Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

THE CHARACTER OF WASHINGTON

DANIEL WEBSTER A speech delivered at a public dinner in the City of Washington, February 22, 1832, the centennial anniversary of Washington's birth.

We are met to testify our regard for him whose name is intimately blended with whatever belongs most essentially to the prosperity, the liberty, the free institutions, and the renown of our country. That name was of power to rally a nation, in the hour of thick-thronging 5 public disasters and calamities; that name shone, amid the storm of war, a beacon light, to cheer and guide the country's friends; it flamed, too, like a meteor, to repel her foes. That name, in the days of peace, was a loadstone, attracting to itself a whole people's confidence, a 10 whole people's love, and the whole world's respect. That name, descending with all time, spreading over the whole earth, and uttered in all the languages belonging to the tribes and races of men, will forever be pronounced with affectionate gratitude by everyone in 15 whose breast there shall arise an aspiration for human rights and human liberty.

We perform this grateful duty, Gentlemen, at the expiration of a hundred years from his birth, near the place, so cherished and beloved by him, where his dust 20 now reposes, and in the capital which bears his own immortal name.

All experience evinces that human sentiments are strongly influenced by associations. The recurrence of

anniversaries, or of longer periods of time, naturally freshens the recollection, and deepens the impression, of events with which they are historically connected. Re

nowned places, also, have a power to awaken feeling, 5 which all acknowledge. No American can pass by the

fields of Bunker Hill, Monmouth, and Camden, as if they were ordinary spots on the earth's surface. Whoever visits them feels the sentiment of love of country kindling anew, as if the spirit that belonged to the trans10 ::ctions which have rendered these places distinguished

still hovered round, with power to move and excite all who in future time may approach them.

But neither of these sources of emotion equals the power with which great moral examples affect the mind. 15 When sublime virtues cease to be abstractions, when

they become embodied in human character, and exemplified in human conduct, we should be false to our own nature if we did not indulge in the spontaneous effu

sions of our gratitude and our admiration. A true 20 lover of the virtue of patriotism delights to contemplate

its purest models; and that love of country may be well suspected which affects to soar so high into the regions of sentiment as to be lost and absorbed in the abstract

feeling, and becomes too elevated or too refined to glow 25 with fervor in the commendation or the love of individual benefactors. All this is unnatural. It is as if one should be so enthusiastic a lover of poetry as to care nothing for Homer or Milton; so passionately attached

to eloquence as to be indifferent to Tully and Chat30 ham; or such a devotee to the arts, in such an ecstasy

with the elements of beauty, proportion, and expression, as to regard the masterpieces of Raphael and Michael Angelo with coldness or contempt. We may be assured, Gentlemen, that he who really loves the thing itself, loves its finest exhibitions. A true friend of his country loves her friends and benefactors, and thinks it no degradation to commend and commemorate them. The voluntary outpouring of the public feeling, made to-day, from the north to the south, and from the east to the 5 west, proves this sentiment to be both just and natural. In the cities and in the villages, in the public temples and in the family circles, among all ages and sexes, gladdened voices to-day bespeak grateful hearts and a frashened recollection of the virtues of the Father of his 10 Country. And it will be so, in all time to come, so long as public virtue is itself an object of regard. The ingenuous youth of America will hold up to themselves the bright model of Washington's example, and study to be what they behold; they will contemplate his char- 1; acter till all its virtues spread out and display themselves to their delighted vision; as the earliest astrono mers, the shepherds on the plains of Babylon, gazed at the stars till they saw them form into clusters and constellations, overpowering at length the eyes of the 20 beholders with the united blaze of a thousand lights.

Gentlemen, we are at a point of a century from the birth of Washington; and what a century it has been ! During its course, the human mind has seemed to proceed with a sort of geometric velocity, accomplishing for 25 human intelligence and human freedom more than had been done in fives or tens of centuries preceding. Washington stands at the commencement of a new era, as well as at the head of the New World. A century from the birth of Washington has changed the world. The 30 country of Washington has been the theatre on which a great part of that change has been wrought, and Washington himself a principal agent by which it has been

accomplished. His age and his country are equally full of wonders; and of both he is the chief.

If the poetical prediction, uttered a few years before his birth, be true; if indeed it be designed by Providence 5 that the grandest exhibition of human character and

human affairs shall be made on this theatre of the Western world; if it be true that,

"The four first acts already past;

A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time's noblest offspring is the last');

10

how could this imposing, swelling, final scene be appropriately opened, how could its intense interest be adequately sustained, but by the introduction of just such a

character as our Washington ? 15 Washington had attained his manhood when that

spark of liberty was struck out in his own country which has since kindled into a flame and shot its beams over the earth. In the flow of a century from his birth,

the world has changed in science, in arts, in the extent 20 of commerce, in the improvement of navigation, and in

all that relates to the civilization of man. But it is the spirit of human freedom, the new elevation of individual man, in his moral, social, and political character, leading the whole long train of other improve25 ments, which has most remarkably distinguished the era.

Society, in this century, has not made its progress, like Chinese skill, by a greater acuteness of ingenuity in trifles; it has not merely lashed itself to an increased speed round the old circles of thought and action; but it 30 has assumed a new character; it has raised itself from

beneath governments to a participation in governments; it has mixed moral and political objects with the daily pursuits of individual men; and, with a freedom and strength before altogether unknown, it has applied to these objects the whole power of the human understanding. It has been the era, in short, when the social principle has triumphed over the feudal principle; when society has maintained its rights against military power, 5 and established, on foundations never hereafter to be shaken, its competency to govern itself.

It was the extraordinary fortune of Washington, that, having been intrusted, in revolutionary times, with the supreme military command, and having fulfilled that 10 trust with equal renown for wisdom and for valor, he should be placed at the head of the first government in which an attempt was to be made on a large scale to rear the fabric of social order on the basis of a written constitution and of a pure representative principle. A 15 government was to be established, without a throne, without an aristocracy, without castes, orders, or privileges; and this government, instead of being a democracy existing and acting within the walls of a single city, was to be extended over a vast country of different 20 climates, interests, and habits, and of various communions of our common Christian faith. The experiment certainly was entirely new. A popular government of this extent, it was evident, could be framed only by carrying into full effect the principle of representation 25 or of delegated power; and the world was to see whether society could, by the strength of this principle, maintain its own peace and good government, carry forward its own great interests, and conduct itself to political renown and glory. By the benignity of Providence, this 30 experiment, so full of interest to us and to our posterity forever, so full of interest, indeed, to the world in its present generation and in all its generations to come, was suffered to commence under the guidance of Wash

« ZurückWeiter »