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An essay by George William Curtis

Annus Mirabilis

Title:     Annus Mirabilis
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

This year, the centenary of the opening of our national constitutional epoch, will be a Washington year. As on a saint's day there is a special service in his honor, so through all this year there will be especial remembrance of Washington, and natural self-congratulation that in him we have a glory beyond that of other nations. The last striking tribute to him is also most timely, for it is that of Mr. Bryce in his "American Commonwealth," whose publication happily coincided with the opening of this annus mirabilis. He says, in speaking of Hamilton's death, "One cannot note the disappearance of this brilliant figure, to Europeans the most interesting in the earlier history of the republic, without the remark that his countrymen seem to have never, either in his lifetime or afterward, duly recognized his splendid gifts." The explanation of this seeming want of appreciation is, however, very characteristic, for it lies in the instinctive American regard for morality.

Mr. Bryce touches it when he proceeds: "Washington, indeed, is a far more perfect character. Washington stands alone and unapproachable, like a snow-peak rising above its fellows into the clear air of morning, with a dignity, constancy, and purity which have made him the ideal type of civic virtue to succeeding generations. No greater benefit could have befallen the republic than to have such a type set from the first before the eye and mind of the people." That benefit is incalculable, and it will be acknowledged with every form of stately ceremonial and of eloquent enthusiasm during this year.

The great event of 1789 was Washington's inauguration as President, and it is the most important event in the annals of the city. The cosmopolitan character of the city from its settlement and in the early time of the little town, when it was said that more than a dozen different languages were spoken in its streets, down to the present, when it is the third or fourth city in size upon the globe, has always checked the sentiment of local pride which is so great a force in the development of a community. Among all the original States New York has seemed to care least for its significant events and its great men. That the Revolution was tactically largely a contest for the control of the Hudson, that the contest culminated at Saratoga, and that the new national order which resulted from the Revolution began in the city of New York, are facts which are known, indeed, but which have not grown into a proud tradition universally cherished and constantly repeated and celebrated like similar great events in New England.

This year, however, the last event, Washington's inauguration, will be the occasion of a great national observance. The President and cabinet, Senators and Representatives and judges, distinguished delegates from every State, will attend, and there will be religious and oratorical exercises and civil and military display. One fact, indeed, invests such a celebration with especial triumph. It is that while the government which was organized a hundred years ago was unprecedented in form and wholly untried in the experience of states, and while it was regarded with interest but with incredulity as essentially unequal to the great shocks of fate to which other states have succumbed, it has passed, within the century, not only unshaken but strengthened, through the most tremendous and prolonged ordeal to which such a government could be submitted.

Chief among its extraordinary good fortunes at its organization was that of the presence of a man without whom at that time its establishment would have been hardly possible. The French Minister at the time of the inauguration wrote home to his government that it was the universal confidence in Washington which secured assent to the Constitution. John Lamb, who was unfriendly to the Constitution, told Hamilton in Wall Street that only his faith in Washington overcame his repugnance to it. The hour had plainly come for union, but except for the man it is probable that union would not then have been effected.

The value of Washington to his country transcends that of any other man to any land. Take him from the Revolution, and all the fervor of the Sons of Liberty would seem to have been a wasted flame. Take him from the constitutional epoch, and the essential condition of union, personal confidence in a leader, would have been wanting. Franklin, when the work of the Constitutional Convention was completed, said that until then he had not been sure whether the sun depicted above the President's chair was a rising or a setting sun, but now his doubt was solved. Yet it was not the symbolic figure above the chair, it was the man within it, which should have forecast the great result to that sagacious mind.

From the moment that independence was secured no man in America saw more clearly the necessity of national union, or defined more wisely and distinctly the reasons for it. He is the chief illustration in a popular government of a great leader who was not also a great orator. Perhaps that fact gave a solid force to his influence by depriving all his expressions of a rhetorical character, and preserving in them throughout a simplicity and moderation which deepened the impression of his comprehensive sagacity. He was felt as both an inspiring and a sustaining power in the preliminary movement for union, and by natural selection he was both President of the Convention and the head of the government which it instituted. John Adams was Vice-President, and Hamilton and Jefferson were in the cabinet. After Washington himself, they were the three most eminent figures in the country. But it is not possible to conceive any one of them organizing and establishing the new system without controversy which would have rent it asunder.

Indeed this year commemorates the auspicious beginning of the most arduous task which devolved upon Washington, and which transcends that to which any other man in history has been called. Yet how little in his performance of that task his countrymen would change! During the course of the century they have been divided largely upon views of the Constitution and upon principles of administration, and have engaged in a long and momentous civil war, but they would certainly not desire that any chief act of Washington's administration should have been other than it was. He acted without precedent, but with the calm majesty of rectitude, and although the serpent of party spirit struck at him as he retired, no honest partisan to-day either distrusts his motives or doubts his wisdom.

It is a benignant fortune that so great a celebration as that of this year is an act of homage to so great a man. It was his happiness to know the affectionate reverence in which he was held. The memoirs and letters of the time show that Washington's was not a tardy and posthumous greatness, but that those who knew him best honored him most, and that America was conscious of the worth of her chief citizen. One of the most striking contemporary personal tributes to him is that of John Bernard, the English actor, who was in this country at the close of the last century, and who met Washington near the end of his life, by chance and without knowing him, near Mount Vernon.

Bernard had paid a visit to a friend upon the banks of the Potomac, and was returning upon horseback to Alexandria behind a chaise which seemed to be in difficulties, and was presently upset. The actor hastened to the rescue simultaneously with another horseman, and after some exertions they succeeded in placing the occupants of the chaise--a man and woman, who were fortunately not injured--again upon their way. After their departure Bernard's companion politely offered to dust his coat, and in returning the favor Bernard made a close survey of his companion.

"He was a tall, erect, well-made man, evidently advanced in years, but who seemed to have retained all the vigor and elasticity resulting from a life of temperance and exercise. His dress was a blue coat buttoned to his chin and buckskin breeches. Though the instant he took off his hat I could not avoid the recognition of familiar lineaments--which, indeed, I was in the habit of seeing on every sign-post and on every fire-place--still I failed to identify him."

Washington recognized Bernard as the actor whom he had "had the pleasure of seeing perform" in Philadelphia during the previous winter, and after some pleasant chat an invitation to ride with him to Mount Vernon, only a mile distant, revealed to Bernard the name of his companion. He was profoundly impressed, and upon reaching Mount Vernon they found that Mrs. Washington was indisposed, and the General ordered refreshments into a little parlor looking upon the Potomac.

At some length his guest describes the commanding presence of Washington, in which "a feeling of awe and veneration stole over you." During a conversation of an hour and a half "he touched on every topic that I brought before him with an even current of good sense, if he embellished it with little wit or verbal elegance."

"When I mentioned to him the difference I perceived between the inhabitants of New England and of the Southern States, he remarked: 'I esteem those people greatly; they are the stamina of the Union, and its greatest benefactors. They are continually spreading themselves, too, to settle and enlighten less favored quarters. Dr. Franklin is a New-Englander.' When I remarked that his observations were flattering to my country, he replied, with great good-humor: 'Yes, yes, Mr. Bernard, but I consider your country the cradle of free principles, not their arm-chair. Liberty in England is a sort of idol; people are bred up in the belief and love of it, but see little of its doings. They walk about freely, but then it is between high walls; and the error of its government was in supposing that after a portion of their subjects had crossed the sea to live upon a common, they would permit their friends at home to build up those walls about them.'

"A black coming in at this moment with a jug of spring-water, I could not repress a smile, which the General at once interpreted. 'This may seem a contradiction,' he continued, 'but I think you must perceive that it is neither a crime nor an absurdity. When we profess, as our fundamental principle, that liberty is the inalienable right of every man, we do not include madmen or idiots; liberty in their hands would become a scourge. Till the mind of the slave has been educated to perceive what are the obligations of a state of freedom, and not to confound a man's with a brute's, the gift would insure its abuse. We might as well be asked to pull down our old warehouses before trade has increased to demand enlarged new ones. Both houses and slaves were bequeathed to us by Europeans, and time alone can change them--an event, sir, which, you may believe me, no man desires more heartily than I do. Not only do I pray for it on the score of human dignity, but I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our Union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.'"

At the end of a century which has vindicated his view so nobly and so completely it is pleasant to read these words, and in this new and vivid glimpse of our Washington to find only a stronger title to our veneration. Bernard recalls the words of De Chastellux:

"The great characteristic of Washington is the perfect union which seems to subsist between his moral and physical qualities, so that the selection of one would enable you to judge of all the rest. If you are presented with medals of Trajan or Cæsar, the features will lead you to inquire the proportions of their persons; but if you should discover in a heap of ruins the leg or arm of an antique Apollo, you would not be curious about the other parts, but content yourself with the assurance that they were all conformable to those of a god."

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Annus Mirabilis