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ART. V. -Memoirs of the Administrations of Washington and John Adams, edited from the Papers of Oliver Wolcott, Secretary of the Treasury. By GEORGE GIBBS. New York: Printed for the Subscribers. 1846. 2 vols. 8vo.
THIS work is a valuable contribution to the early political history of the United States, and we have finished the perusal of it with no ordinary degree of satisfaction. In regard either to the able and distinguished statesman whose biography it includes, or to the more general view it exhibits of the administrations of which he was a member, it must be considered as one of the most interesting works of an interesting class.
Oliver Wolcott was an admirable specimen of the New England character, such a character, indeed, as you do not often find out of New England. There is little violation of modesty in saying this, as it was not marked by any of the higher traits of genius. Sagacious, prudent, industrious, temperate and frugal, enterprising and persevering, he added to these national characteristics the personal and hereditary qualities of honesty, independence, modesty, and firmness, with purity and simplicity of manners, and great amiability of temper; and, as if to give zest to the whole, and to show the difference between him and the other members of his family, his character was marked by a slight touch of eccentricity. His grandfather, Roger Wolcott, was descended from one of the Pilgrim fathers of New England, and was distinguished in the colony both for his civil and military services. His father, Oliver, a name doubtless given in honor of "Old Noll," served as a captain in the provincial forces of New York, in defence of the northern frontier against the French and Indians. He continued in the army from 1747 to the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle. He then studied medicine, and settled at Litchfield, in Connecticut, at that period "on the outskirts of New England civilization"; and by his practice, aided by the cultivation of a small farm, was enabled to marry and to rear a family, of whom the future secretary of the treasury was the first-born.
The younger Oliver Wolcott was born at Litchfield, in 1760, and acquired the rudiments of his education at the
In the intervals of his attend
common school of that town. ance at school, he was employed in looking after the cattle, and in the other usual occupations upon the farm. At the age of fourteen, he entered Yale College, and had for his classmates Joel Barlow, Uriah Tracy, Zephaniah Swift, and Noah Webster. The last mentioned of these village prophets and patriarchs tells us that Wolcott "was a good scholar, though not brilliant, frank and faithful in his friendships, and generous to the extent of his means " ; and that "he possessed the firmness and strong reasoning powers of the Wolcott family, but with some eccentricities in his reasoning."
While he was pursuing his studies at Yale, his father, who had served in several civil offices in Connecticut, and had risen to be a general in the militia, was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress, and in that capacity signed the Declaration of Independence. He remained in Congress till the end of the war, was then, made a commissioner of Indian affairs under the government of the Confederation, and after the year 1786 was annually elected lieutenant-governor of Connecticut, until 1796, when he was chosen governor, which office he held till his death, at the close of the following year. General Wolcott seems to have possessed a full measure of the qualities ascribed to his family, and his letters contained in the present publication convey a very favorable impression both of his head and heart, and do equal honor to the writer and his son, to whom they were addressed.
To return to the latter; in April, 1777, while at Litchfield on a visit to his mother, his father being absent, attending Congress, news arrived of the march of the enemy to Danbury. The young collegian was summoned to repair to the rendezvous of the militia of the neighbourhood. His mother armed him, furnished his knapsack with provisions and a blanket, and dismissed him with the charge "to conduct himself like a good soldier." The party to which he was attached had several skirmishes with the enemy during their retreat, in all of which he participated. The next year he took his first degree at Yale, and immediately commenced the study of the law at Litchfield, under Tapping Reeve, well known as the founder and head of a private law-school of great celebrity. After the destruction of Fairfield and
Norwalk, in 1779, our young soldier attended his father, as a volunteer aid, to the coast, and at the close of the expedition was offered a commission in the Continental service. This he declined, having already made some progress in his professional studies; but he accepted an appointment at Litchfield, in the quartermaster's department, which did not materially interfere with their farther pursuit.
In January, 1781, he came of age, and was admitted to the bar. He removed shortly afterwards to Hartford, having left home with three dollars in his pocket; this circumstance accounts for his acceptance, immediately on his arrival, of a clerkship in one of the public offices, with a salary of fifty cents a day. His diligence in this station attracted the notice of the General Assembly, who, the next year, promoted him to a higher post, as member of the central board of accounts. Here his activity and usefulness were such as to procure his further advancement to be comptroller, when that office was substituted for the board of accounts.
This early attainment of an honorable and responsible situation in public life introduced him to the society of the principal men of his own State, and to the acquaintance of many eminent men out of it. It led eventually to his appointments in the treasury of the United States, upon its organization under the present constitution, first as auditor, afterwards as comptroller, and finally as head of the department. The first of these offices he owed to the suggestion and influence of Jeremiah Wadsworth; the second and third, to the recommendation of Alexander Hamilton; but neither of them to his own solicitation.
So well did Mr. Wolcott fulfil the expectations of his friends as secretary of the treasury, to which he succeeded upon the resignation of Hamilton, that he was continued in it by Mr. Adams, although known to agree in opinion with Pickering and McHenry, who were dismissed for their adherence to Hamilton in his preference of General Pinckney to Mr. Adams as a candidate for the presidency. Nor did he quit the cabinet until the second nomination of Mr. Adams, when he considered it indelicate longer to remain in it.
At this period, his whole fortune consisted of about three hundred dollars in cash, and a farm of about twenty acres upon Connecticut river, to which he retired. And yet, this man, whose conduct had been sifted again and again by his
political adversaries in Congress, and as often found unimpeachable, like that of Hamilton, his predecessor, and Pickering and McHenry, his former colleagues, was libelled by the scurrilous newspapers of the party in opposition, as having enriched himself by the plunder of the public. Hamilton, it is well known, was compelled to return to the practice of his profession for support, and left little else for his children than the inheritance of his name; Pickering was driven to the backwoods of Pennsylvania in search of a maintenance in the settlement of wild lands; and McHenry, who had previously possessed some property, spent a large portion of it in the service of the public. But not one of them was so wise in his generation as the men of this our world. They made no "friends of the mammon of unrighteousness," they neither entered office in search of "spoils," nor carried any with them out of it.
We shall not be guilty of so much injustice towards them, as to compare them in other respects with their successors; we shall draw no parallel between the party to which they belonged, and that which now conducts the national government. Indeed, it seems to us almost a profanation to apply the term "party," with its modern associations, to the Federalists of the school of Washington and Hamilton. The name was given to them because they were the authors and advocates of the Federal Constitution; while that of Antifederalists was given to the party who opposed the adoption of this instrument. The leaders of the former had borne conspicuous parts either in the cabinet or the field during the war of the Revolution. They had labored zealously to procure the adoption of the new system; and as their claims to public confidence rested on their public services, their efforts were successful. With Washington at their head, they had encountered the anarchy which succeeded the war with the same indomitable resolution and favorable result with which they had combated the enemy from without. Hence the evils springing from the conflicting views and interests of the several States, and from the feebleness of the Confederation, were rapidly disappearing under the corrective influence of the government which had superseded it.
The union being thus happily cemented by bringing its discordant materials into harmony with each other, the administration of the new government passed, almost as a mat
ter of course, into the hands of its friends. But the vigilance and activity of its enemies, with the augmentation of their numbers from the dissatisfaction of some of the Federalists with the official arrangements and other early measures of the administration, gave to the opposition a majority in the popular branch of the new Congress. Much of the discontent had arisen from offended State pride, and from the disappointment of individuals, who, knowing that their personal consequence depended upon the power and influence of their respective States, were unwilling to transfer so large a portion of sovereign authority to the government of the Union. As they had obtained no part in the administration, they were the more disposed to regard it in the light of a foreign power, and as a substitute for the paramount jurisdiction formerly exercised by Great Britain. There were a few among them who had earned some distinction in the Revolution; most of these had formed a part of the opposition which existed in the old Congress, and in some of the States during the war. That opposition, it will be remembered, had been directed against the authority and measures of General Washington and his friends, and was mixed up with the private cabals, in Congress and in the army, against the commander-in-chief. As a general rule, however, the men whose counsels and valor achieved the national independence were ranged on the side of the Federal Constitution, and now rallied in support of Washington's administration.
The following extract from a letter written by the elder Wolcott to his son, in 1793, gives a lively view of some of the benefits conferred by the new government upon the country, and shows of what materials the opposition to Washington's administration was then chiefly composed. The sentiments and opinions expressed do honor alike to the moral sense of the writer, and to his political sagacity.
“I have examined the statement of the Secretary of the Treasury which you sent me, and although I am not able to judge of this business in the detail, yet the energetic reasons which he has assigned for his own conduct cannot, I believe, fail of making the most convincing impressions, and fix his adversaries in a state of despondence. I never had the least doubt, both as to the abil. ities and rectitude of Mr. Hamilton. Indeed, a man must be uncommonly stupid, not to know that the national fiscal department must be conducted not only with regard to every species of prop