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REMARKS TO THE LADIES OF RICHMOND.”
The visit of Mr. Webster to Richmond was short, and his public engagements so numerous, as to put it out of his power to return the calls of his friends, or to pay his respects to their families. It was accordingly proposed that the ladies who might desire to do so should assemble in the “Log Cabin,” and that he should there pay his respects to them collectively. The meeting was large, and the building quite full. On being introduced to them, in a few appropriate remarks, by Mr. Lyons, Mr. Webster addressed them in the following speech: —
Ladies,— I am very sure I owe the pleasure I now enjoy to your kind disposition, which has given me the opportunity to present my thanks and my respects to you thus collectively, since the shortness of my stay in the city does not allow me the happiness of calling upon those, severally and individually, from members of whose families I have received kindness and notice. And, in the first place, I wish to express to you my deep and hearty thanks, as I have endeavored to do to your fathers, your husbands, and your brothers, for the unbounded hospitality I have received ever since I came among you. This is registered, I assure you, in a grateful heart, in characters of an enduring nature. The rough contests of the political world are not suited to the dignity and the delicacy of your sex; but you possess the intelligence to know how much of that happiness which you are entitled to hope for, both for yourselves and for your children, depends on the right administration of government, and a proper tone of public morals. That is a subject on which the moral perceptions of woman are both quicker and juster than those of the other sex. I do not speak of that administration of government whose object is merely the protection of industry, the preservation of civil liberty, and the securing to enterprise of its due reward. I speak of government in a somewhat higher point of view; I speak of it in regard to its influence on the morals and sentiments of the community. We live in an age distinguished for great benevolent exertion, in which the affluent are consecrating the means they possess to the endowment of colleges and academies, to the building of churches, to the support of religion and religious worship, to the encouragement of schools, lyceums, and athenæums, and other means of general popular instruction. This is all well; it is admirable; it augurs well for the prospects of ensuing generations. But I have sometimes thought, that, amidst all this activity and zeal of the good and the benevolent, the influence of government on the morals and on the religious feelings of the community is apt to be overlooked or underrated. I speak, of course, of its indirect influence, of the power of its example, and the general tone which it inspires. A popular government, in all these respects, is a most powerful institution; more powerful, as it has sometimes appeared to me, than the influence of most other human institutions put together, either for good or for evil, according to its character. Its example, its tone, whether of regard or disregard for moral obligation, is most important to human happiness; it is among those things which most affect the political morals of mankind, and their general morals also. I advert to this, because there has been put forth, in modern times, the false maxim, that there is one morality for politics, and another morality for other things; that, in their political conduct to their opponents, men may say and do that which they would never think of saying or doing in the personal relations of private life. There has been openly announced a sentiment, which I consider as the very essence of false morality, which declares that “all is fair in politics.” If a man speaks falsely or calumniously of his neighbor, and is reproached for the offence, the ready excuse is this:– “It was in relation to public and political matters; I cherished no personal ill-will whatever against that individual, but quite the contrary; I spoke of my adversary merely as a political man.” In my opinion, the day is coming when falsehood will stand for falsehood, and calumny will be treated as a breach of the commandment, whether it be committed politically or in the concerns of private life. It is by the promulgation of sound morals in the community, and more especially by the training and instruction of the young, that woman performs her part towards the preservation of a free government. It is generally admitted that public liberty, and the perpetuity of a free constitution, rest on the virtue and intelligence of the community which enjoys it. How is that virtue to be inspired, and how is that intelligence to be communicated 2 Bonaparte once asked Madame de Staël in what manner he could best promote the happiness of France. Her reply is full of political wisdom. She said, “Instruct the mothers of the French people.” Mothers are, indeed, the affectionate and effective teachers of the human race. The mother begins her process of training with the insant in her arms. It is she who directs, so to speak, its first mental and spiritual pulsations. She conducts it along the impressible years of childhood and youth, and hopes to deliver it to the stern conflicts and tumultuous scenes of life, armed by those good principles which her child has received from maternal care and love. If we draw within the circle of our contemplation the mothers of a civilized nation, what do we see ? We behold so many artificers working, not on frail and perishable matter, but on the immortal mind, moulding and fashioning beings who are to exist for ever. We applaud the artist whose skill and genius present the mimic man upon the canvas; we admire and celebrate the sculptor who works out that same image in enduring marble; but how insignificant are these achievements, though the highest and the fairest in all the departments of art, in comparison with the great vocation of human mothers' They work, not upon the canvas that shall perish, or the marble that shall crumble into dust, but upon mind, upon spirit, which is to last for ever, and which is to bear, for good or evil, throughout its duration, the impress of a mother's plastic hand. I have already expressed the opinion, which all allow to be correct, that our security for the duration of the free institutions which bless our country depends upon habits of virtue and the prevalence of knowledge and of education. The attainment of knowledge does not comprise all which is contained in the larger term of education. The feelings are to be disciplined; the passions are to be restrained; true and worthy motives are to be inspired; a profound religious feeling is to be instilled, and pure morality inculcated, under all circumstances. All this is comprised in education. Mothers who are faithful to this great duty will tell their children, that neither in political nor in any other concerns of life can man ever withdraw himself from the perpetual obligations of conscience and of duty; that in every act, whether public or private, he incurs a just responsibility; and that in no condition is he warranted in trifling with important rights and obligations. They will impress upon their children the truth, that the exercise of the elective franchise is a social duty, of as solemn a nature as man can be called to perform; that a man may not innocently trifle with his vote; that every free elector is a trustee, as well for others as himself; and that every man and every measure he supports has an important bearing on the interests of others, as well as on his own. It is in the inculcation of high and pure morals such as these, that, in a free republic, woman performs her sacred duty, and fulfils her destiny. The French, as you know, are remarkable for their fondness for sententious phrases, in which much meaning is condensed into a small space. I noticed lately, on the title-page of one of the books of popular instruction in France, this motto: — “Pour instruction on the heads of the people! you owe them that baptism.” And, certainly, if there be any duty which may be described by a reference to that great institute of religion, — a duty approaching it in importance, perhaps next to it in obligation, — it is this.
* Remarks made at a Public Reception by the Ladies of Richmond, Virginia, on the 5th of October, 1840.
I know you hardly expect me to address you on the popular political topics of the day. You read enough, you hear quite enough, on those subjects. You expect me only to meet you, and to tender my profound thanks for this marked proof of your regard, and will kindly receive the assurances with which I tender to you, on parting, my affectionate respects and best wishes.