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WILLIAM WIBT, one of the most celebrated advocates and accomplished writers of the nineteenth century, was of a humble but respectable parentage. His father was a Swiss by birth, his mother a German. Some time prior to the Revolution they settled at Bladensburg, in Maryland, where they accumulated a small property by keeping the village tavern. At that place their distinguished son, who was their sixth and youngest child, was born, on the eighth day of November, 1772. During his infancy his father died, and on the death of his mother, which occurred just as he was entering upon his ninth year, he passed into the family of his uncle, Jacob Wirt, under whose guardianship he spent his minority. At seven he was sent from home to a school in Georgetown, now of the District of Columbia, from whence, after spending nearly a year unsatisfactorily, he was removed to a classical school in Charles County, Maryland.
At this school he remained until the year 1782. Being naturally a lively boy and accustomed to say “smart things, and sing songs of humor very well,” he became a great favorite among his schoolmates, as well as in the widow's family in which he resided, and was as happy as a child could be away from his home and the natural objects of his affections. In reverting to this period of his life, he says: “From the time I rose, until I went to bed, the live-long day, it was all enjoyment, save only with two drawbacks—the going to school, and the getting tasks on holidays—which last, by-the-bye, is a practical cruelty that ought to be abolished. With the exception of these same tasks and a slight repugnance to the daily school, Mrs. Love's was an elysium to me." From this school he was transferred to that of the Reverend James Hunt, a Presbyterian minister in Montgomery county, and there, during four years' tuition, he received his principal instruction in the classics and mathematics. The library of his preceptor afforded a fund of general reading, which he eagerly grasped and profited by. He read with avidity the old dramas, Josephus, Pope, Addison, Horne's Elements of Criticism, and Guy, the Earl of Warwick, "which last he obtained from a carpenter in the employ of Mr. Hunt," and further satiated his passion for reading by a fragment of Peregrine Pickle, which he probably obtained from the same source. About this time he turned his attention to composition, and although in most of his poetical productions, thought was sacrificed to rhythm, a circumstance which soon put an end to his muse, in his prose efforts he met with encouragement, and became a confirmed reader and author. Among numerous essays which he prepared, one fell into the hands of his teacher, and was read with unqualified praise. The history of it, as given by his friend and biographer, will be read with interest : “It was engendered by a school incident, and was a piece of revenge more legitimate than schoolboy invention is apt to inflict when sharpened by wrongs real or imaginary. There was an usher at the school, and this usher, who was more learned and methodical than even-tempered, was one morning delayed in the customary routine by the absence of his principal scholar, who was young Wirt himself. In his impatience, he went often to the door, and espying some boys clinging like a knot of bees to a cherry tree not far off, ho concluded that the ex cted absentee was of the number, and nursed his wrath accordingly. The truth was, that the servant of a neighbor with whom Wirt was boarded at that time, had gone that morning to mill, and the indispensable breakfast had been delayed by his late return. This apology, however, was urged in vain on the usher, who charged in corroboration the plunder of the cherry tree; and though this was as stoutly as truly rejoined to be the act of an English school hard by, the recitation of Master Wirt proceeded under very threatening prognostics of storm. The lesson was in Cicero, and at every hesitation of the reciter, the eloquent volume, brandished by the yet chafing tutor, descended within an inch of his head, without quailing his facetiousness however, for he said archly, “take care, or you'll kill me! We have heard better-timed jests since from the dextrous orator, for the next slip brought a blow in good earnest, which being as forcible as if Logic herself with her closed fist’ had dealt it, felled our hero to the ground. "I'll pay you for this, if I live,' said the fallen champion as he rose from the field. “Pay me, will you ?' said the usher, quite furious ; 'you will never live to do that.' 'Yes, I will!' said the boy.
“Our youth was an author, be it remembered, and that is not a race to take an injury, much less an affront, calmly. The quill, too, was a fair weapon against an usher, and by way of vent to his indignation at this and other continued outrages, but with no view to what so seriously fell out from it in furtherance of his revenge, he indited some time afterward an ethical essay on anger. In this, after due exhibition of its unhappy effects, which, it may be, would have enlightened Seneca, though he has himself professed to treat the same subject, he reviewed those relations and functions of life most exposed to the assaults of this fury. A parent with an undutiful son, said our moralist, must often be very angry ;-a master with his servant, an inn-keeper with his guests;—but it is an usher that must the oftenest be vexed by this bad passion, and, right or wrong, find himself in a terrible rage ; and so he went on in a manner very edifying, and very descriptive of the case, character and manner of the expounder of Cicero. Well pleased with his work, our author found a most admiring reader in an elder boy, who, charmed with the mischief as much as the wit of the occasion, pronounced it a most excellent performance, and very fit for a Saturday morning's declamation. In vain did our wit object strenuously to the dangers of this mode of publication. The essay was got by heart,' and declaimed in the presence of the school and of the usher himself, who, enraged at the satire, demanded the writer, otherwise threatening the declaimer with the rod. His magnanimity was not proof against this, and he betrayed the incognito of our author, who happened the same evening to be in his garret when master usher, the obnoxious satire in hand, came into the apartment below to lay his complaint before his principal. Mr. Hunt's house was one of those one-story rustio mansions yet to be seen in Maryland, where the floor of the attic, without the intervention of ceiling, forms the roof of the apartment below, so that the culprit could easily be the hearer, and even the partial spectator, of the inquisition held on his case. 'Let us see this offensive libel,' said the preceptor, and awful were the first silent moments of its perasal, which were broken, first by a suppressed titter, and finally, to the mighty relief of the listener, by a loud burst of laughter. "Pooh! pooh! Mr. this is but the sally of a lively boy, and best say no more about it; besides that, in foro conscientiæ, we can hardly find him guilty of the publication. This was a victory; and when Mr. Hunt left the room, the conqueror, tempted to sing his Io Triumphe in some song allusive to the country of the discomfited party, who was a foreigner, was put to flight by the latter's rushing furiously into the attic, and snatching from under his pillow some hickories, the fasces of his office, and inflicting some smart strokes on the flying satirist, who did not stay, like Voltaire, to write a receipt for them. The usher left the school in dudgeon not long afterward, like the worthy in the doggerel rhymes,
The hero who did 'sist upon't
He wouldn't be deputy to Mr. Hunt.' Many years after the usher and his scholar met again. Age and poverty had overtaken the poor man, and bis former pupil had the opportunity of showing him some kindnesses which were probably not lessened by the recollection of this unpremeditated revenge." *
Soon after Mr. Wirt reached his fifteenth year, the school, of which he had been so long a member, was disbanded, and he returned to his home in Bladensburg. At this time he seems to have been in a position of great doubt and uncertainty as to his future course. The small inheritance he received from his father's estate was not sufficient either to support him at college or during the prosecution of a professional education, and the immediate circle of his native town afforded little that was calculated to strengthen or improve his mind. A circumstance, however, soon occurred which relieved him of all doubt, and ultimately led to his preferment. Ninian Edwards, one of his classmates at Mr. Hunt a school, on his return home, took with him some of Mr. Wirt's literary productions, which attracted the attention of his father, Mr. Benjamin Edwards, and caused him to interest himself in the young author's behalf. Learning that he was desirous of obtaining an education, and that the limited state of his finances rendered this desire unattainable, he proposed that young Wirt should become a tutor in his family, and at the same time continue his studies with the aid of his private library. This proposition met with a ready acceptance, and he remained with his benefactor about twenty months, enjoying an intercourse at once familiar and advantageous. Mr. Edwards, senior, was a man of strong mind and reflective disposition, fond of the young, and rendered particularly agreeable to them by the charm of his conversation. In his young protégé he always found a ready and eager listener, and upon him he bestowed the kindest advice, instruction and encouragement; predicting for him a high and honorable distinction.
* Biography of William Wirt, by Peter Hoffman Cruso; page 22.
In 1789, owing to the critical state of his health, Mr. Wirt, by the advice of his physician, Visited Augusta, Georgia, where he remained until the spring of the following year. Soon after his return he commenced the study of law with Mr. William P. Hunt, the son of his former preceptor, and, after spending nearly a year under his guidance, he removed to the office of Mr. Thomas Swann, from whence he was admitted to practice, in the autumn of 1792. He commenced his professional career at Culpepper court-house in Virginia. His library at this time consisted of a copy of Blackstone, two volumes of Don Quixote, and a volume of Tristram Shandy.* After experiencing for some time the usual embarrassments incident to early practice-want of clients and a general acquaintance with people--he “encountered a young friend much in the same circumstances, but who had a single case, which he proposed to share with Mr. Wirt as the means of making a joint debut; and with this small stock in trade, they went to attend the first county court. Their case was one of joint assault and battery, with joint judgment against three, of whom two had been released subsequently to the judgment, and the third, who had been taken in execution, and imprisoned, claimed the benefit of that release as enuring to himself. Under these circumstances, the matter of discharge, having happened since the judgment, the old remedy was by the writ of audita querela. But, Mr. Wirt and his associate had learned from their Blackstone, that the indulgence of courts in modern times, in granting summary relief in such cases by motion had, in a great measure, superseded the use of the old writ; and accordingly presented their case in the form of a motion. The motion was opened by Mr. Wirt's friend, with all the alarm of a first essay. The bench was then in Virginia county courts composed of the ordinary justices of the peace; and the elder members of the bar, by a lisage the more necessary from the constitution of the tribunal, frequently interposed as amici curiæ, or informers of the conscience of the court. It appears that upon the case being opened, some of these customary advisers denied that a release to one after judgment released the other, and they denied also the propriety of the form of proceeding. The ire of our beginner was kindled by this reception of his friend, and by this voluntary interference with their motion; and, when he came to reply, he forgot the natural alarms of the occasion, and maintained his point with recollection and firmness. This awaked the generosity of an elder member of the bar, a person of consideration in the neighborhood and a good lawyer. Ho stepped in as an auxiliary, remarking that he also was amicus curiæ, and perhaps as much entitled to act as others; in which capacity he would state his conviction of the propriety of the motion, and that the court was not at liberty to disregard it; adding, that its having come from a new quarter gave it But a stronger claim on the candor and urbanity of a Virginian bar. The two friends carried their point in triumph, and the worthy ally told his brethren, in his plain phrase, that they had best make fair weather with one who promised to be 'a thorn in their side.' This advice was, we dare say, unnecessary. The bar of the county wanted neither talent nor courtesy ; and the champion having vindicated his pretensions to enter the lists, was thenceforward engaged in many a courteous passage at arms."
*Memoirs of the Life of William Wirt, by John P. Kennedy. Vol. 1., p. 67.
From this time Mr. Wirt's practice began to increase. After a year or two he extended his circuit into the neighboring county of Albemarle, where he married in 1795, and established his residence. This removal brought him in daily intercourse with many of the most celebrated and worthy citizens of Virginia, among whom were to be numbered Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Monroe and Mr. Madison. The father of his wife was an intimate associate of these gentlemen, and was in the habit of visiting them at their estates and receiving them in return at his own house. The advantages of such associations were not lost upon Mr. Wirt, who, from the frankness of his disposition and strength of intellect soon became a favorite. In the library of his father-in-law, which was well supplied with the standard works of English and classical history, philosophy and the more general literature, he passed the time not devoted to the duties of his profession, and thus stored his mind with that fund of learning so well used in later life.
In 1799, after the death of his wife, he removed to Richmond, where, consenting at the earnest solicitation of his friends to become a candidate for the position of clerk of the House of Delogates, he was elected. This office he held two years, at the same time continuing his professional avocations. In 1800 he was counsel for the accused in the trial of Callender, a trial conspicuous in the political annals of the United States, and, on the fourth of July of the same year, he appeared as the orator of the democratic party to pronounce the customary address. On the division of the courts of chancery of Virginia, in 1802, being chosen, by the legislature, Chancellor of the Eastern chancery district, he removed to Williamsburg, where, during a short term, he discharged the duties of his station, with honor to himself and satisfaction to those who came before his court. His second marriage, in the fall of 1802, led to the resignation of his chancellorship, his removal to Norfolk, and to the revival of his general practice. Before he left Williamsburg, however, he wrote the celebrated letters under the title of The British Spy; a work so generally known among the intelligent public as to require but a mere notice here.
At Norfolk he continued, in the midst of an increasing and profitable practice, until 1806, at which time he removed to Richmond, the scene of his greatest triumph. The year following this change of residence, the trial of Aaron Burr took place at Richmond. Under the direction of President Jefferson, Mr. Wirt was retained to assist the United States Attorney in the prosecution, and in the course of the trial displayed a degree of learning and eloquence which drew forth the encomiums of the judges, the press and the people. This success established his reputation ; his arguments were read with delight, and his name enrolled among the ablest men of the country.
In 1808, he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, to represent the city of Richmond, but, preferring another and more congenial pursuit, his profession, he soon withdrew. The same year he wrote the essays under the signature of One of the People, in which he advocated with his usual warmth and power the pretensions of Mr. Madison to the Presidency. From this time until 1817, he continued to practice law in the courts of Richmond and its vicinity, during the same period devoting his leisure to the cultivation of literature. The series of papers entitled The Old Bachelor, a large portion of which were written by him, appeared in 1812. In conjunction with these various labors, he prepared the Life of Patrick Henry, which was published in the fall of 1817. By many this production is considered the most finished piece of biographical writing that has appeared in any country. Mr. Jefferson says of it, “ those who take up the book will find they cannot lay it down, and this will be its best criticism.” Mr. Gallatin, in the later years of his life, often recurred to the pleasure he experienced in the perusal of it, saying that it was the most masterly handling of the pen of biography" he ever had met with.
Mr. Wirt was appointed by Mr. Madison, in 1816, Attorney of the United States, for the district of Virginia, and, in the following year, by Mr. Monroe, Attorney-General of the United
States. On accepting the latter he removed to Washington, where he continued in the discharge of the duties of his office, through the administrations of Mr. Monroe and Mr. Adams. His services can best be understood by the consultation of his official opinions, which have been left behind him in three large volumes. “At the bar of the Supreme Court," says his biographer, "he found the highest forensic theatre in the country, and perhaps there never was one in any country that presented a more splendid array of learning and talent conjoined. In the causes too, which it is the official duty of the Attorney-General to prosecute or defend, the most conspicuous counsel of that bar are commonly combined against him. In how many conflicts he sustained these odds against him, with a vigor always adequate to the occasion, is very well known to those who are familiar with our judicial history."
In 1826, Mr. Wirt was, without his knowledge, unanimously elected by the Rectors and Visitors of Virginia a professor of law, and president of that institution. This honor he declined. In the fall of the same year he delivered, in the Hall of Representatives at Washington, an address commetnorative of the lives and public services of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and soon after, at the close of John Quincy Adams' administration, removed to Baltimore, and commenced practice at the bar of that city, then numbering among its members many of the most eminent men of the country. His practice in the Supreme Court of the United States was continued with increasing reputation, and with that ability which so signally distinguished his attorneygeneralship. Of his various celebrated forensic efforts at this time, that in the trial of Judge Peck, who was impeached by the House of Representatives, and that in the noted Cherokee case, excited peculiar commendation.
In January, 1834, he attended the Supreme Court at Washington, in the prosecution of his legal duties, and was present at its sittings until Saturday, the eighth of February, when he returned to his lodgings, “in playful spirits and sanguine of the success of an argument which he was going to make in court on Monday.” On Sunday he attended church in the Representatives' Hall at the Capitol. In the evening of that day, he complained of illness, and from that time continued to fail, until his death, which occurred in the forenoon of Tuesday, the eighteenth of February, 1834. Since that period a full and authentic account of his life and services has been published by the Hon. John P. Kennedy, to which the editor expresses his obligations.
JEFFERSON AND ADAMS.
The following discourse on the lives and course of their action; in the striking coincicharacters of Thomas Jefferson and John dences which marked their high career; in the Adams, was delivered by Mr. Wirt, at the re- whose virtues and services we have met to com
lives and in the deaths of the illustrious men quest of the citizens of Washington, in the Hall memorate and in that voice of admiration and of Representatives of the United States, on the gratitude which has since burst, with one acnineteenth of October, 1826.*
cord, from the twelve millions of freemen who
people these States, there is a moral sublimity The scenes which have been lately passing in which overwhelms the mind, and hushes all its our country, and of which this meeting is a con- powers into silent amazement ! tinuance, are full of moral instruction. They The European, who should have heard the hold up to the world a lesson of wisdom by sound without apprehending the cause, would which all may profit, if heaven shall grant them be apt to inquire, What is the meaning of all the discretion to turn it to its use. The specta- this? what had these men done to elicit this cle, in all its parts, has, indeed, been most solemn unanimous and splendid acclamation ? Why and impressive ; and, though the first impulse has the whole American nation risen up, as one be now past, the time has not yet come, and man, to do them honor, and offer to them this never will it come, when we can contemplate it enthusiastic homage of the heart? Were they without renewed emotion.
mighty warriors, and was the peal that we have In the structure of their characters; in the heard the shout of victory? Were they great
commanders, returning from their distant con* See note at page 235, in the first volume of this work. quests, surrounded with the spoils of war, and