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The determination to make this publication was brought about by frequent calls on me for one or another of the articles embraced in it. Sometimes a gentleman has written to me for a copy of an address or lecture, which he wished to send to his son in college. Another person would ask for an article on a scientific subject, while many sought descriptions of portions of the mountainous regions of North Carolina. Politicians expressed a desire to have a copy of a particular speech which was remembered as having been made in one of the Houses of Congress.
Not being able otherwise to comply with such wishes, I decided to put a number of the articles sought for in the form of a book. To many of the Congressional speeches I have added explanatory remarks that will serve to indicate the condition of affairs which seemed to render such a speech necessary. Important facts can thus be made. known, and additional interest be given to what was said. Earnest debates, presenting the prominent points at issue, being a part of the res gesta, with proper explanations of the conditions then existing, are far more interesting than any subsequent history, prepared as they usually are. It was the younger Pitt, I think, who said that he would rather have one of Bolingbroke's speeches as delivered than the lost books of Livy's great history.
The most important results are often produced by events known only to a few actors concerned in them, which no outsider will ever understand except through explanations made by those conversant with the transactions.
In making up the political portions of this publication, such matter only has been selected as may, in my judgment, throw light on points that are still interesting to the public.
In the selections it will be seen that there has been no effort to support any particular theory or line of policy. Nor is there any purpose to establish political consistency in the speaker. The only consistency worthy of consideration is consistency to a man's convictions. To be true to the principles recognized as important, is the only object to be desired.
Mere devotion to party, instead of being a merit, is a reproach to a statesman. In fact, no man ever did acquire the character of a statesman who was the mere devotee of a party. To assume, for example, that because a man in 1840 supported General Harrison as the nominee of the Whig party, he was thereby bound to vote for General Scott in 1852, or for Seward, Giddings or Lincoln in 1860, if thus nominated, would be scarcely less absurd than it would be to affirm that because the Mississippi river at its source was limpid, it must be equally clear at its mouth; or to insist that a man who was seen planting corn in April, was inconsistent because he did not continue planting it in December.
By the general judgment of those who knew him intimately, Mr. Clay was regarded as the most public-spirited and patriotic man of his time; and yet, I never knew a man who seemed to be more gratified by receiving applause, nor who appeared more anxious to win in whatever he undertook to accomplish. Nevertheless, whenever the public interest seemed to demand it, he did not hesitate to change his line of action. Repeatedly, in the course of a few weeks, he would modify his position on a most important issue. This, however, was always done to obtain what he deemed the greatest good that could be accomplished.
Again, I have often, when an important issue was presented to a man, heard him say, "this may be right, but I took ground last year against it before my people, and I cannot go for it now." Another would oppose it because in some former speech he had expressed a different opinion.
Such men, who were always looking back at their own tracks, struck me as being vastly more contemptible than the peacock, that, whilə it struts, seems to be gazing admiringly at its own tail. In fact, those