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Address of Hon. T. S. Garnett

Upon presenting the portrait of Hon. R. M. T. Hunter,

To the circuit Court of Essex county, at Tappahannock, Va., June 20, 1898.

Judge Wright, and Ladies and Gentlemen:

In response to your kind invitation, I am here to present to the Circuit Court of Essex county, the portrait of the Honorable Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter.

Before venturing upon the performance of this honorable duty, I cannot refrain from expressing my gratitude to you for the great and good work you have so wisely conceived and so devotedly executed throughout your judicial circuit, in rescuing from dull forgetfulness [152] the memories of the past, and from oblivion the names and features of so many of our Tidewater Virginians who made that past forever memorable.

All honor to you, sir, for this noble work, and Heaven's blessings upon your unselfish and patriotic labors.

This portrait of Mr. Hunter, the gift of his great-niece, is a faithful likeness of that great man.

To no man who is at all acquainted with his career is it necessary for me to prove the correctness of the use of that term.

If the county of Essex had produced no other distinguished son, she would still be entitled to honor him as among the foremost of the world's great men.

In all the elements which go to make up true greatness, in purity of character, in fearless advocacy of truth and right, in strength of purpose and lofty intellectual power, he shone pre-eminent among the intellectual giants of his day.

Recall, if only for a moment, the outline of his life. Brilliant as a scholar at the University—a pupil in law at the feet of that distinguished jurist, Judge Henry St. George Tucker, he commenced the practice of his profession here. Entering public life at the age of twenty-five, he passed successively through every stage of that fascinating but exciting and delusive drama—from the General Assembly of Virginia through the Federal Congress and Senate, until it seemed that the Presidency of the United States was to be the easy prize for his surfeited ambition. The youngest speaker that ever ruled the conduct of the House of Representatives, he soon became the most honored, trusted and distinguished Senator in that body.

Glance at some of his great work:

The establishment of the independent treasury of the United States, as it exists to-day; the Tariff for Revenue of 1846; the retrocession of Alexandria county and city to the Old Dominion; the preservation of the peace with Great Britain, so nearly broken over the Oregon boundary question; his firm and dignified stand in every assault against the Union of the States, and their equality in the Union, when the Mexican war and its results were sought to be used by the politicians of the North to weaken and degrade their brethren of the South.

Then, as now, the South was sending forth to battle its best soldiers, its most precious youth, in numbers far exceeding its proper quota, and shedding its best blood for a cause which could redound chiefly to the advantage of the North. [153]

As chairman of the Finance Committee of the Senate in 1848, and for years thereafter, Mr. Hunter practically guided the financial legislation of this country, and gained for himself a place among the great political economists of the world.

In the excellent memoir of Mr. Hunter, by Mr. L. Q. Washington [printed in the Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXV, pp. 193-205], now on file among the archives of your Honor's court, the learned author says of him:

“His integrity, purity and knowledge of affairs gave him an almost absolute veto on everything corrupt, base or dangerous in fiscal legislation.” * * *‘He shaped and carried through the Compromise Tariff bill of 1857, a measure supported not only by Democrats, but by many prominent Republicans-Win. H. Seward, Henry Wilson, N. P. Banks, Solomon P. Chase, and others.’ ‘They were content to follow a Virginian of the Virginians.’

The establishment of the Court of Claims at Washington and the life tenure of its judges was the work of ‘the statesman of Essex.’

The first Civil Service law, and one which puts to shame the abortive effort at reform now existing, was the work of R. M. T. Hunter.

He put an end, or showed the way to end, all controversy over the money question, and the recent unhappy warfare over the coinage of gold and silver would never have taken place if the wisdom of Senator Hunter had been the guide of those who have brought on the conflict. Without pretending to know anything about the matter, I am willing to believe Mr. Washington when he says:

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 Robt. M. T. Hunter in March, 1852, to the United States Senate, which accompanied the bill proposed by him to regulate the coinage of gold and silver.

It is not mere eulogy to say that, ‘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.’

In great qualities of mind and character, he was the peer of any, without the eccentricities of genius which marred so many of the worthies of that day.

But time would fail me to depict in detail his varied labors in the achievement of his fame. When that fame was at its zenith, and in [154] the very height of useful promise, at the age of 52 years, he bade farewell to all the scenes of his greatness and followed his native State into her gallant but desperate struggle for independence.

On the day when McDowell's defeated and demoralized host was driven back upon Washington from the plains of Manassas, July 21, 1861, Mr. Hunter became Secretary of State in the Cabinet of President Davis.

It is not generally known, though I believe it to be true, that the original plan of those who founded the Confederate government at Montgomery, Ala., was to make Mr. Hunter President of the Confederacy, and Jefferson Davis General-in-Chief of its armies in the field. Whether such a course would have won success or not may be questioned, but certain it is that no wiser counsellor, no better financier in the desperate straits of the Confederate exchequer, no more devoted patriot than Mr. Hunter could have been found in all the limits of our new republic.

He soon became President pro lem. of the Confederate Senate, and all through the disheartening struggle gave his best efforts to the success of our doomed cause.

Among his last acts in its behalf was his visit to Hampton Roads as one of the commissioners to negotiate for peace between the North and the South.

His report of that memorable conference with Mr. Lincoln is an accurate record of what transpired, and is a valuable contribution to history.

Of his life after the war I need not speak.

Imprisoned as he was by Federal tyranny, insulted by a barbarous enemy with a cruelty which was equalled only by fiendish ingenuity, he was released from captivity only to return to Font Hill to find his home devastated by their deeper malignity.

Yet, in the closing years of his well-spent life, he still cherished the hope of better days for the republic, and he devoted his few remaining years to philosophical reflection and dissertation and a calm review of the motives which had impelled him to espouse the cause of the South, and vindicated the principles of her people by his masterly essays and articles of great historic value. The papers of the Southern Historical Society abound with these admirable writings and justified the assertion of one who knew him well: ‘hat he was the most accomplished, wisest, most disinterested, best and gentlest of all the men who were his contemporaries.’ He was the [155] Treasurer of Virginia and collector of customs of the port of Tappahannock.

He died at ‘Font Hill’ on the 18th day of July, 1887, poor, as men count riches in this world, ‘but rich, immeasurably rich, in honor.’

An incident recently published in the columns of the Free Lance, Fredericksburg, Va., touchingly illustrates the equanimity of Mr. Hunter in adversity. A correspondent of that paper wrote:

Your editorial of a recent date, in which you sketch the political life of R. M. T. Hunter, of Virginia, recalls to my mind the last time I saw him. It was in 1883, at his little country mill in Essex. As I entered the mill he measured for a customer a peck of meal, and said: “I think that is good measure.”

He who had had the applause of “listening senates to command ” took the place of a laborer without a murmur when necessity required.

Great in learning, great in the purity, gentleness and simplicity of his character, great in thought and statesmanlike virtue, he has left to his family and friends the heritage of a good name and to his beloved county of Essex and this Commonwealth a memory that can never fade away.

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