VIRGINIA was at her greatest during the half-century which intervened between the conclusion of the French war and the opening of the second war with Great Britain. During all the years from 1763 to 1812, her population was greater than that of any of the other colonies and States. In the census of 1790, she even surpassed them all in the number of her free inhabitants, and embraced within her borders more than a fifth of the total population of the Union. It was during this time, too, that she enjoyed her maximum of influence, and made her chief contributions to the fabric of American government. This is the period of her history best worth recounting; but in formal histories it has been little recounted. Scarcely any such exist for the years subsequent to the fall of Yorktown. Girardin’s continuation of Burk had the merits that would naturally spring from his close connection with Jefferson; but it had also some of the defects that would naturally mark a book drawing so large a part of its inspiration from that one source. Howison’s book is one of no great merit.
For the history of Virginia in its golden age we have therefore always had to resort to the biographies of the chief Virginians of that period. Fortunately, they have been numerous and excellent, — far beyond what one can find for the other Southern States. Happy the State whose eminent men have found biographers. From biographies their praises filter into cyclopaedias of biography, and then Mr. Lodge, or some other ingenious tabulator of the meritorious, credits the State with liavinghad many great men, because it has had many writers of biography. Unquestionably, Virginia did, for various reasons, abound in great men in the age spoken of, and unquestionably they have had good biographers. First of all came Chief Justice Marshall’s life of Washington, dignified, careful, and monumental. Since then there have been three periods of marked activity in such writing. During the twenty years succeeding the inauguration of President Monroe, when the Revolutionary leaders were passing away, and the enthusiastic patriotism evoked by the war of 1812 was still at the flood, came Wirt’s engaging life of Patrick Henry, the lives of Richard Henry Lee and Arthur Lee by Richard Henry Lee the younger, with those wonderful appendixes which have been for two generations the despair of searchers, Sparks’s life and writings of Washington, Tucker’s life of Jefferson, and T. J. Randolph’s edition of Jefferson’s writings. Later, within the few years just preceding the civil war, came Randall’s Jefferson and Rives’s Madison and Garland’s Randolph, the congressional edition of Jefferson’s writings and those of Madison. The past decade has seen a most happy revival of interest in the worthies of that time and State. In
1882, Mr. Henry Adams led the way with his incisive discussion of John Randolph. In 1884, Mr. Lyon Gardiner Tyler brought out his Letters and Times of the Tylers (the judge and the President), making contributions to Virginian history of more than sufficient value to insure him forgiveness for the occasional intemperateness of his statements. In 1888, Mr. Conway followed with his Edmund Randolph, and its interesting extracts from that singular man’s History of Virginia, of which a word may be spoken later. Then came Professor Moses Coit Tyler’s masterly and brilliant little book on Patrick Henry, and Mr. Lodge’s aide volumes on Washington. Even the Department of State contributed its share, using some ingeniously discovered authority to publish the Letters of Joseph Jones. And now come, most extensive and most valuable of all these recent additions to our knowledge, Mr. Wirt Henry’s Life, Correspondence, and Speeches of his grandfather,1 and Miss Rowland’s Life and letters of her collateral ancestor, George Mason.2 Naturally, the three volumes upon Henry make on the reader a less impression of novelty than Miss Rowland’s account of Mason. Of the latter no biography had ever appeared, urgently as one had been desired, while there were already two lives of Patrick Henry, — William Wirt’s and Professor Tyler’s, — both of them books composed with remarkable literary skill. Nevertheless, if Mr. Henry’s plain, sober, and somewhat unimaginative narrative does not seek to rival its predecessors in point of form, its contributions of fact are extensive and of much importance. Perhaps one may say that they are of even greater importance with respect to the history of Virginia than with respect to the personality of Patrick Henry. The outlines of Henry’s character as drawn by his grandson do not essentially differ from those laid down in Professor Tyler’s attractive little volume; but Mr. Henry, who is president of the Virginia Historical Society, has evidently felt a strong desire to contribute to the history, and especially to the constitutional and political history, of his native State. His book is, in reality, by far the best history of Virginia we have for the years from 1765 to 1799. It gives us a fair, full, and intelligent account of all the leading events of Virginian history during the Revolutionary and postRe volution ary periods, as well as of the events in the other colonies and in England which are necessary to the understanding of what went on in Virginia. The figure of Patrick Henry thus receives abundant setting and background. In Miss Rowland’s volumes, too, one finds much beside the bare narration of Mason’s life and the printing of bis papers, but the additions are largely of another sort. There is much regarding the family connections, the friends and neighbors, of George Mason, and therefore much which helps us to understand the social constitution and life of Stafford and Fairfax counties, and of the whole region of the Potomac, of which most of us know less than of those parts of Virginia which border on the James.
It is impossible to praise too warmly the zeal and assiduity which both writers have employed in their search for materials. It is hard to think of a possible source which they have not ransacked. Mr. Henry has had the use, first, of all the materials which Wirt collected, embracing many extensive and important communications from men who had known the great orator; second, of the mass of private papers which the latter left behind him; third, of a large number of bis letters preserved in the collections of the chief gatherers of American autographs. The archives of the Federal and Virginian governments at Washington and at Richmond have supplied many additional letters, and the latter has likewise furnished the executive journal of Henry’s live years of service as governor, with other public papers of the first importance. A multitude of printed books have also been laid under contribution ; and the number of books relating to Virginian history in that period is much greater than one is at first inclined to suppose. A source upon which Mr, llenry places great reliance is the manuscript history of Virginia by Edmund Randolph, now in tile possession of the Virginia Historical Society. Very likely he is right in so doing, and yet one feels at times that, with all Randolph’s intelligence and his opportunities, a man so incapable of saying a plain tiling in a plain way is not the best sort of witness. Irritated by the involved and excessively ornamented style, one cannot help feeling that it betokens a tortuous and uncertain mind, not more implicitly to be depended upon in historical narration than in the convention or the Department of State.
Mr. Henry’s third volume is entirely documentary. It consists of over four hundred pages of Governor Henry’s correspondence, a collection of the greatest interest and importance ; of his speeches in the Virginia convention of 1788, reprinted from Robertson’s Debates ; and of Wirt’s report of the speech in the British Debt cause. It is to be regretted that the editor has not indicated the source whence lie has derived each of the letters, as Miss Rowland has so carefully done in the case of those of Colonel Mason. These latter have been incorporated seriatim in the text; but in extensive appendixes Miss Rowland lias printed the longer public papers of her ancestor, his speeches in the convention of 1788, and bis will. The sources of her narrative have been, more largely than those of Mr. Henry’s, papers hitherto unprinted, Beside the numerous Mason papers in the possession of descendants, she has found materials among the manuscripts of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, in the library of the Department of State, in the public. repositories of Virginia, and in the hands of the descendants of Mason’s correspondents.
The facts of Patrick Henry’s career have long been familiar to all readers. Mr. Henry follows and confirms with fuller evidence Professor Tyler’s demonstration that the great orator was neither so idle nor so ignorant in youth as has commonly been asserted, and that, equally contrary to received opinion, lie was far from unsystematic ia his law practice and in his accounts. He makes it a little less unaccountable, though it still remains wonderful, that immediately upon his first entrance into the House of Burgesses, a new and young man in that chosen abode of conservatism and family influence, he should have been able to assume a foremost place, and should have electrified not only Virginia, but all America, with his famous resolutions upon the Stamp Act. One fact, perhaps unnoticed by Mr. Henry, is of great importance toward explaining the career of his grandfather, and that is the extraordinary susceptibility of the Virginians to the influence of eloquence. Fondness for public speaking has distinguished them, from that day to this, far more than the Americans of New England and tlic Middle States. Now, much the greatest successes of Henry’s career were successes won by oratory, from the time when he so triumphantly made the worse appear the better reason in the Parsons’ Cause to the day of that last speech at Charlotte Court-House, in March, 1799. His temperament was emphatically the oratorical temperament. Mr. Henry labors, and with much success, to show that his gifts Were by no means solely those of the orator. He convinces us that Henry was a good committee-man, and was regarded by his fellow-members in deliberative bodies as competent in the discharge of legislative business, even when it was involved in minutke. He opposes Wirt’s habit of viewing Henry simply as an orator, which perhaps rested mainly upon rhetorical antithesis, and the popular notion that lie who is a great orator is necessarily not a great man of business. He proves that he was, on the whole, a good and efficient and vigilant governor, though the prolonged absences which his ill health made necessary must have considerably impaired his usefulness as a chief magistrate in such times as those. In this matter, by the way, as in many others, Mr. Henry finds himself obliged to controvert sharply the statements of President Jefferson, though it is well known that Jefferson himself lived in a glass house so far as his governorship of Virginia is concerned. Jefferson’s contributions to American history are indeed a curiously interesting subject of study. He lived so long, and wrote and talked so much, that, in respect to volume, he is one of our most important sources, and his extraordinary gifts confer an unusual value upon his statements ; but with the feminine qualities that Mr. Henry Adams has noted in his constitution there went not a little of feminine spite. Warm and just as were sometimes his praises of those men who had labored with him in that eventful period, many of them might well envy him the good fortune which enabled him to survive them all, and then say what lie pleased of them. Madison, who was almost the only one who outlived him, was also almost the only one whom he always praised.
But, after all, Patrick Henry was chiefly an orator. Nowhere has he left so good and so complete a portrait of his mind as in the speeches delivered in the Virginia convention of 1788, called to consider the question of the ratification of the Federal Constitution. Many of the objections which he made to it, in the course of his long and truly wonderful struggle against ratification, are the objections of a statesman ; but it must be said that a vast proportion of what he said savors more of oratory than of statesmanship. In some degree this was of course true of all the objectors. Each had made up his mind to oppose the Constitution, on account of certain features which seemed to him fatally objectionable. Having decided upon this, he would naturally be led, by the desire to persuade as many as possible of his fellow-members to the same course, to insist not only upon these, but upon all other anywise plausible objections that occurred to his mind. It is, for instance, quite plain from Miss Rowland’s narrative that George Mason’s original objections, while strong and controlling, had attached to but a few provisions of the instrument he had had so much to do with framing. In the Virginia convention, however, he livings forward a large number of objections, though indeed it is fair to say that they are of a more practical east and more temperately stated than most of Henry’s. It is perhaps worth noting, in connection with the natural tendency just mentioned, that it has given to all biographers of AntiFederalist leaders an opportunity and a temptation, from which Mr. Henry and Miss Rowland have not wholly escaped, to magnify the scope of the prophetic insight of those leaders into the dangers environing the young republic. It a group of American politicians devote themselves for months to the task of discovering and exposing every possible defeet in a proposed instrument of government, it must necessarily happen that, as prophets of evil to come from its installation, they will in many cases he successful. A list of the gloomy predictions which these worthies made, and which have not been fulfilled, would, for purposes of comparison, be highly instructive.
Next in importance to the convention of 1788, among the occasions on which Mason and Henry were associated, was doubtless the convention of 1776, at Williamsburg, which declared in favor of independence, and gave the State its Declaration of Rights and its new constitution,— the first genuine constitution adopted by any State subsequent to the voting of independence. Upon these events both authors have much that is new to communicate. Mr. Henry in particular gives a much fuller history of the chief transactions of the convention than has ever been given before, The most interesting of its documents is without question its Declaration of Rights, that terse, manly, and vigorous statement of the fundamental principles of free government which has been so widely and so strongly influential ever since. In respect to the authorship of its concluding articles our authors differ, as other authors have differed before. Mr. Henry ascribes those which now stand as the fifteenth and sixteenth to Patrick Henry, relying on the statement of Edmund Randolph, who says, in his manuscript History of Virginia, “The fifteenth. recommending an adherence and frequent recurrence to fundamental principles, and the sixteenth, unfettering the exercise of religion, were proposed by Mr. Henry.” But Miss Rowland seems to us much more likely to be right in attributing them to the same hand that unquestionably drew up the preceding articles, the hand of Colonel Mason. No such claim was ever made by Henry. Mason, on the other hand, deliberately asserts, in the confidence of private correspondence, in a letter written to a cousin in London only two years and a half after the event, that the paper which he incloses is “ a copy of the first draft of the Declaration of Rights, just as it was drawn and presented by me to the Virginia convention, where it received few alterations.” He makes a similarly positive statement upon the copy which was found among his papers after his death in 1792. Moreover, as Miss Rowland ingeniously points out, a paper drawn up by him in 1775 for the Independent Company of Fairfax County, which contains the germs of several of the earlier articles of the Declaration of Rights, contains also, in a slightly variant form, the most characteristic and often-quoted phrase of the disputed fifteenth article. On the whole, these evidences seem entitled to outweigh the unsupported assertion of Edmund Randolph, made perhaps thirty years after the event.
With respect to the Virginian constitution, however, of which, also, the first draft was presented by Mason. Miss Rowland is less fortunate in declaring that the tract of John Adams (Thoughts on Government, which he sent to Lee and Henry) “ is not believed to have exercised any influence on the convention.” A scheme which is either a modification of Adams’s plan by Colonel Lee. or of one drawn up from Adams’s and Lee’s together, was published in the Virginia Gazette of May 10, 1776. A close examination and comparison of this, of Colonel Mason’s draft in Madison’s copy, and of the constitution finally adopted inclines one rather to the opinion expressed by Mr. Henry, — that Mason’s plan was framed upon that published in the Gazette, and that the constitution was framed upon Mason’s draft, though following more closely the published plan in some important particulars.
Both writers relate in much detail the history of the convention of 1788, and Miss Rowland argues warmly that Virginia made a great mistake in ratifying the Constitution. In discussing the fortunes of Governor George Clinton’s letter to Governor Randolph, which might have turned the scale, it is a little surprising to see both writers entirely ignoring Governor Randolph’s defense as stated by Mr. Conway. On the whole, it seems a satisfactory one. Randolph says, in transmitting the letter to the Assembly, that immediately on receiving it he had laid it before the Council, and requested their opinion as to whether it was of a public or of a private nature. Any reader of the letter will say that the doubt was justified. “ As I have no direction from the legislature on the subject of your communication,” writes Clinton, “ your Excellency will be pleased to consider this letter as expressive of my own sentiments,” etc. However. the Council decided that the communication was of a public nature, and the governor transmitted it to the legislature on the first day of its session, two days before the final vote in the convention. It does not appear that the Council were all Federalists. If there had been anything irregular in the governor’s course, it is singular that they did not make it and the contents of the New York letter public. The fact that they did not, and that the resolutions of censure upon the governor found among Mason’s papers were apparently never presented to the House of Delegates, may properly lead us to conclude that there was nothing censurable in his conduct.
From the time of the convention until his death in 1792, Mason took no part in public affairs. Indeed, his participation in public affairs had all his life been only occasionally an active one. Born in 1725, he was older than any other of the most prominent characters of the Revolution save Dr. Franklin and Samuel Adams. He was frequently tormented by ill health, and especially by gout. But he had, moreover, an extreme aversion to public life, and escaped from its irksome engagements whenever he could ; reserving himself for great occasions, when the duty of political action seemed to him imperative. At other times he contented himself with the position of a disinterested adviser to the more active patriots. The sound wisdom of his counsels was widely appreciated by them. Their praises have invested him with a reputation such as hardly any other equally unambitious American has ever obtained. It is pleasant to find that when at last we are presented with a full body of evidence respecting the details of his career, the impression of his greatness is only heightened. His nature, large and generous and singularly strong, is felt to be a highly attractive one. His mind was calm and wise and luminous ; he had in a peculiar degree those qualities of simplicity, solidity, and sovereign good sense which the independent and reflective life of the planter fostered in so many of the most eminent Virginians. With these qualities, and increasing their effectiveness, went a certain warmth of nature which his contemporaries often speak of as passionate, but which seems, from all we have read, to have been passion held well in restraint. He had also, as Miss Rowland shows us here and there in her attractive and well-written volumes, a certain caustic wit which pleasantly distinguishes him from most of the “fathers;’’ but it is the wit of a man who jests mainly for his own satisfaction,— not at all that broader and more popular wit which, as in Henry’s case, is addressed mainly to the end of raising a laugh among the audience. Somewhat of this grim humor and of Mason’s Roman independence is well illustrated by one of the stories which Miss Rowland records concerning him. He was informed, the story goes, that if he opposed the ratification of the Federal Constitution, the people of Alexandria (a strongly Federal town) would mob him. Thereupon he “ mounted his horse, rode to the town, and, going up the court-house steps, said to the sheriff,
‘ Mr. Sheriff, will you make proclamation that George Mason will address the people ? A crowd assembled, and Mason addressed them, denouncing the Constitution with hitter invective, after which he mounted his horse and returned home.”
Henry’s public career continued foV some time after the close of the convention. He had a foremost part in all the struggle which succeeded it respecting the securing of amendments to the Constitution by the first Congress. Through these heated contests Mr. Henry pursues his way evenly and with magnanimity. everywhere defending his grandfather, but defending him with fairness and sobriety. In regard to the arrangement of the first congressional districts in such manner that it was made difficult for Madison to secure a seat, generally set down as the first gerrymander in American history, Mr. Henry rightly states that his ancestor was not a member of the committee that brought in the bill. But the journals show that the committee consisted of eight Anti-Federalists to seven Federalists, and the manuscript loose papers of the session seem to show that the names of the counties making up the districts were left blank in the bill brought in by the committee, and were filled in by the House, and both committee and House were fully under Henry’s influence (his edicts, said Washington, “ are enregistered with less opposition in the Virginia Assembly than those of the Grand Monarch by his parliaments ”), so that the defense is not of much importance. In truth, the districting of the State was in general fairly carried out, and even in the particular district referred to the gerrymander was not a very bad one.
During the last years of his life, Henry’s position was that of a moderate Federalist. The change of attitude aroused bitter feeling, and especially, it would seem, on the part of Mr. Jefferson. The biographer’s explanation, like that of Professor Tyler, is that the passage of the first eleven amendments had done much to content the orator with the operations of the new government, and that the impiety of the French Revolution caused a revulsion in his deeply religious mind which alienated him from the Democrats of the Jeffersonian school. In support of this view, Mr, Henry, whose book is everywhere that of a lawyer, brings forward excellent evidence. Perhaps also increasing wealth and years did something toward making the former agitator more conservative. Certainly, the Federalists did not fail assiduously to cultivate the favor of so influential a convert. The last public act of Henry’s life was undertaken in response to General Washington’s appeal to him to come forth and use his ’towers against the dangerous doctrines of the Virginia and Ken* tueky Resolutions. In March, 1799, at Charlotte Court-House, the great orator appeared for the last time before a Virginian audience, and, in a speech of wonderful eloquence, adjured them to think well before they lent themselves to schemes of opposition to their national government. The immediate impression of his eloquence had not yet passed away when a beardless youth mounted the platform, tall, slender, pale, and effeminate-looking, and vehemently harangued the crowd with arguments opposing those of the aged orator. Thus, with characteristic audacity, John Randolph of Roanoke made his first entrance into public life. The scene was a striking one, and fitly closes a chapter in Virginian history. The strange and meteoric career thus begun as Henry’s sun was setting was in many ways not typical ; in many respects John Randolph represented no one but himself. Yet in a way the scene was characteristic of this year 1799 in Virginia. The matchless agitator, whose life had mostly been spent in protests on behalf of liberty and local rights, was passing away. The period during which the political force of Virginia bad been a force exercised in opposition was (dosing. With the elections of the next year was to begin a new period in Virginian history. — a period marked mainly by the fact that, now Virginia was placed for a time in charge of the government, to which hitherto it had been her part to act as opposition, and was to rule it through Randolph and men wiser than Randolph. If now. at. Charlotte CourtHouse. it was tlio representative of the old generation who spoke for the cause of nationality, and that of the younger who spoke for the old programme, that was not the only anomaly in which the transition from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth was to involve Virginia.
- Patrick Henry. Life, Correspondence, and Speeches. By WILLIAM WIRT HENRY. With Portrait. Three volumes. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1891.↩
- The Life of George Mason. 1725-1792. Including his Speeches, Public Papers, and Correspondence. By KATE MASON Rowland. With an Introduction by General FITZHUGH LEE. TWO volumes. New York and London : G. P. Putnam’s Sons; The Knickerbocker Press. 1892.↩