Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vol. IV: Literature of the Republic, Part I., Constitutional period, 17881820
The Statesman and the Dandy
By William Wirt (17721834)
[From Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry. Second Edition. 1818.]
IT was in the course of the debate which has been just mentioned, that Mr. Henry was driven from his usual decorum into a retaliation, that became a theme of great public merriment at the time, and has continued ever since one of the most popular anecdotes that relate to him. He had insisted, it seems, with great force, that the speedy adoption of the amendments was the only measure that could secure the great and unalienable rights of the freemen of this countrythat the people were known to be exceedingly anxious for this measurethat it was the only step which could reconcile them to the new constitutionand assure that public contentment, security, and confidence, which were the sole objects of government, and without which no government could standthat whatever might be the individual sentiments of gentlemen, yet the wishes of the people, the fountain of all authority, being known, they were bound to conform to those wishesthat, for his own part, he considered his opinion as nothing, when opposed to those of his constituents; and that he was ready and willing, at all times and on all occasions, to bow, with the utmost deference, to the majesty of the people.A young gentleman, on the federal side of the house, who had been a member of the late convention, and had in that body received, on one occasion, a slight touch of Mr. Henrys lash, resolved now, in an ill-fated moment, to make a set charge upon the veteran, and brave him to the combat. He possessed fancy, a graceful address, and an easy, sprightly elocution; and had been sent by his father (an opulent man, and an officer of high rank and trust under the regal government) to finish his education in the colleges of England, and acquire the polish of the court of St. James; where he had passed the whole period of the American revolution. Returning with advantages which were rare in this country, and with the confidence natural to his years, presuming a little too far upon those advantages, he seized upon the words, bow to the majesty of the people, which Mr. Henry had used, and rung the changes upon them with considerable felicity. He denied the solicitude of the people for the amendments, so strenuously urged on the other side; he insisted that the people thought their great and unalienable rights sufficiently secured by the constitution which they had adopted: that the preamble of the constitution itself, which was now to be considered as the language of the people, declared its objects to be, among others, the security of those very rights; the people then declare the constitution the guarantee of their rights, while the gentleman, in opposition to this public declaration of their sentiments, insists upon his amendments as furnishing that guarantee; yet the gentleman tells us, that he bows to the majesty of the people: these words he accompanied with a most graceful bow. The gentleman, he proceeded, had set himself in opposition to the will of the people, throughout the whole course of this transaction: the people approved of the constitution: the suffrage of their constituents in the last convention had proven itthe people wished, most anxiously wished, the adoption of the constitution, as the only means of saving the credit and the honor of the country, and producing the stability of the Union: the gentleman, on the contrary, had placed himself at the head of those who opposed its adoptionyet, the gentleman is ever ready and willing, at all times and on all occasions, to bow to the majesty of the people (with another profound and graceful bow). Thus he proceeded, through a number of animated sentences, winding up each one with the same words, sarcastically repeated, and the accompaniment of the same graceful obeisance. Among other things, he said, it was of little importance, whether a country was ruled by a despot, with a tiara on his head, or by a demagogue in a red cloak, a caul-bare wig, etc. (describing Mr. Henrys dress so minutely, as to draw every eye upon him), although he should profess on all occasions to bow to the majesty of the people. A gentleman who was present, and who, struck with the singularity of the attack, had the curiosity to number the vibrations on those words, and the accompanying action, states that he counted thirteen of the most graceful bows he had ever beheld.
The friends of Mr. Henry considered such an attack on a man of his years and high character as very little short of sacrilege; on the other side of the house, there was, indeed, a smothered sort of dubious laugh, in which there seemed to be at least as much apprehension as enjoyment. Mr. Henry had heard the whole of it, without any apparent mark of attention. The young gentleman having finished his philippic, very much at least to his own satisfaction, took his seat, with the gayest expression of triumph in his countenanceHeu! Nescia mens hominum fati, sortisque futuræ! Mr. Henry raised himself up, heavily and with affected awkwardnessMr. Speaker, said he, I am a plain man, and have been educated altogether in Virginia. My whole life has been spent among planters and other plain men of similar education, who have never had the advantage of that polish which a court alone can give, and which the gentleman over the way has so happily acquired; indeed, sir, the gentlemans employments and mine (in common with the great mass of his countrymen) have been as widely different as our fortunes; for while that gentleman was availing himself of the opportunity which a splendid fortune afforded him, of acquiring a foreign education, mixing among the great, attending levees and courts, basking in the beams of royal favor at St. Jamess, and exchanging courtesies with crowned heads, I was engaged in the arduous toils of the Revolution; and was probably as far from thinking of acquiring those polite accomplishments which the gentleman has so successfully cultivated, as that gentleman then was from sharing in the toils and dangers in which his unpolished countrymen were engaged. I will not, therefore, presume to vie with the gentleman in those courtly accomplishments, of which he has just given the house so agreeable a specimen; yet such a bow as I can make, shall be ever at the service of the peopleherewith, although there was no man who could make a more graceful bow than Mr. Henry, he made one so ludicrously awkward and clownish, as took the house by surprise, and put them into a roar of laughterthe gentleman, I hope, will commiserate the disadvantages of education under which I have labored, and will be pleased to remember that I have never been a favorite with that monarch, whose gracious smile he has had the happiness to enjoy. He pursued this contrast of situations and engagements, for fifteen or twenty minutes, without a smile, and without the smallest token of resentment, either in countenance, expression, or manner. You would almost have sworn, says a correspondent, that he thought himself making his apology for his own awkwardness, before a full drawing-room at St. Jamess. I believe there was not a person that heard him, the sufferer himself excepted, who did not feel every risible nerve affected. His adversary meantime hung down his head, and sinking lower and lower, until he was almost concealed behind the interposing forms, submitted to the discipline as quietly as a Russian malefactor, who had been beaten with the knout till all sense of feeling was lost.