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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 [200] 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 [201] 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 [202] 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 [203] 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 [204] 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,
Strength in her arms, nor mercy in her woe.

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 [205] 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.

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