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Fisher Ames

And who was Fisher Ames, that his "Speeches" should be gathered and re-published sixty-three years after his death? He was a personage in his time. Let us look upon him in the day of his greatest glory.

 

It was April 28, 1796, at Philadelphia, in the Hall of the House of Representatives, of which Fisher Ames was a member. The House and country were highly excited respecting the terms of the treaty which John Jay had negotiated with the British government. To a large number of the people this treaty was inexpressibly odious; as, indeed, _any_ treaty would have been with a power so abhorred by them as England then was. Some of the conditions of the treaty, we cannot deny, were hard, unwise, unjust; but, in all probability, it was the best that could then have been obtained, and Mr. Jay had only the alternative of accepting the conditions, or plunging his country into war. One great point, at least, the British government had yielded. After the Revolutionary war, the English had retained several western posts, to the great annoyance of settlers, and the indignation of the whole country. These posts were now to be surrendered, provided the treaty was accepted and its conditions fulfilled.

President Washington and the Senate had ratified the treaty--with reluctance, it is true; but still they had ratified it; and nothing remained but for the House of Representatives to appropriate the money requisite for carrying the treaty into effect. But here was the difficulty. The treaty was so unpopular that members of Congress shrunk from even seeming to approve it. There had been riotous meetings in all the large cities to denounce it. In New York, Alexander Hamilton, while attempting to address a meeting in support of it, was pelted with stones, and the people then marched to the residence of Mr. Jay, and burned a copy of the treaty before his door.

"Blush," said a Democratic editor, "to think that America should degrade herself so much as to enter into any kind of treaty with a power now tottering on the brink of ruin, whose principles are directly contrary to the spirit of Republicanism!"

A Virginia newspaper advised that, if the treaty negotiated by "that arch-traitor, John Jay, with the British tyrant, should be ratified," Virginia should secede from the Union. Indeed, the public mind has seldom been excited to such a degree upon any public topic.

It was in these circumstances that Fisher Ames rose to address the House of Representatives, in favor of the treaty. There was supposed to be a majority of ten against it in the House, and the debate had been for some days in progress. Madison and all the leading Democrats had spoken strongly against it; while Fisher Ames, the greatest orator on the side of the Administration, was suffering from the pulmonary disease from which he afterward died, and had been ordered by his physician not to speak a word in the House. Inaction at such a time became insupportable to him, and he chafed under it day after day.

"I am like an old gun," he wrote, in one of his letters, "that is spiked, or the trunnions knocked off, and yet am carted off, not for the worth of the old iron, but to balk the enemy of a trophy. My political life is ended, and I am the survivor of myself; or, rather, a troubled ghost of a politician that am condemned to haunt the field where he fell."

But as the debate went on, he could no longer endure to remain silent. He determined to speak, if he never spoke again; and the announcement of his intention filled the Representatives' Chamber with a brilliant assembly of ladies and gentlemen. Vice-President Adams came to the chamber to hear him, among other persons of note. The orator rose from his seat pale, feeble, scarcely able to stand, or to make himself heard; but as he proceeded he gathered strength, and was able to speak for nearly two hours in a strain of eloquence, the tradition of which fills a great place in the memoirs of the time. The report of it which we possess is imperfect, and the reading of it is somewhat disappointing; but here and there there is a passage in the report which gives us some notion of the orator's power. One of his points was, that the faith of the country had been pledged by the ratification of the treaty, and that consequently a refusal of the House to appropriate the money would be a breach of faith. This led him to expatiate upon the necessity of national honor.

"In Algiers," said he, "a truce may be bought for money; but when ratified, even Algiers is too wise or too just to disown and annul its obligation.... If there could be a resurrection from the foot of the gallows; if the victims of justice could live again, collect together and form a society, they would, however loath, soon find themselves obliged to make justice--that justice under which they fell--the fundamental law of their State."

This speech was afterward called Fisher Ames' Tomahawk Speech, because he endeavored to show that, if the posts were not surrendered and not garrisoned by American troops, the Indians could not be kept in check, and would fill the frontier with massacre and fire.

"On this theme," the orator exclaimed, "my emotions are unutterable. If I could find words for them, if my powers bore any proportion to my zeal, I would swell my voice to such a note of remonstrance, it should reach every log-house beyond the mountains. I would say to the inhabitants, Wake from your false security! Your cruel dangers, your more cruel apprehensions, are soon to be renewed; the wounds yet unhealed are to be torn open again; in the daytime your path through the woods will be ambushed; the darkness of midnight will glitter with the blaze of your dwellings. You are a father--the blood of your sons shall fatten your corn-fields. You are a mother--the war-whoop shall wake the sleep of the cradle."

He continued in this strain for some time, occasionally blazing into a simile that delighted every hearer with its brilliancy, while flashing a vivid light upon the subject; and I only wish the space at my command permitted further extracts. The conclusion of the speech recalled attention to the orator's feeble condition of health, which the vigor of his speech might have made his hearers forget.

"I have, perhaps," said he, "as little personal interest in the event as any one here. There is, I believe, no member who will not think his chance to be a witness of the consequences greater than mine. If, however, the vote should pass to reject, and a spirit should arise, as it will, with the public disorders, to make confusion worse confounded, even I, slender and almost broken as my hold upon life is, may outlive the government and constitution of my country."

With these words the orator resumed his seat. The great assembly seemed spell-bound, and some seconds elapsed before the buzz of conversation was heard. John Adams turned to a friend, Judge Iredell, who happened to sit next to him, as if looking for sympathy in his own intense admiration.

"My God!" exclaimed the Judge, "how great he is--how great he has been!"

"Noble!" said the Vice-President.

"Bless my stars!" resumed Judge Iredell, "I never heard anything so great since I was born."

"Divine!" exclaimed Adams.

And thus they went on with their interjections, while tears glistened in their eyes. Mr. Adams records that tears enough were shed on the occasion.

"Not a dry eye in the house," he says, "except some of the jackasses who had occasioned the oratory.... The ladies wished his soul had a better body."

After many days' further debate, the House voted the money by a considerable majority; a large number of Democrats voting with the administration. Fisher Ames was not so near his death as he supposed, for he lived twelve years after the delivery of this speech, so slow was the progress of his disease. He outlived Washington and Hamilton, and delivered eloquent addresses in commemoration of both.

The great misfortune of his life was that very ill-health to which he alluded in his speech. This tinged his mind with gloom, and caused him to anticipate the future of his country with morbid apprehension. When Jefferson was elected President in 1800, he thought the ruin of his country was sure, and spoke of the "chains" which Jefferson had forged for the people. When Hamilton died, in 1804, he declared that his "soul stiffened with despair," and he compared the fallen statesman to "Hercules treacherously slain in the midst of his unfinished labors, leaving the world over-run with monsters." He was one of the most honest and patriotic of men; but he had little faith in the truths upon which the Constitution of his country was founded.

He died at his birthplace, Dedham, Massachusetts, on the 4th of July, 1808, in the fifty-first year of his age. His father had been the physician of that place for many years--a man of great skill in his profession, and gifted with a vigorous mind. Doctor Ames died when his son was only six years of age, and it cost the boy a severe and long struggle to work his way through college to the profession of the law, and to public life. If he had had a body equal to his mind, he would have been one of the greatest men New England ever produced.