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Art. IV.-SKETCH OF THE LIFE AND CHARACTER OF THE
Hon. JAMES HILLHOUSE.
The eminent public services of the Hon. James Hillhouse, lately deceased, have induced the Conductors of the Christian Spectator, to request for publication the following sketch of his life and character, which was prepared on the occasion of his interment, by the Rev. Leonard Bacon.
The occasion is one of unusual interest. A man beloved and valued in all the relations of life, a man long entrusted with great public interests, a man whose works are his monument, and whose name will never be forgotten while gratitude for public services, and veneration for ancient fidelity remain in the republic-is gathered to his fathers. In a ripe old age, laden with honors as with years, followed by the affectionate regrets of his fellow citizens, the patriarch is carried to his grave, “as a shock of corn cometh in its season.” We meet not indeed to lament over blasted hopes—usefulness cut down in its prime—the patriot falling from his high sphere in the midst of his toils—yet we meet in affliction, for who can see worth and nobleness departing from the world, who can see that form, towards which his eyes have often turned with veneration, borne away to be mingled with its kindred dust, without some feelings of instinctive sorrow. Our sorrow is softened indeed and made tranquil by knowing that his race was run, and the circle of his years completed; but, softened and tranquil
, it is sorrow still. While we testify our respect for the dead, we cannot but mingle our sympathies with the living; and as those who are following a father to his grave can think only of what they have loved and have lost, so we, while bearing our part in his obsequies, find all his virtues, and his virtues only, rising to our thoughts, and claiming the homage of love and imitation.
It will fall in then with the proprieties of the occasion to retrace the leading events in the life of the deceased, to meditate on what was excellent in his character, and to inquire what instruction should be drawn from the contemplation of his history and his virtues.
JAMES HILLHOUSE was born at Montville in New London County, Oct. 21, 1754. His father, the Hon. William Hillhouse, was for more than fifty years employed in the public service, as a representative, as a member of the council, and in other offices of trust and honor. At the age of seven, he was placed in the family of his uncle, the Hon. James Abraham Hillhouse of this town, by whom he was adopted as a son. So that though he was not a native of New Haven, this was his home from early childhood; and
these scenes were dear to him by all the associations that bind one so strongly to his native spot.
His education was such as our schools and college at that time afforded. Respecting the early development of his mind and character, little can be recited on the present occasion. It will not be improper, however, to say—especially as the fact may produce a salutary impression on some young mind in this assembly—that he was somewhat advanced in college life before he became properly conscious of his powers or of the worth of time, or practically convinced of the importance of that close application to whatever was in hand, by which he was afterwards so distinguished. The late President Dwight, who was then in college as a tutor, though not his tutor, had noticed him with interest, and with the discernment of youthful character, which qualified the illustrious president to be the greatest teacher of his age, had seen in him the elements of future greatness; and he by one well-timed, spirited, affectionate admonition and appeal, roused the man in the bosom of the unthinking stripling, and gave the country a patriot and a sage. To that incident our honored friend often referred in after life with grateful emotion, and from that hour he regarded his benefactor with veneration.
He completed his college course and received the baccalaureate at the age of nineteen, in 1773, and soon began the study of the law, which he had chosen as his profession. Two years after his uncle, who had been to him from childhood in the place of a father, was suddenly removed from life in the midst of an extensive business as a lawyer; and to that business, Mr. Hillhouse, in a great measure succeeded, as soon as he could be legally admitted to the bar.
On the 1st of January, 1779, just fifty-four years ago, he was married. And what were the incidents of his first year of wedded life? Those were times when every man capable of bearing arms, was constrained to hold himself ever ready for the day of battle. The ardent and patriotic mind of James Hillhouse had caught the spirit of the times; and he had been prevented from accompanying Arnold in
memorable expedition to Quebec, in 1775, only by the absolute interdict of those friends whose will he was bound to respect. But
now, in the summer of 1779, New Haven was invaded by the same force, under Gen. Tryon, which in that campaign gave so many of the smiling villages along our coast to rapine and conflagration. On that day, the history of which we have all heard from the lips of those whose memory goes back so far, our friend, then, as always, a favorite with his townsmen, commanded the Governor's Guards ; and it is not too much to say that it was owing in no
small measure to his sagacity in planning, and intrepidity in exeBrei cuting those hasty and imperfect measures of defense which alone were practicable, that the town was saved from the flames. The distresses of that day, may we and our children never know, save by tradition from our fathers. All that could fly, the aged and the little child, the matron and the maid, flying for safety, while the father, and the husband, and the brother, were opposing their bodies to the fire of the enemy, thirty of the citizens of the town and its vicinity lying dead in their blood-others of every rank, from the President of Yale College down to those in the humblest condition, wounded and ready to die--an enraged soldiery plundering the stores and dwellings, rioting in the streets, and nothing but the lateness of the hour and the fear of bringing in the yeomanry upon them from the country, to restrain them írom laying the town in ashes-God grant that neither we nor our children may ever behold so sad a spectacle! It was amid such perils and distresses, that our friend began his course of public service. Such were the dangers and anxieties that came around his fireside and his bed, and hung over the home of his youthful love.
But his share in public and common distresses was not all. Three months after the incident just mentioned, death invaded his family; and behold his house was left unto him desolate. His wife, ere a year had passed, was taken away from him and her infant was laid with her in the grave. Then it was that he sought consolation, and we doubt not sought it effectually in the eternal fountains. The death of his early friend and benefactor who had been a man of distinguished usefulness and piety, and whose death was that of the righteous, full of peace and triumph, had impressed him with a deep conviction of the value of that religion in which he had been trained from infancy ; and now under this new bereavement affecting him so tenderly, those impressions became more distinct and powerful. From some private devotional papers written at that time, it appears with what earnestness he looked to God for support and peace, and for grace to gather the fruits of righteousness from his painful afflictions. In November 1779, the month following the death of his wife, he made a profession of religion, and became a member of this church, then under the pastoral care of the Rev. Mr. Whittlesey.
About three years after this event, he became again the head of a family by marrying a lady of great worth, the near relative and beloved friend of his former companion. Few men are more happy, or more beloved and revered in the domestic relations than he was, and in this connection, that happiness was uninterrupted till December 29, 1813, when he was again bereaved. His own death it will be noticed occurred on the anniversary of that day. At his special desire his wife was buried on the first of January, the anniversary of his former marriage ; for he wished his children, he said, ever to remember that day, as marking the beginning and the end of his earthly happiness.
When he was twenty-five years of age, bis townsmen elected him one of their representatives in the legislature of Connecticut. From that time he had a place very frequently in the house of representatives or in the council, for eleven years. During that period he was three times chosen to congress, under the old confederation, but always declined taking his seat.
In 1791, he became a member of the House of Representatives in the Congress of the United States, the second Congress under the present constitution. Three years afterwards he was chosen to the Senate, and for sixteen years he was eminently diligent, influential, and useful in that bigh station.
If I should attempt to speak particularly of his political life—if I should attempt to tell what policy he favored and what measures he opposed, I might seem to depart from what is due to the occasion ; for it is well known that he was active in many a controversy which then convulsed the nation, and the roar and dust of which have not even now wholly subsided. Wherever he had a duty to perform, wherever he was called to act at all, there his talents and his temper made it impossible for him not to be found among the foremost. And as to the line of his political conduct, and his views of national policy, it is enough to say that while he was, by common acknowledgment, eminently free from party shackles, and was ever expected to think and speak and act independently, he Was generally found in respect to the questions then agitated on the same side with such men as Ellsworth and Jay, Hamilton, Pickering, and Ames.*
In 1810, by the appointment of the Legislature, and at the earest solicitation of the wisest and most influential men in the
the national legislature,
* One of the most remarkable incidents in the history of his connection with
was his proposal to amend the Constitution of the Uniled States, which was 'submitted to the Senate April 12th, 1808. The changes which he would have introduced, had more of the character of " radical reform" than any changes which have been proposed since the ratification of the Fede
al Constitution. Had they been adopted, the government of the nation would have become far more democratical in its' structure and spirit than it has ever yet been. He proposed a House of Representatives chosen annually by the people; Senate, the members of which should be elected once in three years; and a President, with powers much inferior to those now committed to that magistrate, who should annually be selected by lot from among the Senators. His speech n explanation of these amendments shows a profound knowledge of human nature and of political science. He maintained that is a republic the idea of checking the power of the people, and the people's propensity to change, by giving to officers chosen by them long terms of service-an idea which runs through the constitution of the nation and of many of the States—is altogether theoretical and mistaken. He believed that the more frequently all
power reTerts into the hands of the people, the shorter the term of every legislative and executive office, the greater will be the security against party spirit, against cor. rupt elections, against the ambition of demagogues, against all the evils commonly supposed to be inseparable from a popular government. Posterity may perhaps
be of his way of thinking.
State, he resigned his seat in the Senate of the United States, haring then several years of his third term of service still before him, and became Commissioner of the School Fund. That great public interest had previously been committed to the management of a Board of Trustees or Commissioners; and owing partly to the manner in which the fund had been created, and partly to some other causes, had fallen into an embarrassed and entangled condition. The best friends of that fund and those most acquainted with its history, have said that they would have been happy to have realized from it at that time, eight hundred thousand dollars
. After fifteen years management, he left it increased to one million seven hundred thousand dollars of solid property. The difference was to be ascribed to his skill, his fidelity, his accuracy, his patience and his wonderful and indefatigable industry. While that fund shall be perpetuated, and shall continue to carry through all the streets of our cities, and to every rude secluded hamlet among hills, the blessings of instruction, it will stand a monument to his faithful and disinterested patriotism.
He resigned his office as Commissioner of the School Fund in 1825, as his fellow citizens were urgently calling him, in his old age, to the conduct of a new, and in many respects, still more arduous enterprise. A great work of internal improvement, opening a new channel for commerce, was to be constructed by the contributions of individuals, voluntarily associating for the purpose ; and to none but him could they look to be the leader of the work. At the age of three score years and ten he embarked in the construction of the Farmington and Hampshire Canal, with all the enthusiasm and hardy vigor of his prime; and for six years he sustained the charge, through every discouragement and difficulty. That work will be hereafier accomplished. The men are now living who will live to see it a great and busy thoroughfare. Then the last great labor of him who, for more than half a century, was the unwearied servant of his fellow citizens, will be acknowledged with gratitude. When he relinquished his charge of the canal
, a few months ago, he retired into the bosom of his family; but not to sink down, as some apprehended, into the apathy and torpor of age. During those months of retirement he was busily employed from ten to fourteen hours daily, not only in reading with the avidity of youthful curiosity, but in revising and arranging all his papers
, looking over and putting in order his voluminous correspondence, and now and then, as the happy recollections of his youth were revived, repeating to his family his vivid reminiscences of what happened
His connection with Yale College deserves a particular notice. He was made treasurer in 1782; and held that office till his death
, a little more than fifty years. After the sudden decease of his la