without a dif- but there are few who would have had the perseference," and wandering through all the mazes verance necessary to success in such an attempt. of metaphysics, lost himself and his hearers. This want of the habit of public speaking was in a cloud of abstractions. In the Convention, very conspicuous in several of the older memhowever, his speeches bore none of these char-bers of the Convention, and in none more than acteristics. They were pithy, concentrated, and in Mr. MONROE. It is well known that he was to the purpose. Few men of Mr. Barbour's day, never a very eloquent speaker; but in former and not a great many since, possessed so great a days his speeches were said to be remarkable for capacity for labor, which after all, is the true se- plain common sense, expressed in clear and incret of greatness. No task, however herculean.elligible language. He had entirely lost this, no staggered or discouraged him. He took hold of doubt from long disuse, before he came to the it with a willingness that indicated rather a plea- Convention. His ideas appeared to be confusure in labour. He never thought of failing. sed, his delivery awkward, his manner perplexed. As a judge he was remarkable for the prompt and his whole demeanor that of a man overness with which he discharged his duties, and whelined by the magnitude of his subject. To the readiness with which he decided questions of have judged from his speeches on the floor, one the most complex character. This arose as much might very well have supposed that he had no from natural acuteness as from the state of pre-clear perceptions upon any subject, and that he paration in which his habits of close application had not mastered the particular one upon which always left him. he was engaged for the time being.
In his day, while at the bar, Mr. Barbour scarcely met with a rival, in his own portion of the State. Even now, his forensic efforts are remembered, and spoken of with admiration, in all that region of country. In Congress, the greatest effort which he ever made was his speech against the tariff in 1824. The Washington papers of that day pronounced it one of the ablest speeches ever delivered in Congress, and that it deserved this high praise there cannot be a quesSuch moreover, must have been the opin ion of Mr. Clay, the great father of the bill, for he thought it necessary to reply to it especially, and on that occasion delivered his celebrated speech upon the American system.
Surely in recalling these great names, we may say, with the Book of Genesis, "there were giants in those days.”
We have observed that all great singers keep themselves in constant practice, doubtless, lest the voice should lose its elasticity for the want
Yet those who know the history of Mr. Monroe, are well aware that such was not the character of his mind. He was eminently a man of action; he saw his way clearly in every difficulty, political or diplomatic, and though he might not be able to point it out to others, he never lost it himself. In this respect he resembled the English statesman Castlereagh, who, if the account of Lord Brougham is to be credited, was the least luminous of all speakers that ever addressed the House of Commons. He formed a perfect contrast to his great rival and enemy, Canning, who was the most polished of speakers, the most attic of wits, the most entertaining of raconteurs. Yet when the time for action came, the masterspirit developed itself at once in Castlereagh. He managed the helm with the boldness of a pilot who delighted in the excitement of tempest and danger, while his more eloquent adversary, if left to himself in the hour of peril, would soon have run the vessel on a shoal, or have caused her to founder at sea. The reader who has been
educated in the highest reverence for Canning's The influence which early association with exname, need only read the Gurwood publications ternal objects may insensibly exercise over the to be convinced of his total inefficiency in the minds of individuals, in giving to them the pecuhour of trial, and may learn how near he came liar bias which they maintain through life, is a to neutralizing the great abilities and splendid subject well worth the attention of philosophers. fortunes, even of Wellington, in the Peninsula The youth of Sir Walter Scott was familiar with campaigns. He was in fact a far more danger- the wild scenes which he transferred from his ous enemy to that great General than Soult or memory to his novels, as a painter sketches to Massena, and it required the full exercise of all the life the landscape which lies before him. The his talents, backed by the strong common sense genius of Burns was kindled by the homely of Castlereagh, to escape from the formidable scenes of rural happiness amid which he had difficulties in which the man of rhetoric involved been born and reared. The tender years of him and the cause he was sent to uphold. From Byron were passed amidst the wild scenes which this the world might learn, if it would learn any abound in the Northern portion of the British thing from the experience of the past, that the Isles, or in sight of that ocean which he aposbest talkers are not always the best statesmen, trophised in a language resembling inspiration, and that to make a speech, which shall carry a and the play of whose wild waters were to him deliberative body by acclamation, is one thing; always intensely exciting. How far these early to conduct a great war to a successful issue is associations may have assisted to give tone to another, and a very different one. the writings of these extraordinary men of genius, whether the natural turn of their minds led them to worship the features of nature, whether that turn was created by accidental association, or whether both may not have had their action and re-action in forming characters so full of poetry and romance, are questions upon which we feel no disposition to enter. We see the tree and its fruits in full perfection. While we enjoy the beauty and the taste, we are contented to let them pass without curiously inquiring into the nature of the soil.
Fortunately for this country. James Madison seems to have been well aware of this distinction; for in the darkest crisis of the war of 1812. after the Capitol had been burned, he dismissed from his councils Armstrong, the unrivalled political satirist, and the most indifferent of War Secretaries, to make room for James Monroe, a man who dealt not in figures of speech, and had a sovereign contempt for flowers of rhetoric, but who knew how to raise an army, to keep it in the field, and to provide for its being well commanded. Wits laughed at his public papers, and Congressmen made themselves merry at the expense of his sentences. He said nothing. He was like old Suwarrow, at the siege of Ismail, when the regimental wags laughed at him for drilling his recruits to charge certain posts dressed up with flowing robes and turbans, like Turkish soldiers:
Among the most eminent men of the Convention was the great Western orator, PHILIP DODDRIDGE. The early life of this remarkable man had been passed in what was at that day the Great West. Some of the grandest scenes of Nature-the lofty mountain-the precipitous torrent-the primeval magnificence of an unbroken forest-were the familiar acquaintances of his childhood. What effect they may have had upon the mind of a highly educated boy, of uncommon genius, and of an imagination peculiarly sensitive to every manifestation of the vast and sublime, we are not prepared to say. But his eloquence always appeared to us of a different character from that of any other man we have heard speak. There was a freshness about it, which indicated an early habit of self-depenThough no orator, Mr. M. was, nevertheless, dence, not to be found associated with minds that listened to with great respect in the Convention. had grown to maturity, like the foot of the ChiAnd he was entitled to be thus listened to. He nese child, shackled and stunted by the bonds of had filled the highest offices. had been twice custom. He evidently thought for himself, and elected President of the United States, and had the habit of thus thinking gave a breadth to his conducted one of the most successful adminis-views, and a boldness to his language, which trations the country had ever known. In spite sometimes startled the tamer denizen of the city. of his embarrassed manner, and awkward de- He had lived to see the wild luxuriance of Nalivery, these facts denoted him to be no ordinary ture in his own region supplanted by the softer man, and his fame had already been placed be- beauties of cultivation : the wilderness had given yond the reach of accident. place to the well-tilled field, or the flourishing
"He made no answer, but he took the city."
Mr. Monroe made no answer, but he provided an army which swept every thing before it. He knew men well, and he rarely failed to make a good selection. Under his auspices the country recovered from its humiliation, and New Orleans soon followed.
town; the garden had been made to blossom | hesitation. In this respect he differed from the like the rose; and his own intellect, progressing large majority of our orators, who, as a class were with the region in which it had been fostered, aptly described by the celebrated Gen. Blackhad received all the advantages of culture, with- burn in a figure which, though applied by him to out losing the grand, original landmarks, by which an individual, admits of a very wide application. it had been so eminently distinguished. "The gentleman," he said, "reminds me of a carpenter, who has all his tools spread before him; but with a strange ignorance of his trade, when he wishes to bore a hole he catches up a broad-axe."
There was no man in all that Convention
whose great mental and moral qualities, in spite
Mr. Doddridge has been called, perhaps with too little reflection, the Patrick Henry of Western Virginia. We say with too little reflection; for if half that is said of Patrick Henry be true, it is doubtful whether the world ever, it is certain that Virginia never, saw either his equal or his like. But there were in these two extraordinary of a single weakness, which greatly impaired his usefulness, more thoroughly commanded the respect of friend and foe. On one occasion, (we have been told, for we were not present,) they drew forth an eloquent encomium from John Randolph, with all his genius, the least tolerant of
men many points of resemblance. Each may claim for himself the title accorded to one of them, that of the "forest-born Demosthenes." Each had matured in solitude the fruit of those reflections, the germ of which had been planted by the hand of the Creator. Each drew his inspiration from that source which the favorite of Nature never finds exhausted. In knowledge of men, and of the means of reaching their hearts, the great Eastern orator remains, and must ever remain, without an equal, at least among those who profess the art of which he was the master. But the eloquence of Mr. Doddridge was like bis, an imitation of no man. It was derived
only from his own mind, and it ceased with him. Like Patrick Henry, he remains alike inimitable and unimitated.
between the two sections of the State, (and it In spite of the exasperation which existed at one time mounted so high that separation was openly spoken of,) he retained the respect, and, it is believed, even the regard of all. His heart was in the right place, and was in every respect worthy of the noble intellect with which God had endowed him. It is so rare a thing to behold worth, that the most bigoted of mankind are great mental endowments united with high moral compelled to pay homage to him in whose person they are found.
The language of Mr. Doddridge, with all its impetuosity, was remarkable for its classical purity. He violated no rule of grammar or of philology, in giving vent to his powerful and impassioned thoughts. No rhetorician could find the slightest flaw, after the most rigid scrutiny, in the texture of his imagery, the congruity of his figures, or the consistency of his argument. The stream of his eloquence resembled one of his native mountain torrents-small in the beginning-gathering volume as it progresses-sweeping all obstacles before it as it rolls along-but as clear and as transparent, in the full majesty of
The West has great cause to be proud of Philip Doddridge. He was a child of their own raising-a specimen, and a noble one, of the Western man in the nearest approach to perfection that can be attained by high moral and intellectual culture bestowed upon great natural abilities. Next to Chapman Johnson, he was the ablest of of all their champions, and we doubt, indeed, whether he was inferior to him. He possessed certain intellectual properties which that great man did not pretend to, while he was scarcely inferior in those by which he was most eminently
which it had its origin. We have never seen any person who had words more entirely at command, or whose words were more indissolubly wedded to the meaning they were designed to convey. We have never thought of his style of speaking, within the last few years, without being irresistibly reminded of the distinction which Charles James Fox, the most candid and least envious of men, drew between his own oratory and that of bis great rival. "I," said he, "can always find a word; but Pitt always finds the word." So it was Along with the large majority of those great with Mr. Doddridge. He always used the word-men who, on whichsoever side of the question the very word, which of all others was best suited they were arrayed, supported the reputation of to the occasion, and he picked it up without the Virginia, Mr. Doddridge has been gathered to slightest embarrassment, or the most momentary his fathers. Scarcely twenty-one years have
its irresistible strength, as the crystal fountain in distinguished. He found his true place among the intellectual giants with which the Convention brought him in contact, and the excitement of his position was so pleasing, that we have heard some of his friends say they had never known his spirits so elastic, his countenance so animated, or his mind so cheerful and contented; another proof, if any farther were wanting, that intellectual pleasures, while they are the most ennobling, are likewise enjoyed with the keenest relish of all others whatsoever.