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An Oration on the Sublime Virtues of
General George Washington, pro-
nounced at the Old South Meeting-
House, in Boston, before his Honour
the Lieutenant Governor, the Coun-
cil, and the two branches of the
Legislature of Massachusetts, at
their request, on Saturday the 8th
of February
, 1800. By Fisher
Ames. Boston. Young and Minns.
Manning and Loring. 1800.
8vo. pp. 31.

OF a character far different from
the performance noticed in
the preceding article, is the one now
before us. We turn with pleasure
from a fabric gaudy, tasteless, and
frail, to the contemplation of one
where the proportion, beauty, and
strength of a Grecian structure are

Mr. A. takes a wider range, and
deviates more into the tract of po-
litical discussion, than at first sight
may be thought suitable to the
chief purpose of his oration. But
in an address to the legislative as-
sembly of the State, he may be
permitted, with propriety, to take
larger views, and to indulge in more
general reflections on those great
events to which the political life
and character of Washington bear
strong relation, than if he were
celebrating the virtues of a less dis-
tinguished person, before an audi-
ence of private citizens.

After expressing how much gra-
titude is due to the great benefac-
tors of mankind, the universal sor-
row at the irreparable loss of the

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illustrious deceased, and his own
inability to perform the task assign-
ed him, and of doing justice to
such a character, Mr. A. seeks to
repress the feelings of grief, and to
speak the impartial judgment of

“With whatever fidelity,” he
observes, “I might execute this
task, I know that some would pre-
fer a picture drawn to the imagina-
tion. They would have our Wash-
ington represented of a giant's size,
and in the character of a hero of
romance. They who love to won-
der better than to reason, would
not be satisfied with the contem-
plation of a great example, unless,
in the exhibition, it should be so
distorted into prodigy, as to be
both incredible and useless. Others,
I hope but few, who think meanly
of human nature, will deem it in-
credible that even Washington
should think with as much dignity
and elevation as he acted; and they
will grovel in vain in the search
for mean and selfish motives that
could incite and sustain him to de-
vote his life to his country.”

Some brief and pertinent reflec-
tions are then made on the early
education of Washington, the causes
which led to the revolutionary war,
and his conduct as a leader of our
armies. The particulars of his
birth, education, and exploits, are
left for the future historians of im-
partial posterity. “Time never
fails to bring every exalted reputa-
tion to a strict scrutiny: the world,
in passing the judgment that is ne-
ver to be reversed, will deny all
partiality, even to the name of
Washington. Let it be denied;
for its justice will confer glory.”

The following remarks on the
ignorance and mistakes of Euro-

peans concerning the United States
of America after the acquisition of
independence, will please the candid
and impartial reader.

“The event of that war seemed
to crown the felicity and glory both
of America and its Chief. Until
that contest, a great part of the
civilized world had been surprising-
ly ignorant of the force and charac-
ter, and almost of the existence, of
the British Colonies. They had
not retained what they knew, nor
felt curiosity to know the state
of thirteen wretched settlements,
which vast woods inclosed, and still
vaster woods divided from each
other. They did not view the
Colonists so much a people, as a
race of fugitives, whom want, and
solitude, and intermixture with the
savages, had made barbarians. Great
Britain, they saw, was elate with
her victories: Europe stood in awe
of her power: her arms made the
thrones of the most powerful un-
steady, and disturbed the tranquilli-
ty of their States, with an agitation
more extensive than an earthquake.
As the giant Enceladaus is fabled to
lie under Ætna, and to shake the
mountain when he turns his limbs,
her hostility was felt to the ex-
tremities of the world. It reached
to both the Indies; in the wilds of
Africa, it obstructed the commerce
in slaves; the whales finding, in
time of war, a respite from their
pursuers, could venture to sport
between the tropics, and did not
flee, as in peace, to hide beneath
the ice-fields of the polar circle.

“At this time, while Great-
Britain wielded a force not inferior
to that of the Roman empire under
Trajan,* suddenly, astonished Eu-
rope beheld a feeble people, till then
unknown, stand forth and defy this

  * This parallel is very faulty. Whether national force be considered absolutely
in degree or in kind, or relatively to the force with which the nation has to contend
in others, Trajan's Empire and George's are totally unlike. Such comparisons sa-
vour too much of the superficial rhetoric of a College.

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giant to the combat. It was so un-
equal, all expected it would be
short. The events of that war
were so many miracles, that attract-
ed, as much perhaps as any war
ever did, the wonder of mankind.
Our final success exalted their ad-
miration to its highest point: they
allowed to Washington all that is
due to transcendent virtue, and to
the Americans more than is due to
human nature. They considered
us [as] a race of Washingtons, and
admitted that nature in America
was fruitful only in prodigies.
Their books and their travellers,
exaggerating and distorting all their
representations, assisted to establish
the opinion that this is [was] a new
world, with a new order of men
and things adapted to it; that here
we practise industry amidst the
abundance that requires none; that
we have morals so refined, that we
do not need laws; and, though we
have them, yet we ought to con-
sider their execution as an insult
and a wrong; that we have virtue
without weaknesses, sentiment with-
out passions, and liberty without
factions. These illusions, in spite
of their absurdity, and, perhaps,
because they are absurd enough to
have dominion over the imagination
only, have been received by many
of the malecontents against the go-
vernments of Europe, and induced
them to emigrate. Such illusions
are too soothing to vanity to be en-
tirely checked in their currency
among Americans.

“They have been pernicious, as
they cherish false ideas of the rights
of men and the duties of rulers.
They have led the citizens to look
for liberty where it is not, and to
consider the government, which is
its castle, as its prison.”

Mr. A. then depicts the evils of
jealousy, discord, and injustice,
which followed the return of peace
under the feeble influence of the
old confederation; the formation

and final adoption of a new consti-
tution, in the administration of
which, Washington was the first

“No sooner did the new govern-
ment begin its auspicious course,
than order seemed to arise out of
confusion. The governments of
Europe had seen the old confedera-
tion sinking, squalid and pale, into
the tomb, when they beheld the
new American republic rise sud-
denly from the ground, and, throw-
ing off its grave cloathes, exhibiting
the stature and proportions of a
young giant refreshed with sleep.
Commerce and industry awoke,
and were cheerful at their labours;
for credit and confidence awoke
with them. Every where was the
appearance of prosperity; and the
only fear was, that its progress was
too rapid to consist with the purity
and simplicity of ancient manners.
The cares and labours of the presi-
dent were incessant: his exhorta-
tions, example, and authority, were
employed to excite zeal and activity
for the public service: able officers
were selected, only for their merits;
and some of them remarkably dis-
tinguished themselves by their suc-
cessful management of the public
business. Government was ad-
ministered with such integrity, with-
out mystery, and in so prosperous
a course, that it seemed to be wholly
employed in acts of beneficence.
Though it has made many thou-
sand malecontents, it has never, by
its rigour or injustice, made one
man wretched.”

Mr. A. professes himself the ar-
dent lover of rational liberty, even
with its attendants, party spirit and
popular agitations.

“If it had been in the nature of
man that we should enjoy liberty
without the agitations of party, the
United States had a right, under
these circumstances, to expect it:
but it was impossible. Where there
is no liberty, they [men] may be

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exempt from party. It will seem
strange, but it scarcely admits a
doubt, that there are fewer male-
contents in Turkey than in any
free State in the world. Where
the people have no power, they
enter into no contests, and are not
anxious to know how they shall use
it. The spirit of discontent be-
comes torpid for want of employ-
ment, and sighs itself to rest. The
people sleep soundly in their chains,
and do not even dream of their
weight. They lose their turbu-
lence with their energy, and become
as tractable as any other animals: a
state of degradation, in which they
extort our scorn and engage our
pity for the misery they do not feel.
Yet that heart is a base one, and fit
only for a slave's bosom, that would
not bleed freely rather than submit
to such a condition; for liberty,
with all its parties and agitations, is
more desirable than slavery. Who
would not prefer the republics of
ancient Greece, where liberty once
subsisted in its excess, its delirium,
terrible in its charms, and glistening
to the last with the blaze of the very
fire that consumed it?

“I do not know that I ought, but
I am sure that I do, prefer those
republics to the dozing slavery of the
modern Greece, where the degraded
wretches have suffered scorn till
they merit it—where they tread on
classic ground, on the ashes of he-
roes and patriots, unconscious of
their ancestry, ignorant of the na-
ture, and almost of the name of li-
berty, and insensible even to the
passion for it. Who, on this con-
trast, can forbear to say, ‘It is the
modern Greece that lies buried, that
sleeps forgotten in the caves of
Turkish darkness: it is the ancient
Greece that lives in remembrance,
that is still bright with glory, still
fresh in immortal youth?’ They
are unworthy of liberty who enter-
tain a less exalted idea of its excel-
lence. The misfortune is, that

those who profess to be its most
passionate admirers, have generally
the least comprehension of its ha-
zards and impediments: they ex-
pect that an enthusiastic admiration
of its nature will reconcile the mul-
titude to the irksomeness of its re-
straints. Delusive expectation!
Washington was not thus deluded.
We have his solemn warning against
the often fatal propensities of liber-
ty. He had reflected that men are
often false to their country and their
honour, false to duty and even to
their interest; but multitudes of
men are never long false or deaf to
their passions; these will find ob-
stacles in the laws, associates in
party. The fellowships thus form-
ed, are more intimate, and impose
commands more imperious, than
those of society.”

By a natural transition of thought,
Mr. A. passes to the French revo-
lution and its influence on the poli-
tics of his own country, and frank-
ly avows his “deep abhorrence” of
“its despotism by the mob, or the
military, from the first, and its hy-
pocrisy of morals to the last.” He
supports this opinion by a view of
the conduct of the leaders of that
revolution towards their own peo-
ple and towards the nations of the
world, and contrasts their wild and
destructive liberty, with the peace-
ful, just, and virtuous liberty
of America. The dangerous in-
trigues of the French, and the
consequent perversion and corrup-
tion of many of our own citizens,
were arrested by the proclamation
of neutrality issued by Washington,
and by the subsequent measures of
the government.

After the account we have given
of this oration, and the extracts we
have made, we might fairly dismiss
it, with a recommendation of the
whole to the perusal of our readers.
But the concluding pages contain
so much just description, elo-
quence, and discrimination, that

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we cannot forbear to give them en-
tire, trusting that the pleasure they
may impart, will compensate for
the length of the quotation.

“It is not impossible that some
will affect to consider the honours
paid to this great patriot by the na-
tion, as excessive, idolatrous, and
degrading to freemen, who are all
equal. I answer, that refusing to
virtue its legitimate honours, would
not prevent their being lavished,
in future, on any worthless and
ambitious favourite. If this day's
example should have its natural ef-
fect, it will be salutary. Let such
honours be so conferred only when,
in future, they shall be so merited:
then the public sentiment will not
be misled, nor the principles of a
just equality corrupted. The best
evidence of reputation is a man's
whole life. We have now, alas!
all Washington's before us. There
has scarcely appeared a really great
man whose character has been more
admired in his life time, or less
correctly understood by his ad-
mirers. When it is comprehended,
it is no easy task to delineate its ex-
cellencies in such a manner as to
give to the portrait both interest
and resemblance. For it requires
thought and study to understand
the true ground of the superiority
of his character over many others
whom he resembled in the princi-
ples of action, and even in the
manner of acting. But perhaps he
excels all the great men that ever
lived in the steadiness of his ad-
herence to his maxims of life, and
in the uniformity of all his conduct
to the same maxims. These max-
ims, though wise, were yet not so
remarkable for their wisdom, as for
their authority over his life; for, if
there were any errors in his judg-
ment, (and he discovered as few as
any man) we know of no blemishes
in his virtue. He was the patriot
without reproach: he loved his
country well enough to hold his

success in serving it an ample re-
compense. Thus far self-love and
love of country coincided; but,
when his country needed sacrifices
that no other man could, or perhaps
would be willing to make, he did
not even hesitate. This was virtue
in its most exalted character. More
than once he put his fame at hazard,
when he had reason to think it
would be sacrificed, at least, in this
age. Two instances cannot be de-
nied: when the army was disband-
ed; and again, when he stood, like
Leonidas at the pass of Thermo-
pylæ, to defend our independence
against France.

“It is, indeed, almost as difficult
to draw his character, as the portrait
of Virtue. The reasons are similar.
Our ideas of moral excellence are
obscure, because they are complex,
and we are obliged to resort to illus-
trations. Washington's example is
the happiest to shew what virtue is;
and, to delineate his character, we
naturally expatiate on the beauty of
virtue: much must be felt, and
much imagined. His pre-eminence
is not so much to be seen in the
display of any one virtue, as in the
possession of them all, and in the
practice of the most difficult. Here-
after, therefore, his character must
be studied before it will be striking;
and then it will be admitted as a
model; a precious one to a free

“It is no less difficult to speak
of his talents. They were adapted
to lead, without dazzling mankind;
and to draw forth and employ the
talents of others, without being
misled by them. In this he was
certainly superior, that he neither
mistook nor misapplied his own.
His great modesty and reserve would
have concealed them, if great occa-
sions had not called them forth; and
then, as he never spoke from the
affectation to shine, nor acted from
any sinister motives, it is from their
effects only that we are to judge of

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their greatness and extent. In pub-
lic trusts, where men, acting con-
spicuously, are cautious; and in
those private concerns where few
conceal or resist their weaknesses,
Washington was uniformly great;
pursuing right conduct from right
maxims. His talents were such as
assist a sound judgment, and ripen
with it. His prudence was con-
summate, and seemed to take the
direction of his powers and passions;
for, as a soldier, he was more soli-
citious to avoid mistakes that might
be fatal, than to perform exploits
that are brilliant; and, as a states-
man, to adhere to just principles,
however old, than to pursue novel-
ties; and therefore, in both charac-
ters, his qualities were singularly
adapted to the interest, and were
tried in the greatest perils of the
country. His habits of inquiry
were so far remarkable, that he was
never satisfied with investigating,
nor desisted from it so long as he
had less than all the light that he
could obtain upon a subject; and
then he made his decision without

“This command over the par-
tialities that so generally stop men
short, or turn them aside in their
pursuit of truth, is one of the chief
causes of his unvaried course of
right conduct in so many difficult
scenes, where every human actor
must be presumed to err.

“If he had strong passions, he
had learned to subdue them, and to
be moderate and mild. If he had
weaknesses, he concealed them,
which is rare, and excluded them
from the government of his temper
and conduct, which is still more
rare. If he loved fame, he never
made improper compliances for
what is called popularity. The

fame he enjoyed, is of the kind that
will last forever; yet, it was rather
the effect, than the motive of his
conduct. Some future Plutarch
will search for a parallel to his cha-
racter. Epaminondas is, perhaps,
the brightest name of all antiquity.*
Our Washington resembled him in
the purity and ardour of his patriot-
ism; and, like him, he first exalted
the glory of his country. There,
it is to be hoped, the parallel ends;
for Thebes fell with Epaminondas.
But such comparisons cannot be
pursued far, without departing from
the similitude: for we shall find it
as difficult to compare great men as
great rivers. Some we admire for
the length and rapidity of their cur-
rent, and the grandeur of their
cataracts: others, for the majestic
silence and fulness of their streams:
we cannot bring them together to
measure the difference of their
waters. The unambitious life of
Washington, declining fame yet
courted by it, seemed, like the
Ohio, to choose its long way through
solitudes, diffusing fertility; or, like
his own Potowmac, widening and
deepening his channel as he ap-
proaches the sea, and displaying
most the usefulness and serenity of
his greatness towards the end of his
course. Such a citizen would do
honour to any country. The con-
stant veneration and affection of his
country, will shew that it was wor-
thy of such a citizen.

“However his military fame
may excite the wonder of mankind,
it is chiefly by his civil magistracy
that his example will instruct them.
Great generals have arisen in all
ages of the world, and, perhaps,
most in those of despotism and
darkness. In times of violence
and convulsion, they rise, by the

  * Another academic and very faulty parallel. What is common to Washington
and Epaminondas, is common to Washington and a thousand others.—Mr. A.
might as well, nay better, have quoted Arminius or Scanderbeg. Plutarch's pa-
rallels are all fanciful, and little more than exercises of a rhetorician's ingenuity. R.

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force of the whirlwind, high enough
to ride in it and direct the storm.
Like meteors, they glare on the
black clouds with a splendour that,
while it dazzles and terrifies, makes
nothing visible but the darkness.
The fame of heroes is, indeed,
growing vulgar: they multiply in
every long war: they stand in his-
tory, and thicken in their ranks,
almost as undistinguished as their
own soldiers.

“But such a chief-magistrate as
Washington, appears like the pole
star in a clear sky, to direct the
skilful statesman. His presidency
will form an epoch, and be distin-
guished as the age of Washington.
Already it assumes its high place in
the political region. Like the milky
way, it whitens along its allotted
portion of the hemisphere. The
latest generations of men will sur-
vey, through the telescope of his-
tory, the space where so many
virtues blend their rays, and delight
to separate them into groups and
distinct virtues. As the best illus-
tration of them, the living monu-
ment, to which the first of patriots
would have chosen to consign his
fame, it is my earnest prayer to
heaven that our country may sub-
sist, even to that late day, in the
plenitude of its liberty and happi-
ness, and mingle its mild glory with

In the foregoing passage, the cri-
tical reader may remark a too fre-
quent use of the figure which rhe-
toricians call Comparison. This
figure is undoubtedly too formal
and cold for rapid and impassioned
eloquence; and, even in the more
sober oratory of Mr. A. it recurs
upon us too often. They evince a
lively and creative imagination, but,
when lavished with too much pro-
fusion, they distract, if not offend.
The concluding part of the intro-
duction to this oration is particularly
faulty in this respect; and the saga-
cious and judicious reader will ob-

ject not only to the number of
figures crowded together, but to the
manner in which they are ex-

That an orator, possessed of the
talents of Mr. A. should stoop to
the employment of the conceit and
pun in the following sentence, is
truly surprising.

“It would be a picture of Wash-
ington, and, like a picture, flat as
the canvas; like a statue, cold as the
marble on which he is represented;
cold, alas! as his corpse in the ground.
Ah! how unlike the man late warm
with living virtues—animated by
the soul once glowing with patriotic
fires! He is gone! the tomb hides
all that the world could scarce contain,

and that once was Washington, ex-
cept his glory; that is the rich in-
heritance of his country; and his
example, that let us endeavour, by
delineating, to impart to mankind.”

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