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CHARACTER OF FISHER AMES. A scholar and a friend has transmitted to us for publication the ensuing
delineation of the character of Fisher Ames. It is the substance of a letter addressed to a foreigner, and breathes throughout that enthusiastic devotion to the memory of Ames which we could wish to see predominant in the mind of all the ingenuous youth of this country. Although we do not fully coincide with the author of this portrait in some points of tire comparison which he has instituted beiween his original and Edmund Burke, we profess the highest reverence for the genius and writings of the former, and shall seize with avidity every occasion of recommending them to the admiration of our countrymen and of the world. Ames both as an orator and a writer would have reflected lustre on any community, and may be considered as the most perfect model for youthful emulation which the United States have produced. This country has been the mother of many illustrious men, but has had no brighter ornament and no more profound or elegant instructor.
“ Multâ munitum virûm vi “ Nihil tamen hoc habuisse viro præclarius in se." It is our intention to lay before the public hereafter a regular analysis of his works. The volume which his enlightened friends have published is not only a treasure of political wisdom, but a literary monument which every American should contemplate with gratitude and patriotic pride.
MY DEAR SIR, You remark in the course of your correspondence that Fisher Ames is conspicuous among the number of the distinguished men of this country whose powers you have heard much applauded. You urge me, at the same time, to furnish you with a delineation of his character, and have the goodness to suggest that my own view of this subject will be most acceptable. I cannot refuse to comply with your request, although the execution of the task is by no means easy. I can at best trace but a very faint outline of a combination of moral and intellectual excellence which has rarely been equalled; and to the contemplation of which I can never approach without strong emotions of reverence and awe. The nature of this communication prevents me from speaking of him with the copiousness or precision which might be desirable. You must therefore be prepared to receive my thoughts just in the order in which they arise in the mind, and my first impressions in all their native warmth and vivacity.
Mr. Ames was gifted with a handsome person, with a voice uncommonly clear and harmonious, and was remarkable for the winning suavity and temperate dignity of his manners. To these exterior advantages he united, what is much more important, a heart of the utmost tenderness and sensibility; and that ardor of mind, that lofty enthusiasm, which are usually
attendant upon genius of the highest order. His morality was unspotted and unsuspected. Indeed, amidst the rancor and virulence of contending parties, his integrity and honour have never been called in question. His patriotism was as pure as his morality was sound. Such was his unceasing anxiety for the public weal, that it preyed upon his health, and contributed to bring him prematurely to the grave! Of this I have been assured by those who knew him intimately, and whose cor. rectness of observation cannot be questioned. You think, with me, that the extracts which I sent you
from his speech upon the British treaty, may safely challenge a comparison with some of the most brilliant specimens of English eloquence; that speech you say has raised the character of American genius in your estimation. I have conversed with several persons who were present, when this celebrated oration, supposed by many to be the most eloquent that has ever been heard in our congress, was delivered. They state the effects which it produced to have been so striking, as to rival those ascribed to ancient eloquence. He was then, in appearance, descending rapidly to the tomb; a circumstance of which, as is manifest by the conclusion of his speech, he was perfectly sensible. His aspect was calculated to excite the liveliest interest; and the whole scene to make the deepest impression. The annunciation of his intention to speak, together with the importance of the subject so deeply interesting to every American, drew an immense audience. The large hall in which congress
assembled was crowded with a most brilliant assembly of both sexes. When he arose, all was hushed into the most profound attention; and every eye was fixed upon him. In a low and solemn yet distinct voice he pronounced an exordium, peculiarly adapted to his situation.
He then went on, in a forcible, argumentative, and impassioned strain, to answer and refute all the objections which had been urged against the resolution proposed for carrying the treaty into effect. When he came to speak of the consequences that would flow from a rejection of the resolution, his whole audience were electrified. His voice summoned their imaginations to a scene of horror, which was described with a pathos and energy vever excelled. This, together with the solemnity of his peroration, produced so lively a sensation in the house, that one of the leading members of the opposition proposed to defer taking the question, until the minds of the members had time to cool, and (as Pitt said after Sheridan had delivered his famous speech on the question of arraigning Hastings) until they should be able to distinguish the blaze VOL. I.
of eloquence from the light of truth.” In this instance, however, though not in that of Sheridan, the blaze of eloquence was employed to diffuse not to conceal the light of truth. His oratory on this occasion was of the highest order-bold, lofty and impressive. We fancy that we listen to the voice of inspiration; and our minds are hurried along as by the resistless lyre of Timotheus. It is this kind of eloquence that has inflamed senates, and inspired armies with an invincible fury; that has appalled the guilty, and made princes, seated under the canopies of power and state, turn pale and tremble; that with“ an awful warning voice” has made nations put on sackcloth, and humble themselves with fasting; and at other times, has poured myriads on the embattled plain to assert the honour of their country or of their God.
Contrary to his own expectations he survived this speech several years; and soon after retired from the bustle of public life. He then wrote many masterly dissertations upon the politics of our country, as well as upon those of Europe which, in the present state of the world, are but too interesting to us. “ The grave has at last closed over this illustrious genius, and “ his splendid orb is set for ever!" Since his death his writings, as well as some of his speeches, have been collected and published. They all show an ardent zeal to serve his country, and the deep and lively interest which he felt in her honour and welfare. They are moreover fraught with political wisdom, and embellished by the graces of polite literature.
Of all our writers he is by far the most eloquent. He has been frequently compared to Edmund Burke and in some respects there certainly is a resemblance. But, to use his own happy figure, “ it is as difficult to compare great men, as great "rivers; some we admire for the length and rapidity of their “currents and grandeur of their cataracts, others for the ma“ jestic silence and fulness of their streams. We cannot bring " them together to measure the difference of their waters.”
Perhaps the character of his genius may be said to resemble Burke's, in the same manner that, according to Plutarch, Cicero and Demosthenes resembled each other. But I have always thought, that even Plutarch, able and masterly as he is in portraying character, carries his fondness for parallels too far. Still resemblances may sometimes be found between great men; and they may with advantage be compared. This can be done in the present instance. Like Burke, Ames possessed that prophetic sagacity, which divines the future from the past; and as with him all his sentiments are just noble and elevated. But their manner of conveying their ideas is very dif
ferent. Burke, though certainly one of the most splendid writers in the English language, is swelling, pompous and sometimes turgid. Ames is generally concise, always energetic, and frequently pointed; though he is also figurative and magnificent. His metaphors and figures are, however, for the most part original; and he is in my opinion even more happy than Burke in the use of them. He does not pursue them so far. His genius occasionally blazes out like the lightning of heaven. Its corruscations dazzle the eye and electrify the nerves. He sees his subject not only clearly, but with the piercing eye of prophecy and inspiration, and by a single figure bold, new, and striking, he sets it before you. It is not merely perceived; - it is tangible; it has life and body and substance. in fine, his style like his thoughts is original and his own. He was too affluent in the riches of his own native genius to borrow.
His mode of reasoning is also peculiar to himself: or, if a resemblance can be found, it is in that of Lord Chatham. He rarely descends the regular steps of a logical deduction; but his arguments are, nevertheless, extremely forcible and conclusive. He is always glowing and energetic; and, where the subject admits of it, pathetic and sublime. What gave pecu. liar force to his eloquence, was the strong self conviction which he always manifested. This is discoverable in all his speeches, even to a reader; and must have been much more strongly felt by a hearer.
He is even more happy, if possible, than Burke, in drawing wisdom from the treasures of history. No writer ever more fully illustrated the maxim of one of the ancients, that “ History is philosophy teaching by example.'
A statesman should indeed be formed from the recorded experience of nations. In history a vast volume is unfolded for the instruction of mankind: but few know how to read it with profit; few reap the lessons from it which it'is calculated to teach. This knowledge Ames possessed in an eminent degree; he perpetually illustrates, embellishes, and enforces his principles, by arguments derived from the historic page.
It may be proper to remark, that he appears to have been less under the dominion of his passions than Burke. Whether they were naturally less impetuous, or that he felt more forcibly the necessity of checking and controlling them, certain it is that they were not so predominant in his character.
Though it is undeniably true, that strong passions are generally formed to accompany a powerful genius, and when properly regulated, to aid and vivify it, Ames did not perhaps think with Burke, that " our passions instruct our reason.
At least he was unwilling to subject himself to the guidance of such masters. Still we find the same solidity and wisdom in the opinions of both; and the same abhorrence of those“ fools aspiring to be knaves” who would exchange rational liberty, good order, and sober government, for wild democracy and savage jacobinism.
In comparing these two men I must therefore say, that I think the American possessed, at least, equal genius, equal eloquence and equal goodness; though I will not contend that he had equal learning or equal opportunities of exercising his powers. But I must frankly declare, however such an assertion might hazard the credit of my taste with
that his manner of writing is to me more delightful than that of Burke, much as I admire the splendid and gorgeous eloquence of that extraordinary man. I think the manner of Ames more easy and natural. He never tired either his readers or his hearers. We know that Burke frequently wearied the latter and sometimes perhaps fatigues the former. Like Burke he never received his full deserts in his life-time. But the future generations of this country will do him justice; and will enrol his name on the list of the wisest and best of men, when the piti. ful cavils and vapid criticisms of ignorance or jealousy will be lost in oblivion. His writings ought to be the manual of Ameri. can youth. In them they will find the purest sentiments, delivered in a style easy chaste and eloquent: which is infinitely preferable to those laboured pompous periods, and “ Johnsonian affectations,” which have too much corrupted the taste of American as well as of European writers.
The just praises, which he was ever ready to bestow upon others, who might be considered as his rivals, show that he had not a particle of envy or of malignity in his composition. In a beautiful eulogium which he terms a Sketch of Hamilton, one of the ablest as well as most enchantmg delineations of character ever given, he impliedly acknowledges an inferiority to that great man which every one might not be ready to admit. He considers him, indeed, as superior not only to him. self but to every man of the age.
Although as a public man, as a statesman and an orator, Ames was great and splendid, it is upon his private character that his friends delight to dwell. By those, who were in habits of familiar intercourse with him, and of listening to the fascinating eloquence of his conversation, superior even to that of his public speeches and his writings; who witnessed the warmth and tenderness of his heart, and his unsullied morality, he remembered with enthusiasm. I have thus given you a sketch of