Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub
[blocks in formation]

This work comprises a number of political disquisitions, written for the New York Evening Post and the Plaindealer, at the time the author had the editorial management of those prints. A great variety of subjects is of course embraced in its contents, some of them of a temporary nature, though made interesting to readers of this day by the happy manner in which they are treated, but the greater part of that more general and permanent character which renders them worthy of the attention of all men at all times. The extraordinary sensation produced by these discussions at the time they were first uttered has been, no doubt, the main motive of their republication. It was right for the friends of the writer to suppose, that works which had once so signally arrested and impressed the public mind, possessed higher claims to respect, and were endowed with a stronger vitality, than could be imparted to them by any mere contemporaneous, but transient excitement. A mind as original and bold as that of the author, no matter what line of life he had chosen, could never have satisfied itself with a superficial investigation of transient topics. He was formed to stamp his character on all the discussions in which he engaged; to fill the hearts of men with great truths; to walk in advance of his generation, and on all questions of revolution or reform, to guide the feelings of his countrymen by the solemn inculcation of living prin. ciples. Accordingly we find in this work lofty and fearless discussions of questions of the highest moment, -questions which concern the people under all forms of political organization,-questions in this country destired for many years yet to agitate its parties. As long, therefore, as men shall be interested in inquiries as to political right and duty, they may recur with fresh profit to writings in which impregnable reasoning is recommended by the most persuasive eloquence.

It was a fortunate thing that the task of selection was committed to so judicious a person as Mr. Sedgwick. He has executed it with due discrim

* A collection of the political writings of William Leggett, selected and arranged, with a preface, by Theodore Sedgwick, Jr. New York. Taylor & Dodd. 1840.

ination and taste. There are some things omitted which might have been embodied in the work, and others retained which might as well have been omitted; but on the whole, he has performed the labor in a manner which must be in the highest degree satisfactory to the warmest admirer of the genius of Mr. Leggett. In the preface he has presented us with a discerning estimate of the moral and intellectual faculties of his friend frankly confessing and deploring his faults, yet vindicating, with an honorable zeal, the many noble qualities of his mind and heart.

This, we believe, is the first attempt in our literary history to sustain the fame of a writer on the strength of contributions made to a daily print. What is prepared for that form of publication, bearing many traces of haste, and relating to subjects of mere momentary importance, usually passes away with the occasion which gave it birth. The labors of an editor, like those of the player, are forgotten with the scene, and, in the majority of instances, he deserves no more. But even if he succeeds in looking beyond the topics of the day,—if he catches a view of questions in the light of eternal principles --if he is gifted with the power to stir the spirits of men with new thoughts, others alone profit by his exertions and reap the reward of his toils. The scorn, the labor, the poverty is his, but the honor and emolument are snatched away by strange hands. His thoughts, the fruits of patient nights of study, and his language and illustrations, the results of long discipline, become the common property of the world, which every one filches at will, disdaining even the return of an ordinary thanks. He is expected to stand foremost on posts of danger, but come in last for the spoils of success. Every body hopes to use him, yet few care to confess an intimacy. When public abuses are to be assailed, it is his part to begin the assault, but the honor of victory is usurped by those who fought with armor which he had fur. nished or were covered by his shield. This accounts in part for the fact, that so few men of elevated endowments and honorable ambition engage in a vocation as thankless as it is laborious, and that so few reputations, either literary or political, have been achieved in the walk of the journalist. We know of but one instance, in which the effusions of an editor have stood the test of republication,—that is in the recent attempt of Mr. Fonblanque, editor of the London Examiner. His work, called "England under Seven Administrations," consists of articles furnished to that print, in the course of his labors as its conductor. It was a successful experiment with him, because he is one that to a remarkless clearness and force of intellect, unites a fancy at once delicate and active, the keenest wit, an exhaustless fertility of illustration, extensive reading, and a style which is both vigorous and graceful. Whether this revival of the writings of Mr. Leggett will equally answer the expectations of his friends, is a thing which remains to be tried. Prepared under circumstances so different from those of Mr. Fonblanque, it would be injustice to institute a comparison, though our hope is that their superior boldness and eloquence will ensure as cordial a reception

in this country, as England has extended to the more elaborate and refined productions of the London editor.

Were the merits of this collection less than they are, we should welcome its appearance as the production of a great and good man, of a highspirited and honest man, who suffered for the sake of his principles, and was not permitted to witness what he so confidently anticipated,--their complete and final triumph. His genius and ardor identified him with a system of unpopular and despised doctrines. This work brings together the scattered portions of that system. It enables us to contemplate the beauty of the whole structure, to test its consistency, to learn its objects, and, from a view of the whole, infer its whole value. If one truth illustrates another, rightly to judge of any man's creed, we must possess it entire. We must discover how this tenet is modified by that; how a principle, dangerous in itself, becomes a salutary rule in its connections, and how a doctrine apparently impracticable is made to work efficiently in combination with correlative and even contrary elements. This is the more important where the exertions of the author were on occasions when no time was given him to prune excrescences, harmonize results, to trim one part and adapt another, until, as in a formal didactic treatise, the whole assumed a form of beautiful outline and proportion. Mr. Leggett's writings were thrown off on the spur of the moment, yet if we examine them closely, a principle of unity will be found pervading all. They have the consistence, if not the shape of a well-contrived and compacted theory. Few men thought more profoundly than he did, and few brought to their investigations minds of a more logical and consecutive turn. He gave out his doctrines piecemeal, yet it was not in that form they existed in his own mind. Like the earliest teachers of Christianity, and indeed all other truth, he announced what he had to say, satisfied that others would reduce it to that order and harmony in which it was present to his own conceptions.

An additional interest is imparted to his writings, by the fact, that living in times of unusual party excitement, he viewed all questions in the light of great general principles. During his editorship, the most im. portant subjects that can arise under our peculiar form of government were made the topics of ardent debate. An extraordinary man had the control of the destinies of the nation. To a sagacity that was seldom deceived, he joined a firmness that never failed, and an honesty equal to his decision. Full of the spirit of the people, elevated by the people, and relying with unshaken confidence upon the sympathies of the people, he began a reform, the extent of which it is doubtful whether his warmest supporters realized. Of those supporters, however, there was one who saw the result from the beginning, and lent to the movement his energetic, unflinching and undivided aid. Mr. Leggett took the management of the Evening Post shortly after General Jackson assumed the reins of the Federal Government. That journal, controlled by a man of distin. guished abilities, one possessed of the finest accomplishments of intellect and the noblest virtues of the heart, was then resting, crowned with vic

tory, from its arduous struggles against the enemies of freedom in our foreign trade. Mr. Leggett continued its assualts upon the odious principles of restriction, as they had been adopted in the internal legislation of the States. He had seen—to convert with some modifications the language he himself used—that the democracy, unmindful of their fundamental axiom, had sa nctioned a system of laws, the inevitable tendency of which would be to build up privileged classes, and depress the great body of the community. He saw that trade, not left to the salutary operations of its own laws, had been hampered in every limb by arbitrary statutes ; that these restrictions furnished employment to an innumerous army of officeholders, and that the phalanx of placemen was yearly augmented by the multiplication of the oppressive burdens imposed on the people. The power which the government had thus acquired was exerting a most vitiating influence upon politics, and was degrading more and more what should have been a conflict of unbiased opinion, into an angry warfare of heated and hungry partizans, struggling for place. But besides the countless restrictions on trade, he saw the States vieing with each other in dispensing lo favored knots of citizens special immunities, and pledging the property of the whole people as security for funds to be lent to those who had already elevated themselves into a privileged class. But of all the privileges which the States were distributing, those seemed the most dangerous to him which conferred banking powers; which authorised certain men to create a worthless substitute for gold and silver; to circulate it as real money, and thus enter into competition with the General Government of the United States, in one of the highest and most impor. tant of its functions. There was no end to the disorders which this dar. ing fraud was occasioning. It was placing the measure of value in the hands of speculators, to be expanded or contracted, to answer the suggestion of their selfishness or folly. It was subjecting commerce to continual fluctuations of prices. It was unsettling the foundations of private right, diversifying the times with seasons of preternatural prosperity and severe distress, shaking public faith, exciting a spirit of wild speculation, and vitiating the whole tone of popular sentiment and character. The reform of these abuses seemed to Mr. Leggett an object worthy of his most strenuous efforts. He sought, therefore, to direct the public attention to the fact, that the fundamental principle of government, the principle of equal rights, had been grossly infringed. He sought to show that all the restrictions of trade operate as taxes on the people, place dangerous powers in the hands of the government, diminish the efficiency of popular suffrage, and render it more difficult for popular sentiment to work salutary reforms. He sought to illustrate the general impropriety of all grants of partial privileges, and the peculiar impropriety of exclusive banking privileges. He strove to show that all the legitimate objects of society might easily be accomplished by general laws, operating equally upon all, and that every violation of the sacred rights of men was no less impolitic than unjust. In doing this, he had assumed a position in

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

advance of his generation a position which he nobly vindicated and triumphantly sustained. He had invaded the domains of time-fostered prejudices. Professed friends were estranged by the unexpected vigor with which they found their party-sanctioned errors assailed; and enemies, startled by the boldness of his theories, thought no terms too gross, and no efforts too mean, to undermine his influence and tarnish his character. He was publicly denounced by the organs, and the official heads of the party whose real principles he so warmly espoused; the agents of the government withdrew their patronage; one by one, the class upon whom his business mainly rested fell away;-without, vituperation was showered upon him on one hand, and menaces of resentment on the other; while within, painful and protracted disease was malignantly invading the sources of life. Yet he shrunk not nor failed. Day after day he poured into the public ear discussions full of strong thought and eloquent appeal. Now chastising parties for their delinquencies, and now defending the claims of the helpless and oppressed; at one time rebuking the insolence of public officers, and at another sustaining by hearty sympathy the character of persecuted men ;-this moment, overwhelming his opponents with mingled argument and satire, and that moment rallying his colleagues in tones of stirring eloquence, he kept right on his way, as little seduced by favor as he was terrified by threats. The reason of this was, that there was ever present to his mind a scheme of political doctrine, which impressed him with a despotic consciousness of its truth. It accorded with all his feelings, it moved his deepest convictions; it gave freedom to his powers, promised happiness to his fellows, and so filled and controlled his spirit, that it could only be relinquished with the surrender of that life of which it formed a part. No wonder, then, that “he could not, for the sake of livelihood, trim his sails to suit the varying breeze of popular prejudice," or that he preferred, with old Andrew Marvell, “to scrape a blade bone of cold mutton, to faring sumptuously on viands," procured at the cost of principle. His was a spirit with which it was dangerous to tamper. There was no avenue to his heart by which the schemes of trimmers and time-servers could approach it. He scorned with indignation, alike the profligacy which corrupts and the fraud which abuses the state. He was not of that number of Dalgetty politicians who fight only for the “proviant” or the spoils. He detested the hypocrisy which sought to deceive the people, because it distrusted their sagacity; which would sacrifice justice and candor for the sake of a transient triumph, or strive to acquire power by the alternate adoption and desertion of expedients for the time acceptable to popular election. He loved liberty, rectitude and truth, nor would he for the wealth of worlds have put to the hazard of an after-life of remorse a conscience whose integrity he could as easily preserve unimpaired.

But it is not our design at this time to portray the character of Mr. Leg. gett. Those who desire to know what he was, we must refer to the beautiful memoir from the pen of Mr. Bryant, published some time

« AnteriorContinuar »