Henry Armitt Brown

WHEN the young die the fact of death is very reluctantly conceded. The will accepts it tardily, though the understanding has received it. The condition before death is canvassed afterward as earnestly as if hope of life still remained, and the inherent immortality of youth joined to our own resolution seems for a moment to check fate. The bitterness of death, then, is not at the moment of death, but when the fierce flame of life in us has died down. It is two years since Armitt Brown died, His memoir has been written, his four orations collected, and it is useless longer to try to believe that he is living here, except through an influence which this volume1 may help to extend. It is part of the significance of his life that his college course was coincident with the war for the Union. He was a graduate of Yale in the class of 1865; while the young men who graduated as he entered were fighting for the country, he was preparing for that later contest, not yet closed, in which the idealism of youth is quite as conspicuously needed. The memoir, in its earlier pages, sets before the reader a delightful picture of a generous, hearty boy, growing by natural degrees into self-possession and well-defined power of consciousness. The college life, stamped with the special mark of Yale characteristics, was not at all singular, nor was it unobserved or commonplace. It was followed by study of the law as a profession and by travel in Europe; in 1871 he settled to his work as a lawyer in Philadelphia, and the seven years which remained of his life were now crowded with professional, political, and social service.

He made his mark as a public speaker in December, 1872, when he responded for The Juniors of the Bar, at a dinner given by the Philadelphia bar to exChief-Justice Thompson. In the short, melodious speech which he then made, he disclosed a rare power, which gave him at once a hearing among men whose ears were deaf to any mere achievement of rhetoric. He himself had only begun to feel the rising of his genius for oratory, but he showed the make of his nature when he turned his power into a turbid political channel. A Citizens’ Municipal Reform Association had recently been organized, to secure purity of elections and effect a change in the corrupt organization which was an unconnected part of the prevalent political immorality. He was identified with this movement from the outset. There was an evil to attack, and the young lawyer became a political knight. The power of speaking to a crowd was not a simple gift of nature, nor the product of careful art, but it was the character and purpose of an enthusiastic young American spending himself, without counting the cost, upon the nearest political duty, and using the weapon which he could wield most effectively. His political work, begun in his own city and upon municipal questions, extended and widened by a natural impulse. He was found in 1875 among the reformers in the Pennsylvania State election, and in March, 1876, he may be said to have opened the ball for the Bristow movement in his noble letter to the New York Tribune. He was a member of the Fifth Avenue Conference, and as delegate to the Cincinnati Convention, in June, made a stirring speech in behalf of a candidate who had character, capacity, and courage. When the campaign began he threw himself into it with extraordinary vigor, and no one Eastern man did more at the West to insure Hayes’s election. He returned to Philadelphia again to take up the battle for municipal reform, in which he was recognized now as the leader. The sentences which closed his most important speech in that cause hint at the sources of power in him : —

“ My countrymen : ‘ Time makes no pauses in his march.’ The moments are swiftly passing, and you who make up this mighty multitude will presently have scattered to your homes. Great opportunities come but once, and stay but a little while. Days quickly make the weeks, and soon this battle will be lost or won. Change is ever going on about us, and you who listen, and I who speak, shall in brief time pass from the stage on which we are to-day the actors, and our places be taken by our own children. Let it not then be written that while the sounds of your great festival still lingered in the air, ere yet that pleasant city which Penn founded, where Jefferson wrote, and Washington lived, and Franklin died, had filled her second century, self - government was already an outcast, and true liberty could find no stone to pillow her head. Let them rather say that then, as always, in every crisis of her history, though leaders were weak and parties wanting, the heart of the people did not falter, and the sons of those who had so often protected others still had the courage to protect themselves.”

The names to which Brown appealed, the history which enrolled them, — these he used not for rhetorical effect, but because they were the weightiest arguments he knew. Running by the side of his political work was a series of notable achievements in oratory upon subjects more purely historical. The centennial celebration at Philadelphia owed its success not to any merely commercial considerations, nor to lively sentiment kept energetic through months and years, but chiefly to the solid national sentiment of men and women ably led. Brown was one of the leaders, and out of his enthusiasm came both executive labor, and that fine aid which his oratory could so well give. His address at Carpenter’s Hall, September 5, 1874, on the anniversary of the meeting of the first Continental Congress, gave him a national reputation, and the three orations which followed — at Burlington, December 6, 1877, at Valley Forge, June 19, 1878, and at Freehold nine days later, but, alas, not from his lips — are incontestable evidences, as they stand upon the printed page, of his remarkable skill in grouping historical events, his insight into sources of political life, and, above all, of his glowing and lofty patriotism. His rich voice and impassioned delivery are but a shadow to the reader of these orations.

It is easy for one, with the help of Professor Hoppin’s memoir, to catch a glimpse of the social and domestic life which Brown led, and the letters and passages from his diary offer clear pictures of his rare nature. There were the beginnings, in all that one reads, of a large and impressive life, and it seems impossible for one, whether he knew him personally or not, to withhold the offering of praise and affection. Yet what Brown might have done, had he lived, affects us less than what he actually did. Ben Jonson’s noble lines rise to our lips when we think of him : —

“ In small proportions we just beauty see,
And in short measures life may perfect be.”

The life of the country at this day is not so dramatic as in the time of war, but Brown’s career is as signal an example of devotion to country in peace as was that of any brilliant, regretted young soldier. He had seen men like himself die for their country, and, wanting that opportunity, used what was given to him, and lived for her. He had the old and noble passion of patriotism, and if he did not buckle on his sword, it was because there was no enemy to be assailed in that way. There was an enemy in the corruption of public life, and there were no more fatal blows dealt it than those which came from Brown’s fervid lips and untiring mind. His patriotism was fed from the higher streams, and the force of his nature rose to an equal height. If it be said that no country need despair which can point to the rolls of her battles and show the names of her noblest young men, it can be said with equal truth that the devotion to public civil life of such men as Brown marks the possibility of a greatness in politics as heroic and glorious as any that can be shown in war. The inspiration of this life comes to one with a power unsurpassed by that which one feels when he stands before the tablets of the dead in our memorial halls.

  1. Memoir of Henry Armitt Brown, together with four Historical Orations. Edited by J. M. HOPPIN, Professor in Yale College. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1880.