Hon. R. M. T. Hunter. [from the Richmond, Va., Dispatch, Dec. 5, 1897.]
An address by Colonel L. Q. Washington. The monument movement Revived.Mr. Hunter's birth, education, Early environments and public life.
This address was to have been read at a joint meeting of the R. M. T. Hunter Monument Association and the Board of Supervisors of Essex county, appointed to be held at Tappahannock on the 24th of September, but which, owing to unavoidable causes, had to be postponed until the 20th of December.
The address.Gentlemen—Some six years ago, in the town of Fredericksburg, I had the honor to preside over a meeting composed of influential citizens of this Commonwealth, when the initial steps were taken to organize an association for the purpose of removing the remains of the Hon. R. M. T. Hunter from their place of burial in Essex county, Virginia, to the capital of the State, at Richmond, and of erecting a monument at the tomb; and also of arranging such other testimonials of respect for his eminent public character and services, as might be deemed appropriate. It is due to the Hon. J. B. Sener, of Fredericksburg, to state here, that he was, so far as I know, the first person to suggest such action; and he has, with others, steadily cherished and promoted the consummation of this praiseworthy purpose. The Chair, by authority of the meeting, appointed a committee whose duty it was to obtain from the General Assembly of Virginia, a special charter of incorporation, for themselves and other citizens to be associated with them, to carry out the design of the meeting. That committee consisted of the following gentlemen: Hon. T. R. B. Wright, of Essex; St. George R. Fitzhugh, Judge J. B. Sener, Rufus B. Merchant and Hon. J. H. Kelly, of Fredericksburg; William F. Drinkard, Joseph Bryan, William Ryan, Rev. Dr. John B. Newton, General Archer Anderson, Colonel Frank G. Ruffin and Judge Waller R. Staples, of Richmond; Ex-Governor  Fitzhugh Lee, of Glasgow; Judge William J. Robertson, of Charlottesville; General Eppa Hunton, of Warrenton; Major Holmes Conrad, of Winchester; Hon. John Goode, of Norfolk, and Hon. Taylor Berry, of Amherst. Most of these gentlemen were personal friends of the deceased statesman, but there was no purpose of limiting the committee, except to representative Virginians. This committee met at Richmond on December 2, 1891, and were aided by the presence and counsel of a number of distinguished gentlemen, including members of the General Assembly of Virginia. General Joseph R. Anderson was elected chairman, and a committee was appointed to draft a charter of incorporation. The organization was afterwards perfected by the selection of a Board of Directors, with Dr. G. Watson James as Secretary, and Colonel William H. Palmer as Treasurer of the Association. This body was incorporated by the General Assembly by an act approved February 2, 1892, and all the powers then deemed necessary to promote the object were conferred upon the corporation. I need not dwell upon the impoverishment of many worthy citizens of Virginia, and the other causes which have impeded and postponed the execution of the objects for which this Association was formed. The question for us to-day is, can these obstacles be removed and our design consummated?. It will not fail. It must not fail. We meet here to-day in the very county in which Robert M. T. Hunter was born, and where his home was; in the county that he loved; among the very people, or their children, whom he loved and respected, and whose unfailing confidence was to him always an inspiration and a just source of pride; to further this tribute to the most distinguished son of Essex. There can be no honor paid to his memory that does not also reflect honor upon this old county on the Rappahannock and upon the Commonwealth of Virginia. I would not be justified in obtruding upon your patience a full and complete account of Mr. Hunter's life and public services. That duty devolves upon his biographer and the future historian who shall faithfully narrate the history of the country from the year 1836 down to the time when the conquest of the Southern States relegated so many of their eminent sons to poverty and private station. But surely I may be permitted, in brief phrase, to glance at the distinguished, influential and useful part borne by this great but modest Virginian during the critical era in which his life was cast. It was  often a time that tried men's souls, and only the pure gold survived the crucible.
Early environments.Mr. Hunter was born in this little county on the 21st April, 1809. It is a country neighborhood, without a city or a large town, sparsely settled in his time and ours. I am aware, and probably you are, that there is a modern school of thought which assumes that for an intellectual growth a man should be born and reared in a city or a closely settled neighborhood—a hothouse, so to speak, in which his brain and energies are to be stimulated to the highest degree. But history gives little warrant for such an assumption. The great men of this country certainly were nearly all of them country bred. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Calhoun, Patrick Henry, John Marshall, George Mason, John Randolph, Henry Clay, Henry A. Wise, Abel P. Upshur, William C. Rives, Silas Wright, Thomas H. Benton, Andrew Jackson, Francis P. Blair, Abraham Lincoln, William J. Bryan, and many more I could adduce were the product of country life—of plantation life—and almost without exception had not only the plantation manners, in which dignity and good breeding were happily blended, but possessed also the genius and force in affairs which plantation life and duties and contact with Nature rather than with the mob tended to develop. You do not find the best trees among those which are crowded close together. Individuality, self-reliance, decision, thoughtfulness, study, gentleness, charity, truth, purity of morals—all these noblest adjuncts to mental growth and distinction flourish on the farm far better than in the heat and dust and turmoil of the great city, with its wealthy few and unfortunate multitude. Born on the plantation, loving Nature and honest country folk, our great statesman was, through his entire public career, always happy and eager to return to his home and native air in Essex. He did not linger in Washington or even Richmond longer than his public functions absolutely required. So, if I were called on to specify the formative influences of Mr. Hunter's character, I should certainly include country life, plantation life and influences, association and sympathy with the country people of Virginia, the fireside and historical traditions of the old Commonwealth, the study of history, and especially of Virginia history, and of the character and teachings of her great men. He was proud of them all in his own modest, gentle way, and to the last, very proud of the Commonwealth which had called him so often to  her service, and called him because he represented perfectly and fully the best type of Virginia character and principles. Mr. Hunter was indeed fortunate in those surroundings and early associations which go so far to shape character, and to develop a sure and healthful growth of every faculty. He was extremely fortunate also in being an alumnus of that grand institution of learning, the University of Virginia—the favorite child of the illustrious Jefferson, the first university of this country, and very long the only one, and the first as I conceive, to embody in our land, the breadth, wise liberality, thoroughness of culture, and high standards of scholarship and character, which were needed to equip a young man for a great professional or political career. This scholastic training, the fruits of which pervade all Mr. Hunter's public addresses, was followed by the study of law at Winchester, under the invaluable direction of Judge Henry St. George Tucker. His public life began when he was twenty-five years of age. He was elected a member of the General Assembly of Virginia. Young as he was, we find him discussing the more serious and difficult questions of finance and banking. The great political questions on which parties were dividing, also came before the Legislature, as they had done often in the old days. Mr. Hunter met these issues upon a consistent theory of constitutional construction and policy, yet one of perfect independence from extremes of party bigotry and dictation. He aimed only to get the truth and to be right. At the very outset and in the very flush and ardor of youth, he displayed the moderation and equipoise which characterized his career to the close. He was then, as always, an advocate of a strict construction of the Federal Constitution and of States' Rights. He regarded these ideas as the very foundation-stone of political liberty and good government. The special friends of that creed first elected him to Congress in the year 1837. He took a part in the debates of the House. How well he bore himself may be judged by the fact that at the very next Congress he was chosen Speaker of the House of Representatives. He was then only thirty years of age. Among his predecessors in this very high office were Nathaniel Macon, Henry Clay, Langdon Cheves, Philip P. Barbour, Andrew Stevenson, John Bell and James K. Polk. Polk was his immediate predecessor as Speaker. To the next Congress Mr. Hunter was again chosen a representative. In this body he had occasion to discuss all the great party questions of the day which preceded the sectional question—  the last a mere cloud in the sky at that day, but destined soon to loom up and obscure the entire horizon. Thrown by a new apportionment into a partially new congressional district, he was beaten as a candidate for the Twenty-eighth Congress by a small majority; but two years afterwards he was easily elected to the Twenty-ninth Congress. This was the first Congress of Mr. Polk, whom he had helped to elect to the presidency. In this Congress he promoted the establishment of the Independent Treasury—a measure strongly opposed, but which vindicated itself and soon ceased to be a party issue. He also earnestly supported the celebrated revenue tariff bill of 1846, known in after years as the Walker tariff; and he also favored the warehouse system. The last measure was largely, if not wholly, his work. Its vast importance and place in modern commercial transactions is known to every merchant in the land; but how few of them know and are grateful to the statesman who did most to give it a permanent place in our fiscal system! On the subject of the tariff, Mr. Hunter followed the teachings of Adam Smith, Ricardo, McCulloch and the great political economists of Europe, whose works have built up the doctrine of free exchange of products, upheld in this country by Jefferson, Calhoun, Silas Wright, and numbers of our greatest thinkers and patriots, and held abroad by Peel, Cobden, Bright, Bastiat and Gladstone.
Alexandria Retrocession.In the same Congress he actively and most wisely promoted the retrocession of Alexandria to Virginia—a policy dear to every heart in the Commonwealth, and destined, as I hope, never to be surrendered at the bidding of alien speculators and jobbers. The long and dangerous contention with England over the Oregon boundary was also settled at this Congress by the wise and patriotic statesmanship of Webster, Calhoun and Benton. In this patriotic work Mr. Hunter co-operated. But it required no common nerve and sagacity for a public man to take then a position which all can now see and admit was the very essence of wisdom and state-craft. It was a race for empire, and our country, with greatly inferior naval power and no easy land communication at that hour across the continent, has won the race. We sacrificed a pawn to win a queen. A war with England at that time might have cost us Oregon and the whole coast. By this time—1846—the war with Mexico had begun, and the slavery agitation had broken out afresh by the claim of the antislavery  agitators to apply the Wilmot proviso interdicting the carrying of slaves to any country which might be acquired from Mexico as the result of a successful war. Mr. Hunter cherished the Union of the States, and he loved peace always; but, pacific as he was by nature, and principle, he would not consent to any measure that destroyed the equality of the Southern States in the Federal Union. At that very hour two-thirds of the soldiers imperilling their lives for the country in the Mexican war were from the South, and more than half the others were Democrats who disapproved of the abolition crusade. Perhaps, however, I ought to bear in mind that ingratitude is the cardinal principle of modern politics. In 1846 Mr. Hunter was elected by the General Assembly, to the United States Senate. He took his seat in December, 1847. As a result of the reputation he had already achieved in the other branch of Congress, he was placed on the Finance Committee—by far the most important committee of the Senate, and the one having charge then, not only of all revenue measures, but also of all the appropriations of the National Government. At the session of 1850-51, Mr. Hunter became the chairman of the Finance Committee. ‘The revenue is the State,’ said a great statesman of the Old World. Mr. Hunter's tastes and studies fitted him especially for all this class of questions, To recount his work upon them would be impossible. He filled this position up to the spring of 1861, when he left the Senate. On all the questions and topics belonging to this committee he had the unbounded confidence of his brother Senators of every party and section. His integrity, purity, and knowledge of affairs, gave him an almost absolute veto on everything corrupt, base or dangerous in fiscal legislation. He was deemed a safe, conservative man; a watch—dog of the Treasury—not a mere barking dog, but a faithful and incorruptible sentinel. He shaped and carried through the compromise tariff bill of 1857—a measure supported not only by the Democrats, but by many prominent northern Republicans, by William H. Seward, Henry Wilson, N. P. Banks, Salmon P. Chase, and others. They were content to follow a Virginian of the Virginians. His statement of what any provision in a bill he had in charge, meant or effected was enough. His candor and truth were a power and a pillar of fire. You have to-day at Washington, a great court to examine and consider claims against the United States Government. The government creditor, instead of vainly hanging around Congress and growing gray-haired in a hopeless quest for justice, has his ‘day in court.’ Search the history  of this court and you will find its sure prop and pillar, the life tenure of its judges, is the proposition of your man of Essex. He helped to breathe into it the breath of life and to organize it upon an enduring and impregnable basis of judicial impartiality and independence. You hear much nowadays of ‘civil-service reform,’ and of applying the merit system to all minor and clerical employments of the Federal government. Who was the first man to move in this matter? I answer that one of the first to agitate the subject, the one who made it a hobby from year to year, and who finally formulated a wise and practical measure to effect it, was again your man of Essex—R. M. T. Hunter. It passed in his very words, and thus became the law of the land. It is a sound, sensible, moderate and constitutional measure. If it were the law to-day, and duly enforced, and had never been tampered with by demagogues and ignorant men, it would secure efficient employees for the government, protect their tenure better than your present law, protect also the best interests of the government, and it would be an admirable substitute for the present bastard system of cant and hypocrisy, doubtful in its constitutionality, and almost universally regarded as having sunk into evasion, trickery and fraud, with features that no sensible business man, no president of a bank or manager of a business establishment ever acts upon in private life. I say, therefore, that we are indebted to Mr. Hunter for the only good law ever passed upon this subject.
The coinage question.We have had on two continents, and especially on this continent, a long and heated controversy over the coinage question. It has engaged the intellects of the ablest men in modern times. In 1851, 1852 and 1853, long before parties ever divided on this question, Mr. Hunter, as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, found it in his pathway and dealt with it exhaustively. Rejecting the shallow Mint—Bureau plan of Mr. Secretary Corwin—an echo of the British system of coinage, not offensively, but simply ignoring it—he formulated a measure regulating the coinage, which passed the Senate unanimously, without debate, precisely as he wrote it and upon his sole ipse dixit. Next, but after some delay, this identical measure passed the House of Representatives and became a law in February, 1853—to remain the law of the land without question or cavil from Presidents Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Johnson and Grant. Such was his power in the United States Senate in a period of fierce party  strife on a great organic and economic question, opposing, as he did then, the Secretary's recommendation. I have heard or read this coinage debate from 1874, when it began, till now, over twenty years of parliamentary struggle, and if I were called upon to name a document which best expounds the true principles of finance and statesmanship on this difficult subject, and in a perfectly unanswerable manner, free from ill-temper or bias and full of wise prescience and overwhelming argument, I should name the report made by Robert M. T. Hunter in March, 1852, to the United States Senate, which accompanied the bill proposed by him to regulate the gold and silver coinage. Mr. Hunter spoke also on foreign affairs as such questions came up. He was conservative by nature and habit. He did not love or desire sectional controversy, but in that trying period of agitation and controversy he stood by the institutions, the civilization, and the constitutional rights of the South. He did this without sectional or personal rancor, but with a firmness, learning, eloquence and argumentative power that made him second to none in the debate. The very men who voted against him on these sectional questions never impugned his motives or questioned his ability, and on the fiscal and administrative questions which was especially confided to his care they trusted him far more than they trusted each other. Can you imagine a more splendid triumph of Virginia mind and character. I have preferred to speak not so much of his stand on party or sectional questions as on measures and policies where he acted with or led men of both parties. This sketch is but a passing glance at a long, laborious and brilliant career. Mr. Calhoun, Mr. Clay and Mr. Webster all left the Senate, or died in the Senate, about 1851 or 1852. When this grand triumvirate had departed, there were yet many strong men who served in that body with Mr. Hunter from 1850 to 1861 who have made a great impress upon our history. I need hardly mention such great names as Senators Mason, Toombs, Jefferson Davis, Benjamin, Stephen A. Douglas, Seward, Sumner, Chase, Trumbull, Bayard, Slidell and Crittenden. Yet I can truthfully assert that of this list of very able men, not one was superior in general, all-'round ability to Mr. Hunter; not one was his equal in legislative force and influence; not one was so universally confided in and trusted. Since the passing away of Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Monroe, hardly any Virginian has borne so influential a part in political affairs as R. M. T. Hunter, and certainly no Virginian has done so in the Federal Congress, though the Commonwealth has  had many sons who were wise and eloquent in council. To be preeminent, or even prominent, in such a galaxy as hers, demanded the very highest qualities of mind and character. When the great and regrettable contest between the North and the South arose, Mr. Hunter held that the South was simply standing on her constitutional rights. He held that it was her right and duty to resist aggression. He stated his position in temperate, thoughtful, conciliatory, but firm language. At no time of his life did he for one moment doubt the perfect justice and truth of the Southern cause. I met and conferred with him frequently during the winter of 1860-‘61, preceding the civil conflict. Gladly would he have welcomed a settlement between the contending States on the firm basis of constitutional rights for both sections, safety for his own people, malice and injury to none, and an enduring peace with honor. That was not to be. He left the Senate in March, 1861, following not the suggestions of personal ambition or his own interest, but the hard and rugged path of duty. Very soon afterwards the Commonwealth of Virginia sent him as one of her representatives to the new government at Montgomery. He performed that mission. On the 21st of July, 1861, he was called by President Davis to take the position of Secretary of State for the Confederacy, from which Mr. Toombs, of Georgia, had resigned. He filled that important trust with eminent ability until the new, or ‘permanent,’ Confederate Constitution and Government went into operation on the 22d of February, 1862. Prior to that event the Commonwealth of Virginia elected Mr. Hunter, and, as I remember, unanimously, to the Confederate Senate. It was a most critical period, and demanded the greatest ability and resource, both in the executive and legislative departments of the already hard-pressed Confederacy. Mr. Hunter was made President pro tempore of the Senate. His influence was great and commanding. His advice, counsel and influence were not only felt and welcomed in all the great measures of military defence and equipment then adopted, but even in the selection of officers for important commands. He was a steady friend of President Davis in respect to all the great measures of defence and supply. He had the friendship and confidence of Mr. Davis and his Cabinet; of James A. Seddon, John A. Campbell, Graham, Cobb, Lamar, Curry, Letcher, Bocock, Harvie, Caperton, Joe Johnston and Robert E. Lee. He was one of the first to discover and appreciate the superb genius of Stonewall  Jackson. He counselled often with Robert E. Lee, relied on his ripe judgment, and gave him his fullest support. In all fiscal and economic measures, he naturally took the lead. Respecting and trusting Secretaries Memminger and Trenholm, he, nevertheless, originated all the general features of Confederate finance. With an infant republic, compelled by a powerful adversary to incur an enormous war expenditure, and not able to export its surplus products or even fully to raise them for the markets, it is not strange that Confederate money should have sunk to so low an ebb as it finally did. The only wonder is that it did not fall much earlier and more rapidly. We may recall with instruction and profit the fate of the assignats of the French Revolutionary government and of the Continental money of our first Confederacy of 1776. Had the second Confederacy proved a military success, as did the first one, and as the first French republic did, possibly the fertile mind of Hunter might have been able to devise some solution of the financial problem based on ripe experience and a study of modern conditions; but after four years of noble and fearful struggle against gigantic odds, our righteous cause went down in gloom and disaster. All was lost save honor. The public careers of Hunter, Davis, Lee and many more were virtually closed at this point; but their names, the memories of their splendid services, their virtues and, still more, their sacrifices, will never be forgotten by the people of the South or by the pen of history. Mr. Hunter realized towards the close of the struggle the hopelessness of a protracted contest, and he was anxious to do something to save the South from total subjugation and a conquest without any terms of peace. The problem proved an impracticable one, for reasons on which I may speak another time, but his motives were humane, disinterested and pure, as they always were. The blame for failure belongs to the ambitious men at Washington, who, seeing final victory almost in their grasp, would not spare either Southern misery or Northern blood in their stern purpose to become absolute masters of the situation. The government of the Union being thus re-established by the sword, Mr. Hunter regarded it as his duty to accept the Union in good faith, and, as a good citizen, to co-operate with patriotic men in every section to restore the reign of law and order and the Federal Constitution. This was the sentiment of Virginia and the South. It was deeply unfortunate that this sentiment was not at once recognized and acted on by the dominant party, instead of adopting, as they did, the policy of hate, military rule  and disfranchisement. Men like Hunter, Campbell, Baldwin, Stephens and Lee ought to have been invited to public positions, to help to restore the old Union, and then, instead of a vulgar sectional conquest, keeping the South as a mere province for long, weary years to be harried and plundered and lied about, there would have been a genuine restoration of the Union and a rapid growth of the old national feeling, in which consists the real strength of the Republic. Well did the eloquent Kossuth say: ‘Hatred is no good counsellor.’ No government built on hate can stand, or ought to stand. In this sketch I have omitted much and I have elaborated nothing. A regard for your time, and for the superior knowledge of man of those around me, admonishes me to be as brief as possible. I will not close, however, without averring my belief that not even George Washington himself (to whose character and services Mr. Hunter has rendered the most original and instructive tribute ever uttered by man), was more pure, disinterested, and patriotic than he was in his public action. Gentleness, charity, and truth were bound up in his very nature. Of malice he had none. He was not devoid of ambition, but he had none of the vulgar arts of self-seeking, and the distinctions which came to him so often came unsought. He was easy of access, affable to the humblest citizen, always open to the suggestion and advice of his friends; never dogmatic or disputatious, never rash or aggressive. In his time of greatest prosperity and power, he was modest almost to diffidence, When trial and adversity came, as they did, ‘not as single spies, but in battalions,’ he bore deprivation and affliction with a singular fortitude. He suffered with and for the South. A special expedition of marauders was dispatched by Butler, which, emulating the savagery of the British during the Revolutionary War in Virginia, destroyed his plantation in his absence. After the war closed he was made a State prisoner, imprisoned at Fort Pulaski, subjected to coarse and brutal treatment, such as no Southern gentleman ever deals out to a negro, and when a beloved child was being borne to the grave, he, who had never harmed or wished to harm a human being, was denied the privilege of dropping a tear on the grave, or offering comfort to the bereaved mother. He was not sordid. He was too old fashioned for that. His life at Washington as a Senator of great influence, was as simple and unostentatious as that of any plain Virginia farmer. With ample opportunities  for acquiring wealth in public office, he amassed nothing, and the results of the war, left him poor indeed. He died a poor man—poor in this world's goods, but rich, immeasurably rich, in honor. I knew him long and closely. To know him was to love and venerate him. To have known him and to have enjoyed his friendship and confidence till the hour of his death, I shall always count as a privilege, and a most precious remembrance. To the rear of the present hall of the House of Representatives at Washington, there is a long gallery in which are hung up the portraits of all the illustrious men who have been the Speakers of the body. There you see Henry Clay, Cobb, Andrew Stevenson, Polk, Kerr, Randall, James G. Blaine, and the present able occupant of the chair, Mr. Reed. There, too, you see the youthful, almost boyish, face of Speaker R. M. T. Hunter, of Virginia, ingenuous, open, true and strong—there is no dark shadow on that brow, no wrinkle written by sorrow and care, but rather the light of hope and of a confident, brave soul. To me, as I wander there and involuntarily turn my gaze upon it, there is hardly anything more touching than to contrast, as I must, this portrait with the saddened, melancholy face which haunts my memory of him who, burdened with private grief and public calamity, had, like the patriot, Grattan, survived the liberties of his country, and who, loving Virginia as he did, was called on to witness and mourn the unspeakable shame of a great State that had given Washington and Jefferson to the country, and by the wisdom and patriotism of her sons, had secured to all the Colonies freedom and a government of consent, subjugated by arms, plundered, oppressed and scourged by the very communities she had so generously warmed into life. He saw the sad story of Poland's conquest and dismemberment, so eloquently told by the poet, Campbell, reproduced in the New World, with fresh horrors and the added element of ingratitude by the conquerors. He saw his mother— Virginia—with bleeding breast, in her hour of agony—
Find not a generous friend, a pitying foe,I have said Mr. Hunter was a conservative. No man loved truth more, or was quicker to discern abstract principles; but in action for the State he belonged to the wise school of Edmund Burke. His theory of public duty was the attainment of the best political results under existing conditions and circumstances. He would take the  half loaf. His mind was eminently practical. He did not seek to tear down institutions, but to build up, to preserve what was good, to develop so as to gain a basis for national growth and the constant betterment of the masses. He opposed all class legislation. He was a friend to vested rights and to property and compacts. Peace, conciliation, fair argument, a study of the harmonies of our system—these were the weapons of his intellectual armory. The lessons of history were impressed into the very web and woof of his mind. Had he lived in the days of Jefferson, that great man would have called on him no less than on Madison to employ his fertile mind and ready pen to expound those doctrines of liberty and constitutional freedom which have made a great school of thought, destined to live as long as this republic shall survive. More than any one whom I have known in civic trusts, Mr. Hunter reminds me of the distinguished men of that revolutionary period—men strong, learned, composed, equal to any trust; who did not derive honor from office, but who dignified and ennobled public station. We have not had the great privilege of looking on the faces of those who built that wonderful edifice of free, constitutional government; but it is something to have known, as you and I have done, one who embodied so well in his character, mind, and purposes the best traditions of the heroic period of our republic, suggesting, as it does, the fervent, assured hope that the admiration of public virtue, which so deeply animates our people will bear rich fruit in after years, and continue to bring forth in every crisis that may come worthy men to serve the State and uphold the fame of Virginia.
Strength in her arms, nor mercy in her woe.