Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

from Mount Vernon to his friends and correspondents. The feeling approaching to despair, which he uttered in confidence in the darkest days of the war, before the battle of Trenton, had something far more placid and less painful than the bitterness of disappointment and distrust occasioned by what seemed so like popular degeneracy in a season of safety. The letters of Washington serve another purpose,

in completing a biographical impression which often is incomplete-made so by the very awe which his character inspires. The most usual idea of that character is perhaps that which presents it in a kind of marmoreal purity and majestic repose; a truthful idealizing of those high and heroic attributes of his nature which lift him, if not above, into a lofty region of humanity; such a conception as a great American sculptor has embodied in marble, and which Southey had in his thoughts, when, in one of his lyrics, he spake of America as the land

“Where Washington hath left
His awful memory,

A light for after times.”* It is in no contradiction to, but in perfect harmony with, this aspect of his character, that other phases of it are visible in his letters. The same sense of duty and lofty self-respect, which at times produced a passionless and im. perturbable dignity, admit at other times the utterance of a vehement and righteous indignation, or a placid and half-humorous tenderness for some amiable frailty of a fellow-being. This, too, is made manifest, that in all his large and varied intercourse with men, there was no repul

* Southey's Works, vol. iii. p. 221.

sive or oppressive dignity, but a genial and modest communion with them, and even an affectionate fellowship with those who were closely associated with him in the public service or in private life. In short, the letters show, what history cannot do, the gentle side of the great man's nature, which endeared him to all who came within the influence of it; there is proof of this in a little incident which might easily have perished out of the memories of men, if it had not been witnessed by one upon whose genuine delicacy of feeling it was not lost, and who wisely judged it worthy of record. The incident is so simple, and Bishop White's little narrative of it is given with such graceful simplicity, that I almost fear the feeling cannot be communicated by repetition. It was in a letter to the biographer of Washington that Bishop White communicated what

may

be entitled an

a

ANECDOTE CONCERNING PRESIDENT WASHINGTON.

“On the day before his leaving the presidential chair, a large company dined with him. Among them were the foreign ministers and their ladies, Mr. and Mrs. Adams, Mr. Jefferson, with other conspicuous persons of both sexes. During the dinner much hilarity prevailed; but on the removal of the cloth, it was put an end to by the President-certainly without design. Having filled his glass, he addressed the company, with a smile on his countenance, as nearly as can be recollected, in the following terms: "Ladies and gentleman, this is the last time I shall drink your health as a public man. I do it with sincerity, and wishing you all possible happiness.'

There was an end to all pleasantry. . He who gives this relation

accidentally directed his eye to the lady of the British minister, (Mrs. Liston,) and tears were running down her cheeks."*

I have referred to this as proof of that blending of the gentle with more impressive traits of character, which may be seen in Letters and not on

the

pages of history.

The letters of Dr. Franklin were in like manner remarkable for their extended historical interest-more extended indeed than Washington's, both in time and place, for the correspondence, continuing nearly as late, began much earlier, and carries the reader, therefore, further back into colonial society; it was enlarged, too, by a long and renewed European residence, first in England, with intercourse with Lord Chatham and other British statesmen friendly to the colonial cause, and to Franklin personally; and afterwards in France, where the sagacious and simply-attired republican was a fashionable novelty, caressed by the nobles and ladies of the court of Louis the Sixteenth. The letters of Franklin have also an additional interest by his connection with that large community, the society of men of science, not limited to the soil of any country. It is a correspondence which has further attraction, as showing that fine mastery which Franklin—by the help of a plain but substantial education, by

[ocr errors]

* Dr. Wilson's Memoir of Bishop White. p. 191. Let me here record the expression of my regret that the editor of a work published lately in this country called “The Republican Court,” (p. 305,) should have preserved, on very uncertain, and, to my mind doubtful, tradition, an anecdote of Washington's violence of language and temper in most painful contrast with this anecdote W. B. R.

native sagacity, and continued culture-acquired in the use of good English speech.*

The American diplomatic correspondence of that period is interesting, too, as containing the impressions of sagacious men trained in the simplicity of republican life, (for the British colonies in America were virtually republics before independence;) such men brought into contact with artificial European society, and with political systems fast tending towards the great revolutionary convulsions at the close of the last century. It is not the least instructive portion of American state-papers, which somewhat later describes the progress of the French Revolution, as it appeared to one with high-toned, aristocratic political views, like Mr. Gouverneur Morris, or to one with democratic inclinations, like Mr. Monroe, and whose letters have respectively recorded what they witnessed in revolutionary Paris.

It is an easy and natural transition from the statesmen of the American Revolution to one who, in Parliament, was the friend and advocate of America in the hour of need—the Earl of Chatham; he who, as William Pitt, holds a title of the world's bestowing, “the great Commoner;" who gave to England, in that corrupt and degenerate eighteenth century, the example of a pure and lofty patriotism, and whose statesmanship may be paralleled with

* I know of few more graceful specimens of style than one from Franklin's letter to Lord Kames on 17th August, 1762. “I am now waiting here only for a wind to waft me to America, but cannot leave this happy island and my friends in it without extreme regret, though I am going to a country and a people that I love. I am going from the Old World to the New; and I fancy I feel like those who are leaving this world for the next; grief at the parting-fear of the passage kope of the future.” Sparks's Franklin, vol. i. p. 269. W. B. R.

[ocr errors]

Washington's in magnanimity. Unlike Washington, however, in simplicity of character, he seemed impelled, by the fame he had gained as an orator, to carry a sort of oratorical ambition into all his ways of life: in a letter of advice to his nephew, he says, “Behaviour, though an external thing, which seems rather to belong to the body than to the mind, is certainly founded in considerable virtues."* It has been said of him that his very infirmities were managed to the best advantage, and that in his hands even his crutch could become a weapon of oratory; but that this striving for effect has helped to give to his private letters a forced and unnatural appearance—the style of homely texture, but here and there pieced with pompous epithets and swelling phrases. The praise of a Roman

a

* Chatham Correspondence, p. 77.

+ Lord Mahon's History, vol. iii. p. 20. As this volume is going through the press, I have received from London a little tract privately printed by Lord Mahon, called “ Lord Chatham at Chevening, 1769.” Chevening is the seat of Earl Stanhope; and thither in 1769, in the absence of the owners on the Continent, came the valetudinarian statesman. This tract contains the letters of Mr. Brampton, the steward, describing to his mistress the demeanour of the guests: "The two young ladies in the yellow mohair room-Master William in the nursery.” “Lord Chatham playing at billiards with the young gentlemen and ladies, so long as to bring on the gout in his ankle,” &c. &c. It would seem from the tract that the poor steward had some trouble from the Earl's changeableness, and that though but a guest, he acted (as on other occasions he was apt to do) very much like an imperious master.

I confess a strong admiration for Lord Chatham, with all his infirmities; themselves palliated by what is now conceded, his occasional intellectual prostration. Horace Walpole, whose letters are read by every. body, and who had good hereditary cause to hate him, has damaged his fame with studious posterity; and yet where is there a nobler tri. bute to an English statesman than in one sentence of Walpole, in a letter to Mason, written when Chatham was in his grave ?—" The Admi.

« ZurückWeiter »