Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE CAPTIOL. - Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
THE CAPTIOL. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 1 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 1.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
“. . You have unto the support of a true and natural aristocracy the deepest root of a democracy that hath been planted. Wherefore there is nothing in art or nature better qualified for the result than this assembly.”
The places of resort for the stranger in the Capitol are the Library, the Supreme Court, the Senate Chamber, and the Hall of Representatives.
The former Library of Congress was burnt by the British in their atrocious attack upon Washington in 1814. Jefferson then offered his, and it was purchased by the nation. It is perpetually increased by annual appropriations. We did not go to the Library to read, but amused ourselves for many pleasant hours with the prints, and with the fine medals which we found there. I was never tired of the cabinet of Napoleon medals: the most beautifully composed piece of history that I ever studied. There is a cup carved by Benvenuto Cellini, preserved among the curiosities of the Capitol, which might be studied for a week before all the mysteries of its design are apprehended. How it found its way to so remote a resting-place, I do not remember.
Judge Story was kind enough to send us notice when any cause was to be argued in the Supreme Court which it was probable we might be able to understand; and we passed a few mornings there. The apartment is less fitted for its purposes than any other in the building; the court being badly lighted and ventilated. The windows are at the back of the Judges, whose countenances are therefore indistinctly seen, and who sit in their own light. Visitors are usually placed behind the counsel and opposite the Judges, or on seats on each side. I was kindly offered the reporter's chair, in a snug corner, under the Judges, and facing the counsel; and there I was able to hear much of the pleading, and to see the remarkable countenances of the Attorney-General, Clay, Webster, Porter, and others, in the fullest light that could be had in this dim chamber.
At some moments this court presents a singular spectacle. I have watched the assemblage while the Chief Justice was delivering a judgment; —the three Judges on either hand gazing at him, more like learners than associates; —Webster standing firm as a rock, his large, deep-set eyes wide awake, his lips compressed, and his whole countenance in that intent stillness which instantly fixes the eye of the stranger; —Clay leaning against the desk in an attitude whose grace contrast strangely with the slovenly make of his dress, his snuff-box for the moment unopened in his hand, his small grey eye and placid half-smile conveying and expression of pleasure which redeems his face from its usual unaccountable commonness:—the Attorney-General, his fingers playing among his papers, his quick black eye, and thin tremulous lips for once fixed, his small face, pale with thought, contrasting remarkably with the other two; —these men, absorbed in what they are listening to, thinking neither of themselves, nor of each other, while they are watched by the groups of idlers and listeners around them, —the newspaper corps, the dark Cherokee chiefs, the stragglers from the far west, the gay ladies in their waving plumes, and the members of either house that have stepped in to listen, —all these have I seen at one moment constitute one silent assemblage, while the mild voice of the aged Chief-Justice sounded through the Court.
Every one is aware that the wigs and gowns of counsel are not to be seen in the United States. There was no knowing, when leaned back against the table, his dreamy eyes seeming to see nothing about him, whether he would by-and-by take up his bat, and go away, or whether he would rouse himself suddenly, and stand up to address the Judges. For the generality there was no knowing; and to us. who were forewarned, it was amusing to see how the Court would fill after the entrance of Webster, and empty when he had gone back to the Senate Chamber. The chief interest to me in Webster's pleading, and also in his speaking in the Senate, was from seeing one so dreamy and nonchalant roused into strong excitement. It seemed like having a curtain lifted up, through which it was impossible to pry; like hearing autobiographical secrets. Webster is a lover of case and pleasure, and has an air of most unaffected indolence and careless self-sufficiency. It is something to see him moved with auxiety. It is somthing to see him moved with auxiety and the toil of intellectual conflict; to see his lips tremble, his nostrials expand, the perspiration start upon his brow: to hear his voice vary with emotion, and to watch the expression of laborious throught while he pauses, for minutes together, to consider his notes, and decide upon the arrangement of his argument. These are the moments when it becomes clear that this pleasure-loving man works for his honours and his gains. He seems to have the desire which other remarkable men have shown, to conceal the extant of his toils; and his wish has been favoured by some accidents, — some sudden, unexpected call upon him for a display of knowledge and power which has electrified the beholders. but on such occasions he has been able to bring into use acquisitions and exercises intended for other occasions, on which they may or may not have been wanted. No one will suppose that this is said in disparagement of Mr. Webster. It is only saying that he owes to his own industry what he must otherwise owe to miracle.
What his capacity for toil is was shown, in one instance among many, in an affair of great interest to his own State. On the 7th of April, 1830, the town of Salem, Massachusetts, was thrown into a state of consternation by the announcement of a horrible murder. Mr. White, a respectable and wealthy citizen of Salem, about eighty years of age, was found murdered in his bed. The circumstances were such as to indicate that the murder was not for common purposes of plunder: and suspicious arose which made every citizen shudder at the idea of the community in which he lived containing the monsters who would perpetrate such a deed. Apatrol of the citizens was proposed and organized, and none were more zealous in propositions and in patrolling than Joseph and John Knapp, relatives of the murdered man. The conduct of these young men on the occasion exposed them to dislike before any one breathed suspicion. Several acquaintances of the family paid visits of condolence before the funeral. One of these told me, still with a feeling of horror, howone of the Kapps pulled hissleeve, and asked in an awkward whisper, whether he would go up stairs and see “the old devit.” The old gentleman's housekeeper had slept out of the house that particular night; a back window had been left unfasened, with a plank placed against it on the outside; and a will of the old gentleman's (happily a superseded one) was missing. Suspicious circumstances like these were found soon to have accumulated so as to justify the arrest of the two Knapps, and of two brothers of the name of Crowniushield. A lawyer was ready with testimony that Joseph Knapp, who had married a grand-nice of mr. White, had obtained legal information that if Mr. White died intestate, Knapp's mother-in-law would succeed to half the property. Joseph Knapp confessed the whole in prison, and Richard Crowninshield, doubtless the principal assassin, destroyed himself. The State prosecutors were in a great difficulty. Without the confession, the evidence was scarcely sufficient; and though Joseph Kanapp was promised favour from Gevernment if he would repeat his evidence on the side of the prosecution in court, it was not safe, as the event proved, to rely upon this in a case otherwise doubtful. The Attorney and Solicitor-General of the State were both aged and feeble men; and as the day of trial drew on, it became more and more doubtful whether they would be equal to the occasion, and whether these ruffians, well understood to be the murderers, would not be let loose upon society again, from bad management of the prosecution. The prosecuting officers of the Government were prevailed upon, within three days of the trial, to send to seek out Mr. Webster, and request his assistance.
A citizen of Salem, a friend of mine, was deputed to carry the request. He went to Bostom: Mr. Webster was not there, but at his farm by the sea-shore. Thither, in tremendons weather, my friend followed him. Mr. Webster was playing chequers with his boy. The old farmer sat by the fire, his wife and two young women were sewing and Knitting coarse stocking; one of these last, however, being no farmer's daughter, but Mr. Webster's bride; for this was shortly after his second marriage. My friend was first dried and refreshed, and then lost no time in mentioning “business.” Mr. Webster writhed at the word, saying that he came down hither to get out of hearing of it. He next declared that his undertaking anything more was entirely out of the question, and pointed, in evidence, to his swollen bag of briefs lying in a corner. However, upon a little further explanation and meditation, he agreed to the request with the same good grace with which he afterwards went through with his task. He made himself master of all that my friend could communicate, and before daybreak was off through the woods, in the unabated storm, — no doubt mediating his speech by the way. He needed all the assistance that could be given him, of course; and my friend constitued himself Mr. Webster's fetcher and carrier of facts for these two days. He says he was never under orders before since his childish day; but in this emergency he was a willing servant, obeying such laconic instructions as “Go there;” “Learn this and that;” “Now go away;” and so forth.
At the appointed hour, Mr. Webster was completely ready. His argument is thought one of the finest, in every respect, that he has produced. I read it before I knew anything of the circumstances which I have related; and I was made acquainted with them in consequence of my inquiry how a man could be hanged on evidence so apparently insufficient as that adduced by the prosection. Mr. Webster had made all that could be made of it; his argument was ingenious and close, and imbued with moral beauty; but the fact was, as I was assured, the prisoners were convicted on the ground of the confession of the criminal, more than on the evidence adduced by the prosecutors; though the confession could not, after all, be made open use of. The prisoners had such an opinion of the weakness of the case, that Joseph, who had been offered favour by Government, refused to testify, and the pledge of the Government was withdrawn. Both the Knapps were hanged.
The clearness with which, in this case, a multitude of minute facts is arranged, and the ingenuity with which a long chain of circumstantial evidence is drawn out, can be understood only through a reading of the entire argument. Even these are less remarkable than the sympathy by which the pleader seems to have possessed himself of the emotions, the peculiar moral experience, of the quiet good people of Salem, when thunderstruck with this event. While shut up at his task, Mr. Webster found means to see into the hearts which were throbbing in all the homes about him. “One thing more.” said he to my friend, who was taking his leave of him on the eve of the trial. “Do you know of anything remarkable about any of the jury?” My friend had nothing to say, unless it was that the foreman was a man of a remarkably tender conscience. To this we doubtless owe the concluding passage of the argument, delivered, as I was told, in a voice and manner less solemn than easy and tranquil.
“Gentlemen,—Your whole concern should be to do your duty, and leave consequences to take care of themselves. You will receive the law from the Court. Your verdict, it is true, may endanger the prisoner's life; but then it is to save other lives. If the prisoner's guilt has been shown and proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, you will convict him. If such reasonable doubts still remain, you will acquit him. You are the judges of the whole case. You owe a duty to the public, as well as to the prisoner at the bar. You cannot presume to be wiser than the law. You duty is a plain, straightforward one. Doubtless, we would all judge him in mercy. Towards him, as an individual, the law inculcates no hostility;—but towards him, if proved to be a murderer, the law, and the oaths you have taken, and public justice, demand that you do your duty.
“With consciences satisfied with the discharge of duty, no consequences can harm you. There is no evil that we cannot face or fly from, but the consciousness of duty disregarded.
“A sense of duty pursues us ever. It is omnipresent, like the Deity. If we take to ourselves the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the seas, duty performed, or duty violated, is still with us, for our happiness or our misery. If we say the darkness shall cover us, in the darkness as in the light, our obligations are yet with us. We cannot escape their power, nor fly from their presence. They are with us in this life, will be with us at its close; and in that scene of inconceivable solemnity, which lies yet farther onward, we shall still find ourselves surrounded by the consciousness of duty, to pain us wherever it has been violated, and to console us, so far as God may have given us grace to perform it.”
How must the mention of the tremendous “secret” have thrilled through the hearts of citizens who had for weeks been anxiously searching every man's countenance to find it out. The picture given as from the pleader's imagination, was, as every man knew, derived from the confession of the criminal.
“The deed was executed with a degree of self-possession and steadiness, equal to the wickedness with which it was planned. The circumstances, now clearly in evidence, spread on the whole scene before us. Deep sleep had fallen on the destined victim, and on all beneath his roof. A healthful old man, to whom sleep was sweet, the first sound slumbers of the night held in their soft but strong embrace. The assassin enters, through the window already prepared, into an unoccupied apartment. With noiseless foot he paces the lonely hall, half lighted by the moon; he winds up the ascent of the stairs, and reaches the door of the chamber. Of this he moves the lock, by soft and continued pressure, till it turns on its hinges, and he enters, and beholds his victim before him. The room was uncommonly open to the admission of light. The face of the innocent sleeper was turned from the murderer, and the beams of the moon, resting on the grey locks of his aged temple, showed him where to strike. The fatal blow is given! and the victim passes, without a struggle or a motion, from the repose of sleep to the repose of death! It is the assassin's purpose to make sure work; and he yet plies the dagger, though it was obvious that life had been destroyed by the blow of the bludgeon. He even raises the aged arm, that he may not fail in his aim at the heart, and replaces it again over the wounds of the poniard. To finish the picture, he explores the wrist for the pulse! he feels it, and ascertains that it beats no longer! It is accomplished. The deed is done. He retreats, retraces his steps to the window, passes out through it as he came in, and escapes. He has done the murder,—no eye has seen him, no ear has heard him. The secret is his own, and it is safe! Ah, gentlemen, that was a dreadful mistake. Such a secret can be safe nowhere. The whole creation of God has neither nook nor corner, where the guilty can bestow it and say it is safe. Not to speak of that Eye which glances through all disguises, and beholds everything, as in the splendour of noon,—such secrets of guilt are never safe from detection, even by men. True it is, generally speaking, that ‘murder will out.’ True it is, that Providence bath so ordained, and doth so govern things that those who break the great law of heaven by shedding man's blood, Seldom succeed in avoiding discovery. Especially, in a case exciting so much attention as this, discovery must come, and will come, sooner or later. A thousand eyes turn at once to explore every man, every thing, every circumstance, connected with the time and place: a thousand cars catch every whisper, a thousand excited minds intensely dwell on the scene, shedding all their light, and ready to kindle the slightest circumstance into a blaze of discovery. Meantime, the guilty soul cannot keep its own secret. It is false to itself; or rather it feels an irresistible impulse of conscience to be true to itself. It labours under its guilty possession, and knows not what to do with it. The human heart was not made for the residence of such an inhabitant. It finds itself preyed on by a torment, which it does not acknowledge to God or man. A vulture is devouring it, and it can ask no sympathy or assistance, either from heaven or earth. The secret which the murderer possesses soon comes to possess him; and like the evil spirits of which we read, it overcomes him, and leads him whithersoever it will. He feels it beating at his heart, rising to his throat, and demanding disclosure. He thinks the whole world sees it in his face, reads it in his eyes, and almost hears its working in the very silence of his thoughts. It has become his master. It betrays his discretion, it breaks down his courage, it conquers his prudence. When suspicions from without begin to embarrass him, and the net of circumstance to entangle him, the fatal secret struggles with still greater violence to burst forth. It must be confessed: it will be confessed; there is no refuge from confession but suicide; and suicide is confession.”
Mr. Webster was born in 1782, in New Hampshire. His father was a farmer who had retreated into the wilderness, and, as his son says, “had lighted his fire nearer to the North Pole than any other citizen of the States.” The good man had, however, come down into the meadows at the foot of the hills before his second son Daniel was born. By the means which are within reach of almost every child in his country,—the schools and colleges of easy access,—Daniel became qualified for an apprenticeship to law; and by industry, great intellectual power, and some few fortunate accidents, rose into notice, employment, and eminence. He has for some years been considered the head of the federal party; and he is therefore now on the losing side in politics. His last great triumph was his exposure of the Nullification doctrine, in 1833. Since that time, he has maintained his influence in Congress by virtue of his great talents and former services; but, his politics being in opposition to those of the great body of the people, he is unable to do more than head the opposition in the Senate. He was an unsuccessful candidate in the last Presidential election; and there seems little probability of his attainment of office, unless by his taking the lead of the abolition movement. For this it is probably now too late. The abolitionists have done the most difficult part of their work, in rousing the public mind; they are chiefly of the democratic side in politics; and they do not entertain, I believe, that faith in the great leader of the federalists, which would induce them to support his claims as the anti-slavery candidate for the next Presidentship.
Mr. Webster owes his rise to the institutions under which he lives,—institutions which open the race to the swift, and the battle to the strong; but there is little in him that is congenial with them. He is aristocratic in his tastes and habits: and but little republican simplicity is to be recognized in him. Neither his private conversation nor his public transactions usually convey an impression that he is in carnest. When he is so, his power is majestic, irresistible; but his ambition for office, and for the good opinion of those who surround him, is seen too often in alternation with his love of case and luxury, to allow of his being confided in as he is admired. If it had been otherwise, if his moral had equalled his intellectual supremacy, if his aims had been as single as his reason is unclouded, he would long ago have carried all before him, and been the virtual monarch of the United States. But to have expected this would have been unreasonable. The very best men of any society are rarely or never to be found among its eminent statesmen; and it is not fair to look for them in offices which, in the present condition of human affairs, would yield to such no other choice than of speedy failure or protracted martyrdom. Taking great politicians as they are Mr. Webster's general consistency may be found not to have fallen below the average, though it has not been so remarkable as to ensure on his behalf a confidence at all to be compared with the universal admiration of his talents.
Mr. Webster speaks seldom in the Senate. When he does, it is generally on some constitutional question, where his reasoning powers and knowledge are brought into play, and where his authority is considered so high, that he has the glorious satisfaction of knowing that he is listened to as an oracle by an assemblage of the first men in the country. Previous to such an exercise, he may be seen leaning back in his chair, not, as usual, biting the top of his pen, or twirling his thumbs, or bursting into sudden and transient laughter at Colonel Benton's oratorical absurdities, but absent and thoughtful, making notes, and seeing nothing that is before his eyes. When he rises, his voice is moderate, and his manner quiet, with the slightest possible mixture of embarrassment; his right hand rests upon his desk and the left hangs by his side. Before his first head is finished, however, his voice has risen so as to fill the chamber and ring again, and he has fallen into his favourite attitude, with his left hand under his coat-tail, and the right in full action. At this moment, the eye rests upon him as upon one under the true inspiration of seeing the invisible, and grasping the impalpable. When the vision has passed away, the change is astonishing. He sits at his desk, writing letters or dreaming, so that he does not always discover when the Senate is going to a division. Some one of his party has not seldom to jog his elbow, and tell him that his vote is wanted.
There can scarcely be a stronger contrast than between the eloquence of Webster and that of Clay. Mr. Clay is now my personal friend; but I have a distinct recollection of my impressions of his speaking, while he was yet merely an acquaintance. His appearance is plain in the extreme, being that of a mere west-country farmer. He is tall and thin, with a weather-beaten complexion, small grey eyes, which convey an idea of something more than his well-known sagacity,—even of slyness. It is only after much intercourse that Mr. Clay's personal appearance can be discovered to do him any justice at all. All attempts to take his likeness have been in vain, though upwards of thirty portraits of him, by different artists, were in existence when I was in America. No one has succeeded in catching the subtle expression of placid kindness, mingled with astuteness, which becomes visible to the eyes of those who are in daily intercourse with him. His mode of talking, deliberate and somewhat formal including sometimes a grave humour, and sometimes a gentle sentiment, very touching from the lips of a sagacious man of ambition, has but one fault,—its obvious adaptation to the supposed state of mind of the person to whom it is addressed. Mr. Clay is a man of an irritable and impetuous nature, over which he has obtained a truly noble mastery. His moderation is now his most striking characteristic; obtained, no doubt, at the cost of prodigious self-denial, on his own part, and on that of his friends, of some of the case, naturalness, and self-forgetfulness of his manners and discourse. But his conversation is rich in information, and full charged with the spirit of justice and kindliness, rising, on occasion, to a moving magnanimity. By chances, of some of which he was totally unaware, I became acquainted with several acts of his life, political and private, which prove that his moderation is not the mere diffusion of oil upon the waves, but the true stilling of the storm of passion and selfishness. The time may come when these acts may be told; but it has not yet arrived.
Mr. Clay is sometimes spoken of as a “disappointed statesman” and he would probably not object to call himself so; for it makes no part of his idea of dignity to pretend to be satisfied when he is sorry, or delighted with what he would fain have prevented: but he suffers only the genuine force of disappointment, without the personal mortification and loss of dignity which are commonly supposed to be included in it. He once held the to the losing parly: he more than once expected to be President, and has now no chance of ever being so. Thus far he is a disappointed statesman; but at the same time, he is in possession of more than an equivalent for what he has lost — not only in the disciplined moderation of his temper, but in the imperishable reality of great deeds done. No possession of office could now add to his dignity, any more than the total neglect of the present generation of the people could detract from it. The fact that Mr. Clay's political opinions are not in accordance with those now held by the great body of the people, is no disgrace to him or them; while the dignity of his former services, supported by his present patience and quietness, places him far above compassion, and every feeling but respect and admiration. This admiration is exalted to enthusiasm in those who know how difficult it is to a man of Mr. Clay's nature, who has lived in public all his life, to fall back into obscurity,—an obscurity not relieved, alas! by the solace of a cheerful home. Few spectacles can be more noble than he is in that obscurity, discoursing of public men and affairs with a justice which no rivalship can impair, and a hopefulness which no personal disappointment can relax.
Mr. Clay is the son of a respectable clergyman in Virginia, and was born in April, 1777. His father died when he was quite young; and he was in consequence left to the common educational chances which befriend all the young citizens of the United States. He studied law, after leaving the common school at which his education begin, and settled early at Lexington, in Kentucky, where his residence has ever since been fixed. His first important act was labouring diligently in favour of a plan for the gradual abolition of slavery in Kentucky, which was proposed in 1798. His exertions were, however, in vain. In 1803, he entered the legislature of his State, and in 1806 was sent, with the dignity of senator, to Washington, having not quite attained the requisite age. In 1809, he found occasion to advocate the principle of protection to domestic manufactures which he has since had the very questionable honour of embodying in his famous American System. In 1811, he became Speaker of the House of Representatives, and for three years exercised in that situation a powerful influence over the affairs of the country. In 1814, he was appointed one of the Commissioners who negotiated the treaty of Ghent; and when that business was concluded, he repaired to London, with his colleagues, Messrs. Adams and Gallatin, and there concluded the commercial convention which was made the basis of all the subsequent commercial arrangements between the United States and Europe. In 1825, Mr, Clay accepted the appointment of Secretary of State under Mr. Adams, an act for which he is still extensively and vehemently blamed, but with how much or how little reason, I do not pretend, from want of knowledge of the party politics of the time, to understand. While in this office, he did a great deal in procuring, with much labour and difficulty, a recognition of the independence of the Spanish colonies in South America; a recognition which had the all-important effect of deterring the great European powers from their contemplated intervention on behalf of Spain. Mr. Clay's speeches were read at the head of the armies of the South American republics; and if his name were forgotten everywhere else, it would stand in the history of their independence. Mr. Clay has since been a powerful advocate of internal improvements, and the framer of “the American System,” —the founder of the protective policy, which I believe he is more proud of than of any act of his public life, while many others are justly amazed that a man of his sagacity should not see the unsoundness of the principle on which the whole system is based. Much more honour is due to him for the Compromise Bill, by which he virtually surrendered his system, and immediately put an end to the Nullification struggle. Mr. Webster victoriously exposed the badness of the Nullification principle; and Mr. Clay removed the present cause of its exercise. The one humbled South Carolina to the dust on her Nullification ground; the other left her in triumphant possession of her principle of Free Trade, while disarming her by a wise and well-principled compromise.
The one act of Mr. Clay's public life, for which he must be held to require pardon from posterity, is that by which he secured the continuance of slavery in Missouri; and, in consequence, its establishment in Arkansas and Florida,—the one an admitted State, the other a Territory destined to be so. Mr. Clay is not an advocate of Slavery, though, instead of being a friend to Abolition, he is a dupe to Colonization. When he held the destinies of American Slavery in his hand, he had unhappily more regard for precedent in human arrangements than for the spirit of the divine laws in the light of which such arrangements should be ever regarded. He acted to avert the conflict which cannot be averted. It has still to take place,—it is now taking place,—under less favourable circumstances j and his measure of expediency is already meeting with the retribution which ever follows upon the subordination of a higher principle to a lower. For many of his public acts, Mr. Clay will be permanently honoured; with regard to others, the honour will be mingled with allowance for error in philosophy; for this one he will have to be forgiven.
Mr. Clay married an excellent woman, who is still living, the survivor of six daughters, taken away, some of them in the bloom of promise, and one in the maturity of virtue. The great statesman's house is very desolate. He must seek in his own strength of soul, and in the love and honour with which his friends regard him, that good which has been denied to him in the latter days of his political and domestic life.
His recollections of Europe are very vivid and pleasurable. We spent many an hour of my visit to him in Kentucky in talking over our mutual English friends, till we forgot the time and space we had both traversed since we parted from them, and looked up surprised to find ourselves, not at a London dinner-table, but in the wild woods of the west. Mr. Clay has kept up his knowledge of British life and politics so accurately as some of his brother-statesmen; but he is still full of the sayings of Castlereagh and Canning, of Lords Eldon and Stowell, of Mackintosh and Sydney Smith.
The finest speech I heard from Mr. Clay in the Senate was on the sad subject of the injuries of the Indians. He exposed the facts of the treatment of the Cherokees by Georgia. He told how the lands in Georgia, guaranteed by solemn treaties to the Cherokees, had been surveyed and partitioned off to white citizens of the State; that, though there is a nominal right of appeal awarded to the complainants, this is a mere mockery, as an acknowledgment of the right of Georgia to divide the lands is made a necessary preliminary to the exercise of the right :—in other words, the Indians must lay down their claims on the threshold of the courts which they enter for the purpose of enforcing these claims ! The object of Mr. Clay's plea was to have the Supreme Court open to the Cherokees, their case being, he contended, contemplated by the constitution. A minor proposition was that Congress should assist, with territory and appliances, a body of Cherokees who desired to emigrate beyond the Mississippi.
It was known that Mr. Clay would probably bring forward his great topic that day. Some of the foreign ambassadors might be seen leaning against the pillars behind the chair; and many members of the other House appeared behind, and in the passages: and one sat on the steps of the platform, his hands clasped, and his eyes fixed on Mr. Clay, as if life hung upon his words. As many as could crowd into the gallery leaned over the balustrade; and the lower circle was thronged with ladies and gentlemen, in the centre of whom stood a group of Cherokee chief, listening immoveably. I never saw so deep a moral impression produced by a speech. The best testimony to this was the general disgust excited by the empty and abusive reply of the senator from Georgia,—who, the way, might be judged from his account to have been about three months from the Green Island. This gentleman's speech, however, showed us one good thing,—that Mr. Clay is as excellent in reply as in proposition;—prompt, earnest, temperate, and graceful. The chief characteristic of his eloquence is its earnestness. Every tone of his voice, every fibre of his frame bears testimony to this. His attitudes are, from the beginning to the close, very graceful. His first sentences are homely, and given with a little hesitation and repetition, and with an agitation shown by a frequent putting on and taking off of the spectacles, and a trembling of the hand among the document on the desk. Then as the speaker becomes possessed with his subject, the agitation changes its character, but does not subside. His utterance is still deliberate, but his voice becomes deliciously winning. Its higher tones disappointed me at first; by the lower ones, trembling with emotion, swelling and falling with the earnestness of the speaker, are very moving; and his whole manner become irresistibly persuasive. I saw tears, of which I am sure he was wholly unconscious, falling on his papers, as he vividly described the woes and injuries of the aborigines. I saw Webster draw his hand across his eyes; I saw every one deeply moved except two persons,—the Vice-president, who yawned somewhat ostentatiously, and the Georgian senator, who was busy brewing his storm. I was amazed at the daring of this gentleman,—at the audacity which could break up such a moral impression as this Cherokee tale, so told, had produced, by accusing Mr. Clay of securing an interest in opposition to Georgia “by stage starts and theatric gesticulation.” The audience were visibly displeased at having their feelings thus treated, in the presence even of the Cherokee chiefs: but Mr. Clay's replies both to argument and abuse were so happy, and the Georgian's rejoinder was so outrageous, that the business ended with a general burst of laughter. The propositions were to lie till the next day; and, as I soon after left Washington, I never learned their ultimate fate.
The American Senate is a most imposing assemblage. When I first entered it, I thought I never saw a finer set of heads than the forty-six before my eyes:—two only being absent, and the Union then consisting of twenty-four States. Mr. Calhoun's countenance first fixed my attention; the splendid eye, the straight forehead, surmounted by a load of stiff, upright, dark hair; the stern brow; the inflexible mouth;—it is one of the most remarkable heads in the country. Next him sat his colleague, Mr. Preston, in singular contrast,—stout in Person, with a round, ruddy, good-humoured face, large blue eyes, and a wig, orange to-day, brown yesterday, and golden to-morrow. Near them sat Colonel Benton, a temporary people's man, remarkable chiefly for his pomposity. He sat swelling amidst his piles of papers and books, looking like a being designed by nature to be a good-humoured barber or innkeeper, but forced by fate to make himself into a mock-heroic senator. Opposite sat the transcendent Webster, with his square forehead and cavernous eyes: and behind him the homely Clay, with the face and figure of a farmer, but something of the air of a divine, from his hair being combed straight back from his temples. Near them sat Southard and Porte; the former astute and rapid in countenance and gesture; the latter strangely mingling a boyish fun and lightness of manner and glance with the sobriety suitable to the Judge and the Senator. His keen eye takes in every thing that passes; his extraordinary mouth, with its overhanging upper lip, has but to unfold into a smile to win laughter from the sourest official or demagogue. Then there was the bright bonhomie of Ewing of Ohio, the most primitive-looking of senators; and the benign, religious gravity of Frelinghuysen; the gentlemanly air of Buchanan; the shrewdness of Poindexter; the somewhat melancholy simplicity of Silsbee,—all these, and many others were striking; and for nothing more than for their total unlikeness to each other. No English person who has not traveled over half the world, can from an idea of such differences among men forming one assembly for the same purposes, and speaking the same language. Some were descended from Dutch farmers, some from French huguenots, some from Scotch puritans, some from English cavaliers, some from Irish chieftains. They were brought together out of law courts, sugar-fields, merchants' stores, mountain-farms, forests and prairies. The stamp of originality was impressed on every one, and inspired a deep, involuntary respect. I have seen no assembly of chosen men, and no company of the high-born, invested with the antique dignities of an antique realm, half so imposing to the imagination as this collection of stout-souled, full-grown, original men, brought together on the ground of their supposed suffeciency, to work out the will of their diverse constituencies.
In this splendid chamber, thus splendidly inhabited, we spent many hours of many weeks. Here I was able to gain no little knowledge of the state, political and other, of various parts of the country, from my large acquaintace amoung the members of the Senate. When dull offical reports were read, and uninteresting local matters were discussed, or when the one interminable speaker, Benton, was on his legs, one member or another of the body would come and talk with us. I have heard certain of the members, stalking from their seats towards those of the ladies compared to cranes in search of fish. The comparison is not a bad one.
I wished, every day, that the ladies would conduct themselves in a more dignified manner than they did, in the Senate. They Came in with waving plumes, and glittering in all the colours of the rainbow, causing no little bustle in the place, no little annoyance to the gentlemen spectarors; and rarely sat still for any length of time. I know that these ladies are no fair specimen of the women who would attend parliamentary proceedings in any other metropolis. I know that they were the wives, daughters and sisters of legislators, women througing to Washington for purposes of convenience or pleasure, leaving their usual employments behind them, and seeking to pass away the time. I knew this, and made allowance accordingly; but I still wished that they could understand the gravity of such an assembly, and show so much respect to it as to repay the privilege of admission by striving to excite as little attention as possible, and by having the patience to sit still when they happened not to be amused, till some interruption gave them opportunity to depart quietly. If they had done this, Judge Porter would not have moved that they should be appointed seats in the gallery instead of below; and they would have been guiltless of furnishing a plea for the exclusion of women, who would probably make a better use of the privilege, from the galleries of other houses of parliament.
I was glad of an opportunity of hearing both the South Carolina senators, soon after my arrival in Washington. They are listened to with close attention; and every indication of their state of feeling is watched with the interest which has survived the Nullification stuggle. Mr. Calhoun on this occasion let us a little into his mind; Mr. Preston kept more closely to the question before the body. The question was whether a vote of censure of the President, recorded in the minutes of the proceedings of the Senate, the preceding session, should be expunged. The motion for the expunging was made by colonel Benton, and rejected, as it had been before, and has been since; though it was finally carried, to the agony of the opposition, at the end of last session. (February, 1837.)
Mr. Preston was out of health, and unable to throw his accustomed force into his speaking; but his effort showed us how beautiful his eloquence is in its way. It is not solid. His speeches, if taken to pieces, will be found to consist of analogies and declamation; but his figure are sometimes very striking, and his manner is as graceful as anything so artificial can be. I never before understood the eloquence of action. The action of public speakers in England, as far as I have observed, (and perhaps I may be allowed to hint that deaf persons are peculiarly qualified to judge of the nature of such action) is of two kinds,—the involuntary gesture which is resorted to far the relief of the nerves, which may or may not be expressive of meaning; and the action which is wholly the result of study,—arbitrary and not the birth of the sentiment; and therefore, though pleasing perhaps to the eye, perplexing to the mind of the listener. Mr. Preston's manner unites the advantages of these two methods, and avoids most of their evils. It is to see that he could not speak without an abundant use of action; and that he has therefore done wisely in making it a study. To an unaccustomed eye it appears somewhat exuberant; but it is exquisitely graceful, and far more than commonly appropriate. His voice is not good, but his person is tall, stout and commanding, and his countenance animated.
Mr. Calhoun followed, and impressed me very strongly. While he kept to the question, what he said was close, good, and moderate, though delivered in rapid speech, and with a voice not sufficiently modulated. But when he began to reply to a taunt of Colonel Beuton's, that he wanted to be President, the force of his speaking become painful. He made protestation which it seemed to strangers had better have been spared, that he would not turn on his heel to be President; and that he had given up all for his brave, magnammous little State of South Carolina. While thus protesting, his eyes flashed, his brow seemed charged with thunder, his voice became almost a bark, and his sentences were abrupt, intense, producing in the auditory that sort of laugh which is squeezed out of people by the application of a very sudden mental force. I believe he little knew what a revelation he made in a few sentences. They were to us strangers the key, not only to all that was said done by the South Carolina party during the remainder of the session, but to many things at Charleston and Columbia, which would otherwise have passed unobserved or unexplained.
I was less struck than some strangers appear to have been with the lengh and prosy character of the speeches in Congress. I do not remember hearing any senator (always excepting Colonel Benton speak for more than an hour. I was seldom present in the other House, where probably the most diffuse oratory is heard; but I was daily informed of the proceedings there, by the representative who was of our party; and I did not find that there was much annoyance or delay from this cause. Perhaps the practice may be connected with the amount of business to be done. It is well known that the business of Congress is so moderate in quantity from the function of the general Government being few and simply, that it would be considered a mere trifle by any parliament in the Old World: and long speeches which would be a great annoyance elsewhere may be an innocent pastime in a assembly which may have leisure upon its hands.
The gallery of the splendid Hall of Representatives is not well contrived for hearing; and I rarely went into it for more than a passing view of what was going on: a view which might be taken without distm bance to am body, as the gallery was generally empty, and too high raised above the area of the hall, to fix the eye of the members. MY chief interest was watching Mr. Adams, of whose speaking, however, I can give no account The circumstance of this gentleman being now a member of the representative body after having been President, fixes the attention of all Europeans upon him, with as much admiration as interest. He is one of the most remarkable men in America. He is an embodiment of the pure, simple morals which are assumed to prevail in the thriving young republic. His term of office was marked by nothing so much as by the subordination of glory to goodness—of showy objects moral ones. The eccentricity of thought and action in Mr. Adams, of which his admirers bitterly or sorrowfully com plain, and which renders him an impracticable member of a party, arises from the same honest simplicity which crowns his virtues, mingled with a faulty taste and an imperfect temper. His hastiness of assertion has sometimes placed him in predicaments so undignified as almost to be a sot-off against the honours he wins by pertinacious and bold adherence to a principle which he considers sound. His occasional starts out of the ranks of his party, without notice, and without apparent cause, have been in vain attempted to be explained on suppositions of interest or vanity: they may be more easily accounted for in other ways. Between one day and another, some new idea of justice and impartiality may strike his brain, and send him to the House warm with invective against his party, and sympathy with their foes. He rises, and speaks out all his new mind, to the perplexity of the whole assembly, every man of whom bends to hear every syllable he says.—perplexity which gives way to dismay on the one hand and triumph on the other. The triumphant party begins to coax and honour him; but before the process is well begun, he is off again. finding that he had gone too far: and the probability is that he finishes by placing himself between two fires. I now describe what I actually witnessed of his conduct in one instance; conduct which left no more doubt of his integrity than of his eccentricity. He was well described to me before I saw him. “Study Mr, Adams.” Was the exhortation. You will find him well worth it. He runs in veins; if you light upon one, you will find him marvellously rich; if not, you may chance to meet rubbish. In action, he is very peculiar. He will do ninety-nine things nobly.—excellently:—but the hundredth will be so bad in taste and temper, that it will drive all the rest out of your head, if you don't lake care.” His countrymen will “takc care.” Whatever the heats of party may be, however the tone of disappointment against Mr. Adams may sometimes rise to something took like halved, there is undoubtedly a deep reverence and affection for the man in the nation's heart; and any one may safely prophecy that his reputation, half a century after his death, will he of a very honourable kind. He fought a stout and noble battle in Congress last session in favour of discussion of the Slavery question and in defence of the right of petition upon it,—on behalf of women as well as of men. While hunted, held at bay, almost torn to pieces by an outrageous majority,—leaving him. I believe, in absolute unity,—he preserved a boldness and coolness as amusing as they were admirable. Though he now and then vents his spleen with violence when disappointed in a favourite object, he seems able to bear perfectly well that which it is the great fault of Americans to shrink from.—singularity and blame. He seems at times reckless of opinion: and this is the point of his character which his countrymen seem, naturally, least able to comprehend.
Such is the result of the observations I was able to make on this gentleman when at Washington. I was prevented seeing so much of him as I earnestly desired by his family circumstances. He had just lost a son, and did not appear in society. It is well lost known in America that Mr. Adams will leave behind him papers of inestimable value. For forty years (1 was told) he has kept a diary, full and exact. In this diary he every morning sols down not only the events of the preceding day. but the conversations he has had with foreigners, and on all subjects of interest. This immense accumulation of papers will afford such materials for history as the country has never yet been blessed with. Perhaps no country has ever possessed a public man. of great powers, and involved in all the remarkable events of its most remarkable period, who has had industry enough to leave behind him a similar record of his times. This will probably turn out to be (whether he thinks so or not) the Greatest and most useful of his deeds, and his most honourable monument.
Those whose taste is the contemplation of great and original men, may always have it gratified by going to Washington. Whatever may be thought of the form and administration of government there, —however certain it may be that the greatest men are not in this age of the world, to be found in political life.—it cannot be but that among the real representatives of a composite and self-governing nation there must be many men of power.—power of intellect, of goodness, or, at least., of will.