James Fenimore Cooper.

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dent emotion : " I know ail the paths of Mount Ver-
non." Twenty-five years before, during the exile of
liis natural parent, he had been intrusted to Wash-
ington, as to a second father, and he now rushed for-
ward, full of his recollections, to point out a route
that time and momentous scenes in another hemi-
sphere, had not blotted from his memory. I shall
not attempt to describe what passed at the vault
during the visit of La Fayette. He was powerfully
airected, and the recess of the dead was opened to
his admission. When he joined us, it was evident
that his feelings had been wrought up to a high and
painful point ; and I thought his eye wandered over
the familiar objects of the dwelling, as if every thing
keenly reminded him that he who gave them hfe and
interest, had passed away from the moving scenes of
the earth into the solemn quiet of the place he had
just quitted. We took the occasion of his absence
from the spot, to go ourselves to the tomb. As Cad-
walladcr knew the w-ay, I had no other companion.

The family vault of Mount Vernon stands near the
brow of the declivity, at a little distance from the
mansion, and at the point where the ground begins
to fall away to the south. It is as plain and simple
as can be well imagined. The excavation in the
earth is neither large nor deep, and the small portion


of the work that is visihie in front, is a dead wall of
bricks. The door was low, humble and unornament-
ed — a more meek and fitting passage to the narrow
house of the dead than thresholds and arches of mock-
ing architecture. The earth is rounded over the
summit of the vault, and a few stunted and sicklj
cedars have taken root on and about it.

I have stood bj the side of many a boasted and
admired tomb; but by none with the awe and reve-
rence with which I gazed on this. Tlie dark days
of the revolution, the gloom and diiiiculties which
threatened the first hours of the present government,
the cheerful and prosperous scenes through which I
had so recently passed, crowded on my memory, and
produced a teeming picture in which the most prom-
inent object was the form of the man whose ashes
were mouldering beneath my feet.

I have ever been an ardent, and were there not so
much reason to support me, I might say an enthusi-
astic admirer of Washington. His character, unlike
that of the heroes of other days, is most illustrious
when seen at the nearest approach. Those who
lived the closest to his person, and who possessed
the best opportunity of studying his moral qualities,
are touched with the deepest reverence for his vir-
tues. The narrative of his private deeds is the
counterpart of the history of his public acts. They
were alike founded on the immutable principles of
justice and truth. Men already regard him with the
admiration with which they gaze at a severe statue
of antiquity. He stands, naked of meretricious orna-
ment, but grand in the majesty of reason.

Some, who know little of the history of the man,
or of his nation, confound the images of his renown,
by blendirig his merit with deeds that it was the for-
tune of no one to perform in America. This was not
the country of Alexanders and Napoleons.

The useful career of Washington commenced at


an age when men are occupied in fitting themselves
for the active scenes of hfe. Before he had attained
his majority, he was employed by his native province
in situations of high trust. Even at that early period
of life, he had established a character for firmness,
integrity, prudence, disinterestedness, and humanity,
'which attended him to the peaceful grave in which
I found his venerated ashes. There was an unpre
tending, but imposing dignity thrown about the per-
son and character of this extraordinary youth, that
distinguished him in every future scene. As a sol-
dier, his career had been circumscribed, as a politi-
cian, he had enjoyed no opportunities to earn distinc-
tion, and yet, when the hour of trial came, the eyes
of a nation sought him anxiously. The Congress of
the Union, composed of men from differently consti-
tuted and distant provinces, summoned him by a
common impulse to lead its armies. The influence
of his character had been silently extending itself
over the vast regions whose fortunes were trusted to
his care. His rise to power was degraded by no in-
trigue ; its exercise was stained by no abuse. The
times required that a people, jealous beyond prece-
dent of their rights, should trust a large portion of
their destinies to the keeping of a single man. They
calmly, dispassionately, and wisely made their elec-
tion ; confidence was nobly bestowed, meekly receiv-
ed, and gloriously requited !

The sword of Washington did not leap from its
scabbard with the eagerness of military pride, or with
the unbridled haste of one willing to make human
life the sacrifice of an unhallowed ambition. It was
deliberately drawn at the call of his country, but with
a reluctance that came deep from the heart, and with
a diihdence that acknowledged the undisputed do-
minion of his God. He went forth to battle with
the meekness of a mortal, the humanity of a Chris-
tian, the devotedness of a patriot, and the resolution


of a victor. As his object was limited by a righteous
moderation, so were his intentions to achieve it,
bounded only by success. In the air, the declarations,
and the pledges of such a man, we are not to look
for dramatic effect, or promises that were made to
be forgotten. He took the trust his country offered,
because it was the pleasure of that country he should
do so ; and when its duties were excellently per-
formed, he returned it to the hands from whence it
had come, with a simplicity which spoke louder than
a thousand protestations. The integrity of such a
mind needed no stimulants from* the pages of history
Its impulses were drawn from a higher source. Its
self-denial was not a victory over opportunity, and
occasion, and power, and all the natural promptings
of busy man ; but it was a silent, enduring, princi-
pled, and unconquerable will to refuse to admit tempt-
ation. So far as the human heart can be judged by
outward symptoms, there never was a moment when
this true hero ever suifered his thoughts to change
their righteous and devoted direction; there never
was a moment when men, in the least competent to
speak on the subject, ever suspected him of any other
object than patriotism. It is impossible to look closely
into the conduct and motives of this man, and not
to feel that his simple rule of morals said, self before
dishonour, my country before self, and God before all.
It is the common fate of heroes to suffer by inti-
macy, but the private life of Washington was as
beautiful, as his public was glorious. The latter was
no more than an expansion of those principles which
controlled the former. The same sternness of in-
tegrity, the same simplicity of purpose, could always
be traced in that familiar conduct in which most men
fail. It is a fact worthy of remark, that his most
confidential correspondence is still in existence, in-
viting scrutiny, and challenging comment. There
was a time when reverses and calumny, and weari^


iiess of suffering, had made a party of his country-
men impatient of his government. A few misguided
individuals would have elevated a chief of untried
abilities to the post he filled. The machinations of
his enemies were known to >Vashington. Accident,
rather than merit, had placed his rival in a situation
to reap a glory far exceeding that which had then
fallen to the share of any leader in the contest. But
the issue of events still rested on contingencies.
Washington saw the crisis from a distance, and though
unfortunate, and opposed to a victorious and power-
ful foe, he stripped himself of force, in order to in-
sure a good to his country, that would probably hasten
his pwn downfall. But the nation saw the sacrifice
and too well knew the estimate of merit to be de-
ceived. Still it required that a high reward should
be bestowed on the successful general. He received
another trust, and sank under an incompetency that
no longer was supported by the extraordinary talent
of subordinates. Then it was that the soul of Wash-
ington was exhibited in its native power. The bruised
spirit of foiled ambition was solaced, and so solaced,
that the disappointed rejoiced in the sympathy of

The character of Washington was Doric, in all
its proportions. Its beauty is the beauty of harmony
between purpose and means, and its grandeur is ow-
ing to its chaste simplicity. Like the order of archi-
tecture to which I have ventured to ascribe a resem-
blance, it is not liable to the details of criticism. You
see it in its majesty of outline, in its durability, and
in its admirable adaptation to usefulness ; but it rests
on a foundation too firm, and it upholds a superstruc-
ture too severe, to be familiarly dissected. His fame
already resembles that which centuries have pro-
duced for other men, while it owes no portion of its
purity to the mist of time. Truth, bold, clear, and
radiant, is the basis of his renown ; and truth will

Vol. II. R


bear his name to posterity in precisely the same sim-
ple and just attributes as it was known to those who
lived in his immediate presence.

The age has been prolific of character, and it
should be prolific in the lessons it conveys. I think
a mighty moral is taught by the careers of Washing-
ton and Napoleon. A parallel between these emi-
nent men is impossible ; but a comparison is easy in-
deed. To say that the former lived for others, and
the latter solely for himself, is to say no more than
what most inen see, and feel, and acknowledge. To
endeavour to magnify the exploits of the latter, by
putting them in contrast with those of the former,
would be unjust, since accident and not merit was at
the bottom of this distinction. It should, however,
never be forgotten, that the first achieved all he aimed
at, which was all that man should do ; and that the
last failed, from an incompetency of estimating his
own powers. The error of the latter is the more
unpardonable, since, to gross want of judgment, must
be added unworthiness of purpose ; nor is it in any
degree lessened by the circumstance that he sinned
in the presence of so bright and so glorious an ex-
ample. If there be any so weak as to believe the
asseverations of Napoleon, that he fought for aught
but self, let them try his patriotism by the same test
as that of Washington. It is true that, in mere ex-
tent of achievement, the hero of France vastly out-
stripped the patriot of America ; but the latter not
only wanted a theatre for his actions, but he was of-
ten deficient in means. Merit is of a nature too com-
parative to be rashly reduced to results ; but strip
these men of their accidental and adventitious advan-
tages, and regard them steadily. The military career
of Napoleon was run in the current of prosperity,
while that of Washington was a constant, but manly
stru2[de, as:ainst a combination of the most adverse
circumstances. In addition to this important fact.


the one considered his troops as the devoted instru-
ments of his own purposes, and he used them accord-
ingly; while the other looked on his followers not
only as the sole guardians of a country to which they
•were devoted, but as an important portion of that
community for whose happiness he was contending.
Napoleon was greatest in prosperity ■; but the fame
of Washington is as equal as his character.

They who believe that America would not have
been free without Washington, neither understand
the part he acted, nor the people who intrusted him
with power. The war of 1776 was purely a war
of principle. Remonstrance and petition had been
exhausted, and no duty of forbearance was neglected.
All that justice, and temper, and mercy required,
had been done before the sword was drawn at all.
When it was determined to resist, it became necessa-
ry to choose a leader worthy of a cause so righteous ;
one who would give dignity to the quarrel in the eyes
of nations; who would secure confidence at home
and who could command respect from those w^ho
were bent on submission to their will. These diffi-
cult duties did Washington perform, in a manner to
exceed the hopes of the most sanguine. His enemies
never dared to assail his integrity. No man was ever
sufficiently hardy to affect to distrust his motives.
While he wielded a power little short of that of a
dictator, and wielded it firmly and with steadiness,
the governed never knew uneasiness. So far from
aiming at an unjust purpose, he checked, not with
Roman severity, but with the directness and sim-
plicity of an honest man, the least approach to that
disorder or disaffection in his troops, which, if any
thing could do it in a country like this, would have
effected the views of a personal ambition. On all
occasions, he steadily regarded duty, and disregarded
self- Nor were opportunities wanting, of which a
man less pure might be tempted to profit. The dis-


content of his unrequited army at the close of the
contest, might have deluded a less devoted patriot ;
and ambition itself could not desire a better pretext
for urging a stronger government on the nation, than
the resistance to the law, which occurred in the
powerful State of Pennsylvania so soon after his
election to the presidency. Perhaps history does
not record an instance of an insurrection which
threatened to be more dangerous to infant institu-
tions than this ; and it is certain that history does
not record an instance in which resistance to the
laws was more promptly, and at a less expense of
blood, subdued. But the glory of Washington is to
be sought in the whole tenor of his life ; in the bright
example, and in the stern lesson of virtue that he
has exhibited to the age, and which he has bequeath-
ed to posterity. He is the only public man, since
the general use of letters has rendered communica-
tion* easy and judgments critical, that has, by com-
mon consent, purchased an imperishable, and, what
is far more glorious, an unsullied name.

It is cheering to virtue to know how lasting and
more certain are lis rewards, than the temporary and
doubtful fame which attends the mere conqueror.
In what but the accidental attributes of a more ad-
vanced state of civilization, does Napoleon materially
differ from Jenghis Khan? His contemporaries are
already treating him with severity ; and, before an-
other age is passed, and passion and personal antipa-
thies shall have ceased, his career will lose one-half
of its lustre by the active agency of truth. How
different has been the lot of Washington ! He has
not yet been in his tomb for half the life of man, and
the world have already placed him at the side of the
brightest names of antiquity. The young, and the
restless, and the weak of mind, may still tind matter
of applause in the career of Napoleon ; but it is the
thoughtful, the good, and the experienced, who see


the most to admire m the deeds, and the most to
reverence in the character of Washington.

Until I stood hj the side of the grave of this illus-
trious man, 1 had never ceased to reproach his coun-
try with neglect, in not having reared a monument
of marble to his memory. But as I lingered, for
near an hour, about the humble vault which holds
his remains, it was impossible not to feel how much
stronger is the impression left by character, in a place
where no accessories of art exist to distract its mus-
ings. If I were an American, it would be the wish
nearest to my heart to see the estate of Mount Ver-
non pass into the keeping of the nation, in order that
it might be preserved, as nearly as possible, in its
present condition. The vault should be kept in the
touching and peaceful quiet in which it is now seen ;
and when foreigners ask. for the monument of their
hero, let them be referred, with honest pride, to that
liberty, and to those institutions which grew on the
confidence of the world, under his wise and patriotic
guidance. If there be a name in the records of his-
tory that can afford to stand before the eyes of criti-
cism devoid of artificial aid, it is that of the man who
now sleeps beneath a few stunted cedars, and with-
in mouldering walls of brick, on the banks of the


( 193 )



Congress necessarily rose on the night of the 4th
of March. You must have learned from my previous-
letters, that a Con<2;ress lasts but two years, commenc-
ing on the 4th of March of one year, and terminating
on the 3d of March of the year but one following.
Of course it would be necessary to convene the new
members, in order to proceed in legislation after the
prescribed period. This can be, and has been, done,
in times of need, but the usual practice is to let the
bodies separate, at the end of what is called the
"short session." The terms of short and long session
are easily explained. The constitution requires that
Congress should assemble on the first Monday in
December of each year, unless it has adjourned to a
different period, or is expressly convened by a call
from the President. On the first year of the service
of the members, it is plain they may sit as long as
they please; but on the second, their term of service
expires on the 3d of March. As one-third of the
Senators, and perhaps about the same number of the
Representatives, usually retire every two years, it
would be necessary to summon those who supply
their places, should the public service require an
immediate continuation of the legislative duties. The
Senate sometimes sits a day or two after the lower
house has adjourned, in order to attend to what is
called executive business (the approval of nominations
to office.) The practice is, I believe, uniform, at the
end of a presidential term, in order to give the new
incumbent an opportunity to name his cabinet. In


all such cases, the new Senators are summoned in
time to attend. Of course, no legislative business
can then be done.

Late on the evening of the 3d of March, Congress
rose ; but, in point of fact, the change of executive
power was not made until the President elect took
the oath of office. This ceremony took place about
noon of the following day. hi 1801, when Mr.
Adams, the elder, went out of office, he made sundry
nominations which were confirmed by the old Sena-
tors on the evening of the 3d of March. Mr. Jeffer-
son, his successor, refused to ratify these appoint-
ments. He took the ground that, as President, he
had the power to appoint to office, the Senate only
possessing, in effect, a veto. Now, the new function-
aries had not received their commissions, and no one
could, constitutionally, sign them but the actual Presi-
dent; this, the actual President refused to do, and of
course there were no appointments, since it is by no
means incumbent on the President to appoint an
officer, even after the Senate has approved of his
name, the power of the latter going no farther than
their negative. It could be of no moment, except in
the appointment of a judge, whether the President
appointed these officers or not, since, in all other
cases, he possesses the power of removal, the com-
missions invariably running — "this commission to
continue in force during the pleasure of the President
of the United States for the time being."

The President absolutely appoints certain inferior
officers of the government, such as midshipmen, mas-
ters, gunners, <tc. &c., in the navy, and all the cadets
that enter the army; but, in point of fact, a great deal
of republican equality is observed in the distribution
of even these small favours. The plan is to give to
each State officers in proportion to its representa-
tives ; still the absolute selection is with the Presi-
dent. All the postmasters in the country, who are,


in truth, only deputies of the postmaster-general, re-
ceive their commissions from the latter officer. Of
course the President, who can at any time remove
the postmaster-general, has a controlling voice in all
the superior appointments of that department. The
Secretaries also appoint their own clerks, and there
is a considerable patronage in the hands of the Sec-
retary of the Treasury, who names several hundred
officers, in the different custom-houses, that receive
salaries of between five hundred and a thousand dol-
lars each. The constitution indicates certain officers
who shall be nominated to the Senate. It then goes
on to say, that all others must be similarly appointed,
unless Congress, by law, shall see fit to trust the
power in the President, or in the heads of depart-
ments. As yet, Congress has seen fit to do both ; but
should the trusts be abused, it always possesses the
power to repeal its own enactments.

A great deal is said in Europe concerning the econ-
omy of this government. It is the subject of much
ridicule, and of high praise, on our side of the Atlantic.
In order to form a just opinion on the subject, it is
necessary to ascertain some of the leading facts.

You will always remember, that as there exists a
double form of government, there are double sets of
officers to be paid. This circumstance, however,
does not add in any great degree to the expense,
since no duty is performed twice. The President of
the United States receives a salary of twenty-five
thousand dollars a year. This sum can neither be
increased nor diminished during his term of service.
He is also supplied with a furnished house. On this
salary the President can live like a gentleman who
receives a good deal of company, and it is thought he
may even lay by a reasonable excess yearly. Per-
haps, considering the nature of the government, the
income is about what it should be. The heads of
departments receive six thousand dollars each, and


no house. Their salaries are too low, since they
scarcely alTord the means of creditable subsistence to
men in their public situations. It is probable, how-
ever, that the country will, ere long, erect buildings
for the residence of these officers, and increase their
pay a little. There is no plausible reason why it
should be so much inferior to that of the President.
The chief justice of the United States receives five
thousand dollars a year, and each of the assistant jus-
tices four thousand five hundred. The judges of the
district courts are paid from eight hundred to three
thousand dollars a year, according to the amount
of their services. The Vice-President gets five thou-
sand dollars a year. The members of Congress re-
ceive eight dollars a day, each, while at Washington,
and eight dollars for every twenty miles of -their route
in going and returning. Ministers plenipotentiary
receive nine thousand dollars a year salary, the same
sum for an outfit, and one-fourth of it to defray the
expenses of their return home. This pay is much
too small, certainly ; and it is as unwise in its gene-
rality, as in its amount. It is mijust to pay a man
who is compelled to live in London, for instance,
the same sum as a man who is compelled to live in
Madrid. It is unwise to neglect to use, in a rational
degree, an influence that other people acknowledge,
whatever may be its inherent merit, or whatever
may be the opinion of the people of the United
States themselves on the subject. Their motive in
sending ministers abroad, is interest : and we, who
know the effect of a little appearance in our hemi-
sphere, know that he is a gainer who consults the
prejudices of those v/ith whom he is required to
dwell. But independently of this truth, which must,
however, be taken with a proper degree of qualifica-
tion, in many places, the agents of this government
cannot subsist with a proper degree of comfort on
their salaries. No man can maintain the establish-


ment of a private gentleman and educate four or five
children well, on two thousand pounds a year, in
London. Consuls receive no pay (as such.) The
collectors of the customs are paid in proportion to
their duties, limiting the receipts to less than five
thousand dollars a year. A similar plan is observed
with postmasters, and sundry other officers ; the
maximum of pay varying according to the impor-
tance of the office. Although the higher functionaries
of this government are not often paid as well as they

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 45 of 58)