AHA Presidential Addresses
Contributions Made to Our National Development by Plain Men
By Richard S. Storrs, President of the American Historical Association, 1895–96
Presidential Address delivered at the AHA annual meeting in New York on December 29, 1896. Published in Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1896, 37–63.
Books by Richard R. Storrs
I gratefully acknowledge your unexpected and undeserved kindness in choosing me as your president for the current year; and if it had been at all in my power, I should gladly have responded to this kindness by presenting on this occasion some theme requiring remoter research than does that which I have chosen, or connected more intimately with that large and fascinating philosophy of history which has always attraction for studious minds. But the circumstances of my life in recent weeks have altogether forbidden the leisure necessary for the accomplishment of either of these purposes; and I can therefore only ask your indulgence while I rapidly present, under one or two illustrations, a subject which can certainly never be inopportune in a country like ours or in an assembly like this, yet which has no charm of novelty upon it and no dignity of remoteness; the subject, namely, of The Vast Silent Contributions heretofore made to our National Development by plain, uncelebrated Men, who sought no praise, achieved no present fame, but who did faithfully what came to them to be done, and the consequences of whose work are around us to-day. To recognize this seems equally our duty and our privilege, and the present meeting a not inapt occasion for it.
We are accustomed, of course, to think and speak with admiring honor of the brilliant and famous persons who, as statesmen, soldiers, inventors, great leaders of public thought, have given distinction to our annals in the century an a quarter of our public experience, and by whom the institutions of society among us have been conspicuously established and embellished. The time never will come when such honor to such men will not be appropriate. The impulse to render it belongs to our impelling and governing moral nature; and whenever it shall fail, a loss will be shown in us of that which is essential to noble personal or national welfare.
But it can not be doubted, I am sure, that while we honor such men, we ought also to gladly recognize, and on occasion to commemorate, that wide, quiet, unadorned work which has been done for the nation by those in less conspicuous positions—commonly, no doubt, of less signal powers—yet who also have wrought with patience, faithfulness, and consecration of spirit, and sometimes with extraordinary effect, to assure and advance public progress. The consequences of their work have often immensely surpassed expectation; while it is impressive to observe how the work of any one of them has not infrequently interlocked itself with that of another or of others following, till the final effect has been of prodigious extent and value. We see how rich in stalwart life our nation has been, and how manifold and profound have been the sources from which have come its ultimate power. Our gratitude for the past as well as our hope for the future may thus be reenforced.
I hope, therefore, that it will not seem inappropriate to the hour if I present two or three examples illustrating the nature and greatness of such work—examples familiar, no doubt, to you who are present, yet not widely recognized, and the full significance of which may not be always immediately apparent, even to those who have noticed them before. We do not any of us need to be taught, but it will not harm us to be freshly reminded, of that which it fell to those men to do, and our spirits may take a certain fresh impulse from recalling their work. For myself, I always find suggestions of duty and incentives to any form of honorable service in such examples, and this not the less because it so happens that those of whom I am chiefly to speak were both Congregational ministers in New England, while a third, to whom in closing I may allude, was a missionary-physician in the Northwestern wilderness. Not much, perhaps, would naturally be expected, in the way of affecting national progress, from men so placed, but the results of their patient and faithful efforts have been certainly remarkable.
One of these examples, which often recurs to the student of American history, is that of Eleazar Wheelock, the son of a respectable farmer in Windham, Conn., who was born there in April, 1711, was graduated at Yale College in 1733, and was ordained pastor of the Second Congregational Society in Lebanon, Conn., in June, 1735.
This town of Lebanon, in the county of Windham—a fairly typical New England town, with its principal village on a ridge from which farms descend either way, its wide streets shaded by noble elms and maples—was chiefly known in the latter part of the last century, and perhaps is generally known to-day, as the home of the Trumbulls, especially of Jonathan Trumbull, governor of Connecticut from 1769 to 1784, the only governor loyal to the people during the Revolution, on whom Washington greatly relied for counsel and aid, and whose Christian name has been sometimes supposed to have furnished the slang name for New Englanders, from the habit which the great commander had of saying, in regard to critical questions, “We must consult Brother Jonathan.” A price was set on his head by the British Government, but he lived to the ripe age of 75, and died amid the affectionate honor of all who knew him. His son, Jonathan, jr., became a trusted aid of Washington, and, after Hamilton, his private secretary. He, too, was governor of Connecticut for eleven years, from 1798 to 1809, and chief judge of the supreme court, as his father had been; he was Speaker also of the House of Representatives, and a Senator of the United States. Another son of the elder governor was John, to whom a reference was made in the meeting of this morning, who bad been in active military service in the early part of the Revolution, and had then been recognized as showing brilliant ability and courage, but whose special taste and talent for painting so controlled him that in 1780 be left the army to prosecute his art, and whose pictures are exhibited in the Capitol at Washington, in the Trumbull Gallery at New Haven, in the Wadsworth Gallery at Hartford, in the Historical Society and the city hall in this city, and elsewhere. He was the first vice-president and the second president of the American Academy of Fine Arts, and died in this city as lately as 1843.
Jeremiah Mason, the eminent lawyer, and United States Senator from New Hampshire from 1813 to 1817, was also from Lebanon; as was, later, Clark Bissell, judge and governor; or, afterwards, William A. Buckingham, the noble war governor from 1858 to 1866, and Senator at Washington from 1869 to 1875.
The town has thus given birth to eminent men, some of whom might fitly be celebrated in addresses like the present. But certainly as important a work as any other the fame of which is connected with it, was that commenced by Eleazar Wheelock, not a native of it, as I have said, but coming to it as the minister of a church in 1735 from a neighboring village. He was a good scholar for the time, an earnest, persuasive, and forcible preacher, and a man of notable activity of mind, as well as of profound and zealous philanthropy. According to a practice then not uncommon in New England, he received young men into his family to fit them for college or to train them for success in commercial pursuits. At the end of 1743 there came to this school a young Indian of the Mohican tribe, whose unpronounceable Indian name was Anglicized or Americanized into Samson Occom. He had been converted to Christianity while a youth, and now, at the age of 20 or thereabouts, he eagerly desired to fit himself to preach the Gospel to his people, and to all the Indian tribes to which access might be had. Mr. Wheelock gladly received him as a pupil, and he remained in the school for three or four years, preparing for college—from which, however, the failure of his health at last detained him—then leaving to take up the missionary work.
The wish to train Indian youth, properly qualified in power and character to do such work, has been active among New England divines from and before the time of John Eliot. The English “Company for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Heathen Natives of New England and the Parts Adjacent in America” had been incorporated about the middle of the seventeenth century, with Robert Boyle as its first governor. Bishop Berkeley, then Dean of Derry, had come to this country, you remember, in 1728, to further his plan “for the converting of the savage Americans to Christianity by a college to be erected in the Summer Islands, otherwise called the Isles of Bermudas.” The lived at Newport for two or three years, but being disappointed at the failure of the British Government to supply the aid which it had promised, and becoming persuaded that the Bermudas did not offer the best location for such a college, he returned to England, and his plan came to no practical result. The interest in the work which he had contemplated continued, however, to be here felt, as was shown, for example, by the establishment of a school for Indians at Stockbridge, Mass., in 1737, under John Sargent, and by his translation into the Indian language of parts of the Old Testament and of all the New Testament except the Book of Revelation, which he may have thought too resonant with descriptions of battle and of victory to be the best reading for fighting savages lately converted.
It was only in the line, therefore, of such animating Christian thought and impulse that Wheelock opened his school to Indian youth, and sought earnestly to bring them into it and to make provision for their support. The school became, indeed, after 1754, distinctively an Indian school, for these missionary purposes; and in 1762 he had present more than twenty Indian students. At times during the eight years he had had twenty-five, and in all more than fifty. Of these Samson Occom remained the most distinguished as a teacher and preacher. He had labored in his difficult work, not only in his own tribe, but among the Montauk and Shinnecock tribes of Long Island, and in 1759 had been ordained by the Suffolk Presbytery. It was decided in 1765 that he should go to England, to represent there what the school was doing, and to secure for it larger assistance; if possible even a permanent endowment. The expedition was signally successful. Occom was himself an object lesson to which none could be blind, whose inspiriting influence few could withstand. He was then perhaps 43 years of age, speaking English with easy fluency, having the characteristic color and features of his people, while a courteous gentleman in social intercourse, a thorough believer in the Gospel, and, as a preacher, with all the gifts for eloquent discourse which his race has often shown. Wide and effective interest in England was excited by his mission, which continued for nearly eighteen months. Whitfield and the Wesleys were heartily enlisted for his work. A fund of more than £12,000 was collected, to which His Gracious Majesty George III gave £200; the Earl of Dartmouth, £50; and to which the Earl of Shaftesbury, the Marchioness of Rockingham, the Duke of Bolton, the Bishop of Derry, with a multitude of others, emulously contributed. William Wilberforce, of the family probably of the great philanthropist, was one of the subscribers. Mayors of towns, with civic corporations, added to the fund.
The aid thus secured was larger, even, than had been expected, the impassioned eloquence of Occom having moved hearts not easily stirred, and the establishment of the Indian Charity School on a broader plan and a firmer basis was the work which immediately faced Mr. Wheelock. After much consultation it was determined to place it in New Hampshire—whose governor had already gladly assisted it—in the town of Hanover, on the western edge of the state, on the banks of the Connecticut. Families were already there who had gone from Lebanon and from neighboring towns. The offers of aid, in the way especially of donations of land, were prompt and liberal, and, above all, it seemed an accessible intermediate point for the Mohicans or Housatonics on the south, the Six Nations on the west, the Canada tribes on the north. So a royal charter was secured for the institution at the end of 1769, and the name of a noble patron in England was given to it. In August, 1770, Wheelock himself was on the ground, building or superintending the building for himself of a log hut 18 feet square, of a frame house for his family 32 feet by 40, with another house for his students 80 feet by 32. His sons and the students slept in booths and on beds of hemlock until the end of October, when he was able to place his family in the house, and Dartmouth College was started on its distinguished career. It had grown from the small charity school for the instruction chiefly of Indian youth, established by the minister in his own house in the Connecticut village, and already it had become an endowed institution of enduring fame and power in the land, the influence of which has reached and is to reach all lands of the earth.
Of the work since accomplished by the college, and of the great names on the roll of its alumni, I hardly need speak, since many of them you readily recall. Daniel Webster and Rufus Choate are those whom probably all would first name as giving to the college preeminent renown—the great statesman, lawyer, orator, of the period preceding the civil war, whose speech against Hayne shotted the guns of a million soldiers in the last generation; the equally great lawyer and orator who was also a devoted student and an elegant scholar. They differed in many things, as the massive oak differs from the graceful yet muscular elm with the far sweep of its leaf-crowned branches; as the granite of New England from the variegated marble or the rose-colored stone which are also at home there; but they were always admiring friends, and their names will shine together in the annals of Massachusetts and in those of the nation while those annals continue to be read.
But the luster of their names must not hide from us the noble fame which belongs to others who also found training at Dartmouth. Salmon P. Chase was there graduated—governor, Senator, Secretary of the Treasury, Chief Justice of the United States—whose great powers, great positions, and great work for the country will be always remembered. Levi Woodbury, Amos Kendall, Samuel Bell, judge, governor, and Senator; Judges Samuel S. Wilde and Joel Parker; Richard Fletcher, Ichabod Bartlett, Peleg Sprague, judge and Senator; George P. Marsh, equally eminent in literature and in national diplomacy, were all graduates of Dartmouth. When Mr. Webster entered the Senate, five of the twelve members of it from New England were Dartmouth alumni; at least eighteen of these have been Senators at different times, and probably no one of them has been more influential in the country than was Thaddeus Stevens, in the House of Representatives, often referred to as “the Great Commoner,” whose eloquent speech and intense convictions, with his personal daring and tremendous determination, lifted him to most prominent rank among the public men of the last generation. On the roll of eminent educators stand many graduates of the same college: Joseph McKeen and Jesse Appleton, both presidents of Bowdoin College; James Marsh, John Wheeler, Joseph Torrey, presidents of the University of Vermont; Gilman Brown, of Hamilton; Benjamin Hale, of Hobart College, Geneva; Ebenezer Porter, of the Andover Theological Seminary; Philander Chase, bishop of Ohio and afterwards of Illinois, founder of Kenyon and Jubilee colleges; with many others who have held important professorships—as Nathan W. Fiske, Calvin E. Stowe, Charles B. Haddock, Alpheus Crosby, Thomas C. Upham, William Chamberlain, Reuben Mussey, and others whom my limits forbid me to name. If those still living were to be included, the evening would be too short for the recital.
Distinguished literary men have also been trained there, as George Ticknor, the historian of Spanish literature; Caleb S. Henry, Nathaniel S. Folsom, in addition to those previously named; and of course a great multitude have gone into churches and schools, into journalism and the law, into medicine and the arts, and into great missionary work in other lands—as Daniel Poor, Levi Spalding, Daniel Temple, William Goodell.
One graduate, in the class with Ticknor, in 1807, has done more, it may safely be said, to put his powerful impress on the history of this country than any other of the more than five thousand graduates of the college; and yet, outside of military circles, his name is now hardly remembered. I refer to Sylvanus Thayer, a native of Braintree, Mass., a parishioner there of my father; a man whom I personally knew, and whom in the later years of his life I often met. After being graduated at Dartmouth, following the aspiration which had there been awakened for public service in some other profession than that of medicine or of law, he relinquished the valedictory which had been assigned to him, studied for less than a year at the then recently established Military School at West Point, left it in February, 1808, as second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, was engaged in active service in the war of 1812, was sent to Europe on professional duty to study military schools and the movement of armies, and in 1817 was appointed Superintendent of the Military Academy, which, when he had left it, nine years before, had been an inefficient, badly managed rudimentary school. He came to it then, at the age of 32, a refined, accomplished, commanding gentleman, an officer of experience and of wide observation, an enthusiastic student of science, thoroughly familiar with both ancient and modern languages, of a vigilant and resolute spirit, determined to place the West Point Academy in an honorable position among the great military schools of the world. In the sixteen years of his superintendency, until 1833, he accomplished this work, through unsparing labor, with unflinching resolution, and an extraordinary practical wisdom; and when, half a century after his retirement from the post, his body having been reinterred at West Point, a statue was there erected in his honor, fitly representing his erect and chivalric figure, it bore on its pedestal the simple but impressive inscription, “Colonel Thayer, Father of the Military Academy.” During the term of his superintendency 570 students were graduated under his instruction, and the influence exerted by him went on into after years, and has not ceased, and will not cease, to be a power in the Academy to the end of its history.
Among those personally instructed by him in military science were many of those most distinguished, on either side, in the fateful strife of the late civil war. On the side of the rebellion, Jefferson Davis, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, Robert E. Lee, John B. Magruder, and several others; on the side of the nation, too many to be, named. Among them, Richard Delafield, twice afterward Superintendent of the Academy; Daniel Tyler, Harvey Brown, David Hunter, Joseph K. F. Mansfield, Samuel P. Heintzelman, Silas Casey, Charles F. Smith, to whom Grant testified that the victory at Donelson was largely due, and who would perhaps have been advanced to the head of our armies but for his death through an accident before Shiloh; Ormsby M. Mitchell, Samuel R. Curtis, George W. Cullom, Robert Anderson, the hero of Fort Sumter; George G. Meade, victor at Gettysburg. Sedgwick, Hooker, McDowell, Halleck, left West Point before 1840, while the influence of Colonel Thayer was still as potent there as if be had been present; and the same influence continued, in hardly less vivid distinctness, when Longstreet, Buckner, and others, on the part of the rebellion, Thomas, Sherman, Grant, Hancock, McPherson, Howard, and Slocum, who so successfully led the forces of the Union, were there a few years later. The very life of Colonel Thayer had gone into the Academy, and had charged its veins with his personal force. After his retirement from the Army, with the rank of brigadier-general, in 1863, I saw him often, and was intensely interested in his judgment of those who had been his pupils, in his criticism of their military movements and combinations, and in his predictions of coming results. He could not help having a certain pride in the ability and the fame of Lee and the Johnstons, who had been among his favorite pupils, but his heart sank within him as he thought of their turning their genius and skill against the nation, which at his hands had cherished and trained them. My own younger blood was not more stirred than was his by the tidings of Union victories; and when one of his pupils had gained successes for the nation he was lifted to exultation. He left rich endowments for a school and a library in his native town, and for a school of science at Dartmouth; but his most enduring memorial in history will be that so tersely set forth on the monument at West Point—“Father of the Military Academy.”
Certainly in important measure it is due to his training that the war was fought to its august consummation, and was not suffered to “languish,” as English critics had predicted, “in the bloody trail of gigantic skirmishes.”
I have said enough, I think, to justify our placing the name of Eleazar Wheelock among those of the men who, doing faithfully the work which came to them, have laid the nation under vast obligation. He surely “builded better than he knew.” That small and obscure charity school for Indian boys, opened in his rural Connecticut home, has unfolded to proportions which he himself could not possibly have foreseen, in the college of which he was founder and president until his death in 1779; of which his son, John Wheelock, was second president for thirty-six years, and whose fame and power are to-day in all the earth. The “Vox Clamantis in Deserto” inscribed on its seal has become a great chorus of triumphing voices in homes and cities. The small effort, as it seemed at the time, to help a feeble remnant of a vanishing people became an incalculable conquering power to lift the imperiled nation, in the fullness of its strength, up and over ensanguined steeps to plains of peace. Almost a new application seems suggested of the ancient words concerning Israel: “I will be as the dew unto Israel; he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon. His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive tree; they that dwell in his shadow shall return; they shall revive as the corn, and grow as the vine; the scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon.”
A second example of the fundamental and far-reaching work done for the nation by men who failed at the time to attract wide public attention, and whose names, while familiar to a few, are not eminent and brilliant on the pages of history, is that presented by Manasseh Cutler, of Massachusetts, with whose general career we are perhaps all of us acquainted, but the fact even of whose life is not generally remembered, and the greatness of whose achievement for the welfare of the country is hardly more recognized, except among students, than if it had belonged to other lands or distant ages. Here, again, I am not, of course, to present information, which in this presence would be superfluous, but simply to remind you and myself of what we owe to the silent men who wrought for us and for our future, before our life on earth began, that it may be freshly evident to us how wide and deep are the foundations on which union and liberty here are established.
Cutler was born, as most of you may remember, in Killingly, Conn., a few miles distant from the birthplace of Wheelock, in May, 1742, his father being a highly respectable farmer there, and his mother a woman of unusual grace of mind and person and force of character. As a boy he of course worked on the farm, and thus laid the foundation of the vigor of body and the physical health which he afterwards enjoyed. In addition to his training in the common school, he studied with the pastor of the church in the preparation for college, entered Yale College, and was graduated there in 1755. For a time afterwards he was a merchant in Edgarton, Marthas Vineyard, owning shares in whale ships, for which Marthas Vineyard and Nantucket were then famous. Not satisfied with a life in commerce, he commenced the study of law, and was admitted to the bar with flattering prospects of success. Being, however, a man of earnest religious conviction, he turned from the law, entered the ministry, and in September, 1771, was ordained pastor of the Congregational Church in the southern part of Ipswich, Mass., a precinct subsequently incorporated as the separate town of Hamilton, where, according to the old and honored New England plan, he continued in the pastorate for fifty-two years, preaching in his black gown and cassock until his death in 1823 at the age of 81. But he was by no means simply a minister of religion in the Congregational Church or in any other, and the nation owes to him a debt of admiring honor of which it should never become unmindful.
He was a man evidently of remarkable general faculty, and of thoroughly rounded and well-disciplined character; interested in life on many sides; intensely interested in public affairs; with wide-ranging and versatile powers, which enabled him to succeed in diverse departments of study and work. He was an enthusiastic observer of physical phenomena, studying, as far as he could with his few and poor instruments, eclipses of the sun, transits and occultations of the planets, the movements of comets, and coruscations of the aurora, and being profoundly impressed by the astronomical discoveries of Herschel. He was an expert botanist also, and all his life a close and devoted student of the processes of nature, one of the first, if not the first, to attempt scientifically to analyze and arrange the flora, of New England according to the Linnæan system. The corresponded with eminent botanists in this country and England and on the Continent of Europe; and it is amusing to see, in his diary, how the items of daily occupation and interest are intermingled with notes of the blossoming dates of elms, maples, dogwood, lilacs, pine buds, and a certain vegetable product whose popular name is “skunk cabbage.” With these come particulars which show the constancy and variety of his public and parochial cares. For example, “Attended the meeting of the Academy,” i.e., the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which he was a member; “Dined with his excellency the governor;” “Attending a meeting of the committee of agriculture, and choosing officers;” preparing letters and pamphlets for a botanical paper to be sent to Europe; going to Salem, to observe the manner of hanging the church bell, and the next day getting timber for hanging the bell; a day or two after, “Attending the meeting of the Academy, and settling the matter of the volume.” Such glimpses at his diary show what a many-sided man he was, how widely related to various interests, while his ministerial work was always principal in his thoughts. Thoreau, in the Concord woods, was not a more ardent lover of nature, and hardly a more watchful observer of it, than this Congregational pastor, though Thoreau, so far as I remember, neither baptized, preached, nor examined men in theology. In order to assist the poor who were sick, Dr. Cutler studied medicine also, was admitted to practice, gained high repute as a successful physician, was elected honorary fellow of the Massachusetts Medical Society, and is said to have had at one time under his care forty patients in a neighboring town suffering from smallpox, for which he had been inoculated. He was also a successful teacher, having pupils in his house from the Lowell, Cabot, and Silsbee families, with others of equal social importance, and from the West Indies. Francis Lowell, who gave the first great impulse to the cotton manufacture in this country, for whom the city of Lowell was named, and whose son, by a will written among the ruins of Thebes, established the Lowell Institute in Boston, was one of his pupils. Nathaniel Silsbee, United States Senator from Massachusetts from 1826 to 1835, was another pupil. Many others of more local celebrity were fitted by him for Harvard College, or were prepared for commercial life, or were taught navigation as masters of vessels. When summoned to the field by public peril, he became a chaplain in the army in active service, and bore himself gallantly on the field, in token of which he received from his commander a noble horse; and for four years, almost without his own consent, he was Representative in Congress, from 1801 to 1805, during the first term of Jefferson’s Administration, declining to be further reelected, on account of the injurious effect on his health of the Washington cares and climate. He was of course a stanch Federalist—he could hardly at that time have been anything else and been at the same time an orthodox minister in New England—but his character and reputation, his wide information, his power in interlocutory discussion, and his conciliatory manners gave him great weight, even in a House overwhelmingly Democratic; and Jefferson himself seems to have treated him with distinguishing regard. He did not aspire to reputation for eloquent speech, but was wise in counsel, assiduous in work, steadfast in his political faith, and sincerely respected and honored by all.
I have said enough to show that Dr. Cutler was in the truest sense a strong man and a broad one, standing on his own feet, if anyone ever did, and having remarkable power for influencing others. It is only to be added that he was sympathetic as well as commanding in spirit, and was perfectly at home in all circles of society—in the humblest cottage, the most sumptuous drawing-room, the most famous pulpits, in committee rooms for framing largest plans, on seaport piers, in rustic inns or in halls of legislation. He was as suave as he was strong; with most positive convictions, but with manners as winning and deferential as those of any expert diplomatist trained in courts; an acute and accurate judge of men, as ready and capable in the management of affairs, whether larger or smaller, as have been any of that peculiar New England race from which he sprang, in which he trusted, whose characteristics he embodied, and of which he was filially proud.
And so we come to a memorable journey made by him to this city of New York in the early summer of 1787. To understand this, however, in its purpose and effect, there are some things needing to be freshly recalled in the political condition of the country at that time.
The Continental Congress was still in existence, you remember, as it had been since September, 1774; and with all the weakness of its constitution, which had sometimes involved it in general discredit, it retained its prominence in the country, with an important measure of public power. In the preceding years it had done illustrious things: it had issued the Declaration of Independence; had appointed Washington commander in chief; had adopted the Stars and Stripes as the national flag; had raised armies, made treaties, negotiated foreign loans, issued prodigious bills of credit, and had finally been able to proclaim the acknowledgment by Great Britain of our national independence—a proclamation read to the army at Newburg on the 19th of April, 1783,just eight years after the battle of Lexington, followed by the shots at Concord, “heard round the world.” It was a body to which the nation, to the end of its history, will be under immense obligations; though the subsequent establishment of the Constitution, with larger powers, more wisely distributed and firmly knit, and with the great history which it has made possible, has thrown into shadow the earlier body. But except for the Continental Congress the Constitution itself could not have existed, save perhaps as a dream in the air.
This Congress was in session in this city in the early summer of 1787, only eight of the colonies being represented, however, while the convention for framing the Constitution was at the same time sitting in Philadelphia. The labors of that convention were not concluded, as we know, until the middle of September, 1787, and the immortal instrument set forth by it for the more perfect government of the nation was not ratified by the States until the following year—by the State of New York on the 26th of July, 1788. Afterwards came the first meeting of the new Congress under the Constitution in New York, appointed for March, 1789, at which time, however, no quorum was present, so that the inauguration of Washington as President was not consummated till the 30th of April, with the previous organization of the House and the Senate and the full establishment of the new Government. Up to that time the Continental Congress, in name at least, had continued to represent the nation, and in the summer of 1787 it did a work, as we know, second in importance to no other achieved by it after the Declaration of Independence and the final treaty with Great Britain. Certain facts must be distinctly in mind for a true understanding of the greatness and value of this work.
The nation, if in any proper sense it could be called such before the Constitution had been ratified by the States, was almost immeasurably poor, and was burdened with an indebtedness small indeed as compared with the inestimable gain of national independence, but immensely larger in proportion to the then existing property of the country than ours was at the end of the civil war. The two millions of dollars of paper money authorized by Congress in June, 1775, having risen before the, end of 1779 to two hundred millions and depreciated to the rate of thirty in paper to one in specie, the press had then been transiently stopped, but other issues had to follow of what was known as the “new tenor” money, bearing interest at 5 per cent and declared to be redeemable in six years. When this was issued, in 1780, the paper currency which had preceded went down to the ratio of seventy-five to one, and, later, of one hundred to one, while the “new tenor” money itself soon sank to four in paper for one in specie, and the issue of it ceased the following year. The local currency issued by the colonies—as by Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina—went yet more utterly out of sight, the final quotation of Virginia money appearing to have been one thousand in paper to one in specie. The colonies had meantime been heavily taxed; vast amounts of property, public and private, had been destroyed; great stretches of territory in all the wide colonial areas were without cultivation, and the public debt in 1784 was not less than seventy millions of dollars, payable in specie—ten millions being due to France, six millions to the army for arrears of pay, five millions to the officers in commutation of half pay for life, twelve millions to unliquidated accounts, while each colony had its own debt, amounting in the aggregate to about twenty-six millions of dollars. More than a quarter of a million of enlistments for service in the Continental Army had been made during the war, the largest number from any colony being 67,907 from Massachusetts; the next largest, 31,939, from Connecticut, and the next, 26,678, from Virginia. When the army was disbanded, these soldiers returned to their homes for the most part impoverished, hunger-bitten, with the strength of their manhood exhausted by sickness, cold, and privations, to find their lands untilled, their places of employment filled by others, their children in rags, their families penniless. Whoever else had prospered at the expense of their peril and blood, they had lost all; almost worthless paper being their only palpable reward for what they had suffered, dared, and done.
It was not unnatural that an insurrectionary spirit under these circumstances should widely appear. Such a spirit had been manifested in Tennessee in 1784, in Kentucky in 1785, in Wyoming, Pa., in 1786, in Maine in the same year, and in New Hampshire; and, most signally, it was manifested in Massachusetts in what is known as Shays’ Rebellion, at the end of that year and the beginning of the next. Shays, you remember, had been a captain in the army, had suffered as had others from the embarrassment of the time, and at last became leader in a formidable popular movement by which Worcester and Springfield were successively occupied, sessions of the supreme court were forcibly interrupted, the arsenal was attacked. This rebellion was suppressed by energetic military action of the governor of the State; but it was estimated that a full third of the people sympathized with it, and Governor Bowdoin at the following election was in consequence displaced. The country seemed almost as frightfully imperiled as at any period during the war, and the genetic trouble was always the same—the worthlessness of the currency, the weight of taxes, the multitude of suits, the general grinding poverty of the people. In some way relief must be gained, or the Revolution itself might prove to have been an apple of Sodom.
The only resource open to the Congress for canceling or reducing the public debt was found in the sale of Western lands. Direct taxation was impossible; duties on imports were violently resisted. As representative of the nation, Congress controlled the Western lands as far as the Mississippi. The treaty of peace had yielded this, and one by one the several colonies, afterwards States, had conceded whatever claim they had to parts of the territory—Connecticut offering this in 1780, excepting only the belt of land south of Lake Erie, known afterwards as “the Western Reserve,” and the transaction being completed in 1786; New York yielding her share in March, 1781, Virginia in 1784, Massachusetts in the following year, and other claimant States to territories south of the Ohio succeeding these in the series. Settlers were already entering the vast region and seeking to establish individual claims by what was known as “tomahawk right” before the lands had been surveyed, such indiscriminate settlement bringing in consequence disputes, collisions, irritating suits, and a general uncertainty of titles; as Mr. Webster afterwards said, “shingling over the country with conflicting titles and claims.” The Indian tribes were at the same time breaking into passionate hostilities and threatening or destroying on the frontier, while there was a formidable additional peril in the growing inclination of the people who were stubbornly fighting their way into Tennessee and Kentucky and along the Ohio to secure the free navigation of the Mississippi to its mouth by connecting themselves with the Spanish government of Louisiana. Washington had described the situation, you remember, in a letter to Governor Harrison, of Virginia, October 10, 17841 by saying that “the Western States stand, as it were, upon a pivot;” * * * “the touch of a feather would turn them either way.” He had lands of his own in the Western territory, and knew beyond most, the opportunities and the perils which were there simultaneously presented.
Here was, then, the most urgent and the most difficult question presented to the Continental Congress as to the most practicable mode of disposing of that territory which, by war and by cession, had come under its control. No problem presented to the convention which framed the Constitution was of a practical importance more immediate or immense. The congress had already adopted, in May, 1785, an ordinance for the survey and the sale of the lands northwest of the Ohio, but purchasers were slow to appear. The New England States, as well as New York, had lands in their own limits which they offered at half the price of the Federal lands, which were, of course, nearer the home settlements, and with greater security against savage assault; and they discouraged any large emigration which would further diminish their depleted populations. The Continental Congress could therefore do nothing, at the time, but wait and watch.
But now appeared a new force on the stage, which at last controlled the situation and gave solution to the problem. A. letter had been sent to the Congress on June 16, 1783, by nearly three hundred officers of the army, more than half of them from Massachusetts, asking for allotments of lands in the West according to promises previously given. This letter was forwarded by Gen. Rufus Putnam, through General Washington, who gave it his earnest commendation, as “the most rational and practicable scheme” thus far proposed, both for the officers and for the State, and who, as he said, “exerted every power” for securing a favorable decision upon it. But practical results did not at once follow, and the plan remained a scheme in the air.
In March, 1786, however, what was known as the Ohio Company of Associates was formed in Boston, at the “Bunch of Grapes Tavern,” by delegates from counties in Massachusetts, which proposed to raise a million dollars in Continental specie certificates, for the purchase of lands west and north of the Ohio. Dr. Cutler interested himself actively in the project, and in the following year was appointed one of three directors of the company, Gens. Rufus Putnam and Samuel H. Parsons being the others; and in June, 1787, he was sent to New York to negotiate with Congress for the purchase. That the pastor of a church in an inconspicuous village of Essex County should have been commissioned for this most important and difficult errand, shows as clearly as anything could the impression which his associates had, not only of his integrity, but of his vast common sense, his knowledge of men, his power of persuasion, his extraordinary civil and political ability. He went to New York, keeping the most minute account, after the old New England fashion, of all the shillings, sixpences, and pence expended by him on the way, and reached this city on July 5, meeting the Congress a day or two after. At once he put forth his utmost power with all the influence which he could command, to secure, first, a just and permanent form of government for the territory in which the then unparalleled purchase was proposed to be made. He met the most distinguished people in the city, dined at General Knox’s, Sir John Temple’s, Colonel Duer’s—where he mentions, by the way, that fifteen kinds of wine were on the table, showing that abstinence from all which can intoxicate was not then accepted as a precept of obligation in the fashionable circles of New York—and was unwearied in his efforts, public and private, to get such an ordinance of government for the Northwest that on behalf of his associates he could propose the vast contract which they and he had in view. He applied himself especially to men from the Southern States, not doubting that those from New England and New York would be in full sympathy with him. To Richard Henry Lee, William Grayson, Col. Edward Carrington, Dr. Arthur Lee, then in the Treasury—all of them from Virginia—he presented the great matters before him, deeply concerning the welfare of the nation; also to Few, then of Georgia; and of course to General St. Clair, then the President of Congress and afterwards governor of the Northwest. They were profoundly impressed by his courtly manners, his admirable judgment, his enthusiasm in his cause, the scope and hardihood of his plans, his utter self-poise, which nothing could disturb.
The contemplated form of government for the territory was submitted to him, and to it he proposed several amendments, all of which were substantially accepted, so that the ordinance was practically remodeled. After his amendments had been proposed, and before final action upon them by Congress, he went to Philadelphia to see Dr. Franklin and Dr. Rush, and to visit the Constitutional Convention, there in session; returning to New York on the 17th of July, to find his work so far completed, and the ordinance of government framed and adopted as he had approved it. He then immediately entered on negotiations with the Congress for the purchase of a prodigious tract in the territory the government of which had been thus prescribed; and he prosecuted this with skill, patience, wisdom, and resolution until July 27, when the ordinance of sale was finally passed. In the meantime, by the way, on the 20th of July, he had gone, with some friends, to Brooklyn—spelled by him “Brookline”—to see the view from the heights, with the existing remains of the old forts. He speaks of it as a small village opposite New York. They dined there at the “Stone House Tavern,” wherever that may have been, where he says they had an elegant dinner of oysters, cooked in every form, “the fried being the most delicious.”
By the ordinance of sale, as finally passed, he obtained the grant of nearly five millions of acres in the Ohio region, amounting in cost to three and a half millions of dollars. A million and a half of acres were assigned to the Ohio Company, and the remainder to another company, afterwards known as the Scioto Company, of which Colonel Duer was a chief promoter and for which Dr. Cutler acted as agent. He started at once on his return to Ipswich, driving, as before, in his own chaise; and while he was carrying an empire in his pocket, the first item in his journal, after leaving New York, is of the bill which he paid for entertainment at the King’s Bridge Tavern, of one shilling and fourpence. What he had done on behalf of the Ohio Company was, on the 29th of August, approved, ratified, and confirmed by the company at Boston, and he was sent again to New York to complete the contracts and to sign them, one for the Ohio Company, one for the Scioto. This was done on October 27—“the greatest private contract,” as he truly says, until that time “ever made in America;” and on the Monday morning after that Saturday he was again on his way to Ipswich. On the 3d of December the first pioneer force started for Ohio, taking an early breakfast at Dr. Cutler’s house. On April, 1788, they had reached the new lands and established their settlement at Marietta, 48 persons planting themselves there on the 7th of April on the sites of recent wigwams and under the shadow of ancient mounds; and what has followed, the world knows.
What specially concerns us this evening is the relation of this able, accomplished, and thoroughly well-balanced New England minister to that great ordinance for the government of the Northwest Territory, of which Webster said, in his measured and magisterial words, that he doubted “whether one single law of any lawgiver, ancient or modern, has produced effects of more distinct, marked, and lasting character.”
This celebrated ordinance was drafted, as is known, by Nathan Dane, a delegate to Congress from Massachusetts, of the town of Beverly, neighboring to Ipswich, himself a friend and correspondent of Dr. Cutler. It has given deserved honor to his name. That it was drafted on lines of legal provision familiar in New England is obvious at once; that it was submitted to Dr. Cutler after his arrival in New York, and was modified by him, we also know, with the other facts, that he would do nothing for the purchase of land until it bad been adopted by Congress, and that when it had been so adopted, he proceeded at once to propose and complete his magnificent contract. But the question still recurs: How came such an ordinance, with its careful provisions for the maintenance and advancement of education and religion, and especially with its definite and final prohibition of slavery in the Northwest, to be adopted unanimously by the eight colonies represented in the Congress, five of them Southern, and unanimously, with a single exception from New York, by the individual delegates? Of course the extreme sensitiveness about slavery, which later became an almost frantic passion at the South, had not yet arisen. This came after the Yankee cotton gin had multiplied pounds of the fiber into bales and had made a productive silver mine of every plantation. Slavery existed in 1787 in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, though steadily retreating toward its end. It had only lately disappeared from Massachusetts, under the judicial interpretation of the Bill of Rights, and the feeling which favored it in the country at large was not inactive and could not be securely challenged. A clause prohibiting slavery in the Western States, after the year 1800, had been proposed by Jefferson in 1784, but it had been stricken out, his Virginia colleagues voting against it. In 1785 Rufus King, delegate from Massachusetts, had proposed the immediate prohibition of slavery in the Northwest, but this proposal had been buried in committee and was not even acted on by the Congress. In regard to the equivalent article in the ordinance of 1787, Dane himself, you remember, was hesitant and uncertain, not doubting the importance or the rightfulness of it, but fearing that Congress would not adopt it, as he wrote to Mr. King, three days after the vote had been taken, “When I drew the ordinance I had no idea the States would agree to the sixth article, prohibithig slavery, as only Massachusetts, of the Eastern States, was present, and therefore omitted it in the draft; but finding the House favorably disposed on this subject, after we had completed the other parts, I moved the article, which was agreed to without opposition.” It was not impossibly to this hesitation on the part of Mr. Dane that Dr. Cutler referred when he wrote in his diary, three days later, that Dane “must be carefully watched.” He certainly did not suspect his fidelity to his convictions. It may be that there appeared unexpected reason for doubting the steadfast hopefulness of his courage.
How came it to pass, then, that the ordinance, with this essential article, was adopted by the Congress in which Southern colonies were so predominant? The only possible answer is that the scheme proposed by Dr. Cutler was so vast in itself, and so vitally related to the welfare of the country, and was presented by him with such exemplary tact and commanding power, especially to the delegates from the South, that their possible objections vanished before it; that they even became enthusiastic for it, so that Richard H. Lee declared himself ready to make an hour’s speech on its behalf.
What Cutler contemplated was a compact and systematic settlement of the territory by a body of robust and hardy men, inured to toil, accustomed to war, wholly devoted to the Federal Union, going thither with their families, aspiring to form a State when the population should be sufficient, to be followed by other States as the proper conditions successively appeared, till the whole vast area should be thus occupied and be anchored by hooks stronger than of steel to the seaboard States. Thus the national debt would be at once reduced by an important amount, a new security would be given to the exposed frontiers of Virginia and Pennsylvania, while the tendency to secession, already appearing south of the Ohio, would be effectively counteracted. It was a scheme which commended itself to the judgment of everyone wishing well to the country, so that Osgood, then on the Treasury board, only spoke temperately when he told Dr. Cutler that Congress would do an essential service to the United States if they should give the land rather than suffer the plan to be defeated. When, then, it was found that the man in whose hands was this vast and prophetic project, while genial, courteous, deferential, and persuasive, was as fixed in his convictions as the granite in its bed, absolutely immovable on the provisions to be embodied in the ordinance, opposition disappeared, and the frame of government was adopted, as Richard H. Lee wrote to Washington, two days after, “as a measure preparatory to the sale of lands.” What politicians could not have carried, and had repeatedly failed to carry, the modest but absolute firmness of this man achieved, in the magnificent opportunity which had come to his hands; and the great Northwest, the country at large, owes to his memory a debt of gratitude which words can not sufficiently express.
By this ordinance, as of course you know, complete freedom of religious belief was guaranteed to all peaceable persons; trial by jury, the right of habeas corpus, the privilege of the common law, and the right of proportional legislative representation were secured. Faith was to be kept with the Indians; and schools were to be forever encouraged, inasmuch as religion, morality, and knowledge are declared to be necessary to good government. The new States were forever to form a part of the United States, and, like the others, to be subject to the laws. Five new States might be thus formed, whenever the population of each should reach sixty thousand, the government of each being republican, and its footing in the Union equal to that of every other State; and slavery, or involuntary servitude, was never to be allowed, otherwise than for the punishment of convicted criminals, though fugitive slaves from the older States might be reclaimed. These articles were made a solemn compact between the already confederated States or colonies and the people and the States of the new territory; to be forever unalterable save by consent of both parties. So it was literally true, as Webster said of this great ordinance, that “it fixed forever the character of the populations in the vast regions northwest of the Ohio, by excluding from these involuntary servitude. It impressed on the soil itself, while it was yet a wilderness, an incapacity to sustain any other than freemen. It laid an interdict against personal servitude in original compact, not only deeper than all local law, but deeper also than all local institutions;” and the beneficent effects of it, from that day to this, he who runs may read.
Upon the territory thus secured for education and freedom have been planted the five imperial States of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, with their aggregates, by the last census, of thirteen to fourteen millions of population, of thirty-seven thousand miles of railway, of twenty-three hundred millions of dollars in products of manufacture, of many great universities and colleges, of nearly one hundred thousand schools public and private, of congregations for worship almost without number, and with all the boundless future open before them, which no man can measure. They repaid their debt to the nation when they saved that nation in the late civil war, contributing nearly a million of soldiers to the army of the Union, with Grant and Sherman as generals and other great associated officers. Ohio alone has furnished four Presidents to the Union, and is speedily to furnish another; with two Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, with Senators, Cabinet Ministers, judges, foreign ministers, as eminent as any. In the same region Edwin M. Stanton, the great War Minister, was born and trained; and from the same, having lived there since he was seven years old, came the most illustrious of our Presidents since Washington—Abraham Lincoln. Side by side with the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution stands this great ordinance of 1787; and after it came, in hardly more than natural sequence the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. It is one of the greatest legislative acts of recent centuries in the civilized world.
After these visits to New York, and these memorable successes, Dr. Cutler returned to his parish in Ipswich, to preach, baptize, visit the sick, marry the living, bury the dead, as if he knew nothing of public affairs. He made a journey to Marietta in 1788, driving in a sulky until the roads were impassable, then pushing fearlessly forward on horseback; but in three Months he was again at his home. Yale College conferred on him the degree of doctor of laws. He was offered a coin mission as judge of the supreme court in Ohio, but instantly declined it. He was in the legislature of Massachusetts for several years, and, as I have said, was a Representative in Congress for four years; but his heart was in his home, where his studies and parish labors engrossed him, with his scientific correspondence and his interest in religious societies, until, on July 28, 1823, he peacefully passed from earthly scenes, and was laid to rest among the people whom so long he had loved and served.
No glamour of romance invests his name; it does not loom through mists of a legendary past; but Dr. A. P. Peabody, of Cambridge, is reported to have said of him, what I gladly repeat: “For diversity of great gifts, for their efficient use, and for the variety of modes of honorable service to his country and to mankind, I doubt whether Manasseh Cutler has had his equal in American history.”
Certainly among those who have contributed to settle our Government on the best and surest foundations, he is to be reckoned. Others have fashioned cornice and frieze, have lifted to their height majestic pillars, or with dexterous hands have carved the exquisite lily work of their capitals, while others still have hung on the walls memorial shields. But here was a workman who gave his strength, at a critical time, to setting in the base the vast and durable squared stones, upon which afterwards were to arise the stately façade, the superb colonnades; and while the Republic shall endure in unity and glory, his name should continue in indelible characters chiseled upon its mighty front.
If the time and your patience were not equally exhausted, I should delight to refer, before closing, to the work of another man to whom also the nation is vastly indebted, the memory of whom should be kept by it in vivid distinctness. The impulse to this, however, is less urgent, since a popular memoir of the man, Dr. Marcus Whitman, has recently been published, which I have not seen, but in which, no doubt, his remarkable character and his picturesque and tragical career have been properly set forth, and in which, I trust, the extraordinary national aggrandizement to which he contributed has been adequately presented. Aside from such recent publication, it has long seemed to me that due honor had never been rendered to this discerning and dauntless missionary pioneer, through whose heroic exertion, in large measure, the area of this country was rounded to its Western ocean marge, to become, as Mr. Gladstone has said, “the natural base for the greatest continuous empire ever established by man.”
Others there are, too, whose names might be fitly associated with these which I have mentioned; but for the present these are enough, and the lesson which they teach would not be emphasized if others were added. May it not be an honorable office of this Association to set the others, one by one, before public attention as the years go on, and from under the later superficial inscription of titles to honor on the palimpsest of our annals to bring to light these earlier names, only worthily to be written in purple and gold!
Certainly, ladies and gentlemen, we ought to be grateful for such men to Him by whose wisdom they were given when they were needed; as grateful as for those more conspicuously placed, whose names are more resplendent in history, and some of whose names were blazoned in their time, and are blazoned in ours, on uplifted party banners.
We ought to be grateful for the invisible molding influences which had been behind these men; in the humble but reverent and God-fearing homes from which they came; in the churches, of simple rites but of strong faith; in the schools and colleges, or the rustic communities, in which and by which they had been trained. Out of many springs among the hills emerged at last the irresistible current of their strength. Out of many unnoticed scattered seed fields arose the harvest of their character and power and commanding success.
We ought to be animated to do our work, in any department of public labor, with a more intense and patient fidelity as we recall the examples of such men. Their work, of course, was peculiar to themselves, since it was wrought in those periods of our history which Whittier pictured in lines written, I think, in the forties:
“The rudiments of empire here
Are plastic yet, and warm;
The chaos of a mighty world
Is rounding into form;”
while our subordinate ancillary work is to be accomplished amid established conditions, with feebler powers, and in narrower limits. But opportunities for important service are still open to men. They do not come in crowds, but, commonly, one by one. They rarely meet us with avowed challenge; more usually in what seems a trivial occasion—as pulling up the shrub shows the mine underneath, as watching the twitch of a frog’s muscle evolves the force which eliminates oceans and binds hemispheres together. What we need is that the temper which was in these men be equally in ourselves—the temper of vigilance, courage, patriotic devotion, unflinching resolve; that our work also may reach fair issues; that we may share, in our measure, not their enduring and brightening fame, not what was signal in their achievement, not their mighty impress upon history, but the profound moral power which is as possible for us as for them, and which shall be ready for any emergency.
Most distinctly should we recognize the reserved, silent, unheralded force which is always in the nation, biding its time, but ready to appear when the crisis shall command. It was by plain men, in England, Holland, France—not counted heroes by others or by themselves, not eminent at all in riches or in rank, that this country was colonized. It was by plain men, farmers, mechanics, traders, house fathers, that the wasting French and Indian wars were fought to the end, and the frontier was maintained, though scathed with fire, shrouded in battle-smoke, miry with blood. It was by plain men, inconspicuous before, that the Revolution itself was achieved; as by Franklin, of Philadelphia, the printer and editor; by Greene, the Quaker blacksmith of Rhode Island; by Roger Sherman, shoemaker and surveyor; by Washington himself, the careful, frugal, unambitious Virginia planter, on the diamond pivot of whose infrangible strength destiny turned, and whose fame is now in all the world. It has been largely by plain men that the nation has since been guided and saved—as by those in Congress of whom Silas Wright, of this State, the Canton farmer, was one example, and John Davis, whose first name was “Honest,” was another; as by John Andrew and Oliver Morton, pleaders in courts and great war governors; as by Grant, going from a clerkship in Galena to force the surrender at Appomattox; as by the country lawyer from Illinois, who became the most illustrious of our Presidents since the first, of whom Lowell nobly wrote:
“Great captains, with their guns and drums,
Disturb our judgment for the hour:
But at last silence comes; then all are gone,
And standing like a tower;
Our children shall behold his fame—
The kindly, earnest, brave, foreseeing man,
Sagacious, patient, dreading praise, not blame,
Now birth of our new soil,—the first American.”
The unsuspected reserves of power in the national intelligence, temper, will, are like the reserves of coal and iron, of silver and gold, beneath the hills. They are in modest, unnoticed men, not conscious even of their own greatness, but ready for any service which may come; whose full energy is brought out by hazard, and more distinctly as the hazard is greater; and to whom, under God, the nation, through whatever dim and perilous paths it may hereafter be called to pass, is to owe, to the end, its safety, its honor, and its might.
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