« PreviousContinue »
tense feeling of patriotism, or that his noble utterances struck responsive chords in the hearts of his listeners. He had a theory that man can do fairly well anything that he honestly tries to do; his own practice was to undertake whatever work lay before him, and so extraordinary was the versatility of his great mental power that he did remarkably well whatever he undertook. He achieved distinction as an orator, a man of letters, a statesman, and a diplomatist, but the single title which describes him best is that of orator. Had he labored continuously in some chosen field he would have left behind him even a greater monument of his remarkable power than is to be found in his numerous speeches and orations.
FROM "THE CHARACTER OF WASHINGTON."
COMMON sense was eminently a characteristic of Washington; so called, not because it is so very common a trait of character of public men, but because it is the final judgment on great practical questions to which the mind of the community is pretty sure eventually to arrive. Few qualities of character in those who influence the fortunes of nations are so conducive both to stability and progress. But it is a quality which takes no hold of the imagination; it inspires no enthusiasm, it wins no favor; it is well if it can stand its ground against the plausible absurdities, the hollow pretences, the stupendous impostures of the day.
But, however these unobtrusive and austere virtues may be overlooked in the popular estimate, they belong unquestionably to the true type of sterling greatness, reflecting as far as it can be done within the narrow limits of humanity that deep repose and silent equilibrium of mental and moral power which governs the universe. To complain of the character of Washington that it is destitute of brilliant qualities, is to complain of a circle that it has no salient points and no sharp angles in its circumference ; forgetting that it owes all its wonderful properties to the unbroken curve of which every point is equidistant from the centre. Instead, therefore, of being a mark of infe
1 I was not aware, when I wrote this sentence, that I had ever read Dryden's “Heroic Stanzas consecrated to the Memory of bis Highness Oliver, late Lord Protector of this Commonwealth,
riority, this sublime adjustment of powers and virtues in the character of Washington is in reality its glory. It is this which chiefly puts him in harmony with more than human greatness. The higher we rise in the scale of being, material, intellectual, and moral,
the more certainly we quit the region of the brilliant eccentricities and dazzling contrasts which belong to a vulgar greatness. Order and proportion characterize the primordial constitution of the terrestrial sys
. tem ; ineffable barmony rules the heavens. All the great eternal forces act in solemn silence. The brawl, ing torrent that dries
with its roaring whirlpools in March; while the vast earth on which we dwell, with all its oceans and all its continents and its thousand millions of inhabitants, revolves unheard upon its soft axle at the rate of a thousand miles an hour, and rushes noiselessly on its orbit a million and a half miles a day. Two storm-clouds encamped upon opposite hills on a sultry summer's evening, at the expense of no more electricity, according to Mr. Faraday, than is evolved in the decomposition of a single drop of water, will shake the surrounding atmosphere with their thunders, which, loudly as they rattle on the spot, will yet not be heard at the distance of twenty miles; while those tremendous and unutterable forces which ever issue from the throne of God, and drag the chariot-wheels of Uranus and Neptune along the uttermost pathways of the solar system, pervade the illimitable universe in silence.
written after celebrating his funeral,” one of which is as fol
“ How shall I then begin or where conclude,
To draw a fame so truly circular,
When all the parts so equal perfect are 7 "
This calm and well-balanced temperament of Washington's character is not badly shadowed forth in the poet's description of Cicero:
“This magistrate hath struck an awe into mo,
In contumelies, makes a noise, and bursts.” 1 And did I say, my friends, that I was unable to furnish an entirely satisfactory answer to the question, in what the true excellence of the character of Washington consists ? Let me recall the word as unjust to myself and unjust to you. The answer is plain and simple enough ; it is this, that all the great qualities of disposition and action, which so eminently fitted him for the service of his fellow-men, were founded on the basis of a pure Christian morality, and derived their strength and energy from that vital source. He was great as he was good; he was great because he was good ; and I believe, as I do in my existence, that it was an important part in the design of Providence in raising him up to be the leader of the Revolutionary struggle, and afterwards the first President of the United States, to rebuke prosperous ambition and successful intrigue; to set before the people of America, in the morning of their national existence, a living example to prove that armies may be best conducted, and governments most ably and honorably administered, by men of sound moral principle; to teach to gifted and aspiring individuals, and the parties they lead, that, though a hundred crooked paths may con
1 Ben Jonson's Catiline.
duct to a temporary success, the one plain and straight path of public and private virtue can alone lead to a pure and lasting fame and the blessings of posterity.
Born beneath an humble but virtuous roof, brought up at the knees of a mother not unworthy to be named with the noblest matrons of Rome or Israel, the “good boy,” as she delighted to call him, passed uncorrupted through the temptations of the solitary frontier, the camp, and the gay world, and grew up into the good man. Engaging in early youth in the service of the country, rising rapidly to the highest trusts, office and influence and praise passing almost the bounds of human desert did nothing to break down the austere sim. plicity of his manners or to shake the solid basis of his virtues. Placed at the head of the suffering and discontented armies of his country, urged by the tempter to change his honest and involuntary dictatorship of influence into a usurped dictatorship of power, reluctantly consenting to one reëlection to the Presidency and positively rejecting a second, no suspicion ever crossed the mind of an honest man, let the libellers say what they would, for libellers I am sorry to say there were in that day as in this, men who pick their daily dishonorable bread out of the characters of men as virtuous as themselves, — and they spared not Washington, - but the suspicion never entered into the mind of an honest man, that his heart was open to the seductions of ambition or interest; or that he was capable in the slightest degree, by word or deed, of shaping his policy with a view to court popular favor or serve a selfish end ; that a wish or purpose ever entered his mind inconsistent with the spotless purity of his character.