« PreviousContinue »
ernment and the “ beauty" of nullification, striving to make a lasting impression on his intellect. Clay would rise, extend his hand with that winning grace of his, and instantly captivate him by his all-conquering courtesy. He would call him by name, inquire respecting his health, the town whence he came, how long he had been in Washington, and send him away pleased with himself and enchanted with Henry Clay. And what was his delight to receive a few weeks after, in his distant village, a copy of the Kentuckian's last speech, bearing on the cover the frank of “ H. Clay”! It was almost enough to make a man think of “running for Congress”! And, what was still more intoxicating, Mr. Clay, who had a surprising memory, would be likely, on meeting this individual two years after the introduction, to address him by name.
There was a gamy flavor, in those days, about Southern men, which was very captivating to the people of the North. Reason teaches us that the barn-yard fowl is a more meritorious bird than the game-cock; but the imagination does not assent to the proposition. Clay was at once game-cock and domestic fowl. His gestures called to mind the magnificently branching trees of his Kentucky forests, and his handwriting had the neatness and delicacy of a female copyist. There was a careless, graceful ease in his movements and attitudes, like those of an Indian chief; but he was an exact man of business, who docketed his letters, and could send from Washington to Ashland for a document, telling in what pigeon-hole it could be found. Naturally impetuous, he acquired early in life an habitual moderation of statement, an habitual consideration for other men's self-love, which made him the pacificator of his time. The great compromiser was himself a compromise. The ideal of education is to tame men without lessening their vivacity, their gayety, their heartiness, — to unite in them the freedom, the dignity, the prowess of a Tecumseh, with the serviceable qualities of the civilized man. This happy union is said to be sometimes produced in the pupils of the great public schools of England, who are savages on the play-ground and gentlemen in the school-room. In no man of our knowledge has there been combined so much of the best of the forest chief with so much of the good of the trained man of business as in Henry Clay. This was the secret of his power over elasses of men so diverse as the hunters of Kentucky and the manufacturers of New England.
It used to be accounted a merit in a man to rise to high station from humble beginnings; but we now perceive that humble beginnings are favorable to the development of that orce of character which wins the world's great prizes. Henry Clay found an Eton and an Oxford in Old Virginia that were better for him than those of Old England. Few men have been more truly fortunate in their education than he. It was said of a certain lady, that to know her was a liberal education; and there really have been, and are, women of whom that could be truly averred. But perhaps the greatest good fortune that can befall an intelligent and noble-minded youth is to come into intimate, confidential relations with a wise, learned, and good old man, one who has been greatly trusted and found worthy of trust, who knows the world by having long taken a leading part in its affairs, and has outlived illusions only to get a firmer footing in realities. This, indeed, is a liberal education; and this was the happiness of Henry Clay. Nothing in biography is so strange as the certainty with which a superior youth, in the most improbable circumstances, finds the mental nourishment he needs. Here, in the swampy region of Hanover County, Virginia, was a barefooted, ungainly urchin, a poor widow's son, without one influential relative on earth ; and there, in Richmond, sat on the chancellor's bench George Wythe, venerable with years and honors, one of the grand old men of Old Virginia, the preceptor of Jefferson, signer of the Declaration of Independence, the most learned man in his profession, and one of the best men of any profession. Who could have foreseen that this friendless orphan, a Baptist preacher's son, in a State where to be a “dissenter” was social inferiority, should have found in this eminent judge a friend, a mentor, a patron, a father?
Yet it came about in the most natural way. We catch our first glimpse of the boy when he sat in a little log school-house, without windows or floor, one of a humming score of shoeless boys, where a good-natured, irritable, drinking English schoolmaster taught him to read, write, and cipher as far as Practice.
This was the only school he ever attended, and that was all be learned at it. His widowed mother, with her seven young children, her little farm, and two or three slaves, could do no more for him. Next, we see him a tall, awkward, slender stripling of thirteen, still barefoot, clad in homespun butternut of his mother's making, tilling her fields, and going to mill with his bag of corn strapped upon the family pony. At fourteen, in the year 1791, a place was found for him in a Richmond drug-store, where he served as errand-boy and youngest clerk for one year.
Then occurred the event which decided his career. His mother having married again, her husband had influence enough to procure for the lad the place of copying clerk in the office of the Court of Chancery. The young gentlemen then employed in the office of that court long remembered the entrance among them of their new comrade. He was fifteen at the time, but very tall for his age, very slender, very awkward, and far from handsome. His good mother had arrayed him in a full suit of pepper-and-salt “figginy,” an old Virginia fabric of silk and cotton. His shirt and shirt-collar were stiffly starched, and his coat-tail stood out boldly behind him. The dandy law clerks of metropolitan Richmond exchanged glances as this gawky figure entered, and took his place at a desk to begin his work. There was something in his manner which prevented their indulgence in the jests that usually greet the arrival of a country youth among city blades; and they afterwards congratulated one another that they had waited a little before beginning to tease him, for they soon found that he had brought with him from the country an exceedingly sharp tongue. Of his first service little is known, except the immense fact that he was a most diligent reader. It rests on better authority than “Campaign Lives," that, while his fellow-clerks went abroad in the evening in search of pleasure, this lad stayed at home with his books. It is a pleasure also to know that he had not a taste for the low vices. He came of sound English stock,- of a family who would not have regarded drunkenness and debauchery as “ sowing wild oats,” but recoiled from the thought of them with horror. Clay was far from being a saint; but it is our privilege to believe of him that he was a clean, temperate, and studious young man.
Richmond, the town of the young Republic that had most in it of the metropolitan, proved to this aspiring youth as true a University as the printing-office in old Boston was to Benjamin Franklin ; for he found in it the culture best suited to him and his circumstances. Chancellor Wythe, then sixty-seven years of age, overflowing with knowledge and good nature, was the president of that university. Its professors were the cluster of able men who had gone along with Washington and Jefferson in the measures which resulted in the independence of the country. Patrick Henry was there to teach him the arts of oratory. There was a flourishing and famous debating society, the pride of the young men of Richmond, in which to try his half-fledged powers. The impulse given to thought by the American Revolution was quickened and prolonged by the thrilling news which every vessel brought from France of the revolution there. There was an atmosphere in Virginia favorable to the growth of a sympathetic mind. Young Clay's excellent handwriting brought him gradually into the most affectionate relations with Chancellor Wythe, whose aged hand trembled to such a degree that he was glad to borrow a copyist from the clerk's office. For nearly four years it was the young man's principal duty to copy the decisions of the venerable Chancellor, which were curiously learned and elaborate ; for it was the bent of the Chancellor's mind to trace the law to its sources in the ancient world, and fortify his positions by citations from Greek and Latin authors. The Greek passages were a plague to the copyist, who knew not the alphabet of that language, but copied it, so to speak, by rote.
Here we have another proof that, no matter what a man's opportunities are, he only learns what is congenial with his nature and circumstances. Living under the influence of this learned judge, Henry Clay might have become a man of learning. George Wythe was a “scholar” in the ancient acceptation of the word. The whole education of his youth consisted in his acquiring the Latin language, which his mother taught him. Early inheriting a considerable fortune, he squandered it in dissipation, and sat down at thirty, a reformed man, to the study of the law. To his youthful Latin he now added
. Greek, which he studied assiduously for many years, becoming,
probably, the best Greek scholar in Virginia. His mind would have wholly lived in the ancient world, and been exclusively nourished from the ancient literatures, but for the necessities of his profession and the stirring political events of his later life. The Stamp Act and the Revolution varied and completed his education. His young copyist was not attracted by him to the study of Greek and Latin, nor did he catch from him the habit of probing a subject to the bottom, and ascending from the questions of the moment to universal principles. Henry Clay probed nothing to the bottom, except, perhaps, the game of whist; and though his instincts and tendencies were high and noble, he had no grasp of general truths. Under Wythe, he became a stanch Republican of the Jeffersonian school. Under Wythe, who emancipated his slaves before his death, and set apart a portion of his estate for their maintenance, he acquired a repugnance to slavery which he never lost. The Chancellor's learning and philosophy were not for him, and so he passed them by.
The tranquil wisdom of the judge was counteracted, in some degree, by the excitements of the debating society. As he grew older, the raw and awkward stripling became a young man whose every movement had a winning or a commanding grace. Handsome he never was; but his ruddy face and abundant light hair, the grandeur of his forehead and the speaking intelligence of his countenance, more than atoned for the irregularity of his features. His face, too, was a compromise. With all its vivacity of expression, there was always something that spoke of the Baptist preacher's son, — just as Andrew Jackson's face had the set expression of a Presbyterian elder. But of all the bodily gifts bestowed by Nature upon this favored child, the most unique and admirable was his voice. Who ever heard one more melodious ? There was a depth of tone in it, a volume, a compass, a rich and tender harmony, which invested all he said with majesty. We heard it last when he was an old man past seventy; and all he said was a few words of acknowledgment to a group of ladies in the largest hall in Philadelphia. He spoke only in the ordinary tone of conversation ; but his voice filled the room as the organ fills a great cathedral, and the ladies stood spellbound as the swelling cadences rolled about the vast apartment. We have heard