Rufus Choate.

The works of Rufus Choate, with a memoir of his life online

. (page 55 of 57)
Online LibraryRufus ChoateThe works of Rufus Choate, with a memoir of his life → online text (page 55 of 57)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

gotiation. I cannot adopt, even for the defence of a treaty
which I so much approve, the language of a writer in the
' London Morning Chronicle ' of September last, — who has
been said to be Lord Palmerston, — which over and over as-
serts, substantially as his lordship certainly did in par-
liament, that the adjustment ' virtually acknowledges the
American claim to the whole of the disputed territory,' and
that ' it gives England no share at all, — absolutely none ;
for the capitulation virtually and practically yields up the
whole territory to the United States, and then brings back a
small part of it in exchange for the right of navigating the
St. John.' 1 will not say this. But I say first, that by con-
cession of everybody it is a better treaty than the administra-
tion of President Jackson would have most eagerly concluded,
if by the offer of a million and a quarter acres of land they
could have procured the assent of Maine to it. That treaty
she rejected ; this she accepts ; and I disparage nobody when
I maintain that on all parts and all aspects of this question, —
national or state, military or industrial, — her opinion is worth


that of the whole country beside. I say next that the treaty
admits the substantial justice of your general claim. It ad-
mits that in its utmost extent it was plausible, formidable, and
made in pure good faith. It admits before the nations that
we have not been rapacious ; have not made false clamor ;
that we have asserted our own, and obtained our own. Ad-
judging to you the possession of four fifths indisputably, she
gives you for the one fifth which you concede, equivalents,
— given as equivalents — eo nomine, — on purpose to soothe
and save the point of honor ; whose intrinsical and compar-
ative value is such that you may accept them as equivalents
without reproach to your judgment, or your firmness, or your
good faith, — -whose intrinsical and comparative value, tried by
the maxims, weighed in the scales of imperial traffic, make
them a compensation over and over again for all we concede."

But I linger too long upon his public life, and upon this
one of its great acts. With what profound conviction of all
the difficulties which beset it ; with what anxieties for the
issue, hope and fear ^.Iternately preponderating, he entered on
that extreme trial of capacity and good fortune, and carried it
through, I shall not soon forget. As if it were last night, I
recall the time when, after the senate had ratified it in an
evening executive session — by a vote of thirty-nine to nine —
I personally carried to him the result, at his own house, and in
presence of his wife. Then, indeed, the measure of his glory
and haj^iness seemed full. In the exuberant language of
Burke, " I stood near him ; and his face, to use the expres-
sion of the Scripture of the first martyr, was as if it had been
the face of an angel. ' Hope elevated, and joy brightened his
crest.' I do. not know how others feel ; but if I had stood
in that situation, I would not have exchanged it for all that
kings or people could bestow."

Such eminence and such hold on the public mind as he
attained demands extraordinary general intellectual power,
adequate mental culture, an impressive, attractive, energetic,
and great character, and extraordinary specific power also of
influencing the convictions and actions of others by speech.
These all he had.

That in the quality of pure and sheer power of intellect
he was of the first class of men, is, I think, the universal


judgment of all who have personally witnessed many of his
higher displays, and of all who without that opportunity have
studied his life in its actions and influences, and studied his
mind in its recorded thoughts. Sometimes it has seemed to
me that to enable one to appreciate with accuracy, as a psy-
chological speculation, the intrinsic and absolute volume and
texture of that brain, — the real rate and measure of those
abilities, — it was better not to see or hear him, unless you
could see or hear him frequently, and in various modes of ex-
hibition ; for undoubtedly there was something in his counte-
nance and bearing so expressive of command, — something-
even in his conversational language when saying, parva sum-
misse et modica temperate, so exquisitely plausible, embody-
ing the likeness at least of a rich truth, the forms at least of
a large generalization, in an epithet, — an antithesis, — a
pointed phrase, — a broad and peremptory thesis, — and
something in his grander forth-putting, when roused by a
great subject or occasion exciting his reason and touching his
moral sentiments and his heart, so difficult to be resisted, ap-
proaching so near, going so far beyond, the higher style of
man ; that although it left you a very good witness of his
power of influencing others, you were not in the best condition
immediately to pronounce on the quality or the source of the
influence. You saw the flash and heard the peal, and felt the
admiration and fear ; but from what region it was launched,
and by what divinity, and from what Olympian seat, you
could not certainly yet tell. To do that you must, if you saw
him at all, see him many times ; compare him with himself,
and with others ; follow his dazzling career from his father's
house ; observe from what competitors he won those laurels ;
study his discourses, — study them by the side of those of
other great men of this country and time, and of other coun-
tries and times, conspicuous in the same fields of mental
achievement, — look through the crystal water of the style
down to the golden sands of the thought ; analyze and con-
trast intellectual power somewhat ; consider what kind and
what quantity of it has been held by students of mind needful
in order to great eminence in the higher mathematics, or met-
aphysics, or reason of the law; what capacity to analyze,
through and through, to the primordial elements of the truths


of that science ; yet what wisdom and sobriety, in order to
control the wantonness and shun the absurdities of a mere
scholastic logic, by systematizing ideas, and combining them,
and repressing one by another, thus producing — not a collec-
tion of intense and conflicting paradoxes, but — a code — ■ sci-
entifically coherent and practically useful, — consider what
description and what quantity of mind have been held needful
by students of mind in order to conspicuous eminence — long
maintained — in statesmanship ; that great practical science,
that great philosophical art, whose ends are the existence, hap-
piness, and honor of a nation ; whose truths are to be drawn
from the widest survey of man, — of social man, — of the
particular race and particular community for which a govern-
ment is to be made or kept, or a policy to be provided ;
" philosophy in action," demanding at once or aflfording place
for the highest speculative genius and the most skilful conduct
of men and of affairs ; and finally consider what degree and
kind of mental power has been found to be required in order
to influence the reason of an audience and a nation by speech,
— not magnetizing the mere nervous or emotional nature by
an effort of that nature, — but operating on reason by reason
— -a great reputation in forensic and deliberative eloquence,
maintained and advancing for a lifetime, — it is thus that we
come to be sure that his intellectual power was as real and as
uniform as its very happiest particular display had been im-
posing and remarkable.

It was not quite so easy to analyze that power, to compare
or contrast it with that of other mental celebrities, and show
how it differed or resembled, as it was to discern its existence.

Whether he would have excelled as much in other fields
of exertion — in speculative philosophy, for example, in any
of its departments — is a problem impossible to determine
and needless to move. To me it seems quite clear that the
whole wealth of his powers, his whole emotional nature, his
eloquent feeling, his matchless capacity to affect others' con-
duct by affecting their practical judgments, could not have
been known, could not have been poured forth in a stream
so rich and strong and full, could not have so reacted on
and aided and winged the mighty intelligence, in any other
walk of mind, or life, than that he chose ; that in any other
' 45*


there must have been some disjoining of qualities which God
had united, — some divorce of pure intellect from the helps
or hindrances or companionship of common sense and beau-
tiful genius ; and that in any field of speculative ideas but half
of him, or part of him, could have found its sphere. What
that part might have been or done, it is vain to inquire.

I have been told that the assertion has been hazarded that
he "was great in understanding; deficient in the large reason;
and to prove this distinction he is compared disadvantageously,
with " Socrates ; Aristotle ; Plato ; Leibnitz ; Newton ; and
Descartes." If this means that he did not devote his mind,
such as it was, to their speculations, it is true ; but that would
not prove that he had not as much " higher reason." Where
was Bacon's higher reason when he was composing his reading
on the Statute of Uses ] Had he lost it ] or was he only not
employing it \ or was he employing it on an investigation of
law] If it means that he had not as much absolute intel-
lectual power as they, or could not, in their departments, have
done what they did, it may be dismissed as a dogma incapable
of proof, and incapable of refutation ; ineffectual as a dispar-
agement ; unphilosophical as a comparison.

It is too common with those who come from the reveries of
a cloistered speculation to judge a practical life, to say of
him, and such as he, that they " do not enlarge universal law,
and first principles ; and philosophical ideas ; " that " they add
no new maxim formed by induction out of human history and
old thought." In this there is some truth ; and yet it totally
fails to prove that they do not possess all the intellectual
power, and all the specific form of intellectual power, required
for such a description of achievement ; and it totally fails,
too, to prove that they do not use it quite as truly to " the
glory of God, and the bettering of man's estate." Whether
they possess such power or not, the evidence does not disprove ;
and it is a pedantic dogmatism, if it is not a malignant dogma-
tism, which, from such evidence, pronounces that they do not ;
but it is doubtless so, that by an original bias ; by accidental
circumstances or deliberate choice, he determined early to
devote himself to a practical and great duty, and that was to
uphold a recent, delicate, and complex political system, which
his studies, his sagacity, taught him, as Solon learned, was the


best the people could bear ; to uphold it ; to adapt its essential
principles and its actual organism to the great changes of his
time ; the enlarging territory ; enlarging numbers ; sharper
antagonisms ; mightier passions ; a new nationality ; and un-
der it, and by means of it, and by a steady government, a wise
policy of business, a temperate conduct of foreign relations, to
enable a people to develop their resources, and fulfil their mis-
sion. This he selected as his work on earth ; this his task ;
this, if well done, his consolation, his joy, his triumph ! To
this, call it, in comparison with the meditations of philosophy,
humble or high, he brought all the vast gifts of intellect, what-
ever they were, wherewith God had enriched him. And now,
do they infer that, because he selected such a work to do he
could not have possessed the higher form of intellectual power ;
or do they say that, because, having selected it, he performed it
with a masterly and uniform sagacity and prudence and good
sense, using ever the appropriate means to the selected end ;
that therefore he could not have possessed the higher form of
intellectual power ] Because all his life long he recognized
that his vocation was that of a statesman and a jurist, not that
of a thinker and dreamer in the shade, still less of a general
agitator ; that his duties connected themselves mainly with an
existing stupendous political order of things, to be kept — to
be adapted with all possible civil discretion and temper to the
growth of the nation — but by no means to be exchanged for
any quantity of amorphous matter in the form of " universal
law" or new maxims and great ideas born since the last
change of the moon — because he quite habitually spoke the
language of the Constitution and the law, not the phraseology
of a new philosophy ; confining himself very much to incul-
cating historical, traditional, and indispensable maxims, —
neutrality ; justice ; good faith ; observance of fundamental
compacts of Union and the like — because it was America —
our America — ^he sought to preserve, and to set forward to
her glory — not so much an abstract conception of humanity —
because he could combine many ideas ; many elements ; many
antagonisms ; in a harmonious, and noble practical politics, in-
stead of fastening on one only, and — that sure sign of small
or perverted ability — aggravating it to disease and falsehood
— is it therefore inferred that he had not the larger form of
intellectual power "?


And this power was not oppressed, but aided and accom-
plished by exercise the most constant, the most severe, the
most stimulant, and by a force of will as remarkable as his
genius, and by adequate mental and tasteful culture. How
much the eminent greatness it reached is due to the various
and lofty competition to which he brought, if he could, the
most careful preparation — competition with adversaries cum
quibus certare erat gloriosius, quam omnino adversaries non
habere, cum prcesertim non modo, nunquam sit aut illorum ab
ipso cursus impeditus, aut ab ipsis suus, sed contra semper
alter ab altera adjutus, et communicando, et monendo, etfaven-
do, you may well appreciate.

I claim much, too, under the name of mere mental culture.
Remark his style. I allow its full weight to the Horatian
maxim, seribendi recte sapere est et principium ei fans, and I
admit that he had deep and exquisite judgment, largely of the
gift of God. But such a style as his is due also to art, to
practice, — in the matter of style, incessant, — to great exam-
ples of fine writing, turned by the nightly and the daily hand ;
to Cicero, through whose pellucid, deep seas the pearl shows
distinct and large and near, as if within the arm's reach ; to
Virgil, whose magic of words, whose exquisite structure and
" rich economy of expression," no other writer ever equalled ;
to our English Bible, and especially to the prophetical writings,
and of these especially to Ezekiel, of some of whose peculiari-
ties, and among them that of the repetition of single words or
phrases, for emphasis and impression, a friend has called my
attention to some very striking illustrations ; to Shakspeare,
of the style of whose comic dialogue we may, in the language
of the great critic, assert " that it is that which in the English
nation is never to become obsolete, a certain mode of phrase-
ology so consonant and congenial to analogy, to principles of
the language, as to remain settled and unaltered, — a style
above grossness, below modish and pedantic forms of speech,
where propriety resides ; " to Addison, whom Johnson, Mack-
intosh, and Macaulay concur to put at the head of all fine
writers, for the amenity, delicacy, and unostentatious elegance
of his English ; to Pope, polished, condensed, sententious ; to
Johnson and Burke, in whom all the affluence and all the
energy of our tongue, in both its great elements of Saxon and


Latin, might be exemplified; to the study and comparison, but
not the copying, of authors such as these ; to habits of writing
and speaking and conversing on the capital theory of always
doing his best, — thus, somewhat, I think, was acquired that
remarkable production, " the last work of combined study and
genius," his rich, clear, correct, harmonious, and weighty style
of prose.

Beyond these studies and exercises of taste, he had read
variously and judiciously. If any public man, or any man,
had more thoroughly mastered British constitutional and gen-
eral history, or the history of British legislation, or could
deduce the progress, eras, causes, and hindrances of British
liberty in more prompt, exact, and copious detail, or had in his
memory, at any given moment, a more ample political biogra-
phy, or political literature, I do not know him. His library of
English history, and of all history, was always rich, select,
and catholic; and I well recollect hearing him, in 1819, while
attending a commencement of this College, at an evening party,
sketch, with great emphasis and interest of manner, the merits
of George Buchanan, the historian of Scotland, — his Latinity
and eloquence almost equal to Livy's, his love of liberty and
his genius greater, and his title to credit not much worse.
American history and American political literature he had by
heart. The long series of influences that trained us for repre-
sentative and free government ; that other series of influences
which moulded us into a united government, — the colonial
era, the age of controversy before the Revolution ; every scene
and every person in that great tragic action, the age of con-
troversy following the Revolution and preceding the Constitu-
tion, unlike the earlier, in which we divided among ourselves
on the greatest questions which can engage the mind of Amer-
ica, — the questions of the existence of a national government,
of the continued existence of the State governments, on the
partition of powers, on the umpirage of disputes between
them, — a controversy on which the destiny of the New
World was staked ; every problem which has successively
engaged our politics, and every name which has figured in
them, — the whole stream of our time was open, clear, and
present ever to his eye.

I think, too, that, though not a frequent and ambitious citer


of authorities, he had read, in the course of the study of his
profession or politics, and had meditated all the great writers
and thinkers by whom the principles of republican government,
and all free governments, are most authoritatively expounded.
Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavel, — one of whose discourses on
Livy maintains, in so masterly an argument, how much wiser
and more constant are the people than the prince, a doctrine of
liberty consolatory and full of joy, — Harrington, Milton, Sid-
ney, Locke, I know he had read and weighed.

Other classes of information there were, — partly obtained
from books, partly from observation, to some extent referable
to his two main employments of politics and law, — by which
he was distinguished remarkably. Thus, nobody but was
struck with his knowledge of civil and physical geography,
and, to a less extent, of geology and races ; of all the great
routes and marts of our foreign, coastwise, and interior com-
merce, the subjects which it exchanges, the whole circle of
industry it comprehends and passes around ; the kinds of our
mechanical and manufacturing productions, and their relations
to all labor and life ; the history, theories, and practice of
agriculture, — our own and that of other countries, — and its
relations to government, liberty, happiness, and the character
of nations. This kind of information enriched and assisted all
his public efforts ; but to appreciate the variety and accuracy
of his knowledge, and even the true compass of his mind, you
must have had some familiarity with his friendly written cor-
respondence, and you must have conversed with him with some
degree of freedom. There, more than in senatorial or forensic
debate, gleamed the true riches of his genius, as well as the
goodness of his large heart, and the kindness of his noble
nature. There, with no longer a great part to discharge, no
longer compelled to weigh and measure propositions, to tread
the dizzy heights which part the antagonisms of the Constitu-
tion, to put aside allusions and illustrations which crowded on
his mind in action, but which the dignity of a public appear-
ance had to reject, in the confidence of hospitality, which ever
he dispensed as a prince who also was a friend, his memory,
— one of his most extraordinary faculties, quite in proportion
to all the rest, — swept free over the readings and labors of
more than half a century ; and then, allusions, direct and ready


quotations, a passing, mature criticism, sometimes only a recol-
lection of the mere emotions which a glorious passage or inter-
esting event had once excited, darkening for a moment the
face and filling the eye, often an instructive exposition of a
current maxim of philosophy or politics, the history of an
invention, the recital of some incident casting a new light on
some transaction or some institution, — this flow of unstudied
conversation, quite as remarkable as any other exhibition of his
mind, better than any other, perhaps, at once opened an unex-
pected glimpse of his various acquirements, and gave you to
experience, delightedly, that the " mild sentiments have their
eloquence as well as the stormy passions."

There must be added, next, the element of an impressive
character, inspiring regard, trust, and admiration, not unmin-
gled with love. It had, I think, intrinsically a charm such as
belongs only to a good, noble, and beautiful nature. In its
combination with so much fame, so much force of will, and
so much intellect, it filled and fascinated the imagination and
heart. It was affectionate in childhood and youth, and it was
more than ever so in the few last months of his long life. It is
the universal testimony that he gave to his parents, in largest
measure, honor, love, obedience ; that he eagerly appropriated
the first means which he could command to relieve the father
from the debts contracted to educate his brother and himself;
that he selected his first place of professional practice that he
might soothe the coming on of his old age ; that all through
life he neglected no occasion, — sometimes when leaning on
the arm of a friend, alone, with faltering voice, sometimes in
the presence of great assemblies, where the tide of general
emotion made it graceful, — to express his " aflfectionate ven-
eration of him who reared and defended the log cabin in which
his elder brothers and sisters were born, against savage violence
and destruction, cherished all the domestic virtues beneath its
roof, and, through the fire and blood of some years of revolu-
tionary war, shrank from no danger, no toil, no sacrifice, to
serve his country, and to raise his children to a condition bet-
ter than his own."

Equally beautiful was his love of all his kindred and of all
his friends. When I hear him accused of selfishness, and a
cold, bad nature, I recall him lying sleepless all night, not


without tears of boyhood, conferring with Ezekiel how the
darling desire of both hearts should be compassed, and he,
too, admitted to the precious privileges of education; coura-
geously pleading the cause of both brothers in the morning ;
prevailing by the wise and discerning affection of the mother;
suspending his studies of the law, and registering deeds and
teaching school to earn the means, for both, of availing them-
selves of the opportunity which the parental self-sacrifice had
placed within their reach ; loving him through life, mourning
him when dead, with a love and a sorrow very wonderful, pass-
ing the sorrow of woman ; I recall the husband, the father of
the living and of the early departed, the friend, the counsellor
of many years, and my heart grows too full and liquid for the
refutation of words.

His affectionate nature, craving ever friendship, as well as
the presence of kindred blood, diffused itself through all his
private life, gave sincerity to all his hospitalities, kindness to
his eye, warmth to the pressure of his hand ; made his great-
ness and genius unbend themselves to the playfulness of child-
hood, flowed out in graceful memories indulged of the past or

Online LibraryRufus ChoateThe works of Rufus Choate, with a memoir of his life → online text (page 55 of 57)