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Hon. James Mercer Garnett.

an Address by Professor James Mercer Oarnett,
On presenting the portrait of Hon. James M. Garnett in the Court-room at Tappahannock, Essex county, Va., Judge Thos. R. B. Wright of the Circuit Court Presiding— June 20, 1898.

[Judge Wright, who as worthily wears the ermine as he did honor to the cause, as a Confederate soldier, has been indefatigable in his efforts to secure for the court-room at Tappahannock the portraits of distinguished and worthy men of the vicinage of his circuit. This comprehends a section which has been singularly productive of men whose lives have been excellent and who have signally aided in making the history of our State and country. The walls of his courtroom are now graced with a galaxy of the countenances of men of whose virtues and abilities any people might justly be proud. Such an assembled view can but prove in the highest degree inspiriting and helpful in directing the character of youth. Judge Wright may look upon them with a pleasure peculiarly his own—as in his life-springs he draws from more than one of them.

Nobility of character not only impels reverence, but it inspires the emulation of virtue—of greatness. To look upon the man, as his compeers saw him, aids potently in the mind the inspection of the record of his deeds.—Ed.] [348]

Your Honor, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I esteem it a great pleasure and privilege, sir, to present for preservation in this room, where justice is so worthily dispensed by your Honor, the portrait of my grandfather, who, in days long gone, sat in the old courthouse adjoining as a member of that magistrates' court, which reflected the hard common sense of the Virginia country farmer, and did equity between man and man with such sound judgment that it has been esteemed by those competent to judge the best system of county judiciary that the State ever possessed.

It is now more than half a century since he has lain in the grave, but there are some still living in this county, and perhaps within the sound of my voice, who may remember him—a tall, erect, dignified man—as he went in and out among you during the seventy-three years of his long life, for where he lived there he died and is buried, at Elmwood on the Rappahannock, never residing away from home except when he was serving the county or the State at Richmond or Washington.

Permit me then, sir, to read a brief sketch of the life of him whose portrait I entrust to your Honor's keeping.

The Hon. James Mercer Garnett, of Elmwood, Essex county, Va., was born June 8th, 1770, the second child and oldest son of ten children. His father, Muscoe Garnett, of Essex county, was the son of James Garnett and Elizabeth Muscoe, his second wife, the daughter of Captain Salvator Muscoe, and was the only child of that marriage. He was the grandson of John Garnett, of Gloucester county, supposed to be first of the family that came from England to this country, although this is not certain, as the family records do not trace his ancestry further back. Muscoe Garnett, as his father before him, was a large landed proprietor, and built Elmwood before the Revolutionary War. During that war he was a member of the Committee of Safety for Essex County, which regulated the military affairs of the county. He, his father, and his son were vestrymen of Vawter's church, built in 1731.

He married on July 19, 1767, Grace Fenton Mercer, daughter of John Mercer, of Marlborough, Stafford county, and his second wife Ann Roy. This John Mercer was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1704, descended from an English family that had settled in Dublin, and was the first of that family who came to this country. His ancestry is traced back through his father, John Mercer, and mother, Grace Fenton and his grandfather, Robert Mercer, to his great-grandfather, Noel Mercer, of Chester, England. John Mercer, of Marlborough, [349] was an eminent lawyer and a very large landed proprietor, and was the author of ‘Mercer's Abridgment of the Laws of Virginia.’ A folio volume containing entries of all his landed property, its bounds and limits, when purchased and when sold, entered in his own neat, and regular hand, is still preserved.

James Mercer Garnett was educated at home, receiving the liberal private education customary in Virginia at that time. He married on September 21st, 1793, his first cousin, Mary Eleanor Dick Mercer, only daughter of Judge James Mercer, of Fredericksburg, and his wife, Eleanor Dick, daughter of Major Charles Dick, of Scottish parentage and of Revolutionary fame. James Mercer, after whom his nephew was named, was the fifth son and sixth child of the above mentioned John Mercer, of Marlborough, and his first wife, Catharine Mason, aunt of the distinguished statesman, George Mason, of Gunston Hall, Fairfax county, who wrote the Declaration of Rights and the first Constitution of Virginia, and is so well known in the early history of the State. James Mercer graduated at William and Mary College, was a member of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, of all the Virginia Conventions of the day, of the Virginia Committee of Safety that governed the State in 1775-76 until the inauguration of Patrick Henry as first Governor, July I, 1776; he was also a member of the Continental Congress in 1779-80. He was appointed a judge of the General Court in 1780, and a judge of the Court of Appeals of five judges in 1789, in which year he was also appointed one of the revisors of the laws of Virginia. He was the father of General Charles Fenton Mercer, of Aldie, Loudoun county, who was a member of the Virginia Legislature, 1810-17, except while in military service during the war of 1812, of the United States Congress, 1817-39, of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-30 and was the first President of the Chesapeake & Ohio canal.

The following is a brief record of the official life of James Mercer Garnett as far as it can be traced. I have been informed that he was a member of the Virginia Legislature of 1798-99, and that he voted for the celebrated resolutions of that session denouncing the alien and sedition acts; but I think it is more probable that he was a member during the following session and voted for the adoption of Mr. Madison's report on those resolutions. Mr. Madison, the father of the resolutions, consulted often with Colonel John Taylor, of Caroline county, and Mr. Garnett, the intimate friend of Colonel Taylor, frequently participated in those consultations, which were often held in Mr. Garnett's room. [350]

Mr. Garnett represented his district in the Congress of the United States for two terms, 1803-09, when he addressed a letter to his constitutents declining a re-election. This letter was much praised by John Randolph, who tried hard to persuade him to offer for a re-election. The friendship between Mr. Garnett and Mr. Randolph lasted through life. In a speech in the United States Senate in 1828 Mr. Randolph refers to Mr. Garnett's services in Congress, and soon afterwards writes: ‘Our friendship commenced soon after he took his seat in Congress and has continued uninterrupted by a single moment of coolness or alienation during three and twenty years, and very trying times, political and otherwise. I take pride in naming this gentleman among my steady, uniform and unwavering friends. In Congress he never said an unwise thing, or gave a bad vote.’ (See Bouldin's ‘Reminiscences of John Randolph.’ Appendix.)

An interesting correspondence between Mr. Randolph and Mr. Garnett of some 340 letters has been preserved, extending from 1806 to 1832, the year before Mr. Randolph's death. The originals of these letters are at Elmwood, and a copy is in my possession.

In August, 1807, Mr. Garnett served as a member of the grand jury that indicted Aaron Burr, of which jury Mr. Randolph was the foreman. Mr. William Wirt Henry, in his address before the Virginia State Bar Association, August 3, 1897, on ‘The Trial of Aaron Burr,’ calls this ‘the most distinguished grand jury that was ever impaneled.’ (See Virginia Law Register, Vol. III, pages 477– 492.)

Mr. Garnett served again in the Virginia Legislature during the session of 1824-25, and was a member of the Convention of 1829– 30, called to amend the State Constitution. He opposed many of the changes in the Constitution made by that Convention, and was thus frequently found on the opposite side to his brother-in-law, Hon. Charles Fenton Mercer, who acted as chairman of the Committee on Resolutions, Mr. Madison, the appointed chairman, from his age and infirmities being unable to take a very active part in the work of the Convention. Mr. Garnett, a gentleman of ‘the old school,’ thought that greater weight should be given to land holders in the administration of government, and was opposed to the scheme adopted for the enlargement of the basis of suffrage. His membership of this Convention was his last service in any public capacity.

Permit me to to quote a few lines from Hugh Blair Grigsby's address on this Convention—the best account of it that we have—delivered [351] before the Virginia Historical Society, December 15, 1853, and contained in the Virginia Historical Reporter for 1854 (Vol. I., pp. 81-83), a very rare pamphlet.

Mr. Grigsby says: ‘Although as the contests of the Convention the lines of division were strictly drawn between the friends and opponents of the old constitution, now that those strifes are past, and most of the active spirits of those exciting times are no more, it may not be inappropriate to class two names together, which, though never on the same side of the perpetually recurring call of the roll, were bound by the cords of Christian affection and were united in the support of all the religious and humane schemes which honored the age in which they lived—James Mercer Garnett and William Harrison Fitzhugh. Garnett was by many years the elder of the two, and may be said to have closed his political life twenty years before the assembling of the Convention and before that of Fitzhugh had begun. He had been a member of the House of Delegates and was a member of the House of Representatives during the entire second term of Mr. Jefferson's administration; and though rarely engaged in prolonged debate, was an efficient coadjutor of the party at the head of which was Mr. Randolph, which opposed the policy of that statesman. Thenceforth he almost renounced public life, and devoted his time to agriculture, education, and religion, three great interests which then required all his fostering care. He was not far from sixty, but retained in his gait the elasticity and erectness of a young man. He did not make a formal speech during the session, but watched the progress of events with the strictest attention, and some one present may remember how distinctly his sonorous voice was heard above all others at the call of the ayes and nays, and was recognized at once. He was full of life and delighted in society, of which his polished manners, his humor deepening at times into a caustic wit, and his large historical recollections made him a brilliant ornament. If John Randolph excited the mirth of the Convention at the expense of Mr. Jefferson's “mould-boards of the least possible resistance,” Garnett brought forth roars of laughter in private circles at Mr. Madison's scheme of hitching the bison to the plough. It was in the social gathering that the artillery of his political party was brought to bear with the most decided success; and many a young politician, who would have taken the alarm at an allusion to the embargo on the war, sunk under the raillery played against the philosopher and the farmer.’

Mr. Garnett was a man of high education, as his writings show, [352] and he wrote much for newspapers and periodicals, discussing questions of education, agriculture, politics and literature, the two first by preferance, for he was prominent in all movements for the advancement of education and agriculture. His style was remarkably pure and forcible. He was a strong advocate of free trade and wrote much in favor of it, having at one time had a controversy on the tariff with Mr. Matthew Carey, of Philadelphia. This correspondence was conducted in The Spirit of Seventy-Six, a paper published in Georgetown about 1811. Mr. Garnett wrote under the signature of ‘Cornplanter,’ with which title many of Mr. Randolph's letters to Mr. Garnett begin. Mr. Randolph wrote also for this paper under the signature of ‘Matt Bramble,’ and it may be mentioned that in a letter to Mr. Garnett, written in 1811, Judge Henry St. George Tucker, Mr. Randolph's half-brother, expresses the opinion that ‘Cornplanter’ and ‘Matt Bramble’ are one and the same person, crediting to Mr. Garnett, Mr. Randolph's articles.

In 1820 Mr. Carey published three letters on the present calamitous state of affairs, addressed to J. M. Garnett, Esq., President of the ‘Fredericksburg Agricultural Society,’ strongly advocating protection for American manufactures.

Of the society just named Mr. Garnett was President for twenty years and delivered to it annual addresses. He was a founder of the Virginia State Agricultural Society, and it is stated in Lippincott's and in Appleton's Biographical Dictionaries that he was one of the principal founders and the first President of the United States Agricultural Society, but the correctness of this statement I cannot verify.

Besides the paper above mentioned Mr. Garnett wrote also for the Argis, the Richmond Enquirer, The National Intelligencer, and other Newspapers, and for the Southern Literary Messenger, often under the signature ‘Oliver Old School,’ Ruffin's Farmer's Register, and later in life for Judge Bird's Albany Cultivator. He delivered many lectures on agriculture and education in other States as well as in Virginia.

Mr. Garnett was a member of our Anti-tariff Convention that assembled in Baltimore in 1821, and was appointed to write an address which was published in Skinner's American Farmer. He was also a member of another Anti-tariff Convention held in Philadelphia in 1831. This Convention addressed a memorial to Congress that was written by Thomas R. Dew, President of William and Mary College. There were fifteen States represented in it, among them Massachusetts, [353] New York, Pennsylvania, and other Northern as well as Southern States.

Mr. Garnett's interest in the promotion of agriculture was very great, and his exertions for that object commenced early in life and continued to old age, even to the detriment of his own interests.

Charles Carter Lee, in his poem ‘Virginia Georgics,’ has a humorous couplet to the effect that, while Garnett lectured on agriculture, his neighbor Waring ploughed his corn.

Mr. Garnett's annual addresses to the Agricultural Society of Fredericksburg were attended by both ladies and gentlemen, and he succeeded in making these addresses very popular. With great personal effort, in which he was assisted by his friend, Colonel John Taylor, of Caroline county, the ‘Arator’ of literature, he founded the Virginia State Agricultural Society, to which also he delivered annual addresses. His high moral character and decided ability gave him great influence with all to whom he became known. This was shown in a marked manner in the case of his poorer neighbors, for whose welfare he specially interested himself. About 1815 he built a log-house on his own land and established a Sunday-school in it, which was at first taught solely by himself and the members of his family, and subsequently neighbors and persons educated in the school gave assistance.

The house was twice enlarged and the number of scholars sometimes reached two hundred, some of whom came from a distance of fifteen or twenty miles, and not a few owed their entire education to this school. Mr. Garnett was a true Christian from an early age, and a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were used in the school; and Mr. Garnett often wrote special prayers for use in it, some of which have been preserved. After school he would read some moral or religious story, and at regular periods would deliver addresses to the school, which were largely attended by persons other than scholars. The moral and religious influence of this Sunday-school was very great, and may be traced to this day.1

During the four years of his service in Congress Mr. Garnett formed many warm friendships. Among the closest and most lasting [354] were those with John Randolph, of Virginia, Richard Stanford and Nathaniel Macon, of North Carolina, and Edward Lloyd and Francis S. Key, of Maryland, all of whom except the last were his colleagues. These gentlemen called themselves Republicans, in distinction from the Federalists of the day, but they were also known as ‘The Third Party,’ as they frequently opposed measures of the regular administration, Republican, and they were particularly noted as strong States-rights men. As is well known, the Democratic party of the present day is the successor of the old Republican party. Mr. Garnett kept up a constant correspondence with these gentlemen, especially with John Randolph and Richard Stanford, and he survived all of his friends above-mentioned. While the Randolph correspondence has been preserved, the letters of Stanford have been lost, which is much to be regretted, as they were full of talent and rich humor.

Although Mr. Garnett inherited a considerable amount of property, he became in advanced age somewhat embarrassed in his circumstances, owing chiefly to his profuse hospitality and personal benevolence.

As a means of partial relief he opened a school for young ladies at his residence, Elmwood, about the year 1821. With the exception of the teachers of drawing and music, this school was taught exclusively by his wife and daughters, who were eminently qualified for such a task, as they possessed a high order of talent and a thorough education. Mrs. Garnett was a lady of remarkable mental powers, of high cultivation, and of a character that secured the love and admiration of all who knew her. Mr. Garnett's duties in connection with the school were the holding of daily family prayers, morning and evening, and the correction and criticism of the English compositions. But his most serious work was the writing and delivery of lectures to the school once in each quarter.

These lectures on Female Education were published in 1824 and 1825, and rapidly went through four editions.2

Did time permit it would be interesting to quote from the ‘Gossip's Manual, or Maxims of Conversation and Conduct adapted to [355] both Sexes and all ages beyond childhood,’ which is prefixed to the lectures, as illustrating Mr. Garnett's humor and the quaint manners of the time.

These lectures were followed by a volume of lectures on various topics of morals, manners, conduct, and intellectual improvement, addressed to Mrs. Garnett's pupils at Elmwood, Essex county, Va., 1825-6, whose object is shown by their title.

Moral and religious education was carried on in this school paripassu with mental training, and resulted in a great success.

The scholars, without exception as far as is known, became personally attached to the family, and one (the late Charles F. M. Garnett, son of James M. Garnett, a distinguished civil engineer, to whose reminiscences of his father this address is much indebted), who knew them all well, and met with many in after life, testifies that he never saw or heard of one of these scholars who did not become a religious and useful woman and an ornament to society. Notwithstanding the scant means of communication in that day the school was attended by pupils from other States and often reached fifty in number.

The school for young ladies was kept up for eight years, when, owing to Mrs. Garnett's ill-health, it was closed, and a school for boys was opened, one object of which was the education of Mr. Garnett's grandson, Muscoe R. H. Garnett, the only child of Mr. Garnett's eldest son, James Mercer Garnett, Jr., who married, in 1820, his first cousin, Maria Hunter, sister of the late Hon. Robert M. T. Hunter, distinguished as a statesman in the U. S. House of Representatives and Senate, and in the C. S. Senate, and who served for a time as Secretary of State of the Confederate States.

Muscoe R. H. Garnett was born on July 25, 1821, was a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1850, of the State Legislature, of the Virginia Convention of 1861, of the U. S. Congress from 1857 to 1861, and of the C. S. Congress from 1861 until his death in February, 1864. His pamphlet on ‘The Union, past and future; how it works and how to save it; by a citizen of Virginia,’ written in 1850, created great interest, and took a prominent place in the political controversies of that day. He was cut off in the prime of life and usefulness.

Teachers were employed to conduct this boys' school at Elmwood, and Mr. Garnett took the same part in it that he had taken in the girls' school. In 1830 he delivered to the boys a series of four lectures, containing, as he writes in the dedication, ‘the result of my [356] most deliberate reflections and mature conviction relative to the nature and obligation of the great leading principles which should regulate your conduct and form your characters.’

These lectures were published in that year as a ‘Token of Regard, presented to the pupils of the Elmwood School by their friend, James M. Garnett.’ The copyright of all of his lectures to both schools was given by Mr. Garnett to the publisher, Thomas W. White, then publisher and proprietor of the Southern Literary Messenger, the only condition being that the publisher supply a certain number of copies for gratuitous distribution to the pupils and other persons. The lectures, especially those addressed to young ladies, had a wide circulation and were highly valued.

Just before the meeting of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829, Mr. Garnett compiled and issued a volume of Constitutional Charts, or comparative views of the legislative, executive and judiciary departments, in the Constitutions of all the States in the Union, including that of the United States, with a dedication to the people of Virginia, and intended as a guide for the use of members of the Convention.

It would be out of place on this occasion to give any detailed account of Mr. Garnett's various addresses and of his contributions to newspapers and periodicals. These last were very numerous and over various signatures, were begun early in life and continued for forty years or more, and many of them had decided influence at the time. Perhaps the last of his public addresses was one on ‘Popular Education,’ delivered to an educational convention which assembled in Richmond on December 9, 1841, and published by request of the Convention in the Southern Literary Messenger for February, 1842. In this address Mr. Garnett discussed the importance of popular education, its neglect in Virginia, the effects of education upon crime with statistics, and especially the importance of religious instruction in the school-room. Although the Messenger had adopted for some years a rule discontinuing the publication of lectures and addresses, it was relaxed in this case, as the editor says, owing to ‘the importance of the subject and the ability with which the sound views and just opinions of the orator were illustrated and enforced.’

Mr. Garnett died at his residence on April 23, 1843, having attained the age of nearly seventy-three years, and he is buried in the family cemetery at Elmwood. A brief notice of his death in the American Almanac for 1844, after stating the public positions held by him, continues: ‘But Mr. Garnett's greenest laurels were won in [357] the cause of education and agriculture, to which he was ardently devoted to the close of his life. For more than twenty years he presided over the Agricultural Society of Fredericksburg, always assiduous in the discharge of his duty and never flagging, even when his fellow-laborers were in despair. His addresses were characterizd by a zealous devotion to the interests, morals, education, and the improvement in agriculture, not of the people of Virginia only, but of the whole Union. He was happy in his powers of conversation, cheerful amidst adversity and affliction, and died a sincere Christian.’

Mr. Garnett was a man of imposing presence, tall and well proportioned, and of great dignity of carriage and manner, even approaching stiffness, but accompanied with great gentleness of disposition, shown especially in his fondness for children. He was a man of the most scrupulous honor and integrity, and his conduct through life was ever ruled by the principles of the Christian religion.

The late Hon. B. Johnson Barbour who attended the boys school at Elmwood in 1829, being a schoolmate there of Muscoe R. H. Garnett, wrote in 1885 some reminiscences of his school days. He says:

Mr. Garnett's presence was very imposing, tall, well proportioned, with a fine eye, a full head of gray hair neatly brought together at the back in a queue, which was the more striking from the fact that that style of dressing the hair had nearly gone out of vogue.” Mr. Barbour says of Mrs. Garnett: ‘I cannot forbear from paying a deserved tribute to Mrs. Garnett. I still cherish her memory with love and gratitude. During my whole stay at Elmwood she was indeed a mother to me, chiding me gently when in fault, encouraging me in every way to press forward, calling me to her chamber to read a portion of the scriptures, and afterwards whatever there might be of interest in the newspapers.’ He adds of Elmwood: ‘I need not attempt any description of Elmwood, I will only say that it has suggested some of the fine old English houses to me, and for years after I lived there, when I would be reading an English novel, Elmwood with its fine hall, its library and parlor, its corridors and general spaciousness, would rise up before me.’

Mr. Barbour gives an interesting account of the school, and particularly pays a warm tribute to his friend and schoolmate, M. R. H. Garnett. [358]

This sketch may fitly close with the following statement of the Hon. R. M. T. Hunter, Mr. Garnett's nephew, who wrote of him in 1884:

I have a very distinct conception, not only of his character, but of the nature of the influence which he exerted upon society. I think I may say that his character was a matter of history in Virginia tradition, for no man was known or beloved by a wider or more important circle of friends in Virginia at the time of his death, than James M. Garnett, and none had a more distinct individuality of character in their opinion. Did any great question suddenly arise in American politics, no man of those who knew him, and he was known to many, doubted where he would be found, and the same may be said of questions of social progress or ethical importance.

Mr. Garnett was a Virginia gentleman, a Christian philosopher, a cultivated scholar, owning a well selected library, which was unusually large for a private individual. He possessed keen powers of observation, exercised over a large circle of acquaintances, a rich turn for humor and rare powers of description and conversation. He knew how to amuse as well as to instruct, making himself agreeable to old and young.

To the last day of a long life he retained these powers, and in my frequent visits to his home I never failed to derive pleasure and instruction from his conversation. It must be remembered that he was a close observer of all classes of society, for he mingled with them all. He was a lover of mankind.

I have thus endeavored, sir, very inadequately, to portray the moral and intellectual features of my revered ancestor, of whom I have no recollection save an indistinct memory of his personal appearance, and to pay even this small tribute to his memory. I hope that I have been able to bring his picture, even though but a partial one, before the sons of his neighbors and friends, by whom he was so highly esteemed and honored, and to adduce some reasons why his portrait should occupy the prominent position which you have assigned to it. I trust, sir, that others may be led by your example in forming this collection of portraits, to revere the Virginians of the olden time, than whom no nobler race of men has existed on this earth.

1 It may be mentioned, as an evidence that the memory of this school is still preserved in Essex county, that, at the conclusion of this address, a gentleman stated to the writer that he had in his possession a Bible which was given to his mother by Mr. Garnett when she was an attendant at the school.

2 I am the fortunate possessor of a copy of the second edition of the lectures (Richmond, 1824), embellished with a portrait in water colors of Mr. Garnett, drawn by his cousin, Miss Margaret Mercer (daughter of Governor John Francis Mercer, of Maryland), who herself for many years had a school for young ladies at Belmont, near Leesburg, in Loudoun county.

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