Southern Life in Southern Literature/William Wirt

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[William Wirt was born at Bladensburg. Maryland, in 1772. He was admitted to the bar in 1792 and began practice at Culpeper Court-House, Virginia. After 1799 he resided chiefly at Richmond until his appointment as Attorney-General of the United States in 1817. This position he held for twelve years, and upon his retirement from office he resided in Baltimore. He died at Washington in 1834. During Wirt's practice of law in Virginia his best-known legal argument was his celebrated speech in 1807 against Aaron Burr at the latter's trial for treason. In addition to success at the bar Wirt had the distinction of being regarded for many years as the chief man of letters in the South.]


In one of my late rides into the surrounding country, I stopped at a little inn to refresh myself and my horse; and, as the landlord was neither a Boniface nor "mine host of the garter," I called for a book, by way of killing time while the preparations for my repast were going forward. He brought me a shattered fragment of the second volume of The Spectator, which he told me was the only book in the house, for "he never troubled his head about reading"; and by way of conclusive proof, he further informed me that this fragment, the only book in the house, had been sleeping unmolested on the dust of his mantelpiece for ten or fifteen years. I could not meet my venerable countryman, in a foreign land, and in this humiliating plight, nor hear of the inhuman and gothic contempt with which he had been treated, without the liveliest emotion. So I read my host a lecture on the subject, to which he appeared to pay as little attention as he had before done to The Spectator; and, with the sang froid of a Dutchman, answered me in the cant of the country, that he "had other fish to fry," and left me.

It had been so long since I had had an opportunity of opening an agreeable collection, that the few numbers which were now before me appeared almost entirely new; and I cannot describe to you the avidity and delight with which I devoured those beautiful and interesting speculations.

Is it not strange, my dear S——, that such a work should have ever lost an inch of ground? A style so sweet and simple, and yet so ornamented! a temper so benevolent, so cheerful, so exhilarating! a body of knowledge, and of original thought, so immense and various, so strikingly just, so universally useful! What person, of any age, sex, temper, calling, or pursuit, can possibly converse with The Spectator without being conscious of immediate improvement?

To the spleen he is as perpetual and never-failing an antidote as he is to ignorance and immorality. No matter for the disposition of mind in which you take him up; you catch, as you go along, the happy tone of spirits which prevails through out the work; you smile at the wit, laugh at the drollery, feel your mind enlightened, your heart opened, softened, and refined; and when you lay him down, you are sure to be in a better humor, both with yourself and everybody else. I have never mentioned the subject to a reader of The Spectator who did not admit this to be the invariable process; and in such a world of misfortune, of cares and sorrows and guilt, as this is, what a prize would this collection be if it were rightly estimated!

Were I the sovereign of a nation which spoke the English language, and wished my subjects cheerful, virtuous, and enlightened, I would furnish every poor family in my dominions (and see that the rich furnished themselves) with a copy of The Spectator, and ordain that the parents or children should read four or five numbers aloud every night in the year. For one of the peculiar perfections of the work is, that while it contains such a mass of ancient and modern learning, so much of profound wisdom and of beautiful composition, yet there is scarcely a number throughout the eight volumes which is not level to the meanest capacity. Another perfection is, that The Spectator will never become tiresome to anyone whose taste and whose heart remain uncorrupted.

I do not mean that this author should be read to the exclusion of others; much less that he should stand in the way of the generous pursuit of science, or interrupt the discharge of social or private duties. All the counsels of the work have a directly reverse tendency. It furnishes a store of the clearest argument and of the most amiable and captivating exhortations, "to raise the genius, and to mend the heart." I regret only that such a book should be thrown by, and almost entirely forgotten, while the gilded blasphemies of infidels, and the "noontide trances" of pernicious theorists, are hailed with rapture and echoed around the world. For such, I should be pleased to see The Spectator universally substituted; and, throwing out the question of its morality, its literary information, its sweetly contagious serenity, and pure and chaste beauties of its style, and considering it merely as a curiosity, as concentering the brilliant sports of the finest cluster of geniuses that ever graced the earth, it surely deserves perpetual attention, respect, and consecration.

There is, methinks, my S——, a great fault in the world, as it respects this subject: a giddy instability, a light and fluttering vanity, a prurient longing after novelty, an impatience, a disgust, a fastidious contempt of everything that is old. You will not understand me as censuring the progress of sound science. I am not so infatuated an antiquarian, not so poor a philanthropist, as to seek to retard the expansion of the human mind. But I lament the eternal oblivion into which our old authors, those giants of literature, are permitted to sink, while the world stands open-eyed and open-mouthed to catch every modern, tinseled abortion as it falls from the press. In the polite circles of America, for instance, perhaps there is no want of taste, and even zeal, for letters. I have seen several gentlemen who appear to have an accurate, a minute, acquaintance with the whole range of literature, in its present state of improvement; yet you will be surprised to hear that I have not met with more than one or two persons in this country who have ever read the works of Bacon or of Boyle. They delight to saunter in the upper story, sustained and adorned, as it is, with the delicate proportions, the foliage and flourishes, of the Corinthian order; but they disdain to make any acquaintance, or hold communion at all, with the Tuscan and Doric plainness and strength which base and support the whole edifice. …


It was one Sunday, as I traveled through the county of Orange, that my eye was caught by a cluster of horses tied near a ruinous old wooden house in the forest, not far from the roadside. Having frequently seen such objects before, in traveling through those states, I had no difficulty in understanding that this was a place of religious worship.

Devotion alone should have stopped me, to join in the duties of the congregation; but I must confess that curiosity to hear the preacher of such a wilderness was not the least of my motives. On entering, I was struck with his preternatural appearance. He was a tall and very spare old man; his head, which was covered with a white linen cap, his shriveled hands, and his voice were all shaking under the influence of a palsy; and a few moments ascertained to me that he was perfectly blind.

The first emotions that touched my breast were those of mingled pity and veneration. But how soon were all my feelings changed! The lips of Plato were never more worthy of a prognostic swarm of bees than were the lips of this holy man! It was a day of the administration of the sacrament; and his subject was, of course, the passion of our Saviour. I have heard the subject handled a thousand times; I had thought it exhausted long ago. Little did I suppose that in the wild woods of America I was to meet with a man whose eloquence would give to this topic a new and more sublime pathos than I had ever before witnessed.

As he descended from the pulpit to distribute the mystic symbols, there was a peculiar, a more than human, solemnity in his air and manner which made my blood run cold and my whole frame shiver.

He then drew a picture of the sufferings of our Saviour: his trial before Pilate, his ascent up Calvary, his crucifixion, and his death. I knew the whole history; but never until then had I heard the circumstances so selected, so arranged, so colored! It was all new; and I seemed to have heard it for the first time in my life. His enunciation was so deliberate that his voice trembled on every syllable; and every heart in the assembly trembled in unison. His peculiar phrases had the force of description, that the original scene appeared to be at that moment acting before our eyes. We saw the very faces of the Jews: the staring, frightful distortions of malice and rage. We saw the buffet; my soul kindled with a flame of indignation, and my hands were involuntarily and convulsively clinched.

But when he came to touch on the patience, the forgiving meekness of our Saviour; when he drew, to the life, his blessed eyes streaming in tears to heaven, his voice breathing to God a soft and gentle prayer of pardon on his enemies, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,"—the voice of the preacher, which had all along faltered, grew fainter and fainter, until, his utterance being entirely obstructed by the force of his feelings, he raised his handkerchief to his eyes and burst into a loud and irrepressible flood of grief. The effect is inconceivable. The whole house resounded with the mingled groans, and sobs, and shrieks of the congregation.

It was some time before the tumult had subsided, so far as to permit him to proceed. Indeed, judging by the usual, but fallacious standard of my own weakness, I began to be very uneasy for the situation of the preacher. For I could not conceive how he would be able to let his audience down from the height to which he had wound them, without impairing the solemnity and dignity of his subject, or perhaps shocking them by the abruptness of the fall. But—no; the descent was as beautiful and sublime as the elevation had been rapid and enthusiastic.

The first sentence with which he broke the awful silence was a quotation from Rousseau: "Socrates died like a philosopher, but Jesus Christ, like a God!"

I despair of giving you any idea of the effect produced by this short sentence, unless you could perfectly conceive the whole manner of the man as well as the peculiar crisis in the discourse. Never before did I completely understand what Demosthenes meant by laying such stress on delivery. You are to bring before you the venerable figure of the preacher; his blindness, constantly recalling to your recollection old Homer, Ossian, and Milton, and associating with his performance the melancholy grandeur of their geniuses; you are to imagine that you hear his slow, solemn, well-accented enunciation, and his voice of affecting, trembling melody; you are to remember the pitch of passion and enthusiasm to which the congregation were raised; and then the few moments of portentous, death like silence which reigned throughout the house; the preacher, removing his white handkerchief from his aged face (even yet wet from the recent torrent of his tears) and slowly stretching forth the palsied hand which holds it, begins the sentence, "Socrates died like a philosopher,"—then, pausing, raising his other hand, pressing them both, clasped together, with warmth and energy to his breast, lifting his "sightless balls" to heaven, and pouring his whole soul into his tremulous voice,—"but Jesus Christ—like a God!" If it had indeed and in truth been an angel of light, the effect could scarcely have been more divine.