Lexicographers define ambition to be an earnest desire of power, honor, preferment, pride. Some who study party politics more than philosophy, physiology or ethics, call all the laudable desires of the heart AMBITION--aiming to strip the monster of its deformity that they may sail under false colors and play the pirate whenever an opportunity offers. The power that is gained by ambition is held by a slender tenure--often a mere rope of sand. Its hero may receive the homage of the multitude one day and be the victim of their fury the next. The summit of vain ambition is often the depth of misery. Based on a volcanic foundation it is in constant danger of an eruption. Inflated by a gaseous thirst for power, like a balloon with hydrogen, it is liable to an explosion from the very material that elevated it. Predicated on self--it spurns philanthropy, banishes charity, tramples on justice, despises patriotism, deals largely in the corrosive sublimate of falsehood, the elixir vitriol of revenge--the assafœtida of duplicity. Like a kite, it cannot rise in a calm and when up, is subject to fly from its fastenings and be rent by the cross currents ever in motion. The fulcrum of ignorance and the lever of party spirit form its magic power.
Some European writers have charged the patriots of the American Revolution with selfish ambition. They may be excused for this supposition from the fact that this is the motive power of _their_ actions and they can understand no other. Very different was the fact. Private virtue, broad charity, genuine philanthropy, undisguised patriotism were marked characteristics of those who achieved our Liberty. They were actuated by pure and honest motives--not by wild ambition and political frenzy. Noisy partisans and intriguing demagogues were not the favorites of the people at that trying period. The man of genuine worth and modest merit was the one they delighted to honor and trust.
In the character of William Floyd these qualities were happily blended. He was born at Suffolk county, Long Island, State of New York on the 17th of December 1734. He was the son of Mr. Nicoll Floyd and the grandson of Richard Floyd who came from Wales in 1680 and settled at Setauket, Long Island. During his childhood William was remarkable for frankness, truth, docility and pleasing manners. He was an industrious student and acquired a liberal education. During the prosecution of his studies he devoted a short period almost daily to his gun in pursuit of game which gave him healthful exercise and a strong frame. His father died before William arrived at his majority leaving him an ample fortune. This he managed with prudence and economy. From his youth he had been the advocate of liberal principles. At manhood he became a prominent opposer to the innovations of the British ministers upon the chartered rights of Americans. As oppression increased his patriotic feelings were more frequently and freely expressed. He was an active and zealous member of the Congress of 1774. He had the unlimited confidence of his constituents--the esteem of all who knew him. His cool deliberation and calm deportment were well calculated to preserve an equilibrium among those of a more fiery temperament and rashness in action. That Congress was remarkable for clear and unanswerable argument, calm and astute discussion, wise and judicious plans--reasonable but firm purposes. The course pursued operated powerfully and favorably upon the minds of reflecting men whose influence it was important to secure.
Mr. Floyd had command of the militia of the county in which he lived. When the British attempted to land at Gardner's Bay he promptly assembled the yeoman troops and repelled the invading foe. In 1775 he was again at his post in Congress and became one of its very efficient members. He was a working man and almost constantly engaged on important committees. During his absence the enemy obtained possession of Long Island and compelled his family to flee to Connecticut for safety. His property was materially injured--his house converted into a military barrack and for seven years he was deprived of all resources from his farm. In 1776 he was a warm advocate of the Declaration and with great satisfaction placed his name upon that sacred instrument. In 1777 he was elected to the first Senate of the Empire State convened under the new order of things. He was a leading member and rendered important services in forming a code of republican laws.
In January 1779 he again took his seat in Congress and entered vigorously upon the work before him. In August of that year he resumed his seat in the New York Senate. Much important business was before the legislature, requiring experience, energy and unity of action. To raise the pecuniary credit of the state was of great importance. Mr. Floyd was at the head of a joint committee on this subject and reported a plan that proved him an able financier--a man of deep thought and investigation. It was based upon gradual, equal and just taxation. In October of that year he was one of three delegates appointed by his legislature to meet a convention of the Eastern States for the purpose of perfecting a system of furnishing supplies for the army without being compelled to suffer the enormous shaves of avaricious monopolists. On reading the account of the awful sufferings and privations of the army at certain periods of the Revolution and in view of the glory of the cause and the limited means of carrying on the unequal struggle, an honest man can scarcely believe men then existed who would speculate--yes more--_peculate_ upon suffering humanity. So was the fact to an alarming extent--at least three millions a year. Avarice knows no mercy--seldom any honesty.
On his return from this convention he repaired to Congress. On the 3d of December he was elected one of the Board of Admiralty and on the 13th a member of the Treasury Board. By incessant application his health became impaired and in the ensuing April he obtained leave of absence. In June he took his seat in the New York Senate and was appointed upon a joint committee to act upon resolutions of Congress involving the important relations between the state and general government. He unsuccessfully opposed making bills of credit a legal tender but lived to see the law repealed. In September he was one of a committee of the senate to prepare a reply to the governor's message. To effect a proper organization of the general government was a desideratum with all the states. To this important subject the governor had specially referred. To confer upon Congress all necessary power clearly defined, was considered the only safe policy to insure future harmony and safety. This committee reported several resolutions upon this subject which were adopted and forwarded to Congress for consideration. They recommended the enactment of laws that should impose an equal responsibility on each of the states to bear its _pro rata_ proportion of the war expenses in the way and manner prescribed by the general government.
In 1780 he again took his seat in Congress. An important and delicate duty devolved upon the New York and New Hampshire members under legislative acts--the subject of disputed territory comprising the present state of Vermont. The question was submitted to Congress, the members of each state advocating the claim for their constituents. In this matter Mr. Floyd rendered great service. During the same session he introduced a resolution for the cession of the western territories to the United States. On the 10th of August he nominated Robert L. Livingston to be Secretary of Foreign Affairs whose nomination was immediately confirmed. He was continued a member of Congress up to 1783 when he joined in the general soul-cheering peace and the freedom of his beloved country. He then retired and took possession of his once flourishing plantation amidst the sincere congratulations of his numerous friends, all animated by the resplendent glories of LIBERTY. That he might repair the ruin of his home he declined the urgent solicitations of his friends to return to Congress. He continued to serve in the senate of his native state up to 1788 when he was elected to the first Congress under the Federal Constitution. Worn out in the service of his country he retired from the public arena at the end of the term.
Owning a large tract of valuable wild land upon the banks of the Mohawk river he commenced gradual improvements upon it and in 1803 removed there. He was often urged to return to Congress but declined all legislative labors. With the exception of serving one year in the state senate and in the convention for the revision of the New York Constitution in 1801, he kept aloof from the turmoils of political life. He was four times a member of the Electoral College of his state for the election of President and Vice President. So ardent were his feelings in his old age that he travelled two hundred miles in the dreary month of December 1806 to give his vote for his old companion and friend--Thomas Jefferson.
He continued to improve his new home until he became surrounded by happy neighbors all basking in the clear sunshine of that freedom he had largely aided in acquiring. In all things he was systematic and practical--free from pomp and vanity--strong in his purposes and persevering in their accomplishment. He was blessed with a clear head, vigorous mind, good heart, sound judgment, great experience and a close knowledge of men and things. As a politician he was free from selfish ambition and went for his country--his whole country and the UNION for ever. He spoke but seldom in public assemblies and rarely entered into debate. Brighter would be the prospects of our UNION if we _now_ had more men like William Floyd who would _talk_ less and _work_ more. Long and often electioneering speeches hang over our legislatures like an incubus and prevent the _few_ who are well-disposed from doing the business of the people promptly.
General Floyd was of middle size, well-formed and commanding in his appearance. He was dignified in his deportment--affable in his manners. His physical powers were remarkable when in his prime. In all the relations of private life he was a model as worthy of imitation as that of his public career. He was warm in his friendship and rigidly honest. His morals were pure, his religion practical, his charity broad--his philanthropy co-extensive with the human family. For the last two years of his life his health was not good and on the 20th of August 1821 he was seized with general debility and on the 25th of that month, folded his arms quietly, closed his eyes peacefully and met the cold embrace of death with the fortitude of a sage, patriot and Christian.
Although Gen. Floyd did not possess the Ciceronean eloquence of a Lee or the Demosthenean powers of Adams and Henry, he was one of the most useful men of his day and generation. He marked out his path of duty from the reflections of his own mind and pursued it strictly and fearlessly. For more than fifty years he enjoyed the confidence of his fellow-citizens as a public man and but one year before his decease was made a member of the Electoral College. His example and his labors shed a lustre over his character as rich and enduring as those who were conspicuous in the forum. He was an important link in the golden chain of Liberty. He was a working man--working men were _then_ properly appreciated. The congressional speakers of that day were also more highly appreciated than nine-tenths of them are now for the very good reason that they were laconic on all subjects. Long speeches were as uncommon as they are now frequent and useless. If we desire the prosperity of our country and the perpetuity of our UNION let us imitate the examples of the patriots whose actions we delight to rehearse and preserve in its pristine purity the rich boon of LIBERTY they have transmitted to us.
Source: Sages and Heroes of the American Revolution, by L. Carroll Judson: Copyright, 1854 Available for download at the Project Gutenberg website.