Whitelaw Reid.

One Welshman: a glance at a great career. Inaugural address, autumn session, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, October 31st, 1912 online

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Online LibraryWhitelaw ReidOne Welshman: a glance at a great career. Inaugural address, autumn session, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, October 31st, 1912 → online text (page 1 of 3)
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LONDON : 1912.



I must begin by expressing my warm
appreciation of this welcome, as well as of the
high honour you have conferred in summoning
me to this oldest of Welsh universities, to
follow the long line of eminent scholars and
publicists who have dignified these academic
occasions by their service. However unworthy
your present speaker may feel himself for a
place in that line, he has imagined that at any
rate he might be thought to show respect for
this large and select audience and for the
dignity of the occasion by an effort to estimate
a great transatlantic representative of your own
blood, and to recall to your minds some details
in his career.

Comparisons are rarely agreeable and often
delusive. The general outlines of the career
referred to have been familiar to you and to all
the world for a century. Since you are not
known to have assigned to this man the rank

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beside the famous Welshmen who have illumi
nated your long and brilliant domestic history
which we should have thought deserved, it
may be because you know your history far
better than we do, or because you have not
rated his achievements so high as we do. You
observe I do not allow for exaggeration in our
own estimate, we rarely do ! But I do not
think I have been under any temptation to
exaggerate his merits, and I certainly am not
blind to his faults.

He was the founder and life-long leader of
a political party I profoundly distrusted, and in
my small way have spent my life in opposing.
In spite of that, I am about to venture on a
rash and I fear ungracious task. I am going
to bespeak your friendly attention to a few
reasons for thinking that some work of this
transatlantic offshoot of the Welsh stock does
almost as much honour to the Welsh land and
race as that of any of your great sons through
out your history. I am even bold enough to
think he has made the world his debtor as
much as did Llewelyn, ablest and most
successful of all Welsh princes ; or as much as
that famous ruler and rebel, Owen Glendower,
who five hundred years ago held his court near
this town.


The peaceful laurels of your American
Welshman may last even longer than those
bestowed by your grateful country on Griffith
ap Rhys, for victories over Norman and
Flemish troops. We cannot pretend to
claim for him the eulogy earned later by the
Rev. Griffith Jones, rector of Llanddowror
that nearly one-third of the whole population
of his state had been taught to read in his
schools. And yet, even in fields akin to that,
he did two things that I well know insure
Welsh respect. As a young legislator he
succeeded (against the ruling and fashionable
classes) in making the slave-trade unlawful in
his state ; and as a weary old man, after having
climbed to the very top of the ladder of his
nation s greatness, having spent forty years in
continuous public service, under harassing
responsibilities, having shaken the world,
changed its geography, and largely remoulded
its government, he gave his declining years to
the organization of a state university ; and as
his dying wish asked that that should be one of
the three acts of his life singled out for record
on his tombstone !

My observations have not led me to think
Wales particularly backward, any more than
my own country, in appropriating and raising

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to at least their true level the high records of
her sons when they are dead and gone. Yet
in the recitals of great things done by the
Welsh blood I have not often seen this man s
work credited to the offspring of the gallant
little principality. Still, it was exactly in the
field that belongs peculiarly to this land of
mountains and of liberty :

Of old sat Freedom on the heights,
The thunders breaking at her feet ;

Above her shook the starry lights,
She heard the torrents meet.

Possibly Welsh writers may have been
restrained by the doubt hinted by the man
himself as to his actual lineage. He began
his autobiography by saying that it was a
" tradition in his father s family that his
ancestor came from Wales and from the
mountain of Snowdon. But the stress of
politics, as we shall see, had thrown him into
an ultra-democratic pose as to any ancestors at
all. The pose became more necessary to his
politics because of the hatred engendered in
that aristocratic, cavalier colony by his early
success in certain radical and levelling measures ;
and it was made more real by his own con
sciousness that after all he had been by origin
a plain farmer on the frontier, and had risen


out of his class to a rank among the landed
gentry. This might explain the rather superior
air with which the future Democratic party
leader dismissed the whole subject in the
remark : " Let every one ascribe to these
pedigrees the faith and merit he chooses."
But he was not able, with all his democratic
pose, to leave it at that. A little later we find
him carefully recording the fact that he had
found his family name in old Welsh law
papers just as, later on, when he heard that
his wife s family once had a coat of arms, he
hastened to have it hunted up, bought it, and
thenceforward displayed it liberally at his home
and on his grounds.

In estimating this shadow of a shade of
doubt which he chose to leave on the state
ments of his own father and grandfather as to
his origin, we must remember that this man
was also, from boyhood to extreme old age,
one of the most laborious and precise, most
minute and even meticulous of recorders. He
was not able in mere personal accounts of
pocket money, covering years and every insig
nificant outlay, to set down one item, or even
to carry it forward to next year s balance, at
either ^d. or 2d., if in fact it had been 2\d.
Naturally such a man was not able to accept

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any family testimony or anything except a legal
record, duly sealed and witnessed, for any
ancestor farther back than his grandfather
especially since he was the known son of an
ill-educated and hard labouring pioneer, who
rose at last to be a land surveyor ; and since he
was, himself, often found jeering at the vanity
of having grandfathers.

Now I venture to think that on equally
substantial grounds we might commit the folly
of questioning the Welsh blood of Howel Dda
the Good, grandson of Roderick the Great, or
of that Prince of Gwynedd, who reigned over
this happy land forty-four years as an " inde
pendent vassal " of the King of England.

I shall indulge in no such outrage. I shall
request you to assume that this man s father
and grandfather knew where their family came
from when it entered the new colony, only two
or three generations earlier. And so I am
here to ask you to include among Welsh
contributions to the larger movements of the
world the name and world-wide fame of
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration
of Independence.

Do I need reason for this beyond his
unchallenged Welsh origin ? Who will name


the achievement by any other man of Welsh
blood or of British blood which has more
largely influenced the world for good than that
empire-shaking, continent-shaking document,
that saved Great Britain from herself; that
saved America for herself, and developed in
place of the two and a half millions of that day
a nation of ninety-three millions on the continent,
while it protects and guides islands of ten
or twelve millions more in every zone and on
every sea ; that shook down the most obstinate
of monarchies, turned it into a republic, with a
regenerated people, now the most prosperous
government France ever had, and the most
stable and enduring it ever had since
Louis XIV not excepting that of either

Yet these are merely some of the external
results more or less distinctly traceable to the
momentous statement he addressed to the civil
ized world on the Fourth of July, 1776. I do not
dwell upon any of them or argue them. Still
less do I insist upon the English style, lucid,
convincing, and of a stately dignity (unsurpassed,
I venture to think, by any official paper in your
thousand years of Parliamentary history), in
which he clothed one of the most philosophic
and unassailable and yet most revolutionary


accounts of the origin of government since
Plato : u We hold these truths to be self-
evident, that all men are endowed by their
Creator with certain inalienable rights ; that
among these are life, liberty and the pursuit
of happiness ; that to secure these rights
governments are instituted among men, deriving
their just powers from the consent of the
governed." There was the inward and
spiritual meaning of this whole gospel of
your American Welshman the Declaration
to which he brought the people of his
country and to which he drew the considerate
judgment of all others.

His real work was the diffusion of an un
accustomed idea of the origin of government
and of the scope of human rights rights held
not as Englishmen or Americans or French
men, but simply as men. That is the origin
of the spiritual unrest which broke out in
Europe at the close of the eighteenth century,
and now pervades all classes everywhere an
unrest not to be quieted until it triumphs.
But it never meant, and Jefferson never meant,
the madness which the agitators of the present
day find in it. It never meant withdrawing
the mainspring of the world s progress free
individual initiative. On the contrary, it


meant the widest extension of free individual
initiative to every human being capable of
it, limited only by respect for the equal rights
of others. As Mr. Jefferson wrote to
M. L Hommande (Paris, i 787) : " The policy
of the American government is to leave
their citizens free, neither restraining nor
aiding them in their pursuits." And to
M. de Meunier, in 1795: "I am a warm
zealot for the attainment and enjoyment by
all mankind of as much liberty as each may
exercise, without injury to the equal liberty
of his fellow-citizens."

Neither does it seem to me in the least
worth while to revive the old controversies as
to the originality of the Declaration, or as to
what thinkers first conceived its propositions.
Whether mere platitude, as some said, or wild
speculation by an irresponsible theorist, as
others said, or profound and philosophical con
sideration of the subjects of greatest human
concern, as in the end it came to be generally
considered, the famous Declaration consisted
of principles first so stated, arranged, collated
and phrased by practically the sole pen of
Thomas Jefferson.

Still, forty-seven years later, his fiery old

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colleague, John Adams, wrote to Pickering :
" There is not an idea in it but what had been
hackneyed in Congress for two years before.
The substance of it is contained in the
declaration of rights, and the violation of those
rights, in the journals of Congress in 1774.
Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a
pamphlet voted and printed by the town of
Boston before the first Congress met, composed
by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid
intervals, and pruned and polished by Samuel
Adams." Even Lee of Virginia wrote that
it was copied from Locke s Treatise on
Government. Others traced its inspiration to
Rousseau s Contrat Social, or to Montesquieu s
Esprit des Lois ; and others, with better
reason, to Coke upon Littleton. A less
respectable suggestion was that it was imitated
from the Mecklenburg Declaration.

Now, Mr. Jefferson was chosen by the
Congress a member, the member with the
largest vote, on the committee for its
preparation. The other members of the
committee were John Adams, Benjamin
Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert
Livingston. He was chosen by this committee
to prepare and present the work. He did

* "Life of Thomas Jefferson," by Henry S. Randall, Vol. I., p. 186.


present it ; the people of his country did unite
and act upon it ; the world did give it a startled
and universal consideration. That is the
essential thing. There were four other men of
the highest note on this committee of Congress.
No one of them did it ; no one claims to have
done it. Every change ever made in it from
Mr. Jefferson s original draft is on record. No
one of them is vital ; though, as John Adams
himself said, it might have been better if some
passages had been left as they were. Still, the
document is in better taste without some of
them. The young, self-trained writer of thirty-
three had not then wholly outgrown his
sophomore style, and he never outgrew his
habit of over-statement. But as it stands it is
essentially his, and as such it has taken its
place among the epoch-making state papers of
the world.

He might no doubt have remained silent
under the remark of his old friend and co-worker
of Massachusetts. But silence was rarely his
gift especially when his vanity was wounded.
So he wrote : " The observations that the
Declaration contained no new ideas, that it
is a commonplace compilation, its sentiments
hackneyed in Congress two years before, and
its essence contained in Otis s pamphlet, may

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all be true. Of that I am not to be the judge.
Otis s pamphlet I never saw, and whether I
had gathered my ideas from reading or reflection
I do not know. I know only that I turned to
neither book nor pamphlet while writing it.
I did not consider it as any part of my charge
to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no
sentiment which had ever been expressed before.
I will say for Mr. Adams, however, that he
supported the Declaration with zeal and ability,
fighting fearlessly for every word of it." It
must be admitted that Mr. Jefferson does not
appear badly in this little passage at arms.
To-day certainly no high-minded American
would have had the author of the Declaration
answer otherwise, or would have had his con
cluding paragraph, which welded indissolubly
together the thirteen colonies, changed from
the words in w r hich he framed and signed it :

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United
States of America, in General Congress assembled,
appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the
rectitude of our intentions, do in the name, and by
authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly
publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and
of right ought to be, free and independent States; that
they are absolved from all allegiance to the British
Crown, and that all political connection between them

* Randall s "Life/ Vol. I., p. 186.


and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be,
totally dissolved ; and that as free and independent
States, they have full power to levy war, conclude
peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do
all other acts and things which independent States may
of right do. And for the support of this Declaration,
with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine
Providence, we mutually pledge each other our lives,
our fortunes, and our sacred honour.

It requires a profound conviction to present
to this audience such remarks concerning this
Declaration and its author. Even then it
requires some rashness to assume that they can
be welcome, or even tolerated. If I were in
my first year in official residence at this court
instead of the eighth, I feel sure that I should
not venture upon it. But I have had too many
and too varied experiences as to the breadth of
British political thinking, and the generous
hospitality with which Britons regard all political
opinion different from their own, and particularly
all honest political opinion from any branch of
their own race, to hesitate even at what must at
first sight seem like the canonization, in your own
land and at your own shrines, of one who struck
as powerful a blow against the British Empire
of that day as any man within its vast extent or
throughout its long and glorious history.

But the blow was not against the British

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people. It was for British rights and British
freedom at home as well as across the seas.
That view has been so often presented by your
own writers that it may now be treated as widely
accepted. No one has of late put it forward
more gracefully or more persuasively than the
present Lord President of the Council, Lord

The young man who wrote the Declaration
at the age of thirty-three, without ever having
been out of his native colonies, or much even
out of the one in which he was born, after a
subsequent career crowded with conspicuous
duties and honours, and half a century later,
looked back over his whole life and selected, as
we have seen, the three things he had done by
which he wished to be remembered, and which
he wished recorded on his tombstone. Two
were the work of his youth, the statute for
Religious Freedom in Virginia, and the
Declaration ; the third has already been
mentioned, the passion of his old age, the
founding of the University of Virginia.

What a list of undisputed and extraordinary
achievements he thus ignored ! Besides these
three, he was the author of " A Summary View
of the Rights of British America," subsequently


adopted by Edmund Burke and published
broadcast in England, with the result that the
name of Thomas Jefferson decorated the list
of proscribed in the first bill of attainder. This
"Summary View was afterward considered
even more cogent and comprehensive than the
Declaration. Against a multitude of difficulties,
somewhat of his own making, he secured the
annexation of a territorial empire to the nation
his Declaration had created the province
of Louisiana, at the mouth of the Mississippi,
with a vast extent of territory on the west bank
of that river, stretching almost to the Canadian
frontier, and, as he believed at the time, on the
east almost to Florida. As a mere tyro in
legislation he secured, against overwhelming
social pressure, the abolition both of entail and of
primogeniture in his native colony. He served
for a year on various diplomatic commissions
in Europe, and for four years as Minister to
France, during the turbulence of the Revolution;
consulted not only privately but officially with
the revolutionists, and went beyond diplomatic
usage or propriety in manifesting his active
sympathy with them ; served twice as Governor
of his native state, once as Secretary of State
to George Washington, once as Vice- President
of the United States and twice as President.

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He made great contributions to the plant life
and to the agriculture of the new country, and
imported for the public benefit high-bred cattle
and other domestic animals. He issued the
patent for the cotton gin, and was almost the
first to grasp the enormous possibilities which
finally led to its making cotton King to the
temporary misfortune of Lancashire, and the
honour for ever of her splendid and self-denying
working men. Although not strong in finance,
he gave shape in our system to one really
valuable financial contribution, the decimal
system. He created and led the Democratic
party, which ruled the country, almost without
a break, for over half a century. He first
taught his countrymen their vast inheritance,
its capabilities and even its extent, from the
North-western stretch revealed in the Louisiana
purchase to the yet more important and imperial
region revealed by the Lewis and Clarke
expedition, which was absolutely his, in its
conception, in its organization, in the choice of
the men to conduct it, and in its support.

Yet it was a sure instinct that led the old
man to the briefer record on his tombstone.
These three things were all great historic acts,
one of them unquestionably of the first magni
tude ; all absolutely disinterested, enormously


valuable, uplifting humanity and harming no
one. Even his admirers must admit that his
political career was chequered ; his executive
course many times open to criticism ; that his
modes of expressing convictions were often ill-
considered and extravagant, and often amazingly
inconsistent ; and his acts as a politician
frequently far below the standard of the philo
sophical writer on government. Nevertheless,
the achievements he thus ignored embody
a marvellous career for the raw-boned, red
headed son of the Albemarle County farmer
and land-surveyor, or for any man, in any
age. Yet, great as they were, they were not
needed for his tombstone record. Every entry
on that was of itself a sure title to the gratitude
of posterity ; one of them certainly a sure title
to immortality.

But if the figure I have been presenting as
an honour to Wales has a head of gold, just as
clearly it will be seen to have had feet of clay.
There is no tyranny like that of a great idea.
When once honestly entertained by a capable
and sincere man, it possesses him, it obsesses
him, and may lead or drive him anywhere.
Mr. Jefferson honestly believed in the inalien
able right of all men to life, liberty and



happiness, that governments were instituted
among men to secure these, and that they
derived their just powers only from the present
consent of the governed. He did not see that
governments were just as distinctly instituted
to preserve order and protect men in their
earnings, as well as their liberty, and that
primarily every government must rest upon
force. Carrying his own fascinating proposi
tions to their limit, he thought the form of
government should provide that the people
could always and at once have their way, subject
to no hindrances or delay for consideration.
Whoever thought that needed was not to be
trusted ; he was no friend to the liberties of
the people. Consequently, Mr. Jefferson
looked coldly on the Constitution of the United
States as a system of concerted checks on the
instant execution of the popular will, and
believed the greatest danger the country was
in came from the persons who made this
Constitution. Most of them had fought for
independence. He never had ; but he did
not hesitate to consider them now eager to
enslave the country they had risked their lives
to free.

In this suspicious mood it was easy to attach
importance to trifles. That the first President


should go to meet Congress, on its assembling,
and give in person the communications con
cerning the state of the Union which the
Constitution required of him, seemed to
Mr. Jefferson a dangerous imitation of the King
of England at the opening of Parliament
even though the alleged imitator was George
Washington. That the first officer of the
nation should not be always as accessible as
a mechanic to anybody who had or fancied he
had business with him was another aping of
monarchical habits, and an evening reception at
the White House was a distinct effort to set
up a court. He knew nothing about national
finance any more than about his own ; and his
distrust of Alexander Hamilton, Washington s
Secretary of the Treasury, led him into absurd
revelations of archaic and parochial notions
on the subject. He thought we were not
bound to pay any debts incurred for the public
service by the generation before us, and had no
right to incur any debts for the benefit of the next
generation. Here is his own statement: "We
may consider each generation as a distinct
nation, with a right by the will of its majority
to bind themselves, but none to bind the suc
ceeding generation, more than the inhabitants
of another country. The period of a generation



is determined by the laws of mortality, varying
a little in different climates, but offering a
general average of nineteen years. At nineteen
years, then, from the date of a contract the
majority of the contractors are dead and their
contract with them."* Later on he advanced
his estimate of a generation from nineteen to

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Online LibraryWhitelaw ReidOne Welshman: a glance at a great career. Inaugural address, autumn session, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, October 31st, 1912 → online text (page 1 of 3)