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Nil Nisi Bonum.

the old and amiable rule of speaking only with kindness of the dead, is one which, in this world of small comity, we have no wish to disregard; although it is one the final violation of which is simply a question of time and the natural result of historic doubts. All character is dubious. There may be those who with perfect honesty do not admire Fenelon, and do admire Diderot or Voltaire. Indeed, it is only when a human career is closed that we are in a position to estimate its value, purport and upshot. The public life of a public man is public property. We may not indecently hasten to draw his frailties from their drear abode; but the mere fact that he has gone to that account to which indeed the meanest and most magnificent natures must go, certainly affords no authority for slandering the living. If the late Mr. Rufus Choate, while he succeeded as nisi prius lawyer, failed as a statesman, we do not know that this gives Mr. Edward Everett, who has also failed as a statesman, the right to stand in Faneuil Hall and to censure to the best of his not inconsiderable ability, those who have been more fortunate. Mr. Choate may “have had little fondness for political life, and no aptitude whatever for the out-door management, for [85] the electioneering legerdemain, for the wearisome correspondence with the local great men, and the heart-breaking drudgery of franking cart-loads of speeches and public documents to the four winds, which are necessary at the present day to great success in a political career.” “Still less,” Mr. Everett went on to say, was he “adroit in turning to some personal advantage whatever topic happens to attract public attention — fishing with ever freshly-baited hook in the turbid waters of ephemeral popularity.”

If such language as this should fall from a young man just entering upon public life — from a young man hoping to be representative, or senator, or president — we might consider such an expression of opinion to be at once candid and courageous; but coming from an old man — from one well versed in the arts which he denounces — the electioneering legerdemain, “the wearisome correspondence with local great men,” “the heart-breaking drudgery of franking cart-loads of speeches and public documents” --from one who if he has not been “adroit in turning to personal advantage topics happening to attract public attention,” has not been averse to the attempt — coming from such a man may not these opinions and their somewhat querulous expression be rather the result of disappointment than of any peculiar public purity. We do not know anybody who has written more “letters to local great men” than Mr. Everett and some of these which we have seen were so full of feeble complaint that they would ill bear publication. We do not know anybody who in his [86] day was more willing to improve topics “happening to attract public attention.”

Everybody will remember that when fillibustering “happened” to be in fashion, Mr. Everett was a fine filibuster. Everybody who heard it will remember the Plymouth speech, in which Mr. Everett declared that “the work must go on,” by which he meant, that the “manifest destiny” of the United States was to conquer and annex the kingdoms and republics of South America. Everybody who ever heard of it, will remember how Mr. Everett subscribed for the Sumner testimonial, and how he afterwards attributed the indiscretion to illness. Surely no gentleman whose personal history is crowded with incidents like these, is in a position to sneer at “the distinguished active statesmen of the day.” Nor did the memory of Mr. Choate require any such apology. A lawyer in great practice, exceedingly devoted to his profession, and relying upon its emoluments to meet a personal expenditure which was always large and frequently improvident, he preferred to give his time snatched from the duties of the bar to liberal studies, or to the preparation of “discourses on academic occasions.” And because he did so, and trusted to the wise instincts of his nature — because he knew himself, as others knew him, to be in place rather in the court-room, than in the senate-chamber — it does not follow that other men with a more positive taste and talent for public employment, were either his moral or his intellectual inferiors.

Moreover, if his political aspirations had been never [87] so ardent, he entertained fatal opinions, which in the heat and hurry of his speech he continually betrayed. If he cared for any democracy, it was the old democracy of Athens. If he believed in any constitution, it was in the unwritten constitution of Great Britain. He sneered at the Declaration of Independence. He girded and jibed at the most limited alliance between humanity and politics. Slavery is the surest touchstone of political character at the present time, and the test was fatal to Mr. Choate. He thought to be enslaved was the best for the blacks, and that to enslave them was the best for the whites. The people of Massachusetts were not of his mind; but we will do him the justice to say, that for the opinion of the people of Massachusetts he cared very little. There was an inherent love of paradox in his nature, which a long practice in the courts did not, of course, diminish. Clear-headed men were not deceived by the fulmination or the fulgidities of his rhetoric. He was careless of personal consequences, and would at any time risk success for the sake of startling. In avoiding political duties or in unfitting himself to discharge them — in suffering himself to drift into the turbid and alien waters of sham-democracy — in seeking with scoffs and sneers to silence the discussion of great questions — in timidly avoiding the conflict when danger was at its height, Mr. Choate did nothing worthy of imitation or eulogy.

We are not permitted to avoid the duty of saying all this thus plainly, but the responsibility of any pain which we may give to any honest admirer of [88] Mr. Choate, must be borne by his Faneuil Hall Eulogist. It is better that we and those who are of our mind should be thought harsh or unfeeling, than that the young men of America should be made to believe that this life which has now closed affords them the best example — that the syren sentences of Mr. Everett should mislead them from the path of public duty — that his example and his words should beguile them into an avoidance of their political responsibilities, into a contempt for the theories, or an admiration for the general practice of our government; into lives secluded, sybaritical, and proudly, boastingly shallow and useless. The times are full of great occasions, and suggest great duties to the sinewy and courageous nature. We can spare something of scholarship, something of intellectual elegance, something of fastidious taste; but too many noble minds have already been smitten, too many lives once full of promise have been wasted; our short history already records too many tragedies for the sensitive, and too many comedies even for the most inveterate satirist.

July 29, 1859.

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