Historical and biographical sketches/13 Henry Armitt Brown

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Mr. President: — It was my fortune to have been nearer to Mr. Brown, than perhaps, any other of his friends among the young bar, during the preparation of his last, and probably, his greatest work. After he had been invited to deliver the oration at Valley Forge, he came to me, because of my acquaintance with the locality. Together, only four months ago, we examined the intrenchments there, and rode to the Paoli and the Warren tavern, and following the track of the British army, crossed the Schuylkill at Gordon's Ford. Together, a little over two months ago, we read over the completed oration. The assistance I was able to give him was little indeed, but the opportunity it afforded me of getting a closer insight into his character, I shall always cherish among the happiest memories of my life. He was ambitious, but ambition with him was almost entirely devoid of that illness which usually attends it. He was honest, but his integrity was not of that sort which sits aloft amid luxury and ease, above the reach of temptation, and takes no thought of what may be below. The consciousness of great abilities made him entirely self reliant, but his confidence never degenerated into vanity. The successes he had achieved, numerous as they were, never made him forget that courtesy which becomes a gentleman. The culture he had received, did not enervate him, and applause had failed to lead him astray. Feeling the impulse that came perhaps unwittingly from the possession of unusual power, when the occasion called him forth, he was always ready, and no one could be long in his presence without forecasting for him a future limitless in its possibilities. As an orator, and it was in oratory that he loved to excel, my own deliberate judgment is, that there is no man now living in America who was his equal. And surely, an opinion which I have often expressed while he was alive, it will not be considered adulation for me to repeat now that he is dead. Some are elocutionists, some have the trick of words, some are comprehensive and some are clear and quick in thought, but he was all combined, and the wonder of it is that one whose delivery was so effective should have been so careful in his preparation. The Valley Forge oration, beyond question the finest which the Centennial Anniversaries called forth, as an artistic production is a marvel. With patient industry and a determination born of enthusiasm, he thoroughly mastered the subject topographically and historically. With clear insight, he caught the true inspiration of the scenes of that dreary winter. A more beautiful picture than his contrast between the ragged Continentals upon the bleak hills, and the Royalists amid the luxury of the city, could not be limned, and for two hours and a-half the people, at the close of a wearisome day of exercises, stood up and listened. A very capable historical critic has said to me, that there is no more that can be added to the story of Valley Forge. And hereafter, in the ages to come, when men look back with veneration toward the heroes who suffered and died there, the young orator, whose earnestness to do justice to their memories so sadly shortened his own career, cannot be forgotten. Surely some of their renewed glory belongs to him.

The sorrow which I feel in his early death is partly a selfish grief, partly regret at his broken hopes now forever ended here, but beyond all the loss to my native State. We have many men in public life from Pennsylvania, but they are chiefly of the earth. We have many men who are capable and pure, but they have eaten of the Lotos, and the spear has dropped from their nerveless hands. With his strength and his ambition he could not have been kept from the national councils, but he is dead, and the fruits we were promised we shall never gather. Why Sumner was spared to Massachusetts until his work was done, why Calhoun was permitted to grow gray in the service of South Carolina, and our Brown, the peer of either, and more liberal than both, was snatched away in the green wood, is a question beyond our ken, but which repeats itself the more sadly, because we look in vain for one to fill his place.

  1. Address at the meeting of the Bar of Philadelphia, August 24th, 1878.