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The political excitement which pervaded the Union during the year 1840 was greater than has existed on any other occasion, for many years. Immense meetings of the most animated kind were held throughout the country, and were addressed by the ablest men. In the month of August of that year, Mr. Webster was called to Saratoga by a professional engagement as counsel in an important lawsuit for the State of Illinois. A large number of persons from all parts of the Union are generally assembled at Saratoga at this season of the year, and a strong wish was felt that Mr. Webster would make a public address on the absorbing political topics of the day. Although the little time he was to pass at Saratoga was too much engrossed by his professional duties to leave leisure for the slightest preparation, he found it impossible to resist the general wish ; and the afternoon of the 19th the day before his argument in court — was appointed for a grand political meeting.
From an early hour in the morning of that day, and along every avenue, crowded vehicles were arriving in Saratoga from the surrounding country. The railway trains from Troy and Schenectady (and they were all behind their time, by reason of the vast crowds in and upon them) poured their living multitudes into the village. About two o'clock, P. M., a dark, lowering cloud, which had been gathering in the west, burst in a deluge of rain, accompanied with vivid lightning and thunder. But the storm soon passed, and the earth smiled again under returning sunshine. The face of nature was refreshed ; and the grateful coolness of the air gave new spirits and animation to the assembling throng.
Just before the storm broke, a very long procession on horseback and in wagons, with banners and music, arrived from the neighboring towns, and passed down the main street. Every house and piazza was crowded. The desire to hear Mr. Webster had drawn together the entire movable population of the neighborhood. In addition to this attraction, the Court of Errors for the State of New York and the Court of Chan.
cery were in session at Saratoga, and the Governor of the State was also in the village.
At half past three o'clock, the public meeting was called to order, and the Hon. John W. Taylor, of Ballston, formerly Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States, was called to the chair. Other persons of eminence were near him. At this moment, in casting the eye from the platform (which had been hastily, and, as the event proved, not very securely, put together), the spectacle which presented itself was of a novel and most striking character. In front, in a fine grove of pines, without any undergrowth, covering a circular eminence, about eight or ten thousand persons were collected. Near the platform were seats of rough boards capable of containing as many more. These seats were partly filled by ladies. The upturned faces of this great assemblage, as Mr. Webster, personally a stranger to most of them, stepped to the front of the stage, evinced the most intense and eager expectation. Beyond and wholly round to the rear of the platform stood thousands closely pressed together. The appearance of the speaker was the signal for the most enthusiastic cheering on the part of this vast multitude.
As soon as silence was restored, he commenced the following speech, which for more than three hours held the immense crowd in attention the most fixed and profound, except as it was interrupted by constantly repeated cheers. Before he had spoken many moments, an incident occurred, which at the time threatened disaster, but happily had no serious result. As it furnishes a happy instance of self-possession, it is worth recording.
The platform, which was of rough boards elevated some seven or eight feet from the ground, on which the speaker, the chairman, and the official and distinguished persons present were seated, suddenly gave way and fell with a great crash. Mr. Webster, who was happily uninjured, was the first person on his feet; and, supporting himself on some fragments of the staging, announced to the anxious assembly that no one was hurt, adding the expression of his confidence and satisfaction, that “the great Whig platform was more solid than the frail structure on which he was standing." This annunciation relieved the apprehensions of the audience. The place of the shattered platform was supplied by a large wagon covered with planks, and from this extemporized rostrum Mr. Webster continued his address, without having been in the slightest degree disturbed in his tone of remark by the annoying incident.
MASS MEETING AT SARATOGA.*
We are, my friends, in the midst of a great movement of the people. That a revolution in public sentiment on some important questions of public policy has begun, and is in progress, it is vain to attempt to conceal, and folly to deny. What will be the extent of this revolution, what its immediate effects upon political men and political measures, what ultimate influence it may have on the integrity of the Constitution, and the permanent prosperity of the country, remains to be seen. Meantime, no one can deny that an extraordinary excitement exists in the country, such as has not been witnessed for more than half a century; not local, nor confined to any two, or three, or ten States, but pervading the whole, from north to south, and from east to west, with equal force and intensity. For an effect so general, a cause of equal extent must exist. No cause, local or partial, can produce consequences so general and universal. In some parts of the country, indeed, local causes may in some degree add to the flame; but no local cause, nor any number of local causes, can account for the generally excited state of the public mind.
In portions of the country devoted to agriculture and manufactures, we hear complaints of want of market and low prices. Yet there are other portions of the country, which are consumers, and not producers, of food and manufactures; and, as purchasers, they should, it would seem, be satisfied with the low prices of which the sellers complain; but in these portions, too, of the country, there are dissatisfaction and discontent. Everywhere we find complaining and a desire for change.
Speech delivered at the Great Mass Meeting at Saratoga, New York, on the 19th of August, 1840.
There are those who think that this excitement among the people will prove transitory and evanescent. I am not of that opinion. So far as I can judge, attention to public affairs among the people of the United States has increased, is increasing, and is not likely to be diminished; and this not in one part of the country, but all over it. This certainly is the fact, if we may judge from recent information. The breeze of popular excitement is blowing everywhere. It fans the air in Alabama and the Carolinas; and I am of opinion, that, when it shall cross the Potomac, and range along the Northern Alleghanies, it will grow stronger and stronger, until, mingling with the gales of the Empire State, and the mountain blasts of New England, it will blow a perfect hurricane.
There are those, again, who think these vast popular meetings are got up by effort; but I say that no effort could get them up, and no effort can keep them down. There must, then, be some general cause that animates the whole country. What is that cause? It is upon this point I propose to give my opinion today. I have no design to offend the feelings of any, but I mean in perfect plainness to express my views to the vast multitude assembled around. I know there are among them many who from first to last supported General Jackson. I know there are many who, if conscience and patriotism permitted, would support his successor;* and I should ill repay the attention with which they may honor me by any reviling or denunciation. Again, I come to play no part of oratory before you. If there have been times and occasions in my life when I might be supposed anxious to exhibit myself in such a light, that period has passed, and this is not one of the occasions. I come to dictate and prescribe to no man. If my experience, not now short, in the affairs of government, entitle my opinions to any respect, those opinions are at the service of my fellow-citizens. What I shall state as facts, I hold myself and my character responsible for; what I shall state as opinions, all are alike at liberty to reject or to receive. I ask such consideration for them only as the fairness and sincerity with which they are uttered may claim.
What, then, has excited the whole land, from Maine to Georgia, and gives us assurance, that, while we are meeting here
Mr. Van Buren.