Gulian C. (Gulian Crommelin) Verplanck.

Discourses and addresses on subjects of American history, arts, and literature. online

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Online LibraryGulian C. (Gulian Crommelin) VerplanckDiscourses and addresses on subjects of American history, arts, and literature. → online text (page 1 of 18)
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[Entered according to the act of Congress, in the year one thousand eight
hundred and thirty-three, by GULIAN C. VERPLANCK, in the Clerk s Office of the
District Court of the United States for^tke Soutjierji District of New York.]

Hoary Ludwifi", Printer.


The following discourses and speeches, delivered on
different occasions, were printed at the time, and some of
them passed through more than one edition in a pamphlet
form. Though they were pronounced on various occa
sions and at considerable intervals of time, they have
yet a general unity of purpose, being all designed to
direct public attention to the history, biography, arts, and
literature of our own country. It has, therefore, been
thought, that they might be appropriately collected and
republished together.

The rapid progress of improvement in the United
States has made some of the criticisms and remarks
contained in them less applicable than they were when
first written. For instance, the publication of several
excellent works of American Biography, within the last
two or three years, has taken away much of the justice
of the complaint in the Historical Discourse, of our
neglect of the memory of our illustrious dead.

As, however, this and some similar remarks on other
points were perfectly correct at the time, and still apply,
though much less forcibly, it has not been thought proper
to erase them.

NEW-YORK, MAY 20, 1833.



I. Anniversary Discourse before the New-York Historical Society.
II. . Eulogy upon the Founder of Maryland.

III. Address delivered at the opening of the Tenth Exhibition of the

American Academy of Fine Arts.

IV. The Schoolmaster Tribute to the Memory of Daniel H. Barnes.

V. Address delivered before the Literary Societies of Columbia

College, on the eve of the Annual Commencement.

VI. Speech on the law of Literary Property.

VII. Lecture Introductory to the several courses delivered before the
Mercantile Association of New- York.


ON an occasion like this, in addressing a society formed
for the purpose of exploring and preserving the history
of our own country, I know of no theme that can be se
lected so appropriate and so copious, as the eulogy of
those excellent men who have most largely contributed
to raise or support our national institutions, and to form
or to elevate our national character.

The wide field of research, which the history of this
hemisphere opens to us, may indeed present to the phi
losophical, as well as to the antiquarian inquirer, many
objects of more curiosity, and, perhaps, some of greater
utility. The observation of the various results in legis
lation or jurisprudence, in public and individual charac
ter, already produced in this great school of political
experiment by hitherto untried combinations of the moral
elements of society the examination and arrangement
of that immense mass of useful facts exhibited in
our statistics the investigation of the character, the
languages, the traditions, the manners, and the supersti
tions of the aboriginal inhabitants of the country the
collecting and accurately ascertaining the minor facts and
minuter details of those great achievements which have
rendered the history of our liberties so glorious all have
their use and value. Hence may be drawn materials



enabling the philosopher to pour new light on the moral
and physical nature of man ; and it is thus that are pre
served those fleeting forms of the past, which may here
after rise and live again at the powerful bidding of the
poet or the painter-

But the habit of looking to our own annals for exam
ples of life, and of rendering due honour to those illustri
ous dead, the rich fruits of whose labours we are now
enjoying, has a more moral, and, I think, a nobler aim.
In paying the tribute of admiration to genius, and of gra
titude to virtue, we ourselves become wiser and better.
Instead of leaving our love of country to rest upon the
cold preference of reason, that slowest and most feeble of
all motives of action, we thus call up the patriotism of
the heart in aid of that of the head. Our love of coun
try is exalted and puritied by being mingled with the
feelings of gratitude, and reverence for virtue ; and our
reverence for virtue is warmed and animated, and brought
home to our hearts by its union with the pride and the
love of our country.

In this respect we have not been faithful to our own
honour. The short period of our existence as a people
has been fruitful in models of public virtue. Other lands
may boast of having given birth to men of rarer genius,
and of more splendid achievement. Yet how often has
that genius been the base flatterer or the willing instru
ment of oppression ; how often has it been low and self
ish in its ambition ; how often black with crime. But
the history of our illustrious men is a story of liberty,
virtue, and glory. Such, however, has been our culpa
ble negligence of their fame, that little other memorial
is to be found of most of them, than what has been in
corporated in the public records of their times. All that


is instructive in their private biography, all that is i
vidual in their characters, is rapidly fading from memo
ry ; and there is danger, lest to the next generation the
names of Greene, and Marion, and Wayne of Otis,
Laurens, Rutledge, and Pendleton, of Dickinson, Sher
man, Ellsworth, and Hamilton, will be mere names of
history, calling up no associations, inculcating no ex
ample, kindling no emotion. Their memories will, in
deed, be bright and ever-during, but they will shine as
from afar, like the stars of other systems, whose cheering
warmth and useful light are lost in the distance,

It is not my present intention to attempt to supply
any part of this deficiency. The collection of facts,
either floating in the memories of contemporaries, or
buried in the mass of unpublished correspondence and
official documents, is an employment for which I have
had neither the opportunity nor the leisure. The task
I have assigned to myself is much less laborious,
but scarcely less grateful. It is the commemoration of
some of those virtuous and enlightened men of Europe,
who, long ago, looking with a prophetic eye towards
the destinies of this new world, and regarding it as the
chosen refuge of freedom and truth, were moved by a
holy ambition to become the ministers of the Most High,
in bestowing upon it the blessings of religion, morals,
letters, and liberty.

When we look back upon the earlier European dis
coveries and conquests in this hemisphere, the mind
recoils with horror from the scene of carnage and de
vastation that opens the mighty drama of American
history. The genius and power of civilized man have
scarce ever been displayed to his weaker and un
taught brethren, except as ministering to avarice and


ferocity ; and never were that genius and power put
forth in more terrible and guilty superiority, than when
the American continent was first laid open to Spanish
enterprise and valour. Unrelenting avarice, under the
mask of religion, sent forth band after band of ferocious
adventurers, to rapine and murder. In the powerful
language of Cowper,

"The hand that slew, till it could slay no more,.
Was glued to the sword-hilt, with Indian gore.

Among these stern and bloody men there was one of a
far different mould. The young Las Casas.* whose
spirit of adventure had induced him, at the age of nine
teen, to accompany Columbus in his second expedition
to the West-Indies, was one of those rare compounds
which nature forms, from time to time, for the orna
ment and consolation of the human race, blending a rest
less and unwearied energy of mind with a heart alive to
every kind affection, elevated by piety, warm with bene
volence, and kindling at wrong. He saw, with grief and
indignation, the crimes of his countrymen, and the cry
of the oppressed entered deep into his heart. From that
hour, like the young Hannibal, but in a purer cause, he
vowed himself to one sacred object. Rejecting with
scorn, every lure held out by interest or ambition, to
tempt him from his course, refuting by the blameless
sanctity of his life, all the calumnies showered upon

*For the general facts of Las Casas life, see Robertson s America,
passim. Dupin ; Bibliotheque des Auteurs Ecclesiastique, 16me siecle.
Rees Cyclopedia, article, " Las Casas." Nouveau Dictionnaire, His-
torique, Paris ; and especially, "Apologie de Barthelemy Las Casas,
EvequedeChiappa," par M. Gregoire > in the Memoirs de x Institut Na*
tionale," An, 8.


him. despising danger, disregarding toil, braving alike the
sneer of the world and the frown of power, he laboured
with a benevolence which never cooled, and a zeal which
knew no remission, for more than seventy years, as the
protector of the Indian race. Dangerous as the navigation
was at that period, he crossed the Atlantic nine times for
this purpose, besides traversing Europe, and penetrating,
in all directions, the trackless wilds of the new world.
"We see him at one time breaking through the restraints
of courtly form, whilst he charged his sovereign to his
face, with the personal guilt of those atrocious measures
which had entailed misery upon a numerous and inno
cent people, whom Providence had placed under his pro
tection ; and urging this accusation home to his con
science with an impetuous eloquence that made the crafty
and cold-hearted Ferdinand tremble before him. Then
again, we find him, armed with that mysterious power
which virtuous enthusiasm bestows, mastering a stronger
mind than his own, and compelling the lofty and stern
Ximenes to partake of his zeal. Then he returns back
to his suffering people, and, amidst every form of danger
and hardship, administers in person his own admirable
plans for their protection, conversion, and instruction.

Finding that the impressions of his animated oratory
upon his countrymen and their rulers were constantly
effaced, and their effects frustrated by the arts, intrigues,
and falsehoods of the interested, he addressed himself,
through the press, to the whole Christian world. In one
of his publications, he described the devastation of those
parts of America which had been subjugated by the
Spaniards, with a copious and glowing eloquence that
kindled the sympathies of all Europe.

In other works, he took a larger range of argument,


and appealing in turns to the natural rights of man, as
pointed out by reason, and to that revelation which de
clares that God is no respecter of persons, without ever
losing sight of his main object, he discussed some of the
most interesting questions of liberty and public law, with
a courage and truth such as modern Europe had never
yet seen.* It is a remarkable fact, and one bearing ho
nourable testimony to the vigour and enlargement of his
mind, that a Spanish ecclesiastic, of the fifteenth century,
should have maintained that the peculiar form of civil
polity in a state ought to be determined by the will of the
people, upon the ground that, although the sanction is
from above, the power of the people is the efficient ; , and
their happiness the final cause of all government. In
another work, wherein he details at length the most
probable means of relieving the wrongs and meliorating
the condition of the Indians, he declares, that as liberty
is the greatest of all earthly goods, and as all nations have
an equal right to its possession, the attempt to subjugate
any of them under the pretexts of religion, or of political
expediency, is alike a crime against the natural and
against the revealed law ; and he adds, in words breath
ing more of the ancient Roman than of the Spaniard,
that he who abuses power is unworthy to exercise it, and
that no obedience is due to a tyrant. It is but too well
known that these glorious labours in the service of freedom
and humanity were in vain. Yet they were not wholly
fruitless. Las Casas closed his long course of indefatiga-

* See the "Apologie de Bart. Las Casas," of Gregoire. The abstract
of Las Casas opinions, given by Dupin, seems in general to justify Gre-
goire s eulogy, though it shows a greater mixture of the prejudices of
the times, with his purer views of truth, than M. Gregoire seems will
ing to admit.


ble philanthropy in his ninety-second year, and his virtu
ous and venerable age was soothed by the knowledge
that some few of his proposed plans had been carried into
successful operation, and had contributed, in no small de
gree, to relieve the sufferings of the enslaved natives. He
enjoyed, moreover, the cheering recollection of having
called forth the testimony of the better spirits of his own
nation against intolerance and persecution, and of having
kindled among them an enlightened zeal for the best in
terests of mankind a sacred flame, long cherished "as
a light shining in a dark place," but now at last
kindling into brighter and broader radiance, and, I trust,
destined to guide for many an age hereafter, the nations
of Spanish America to public virtue and true glory.

Johnson is related to have exclaimed, in one of those
warm bursts of natural feeling which occasionally over
powered the narrowness of his political creed, " I love the
University of Salamanca for their decision on the law
fulness of the Spanish conquests in America." The de
cision Johnson had reference to, was that of the two Uni
versities of Salamanca and Alcala, on the public disputa
tion, held at Valladolid, in 1550, between Las Casas and
his ablest adversary, the learned Sepulveda, an acute, ma
lignant, and bigotted sophist.

The thesis maintained by Sepulveda, was the right and
duty of making war upon Pagans and heretics, in order
to propagate the true faith. Las Casas refuted him upon
the most liberal principles of universal toleration, and
these doctrines received the solemn approbation of the two

It is one of those melancholy instances of the retro-
gradation of the human mind which chill the hopes of
the philanthropist, that about thirty years ago, a mag-


nificent edition of all the works of Sepulveda was pub
lished by the Royal Academy of History at Madrid,
in the introduction to which, that learned body did not
hesitate to give their sanction to the doctrines of this
apologist of oppression, and to approve of what they
term " the exercise of a just and pious violence against
Pagans and heretics."

I cannot leave the consideration of the character of
Las Casas, without stopping to repel a charge which
has attached itself to his fame, and to which the popu
larity of the several writers by whom it has been made,
has given a very wide circulation. Far from us be that
base selfishness which joys to see any surpassing excel
lence brought down to its own low level. Let us rather
delight to linger at the good man s grave, and to pluck
away with pious reverence " the weeds that have no
business there,"

The charge cannot be better stated than in the words
of Dr. Robertson.

" The impossibility of carrying on any improvement
in America, unless the Spanish planteis could command
the labour of the natives, was an insuperable objection
to the plan of treating them as free subjects. In order
to provide some remedy for this, Las Casas proposed
to purchase a sufficient number of negroes from the
Portuguese settlements on the coast of Africa, and to
transport them to America, in order that they might be
employed as slaves in working the mines and cultivating
the ground.

" Cardinal Ximenes, however, when solicited to en
courage this commerce, peremptorily rejected this pro
position, because he perceived the iniquity of reducing
one race of men to slavery, while he was consulting


about the means of restoring liberty to another. But
Las Casas, from the inconsistency natural to men who
hurry with headlong impetuosity towards a favourite
point y was incapable of making this distinction, While
he contended earnestly for the liberty of the people born
in one quarter of the globe, he laboured to enslave the
inhabitants of another region ; and in the warmth of
his zeal to save the Americans from the yoke, pronounced
k to be lawful and expedient to impose one still heavier
upon the Africans. Unfortunately for the latter. Las
Casas s plan was adopted."*

This accusation has been loudly re-echoed by Ray-
nal, Marmontel, De Pauw, and Bryan Edwards,t all of
them ingenious and popular writers, though of but little
authority as regards strict historical accuracy. From them
it has passed without contradiction into many of our re
cent biographical compilations.

This charge bears such strong marks of improbability
upon the very face of it, and is in such direct opposition
to the uniform character of Las Casas, and the whole
current of his life and opinions, that it requires the most
direct and positive evidence in its support, to entitle it to
any credit with a candid mind. Now, it is remarkable
that the only authority for this accusation, entitled to
be considered as a original and independent testimony ?

* Robertson s America, Vol. I. Book III.

f "Las Casas auquel il manquoit des notions justes sur les droits de
1 homme, mais qui s occupoit sans cesse du soulagement de ses chers In-
diens," &c. says Raynal, with his usual flippancy and negligence of
truth. Histoire Philosophique des Indes. Liv. VIII. See also De
Pauw, Recherches sur les Americains, and Bryan Edwards, who ad
mits the fact, but being himself a eulogist of negro slavery, imputes, no
blame to Las Casas. Edwards s West-Indies, VoUI.


is the Spanish historian, Herrera ; and his language is
by no means so strong or particular as that of Dr. Ro
bertson, who has, after his usual manner, amplified and
exaggerated the original statement, and spread over it
somewhat of that warm colouring which always renders
his historical pictures so striking and splendid in their
general effect, and yet often so incorrect in their most
important details. But even this testimony of Herrera,
when critically examined, will be found to be of little

It is unnecessary for me to go very minutely into the
details of this investigation. Las Casas some few years
ago found an ardent and able defender in a congenial
spirit, the excellent Gregoire a man, who, like Las Casas
himself, devoted a long life to the defence of liberal prin
ciples, and to labours of humanity, who, like him, too,
was in turns a mark for the calumnies of the bigot and of
the sceptic ; who, participating in all the enthusiasm,
sharing in all the dangers, partaking in many of the
delusions, but unpolluted by any of the crimes of the
French revolution, with heroic moderation held on his
steady course through all its tempestuous scenes, at one
time the champion of toleration against bigotry, at ano
ther of his religion against triumphant and persecuting
atheism ; the defender of learning and the arts, in the
hour of their proscription, and always the friend of the
oppressed who will be associated in History with La
Fayette as a patriot, and with Wilberforce as a philan

In an elaborate memoir, read before the Institute of
France,* M. Gregoire has with great research, learning,

* Printed in the Memoirs de 1 Institut National Sciences Morales
et Polities, Tom. IV,


and acuteness, collected and examined the whole evi
dence in any way bearing on this subject. He first
proves most satisfactorily, that the earliest transportation
of slaves to America, took place, according to Hargrave,
(in the argument on Somerset s case,) in 1508, according
to Anderson* and Charlevoix, in 1503, and according to
Herrera himself, in 1498, that is to say, certainly four
teen, perhaps nineteen years previous to the date of the
project imputed to Las Casas.

He then shows, that although the history of those
times, and of the affairs of the new colonies had been
handled by numerous cotemporary writers, some of
them friendly, and others very hostile to Las Casas ;
and though the controversy on the treatment of the In
dians as slaves had called forth many elaborate argu
ments on both sides of the question, no trace or intima
tion of this charge is to be found until the publication of
Herrera s history. This was compiled about thirty
years after the death of Las Casas, and more than
eighty after the date assigned to this transaction. This
negative testimony, which he deduces from a minute
examination of above twenty Spanish writers of that
age, and many other more recent ones, is further
strengthened by the consideration, that the writings of
Las Casas, inculcate throughout, the duties of hu
manity towards all men without distinction of colour or
country, and it is hardly possible that his numerous and
inveterate adversaries, and especially his acute antago
nist, Sepulveda, should not have perceived and marked
so glaring an inconsistency. Gregoire farther states,

* Anderson s History of Commerce, and Charlevoix, Histoire deSt.


that the life of Las Casas has been written in Spanish,
French, and Italian, by seven different authors, (one of
them a native of New Spain,) and they all pass over
this charge as if they never had heard of it ; while the
five biographers of Cardinal Ximenes, as well as the
several Spanish, French, and English authors, who have
written on the origin and progress of the slave trade, make
no mention whatever of Las Casas s concern in it, but
impute the project entirely either to certain Flemish lords
of the Spanish court, or to Chievres. a favourite of the
prime minister.

Finally, he observes that Herrera, though sensible
and ingenious, is considered by some of the best Spanish
writers on American history, as a careless and inaccurate
historian ; that he betrays evident marks of prejudice
against Las Casas ; and that, although, according to his
own statement, this transaction must have taken place
long before his personal recollection, he refers to no ori
ginal document or authority, in support of his accusation.
Whenever the historical inquirer can thus efface the
stains left by time or malice upon the fame of the wise
and good, he effects many of the grandest objects of
history. He strips away from vice the apology and conso
lation which it finds in the frailty of erring virtue. He ex
cites the ingenuous mind to measure its ambition by a more
perfect standard of moral and intellectual worth. He
gives new strength to the purest and most exalted senti
ments of our nature, by enabling us to embody, in some
permanent form of active virtue, those magnificent, but
undefined ideas of possible excellence, w T hich sometimes
float before the mind in its better hours, and then vanish
away for ever, before the breath of the world. If " that
man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not


gain force on the plain of Marathon, and whose piety
would not grow warmer among the ruins of lona," sure
ly he too is to be pitied whose heart swells with no emo
tion when the mist of falsehood is thus rolled away, and
the form of moral greatness stands unveiled before him,
in all its majesty, towering far above the highest eleva
tion of selfish ambition ; like the pillar of Pompey, rising
aloft in solitary grandeur amid the waste and subject

Let us now turn to our own more immediate history.
The settlement of New-England forms an epoch in the
history of colonization. Never, until that time, had such
high principles, and such noble minds, been engaged in
the great work of extending the bounds of the civilized
world. Most of the founders of new states have been
driven abroad by necessity ; whilst in others, the spirit of
adventure was kindled sometimes by restless ambition,
or political discontent; sometimes by enlightened views
of commercial profit, but oftener by wild dreams of sudden
wealth. But, in the fathers of New-England, we behold
a body of men, who, for the liberty of faith alone, reso
lutely and deliberately exchanged the delights of home,

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Online LibraryGulian C. (Gulian Crommelin) VerplanckDiscourses and addresses on subjects of American history, arts, and literature. → online text (page 1 of 18)