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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Personal Characteristics of Henry
By William Wirt (1772–1834)
 
From ‘Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry’

MR. HENRY’S conversation was remarkably pure and chaste. He never swore. He was never heard to take the name of his Maker in vain. He was a sincere Christian, though after a form of his own; for he was never attached to any particular religious society, and never, it is believed, communed with any church. A friend who visited him not long before his death, found him engaged in reading the Bible. “Here,” said he, holding it up, “is a book worth more than all the other books that were ever printed; yet it is my misfortune never to have found time to read it, with the proper attention and feeling, till lately. I trust in the mercy of Heaven that it is not yet too late.” He was much pleased with Soame Jenyns’s view of the internal evidences of the Christian religion; so much so, that about the year 1790 he had an impression of it struck at his own expense, and distributed among the people. His other favorite works on the subject were Doddridge’s ‘Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul,’ and Butler’s ‘Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed.’ This latter work he used at one period of his life to style, by way of pre-eminence, his “Bible.” The selection proves not only the piety of his temper, but the correctness of his taste, and his relish for profound and vigorous disquisition.  1
  His morals were strict. As a husband, a father, a master, he had no superior. He was kind and hospitable to the stranger, and most friendly and accommodating to his neighbors. In his dealings with the world he was faithful to his promise, and punctual in his contracts, to the utmost of his power.  2
  Yet we do not claim for him a total exemption from the failures of humanity. Moral perfection is not the property of man. The love of money is said to have been one of Mr. Henry’s strongest passions. In his desire for accumulation, he was charged with wringing from the hands of his clients, and more particularly those of the criminals whom he defended, fees rather too exorbitant. He was censured too for an attempt to locate the shores of the Chesapeake, which had heretofore been used as a public common; although there was at that time no law of the State which protected them from location. In one of his earlier purchases of land, he was blamed also for having availed himself of the existing laws of the State, in paying for it in the depreciated paper currency of the country; nor was he free from censure on account of some participation which he is said to have had in the profits of the Yazoo trade. He was accused too of having been rather more vain of his wealth, toward the close of his life, than became a man so great in other respects. Let these things be admitted, and “let the man who is without fault cast the first stone.” In mitigation of these charges, if they be true, it ought to be considered that Mr. Henry had been, during the greater part of his life, intolerably oppressed by poverty and all its distressing train of consequences; that the family for which he had to provide was very large; and that the bar, although it has been called the road to honor, was not in those days the road to wealth. With these considerations in view, charity may easily pardon him for having considered only the legality of the means which he used to acquire an independence; and she can easily excuse him, too, for having felt the success of his endeavors a little more sensibly than might have been becoming. He was certainly neither proud, nor hard-hearted, nor penurious: if he was either, there can be no reliance on human testimony; which represents him as being, in his general intercourse with the world, not only rigidly honest, but one of the kindest, gentlest, and most indulgent of human beings.  3
  While we are on this ungrateful subject of moral imperfection, the fidelity of history requires us to notice another charge against Mr. Henry. His passion for fame is said to have been too strong: he was accused of a wish to monopolize the public favor; and under the influence of this desire, to have felt no gratification in the rising fame of certain conspicuous characters; to have indulged himself in invidious and unmerited remarks upon them, and to have been at the bottom of a cabal against one of the most eminent. If these things were so—alas, poor human nature! It is certain that these charges are very inconsistent with his general character. So far from being naturally envious, and disposed to keep back modest merit, one of the finest traits in his character was the parental tenderness with which he took by the hand every young man of merit, covered him with his ægis in the Legislature, and led him forward at the bar. In relation to his first great rival in eloquence, Richard Henry Lee, he not only did ample justice to him on every occasion in public, but defended his fame in private with all the zeal of a brother; as is demonstrated by an original correspondence between those two eminent men, now in the hands of the author. Of Colonel Innis, his next great rival, he entertained and uniformly expressed the most exalted opinion; and in the convention of 1788, as will be remembered, paid a compliment to his eloquence, at once so splendid, so happy, and so just, that it will live forever. The debates of that convention abound with the most unequivocal and ardent declarations of his respect for the talents and virtues of the other eminent gentlemen who were arrayed against him,—Mr. Madison, Mr. Pendleton, Mr. Randolph. Even the justly great and overshadowing fame of Mr. Jefferson never extorted from him, in public at least, one invidious remark; on the contrary, the name of that gentleman, who was then in France, having been introduced into the debates of the convention for the purpose of borrowing the weight of his opinion, Mr. Henry spoke of him in the strongest and warmest terms, not only of admiration but of affection,—styling him “our illustrious fellow-citizen,” “our enlightened and worthy countryman,” “our common friend.”  4
  The inordinate love of money and of fame are certainly base and degrading passions. They have sometimes tarnished characters otherwise the most bright; but they will find no advocate or apologist in any virtuous bosom. In relation to Mr. Henry, however, we may be permitted to doubt whether the facts on which these censures (so inconsistent with his general character) are grounded, have not been misconceived; and whether so much of them as is really true may not be fairly charged to the common account of human imperfection.  5
  Mr. Henry’s great intellectual defect was his indolence. To this it was owing that he never possessed that admirable alertness and vigorous versatility of mind which turns promptly to everything, attends to everything, arranges everything, and by systematizing its operations, dispatches each in its proper time and place and manner. To the same cause it is to be ascribed that he never possessed that patient drudgery, and that ready, neat, copious, and masterly command of details, which forms so essential a part of the duties both of the statesman and the lawyer. Hence too he did not avail himself of the progress of science and literature in his age. He had not, as he might have done, amassed those ample stores of various, useful, and curious knowledge which are so naturally expected to be found in a great man. His library (of which an inventory has been furnished to the author) was extremely small; composed not only of a very few books, but those, too, commonly odd volumes. Of science and literature he knew little or nothing more than was occasionally gleaned from conversation. It is not easy to conceive what a mind like his might have achieved in either or both of these walks, had it been properly trained at first, or industriously occupied in those long intervals of leisure which he threw away. One thing however may be safely pronounced: that had that mind of Herculean strength been either so trained or so occupied, he would have left behind him some written monument, compared with which even statues and pillars would have been but the ephemeræ of a day. But he seems to have been of Hobbes’s opinion, who is reported to have said of himself, that “if he had read as much as other men, he should have been as ignorant as they were.” Mr. Henry’s book was the great volume of human nature. In this he was more deeply read than any of his countrymen. He knew men thoroughly; and hence arose his great power of persuasion. His preference of this study is manifested by the following incident: He met once, in a bookstore, with the late Mr. Ralph Wormley, who, although a great bookworm, was infinitely more remarkable for his ignorance of men than Mr. Henry was for that of books.—“What! Mr. Wormley,” said he, “still buying books?” “Yes,” said Mr. Wormley, “I have just heard of a new work, which I am extremely anxious to peruse.” “Take my word for it,” said he, “Mr. Wormley, we are too old to read books: read men,—they are the only volume that we can peruse to advantage.” But Mr. Henry might have perused both, with infinite advantage not only to himself but to his country and to the world; and that he did not do it, may, it is believed, be fairly ascribed rather to the indolence of his temper than the deliberate decision of his judgment.  6
 
 
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