Thursday, July 4, 2013

On the Death of Madison

From a eulogy by James Barbour after the death of James Madison in 1836.  It initially appeared in the December 12, 1836 issue of Niles Weekly Register.

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In thus meeting together to offer our homage to the exceeding worth of our departed friend, while we do justice to our own feelings, and to the memory of the dead, we follow the custom which prevailed when the Father of his Country died -- a custom that obtained in the best times of ancient manners: for the free states of old were accustomed thus to commemorate the funeral of their patriots and sages.  It is a good custom, that should be cherished by freemen.  It is the award of posterity sitting in judgement on the actions and the life of a distinguished citizen who has finished his course.  While honorable to the dead, it is an incentive to the living.  Who is he, solicitous for posthumous fame, that darling object of ingenuous minds, that will not be impelled onward in his virtuous course by the honors every where offered to the memory of Madison?  It is a terror likewise to the wicked.  What great criminal is so hardened in his iniquity that will not tremble when, in anticipation, he sees posterity passing on his crimes, and, instead of honor, reproach awaiting his memory?

Besides, the life of a good and great man, when fairly delineated and committed to history, will survive when the pyramids of Egypt shall have passed away: it will stand forever a lofty beacon amid the vicissitudes and the wastes of time.  Athens and Rome, the master states of antiquity, where liberty once delighted to dwell, for two thousand years have been doomed to ignorance, to superstition, and to worse than Egyptian bondage; yet the lives of their great worthies, shining with an undiminished lustre, after this long and fearful eclipse, warmed the bosoms of modern patriots, by whose efforts have been regained the jewel of inestimable value, so long lost to the world.

And if, in fulfillment of that stern decree which denounces decay and death on all human things -- a decree before which Babylon and Jerusalem, Athens and Rome, and all that was illustrious in antiquity, have crumbled into dust -- if it be irreversible to all, and American be doomed to travel through the ages of bondage, let us indulge the consolatory hope that the life of Madison, triumphing over the injuries of time, may become a pillar of light by which some future patriot may reconduct his countrymen to their lost inheritance. . .

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Let me invoke the reflection of the admirers of military renown, by contrasting the acts, and their effects on the condition of the world, of the greatest captain of ancient or modern times, Napoleon, with our Madison's.  Of the former it has been said, "the earthquake voice of victory was the breath of his nostrils."  This colossus of power, of ambition, and of crime, having crushed the liberties of his country, placed one foot on the pillars of Hercules, and sought to stretch the other to the arctic pole: his scepter was the besom of desolation: the pedestal of his fame was composed of the carcasses of three millions of his kind, cemented with the blood of his victims, and bedewed with the tears of their widows and orphans: his ministry seemed to be that of a ruthless instrument of vengeance to chastise and humble a guilty world.  But mark his end!  His mad ambition devoted his country to the horrors of conquest, in part by barbarous hordes who lived beyond civilization: he himself was precipitated to the dust.  He is deserted by the multitude, the sycophant of success, whose morality teaches that while misfortune can furnish no excuse, victory, no matter how obtained, is not required to give an account of her actions.  Thus abandoned, he becomes an outlaw of the civilized world, and dies a wretched captive in one of Afric's distant isles, loaded with the execrations of the widows and orphans which his ambition had made, and with the curses of a world; while Madison, disinterestedly devoting every fibre of his heart, and every attribute of his mind, to the cause of liberty, and the happiness of his kind -- leading a nation through the hitherto untrodden paths of political science, like another Moses conducting his countrymen through the wilderness to the land of the promise -- laying the foundations of a constitution, which, if his example and his counsels prevail, will, with the blessing of God, be immortal -- finally departing in peace, when every hill and every valley of this vast republic resound with the benedictions on his name, and one universal voice proclaims him the benefactor of his kind.  Behold the contrast!  And yet, if Napoleon had continued successful, the subjects of the extraordinary delusion I am encountering would have required the sculptor and the poet to exhaust their art in perpetuating his name, while they would have suffered Madison's to go down to the grave unwept, unhonored, and unsung.