Heraclitus (DeWitt Clinton) to MVB, 26 December 1820

Heraclitus [DeWitt Clinton] to MVB, 26 December 1820 



To Martin Van Buren, Esq. now, or formerly of Kinderhook, Pursuivant of the law. 


If I were to confine my views to you in the abstract, without reference to analogous cases, which constantly occur, I should not hesitate to consider your present standing in the community, a moral paradox—a political phenomenon. When I take the gauge and dimensions of your intellectual endowments and acquisitions, and perceive how small and scanty they are—and when I view your habitual aberrations from candour and political integrity—your entire devotion to self-idolatry, and self-elevation—I should be truly astonished to find, that 50 out of 158 members of the legislature, are bound hand and foot to the promotion of your views—were I not to consider that impostors are the offspring of every clime, and the productions of every age and country. In religion, in politics, in science, and in every department of human agency, they spring up with mushroom rapidity, and as suddenly disappear—they rise like a rocket, and fall like the stick—and they dart across the view of society in a [r]ain of effulgence, like meteors in a clear night, and are quickly lost in obscurity. Such, sir, will be your fate, and the fate of every man whose claims are not bottomed on honour and capacity, for you have indeed arrived at the zenith of your consequence, and your descent will be accelerated in proportion to the suddenness of your elevation.

The rise of worthy men from obscurity, by the combined operation of genius and virtue, is always hailed as a pleasing event, by every true friend of republican government and human dignity. When a man of this description emerges from the humble walks of society, and exhibits himself the noble of nature and family, establishes in his own character and conduct, the equality of human rights, and the blessings of free government, he is entitled to the thanks and the honours of his country. Glory will attend his footsteps, laurels will spring up in his paths, and he will live in the praises of unborn generations. If you, sir, could be comprehended in this description, I should disdain any allusion to the past—but when the first impressions on your mind were combined with your original position in society—and when the vices which preponderate in your head and heart may be ascribed to the scenes in which you mingled—to the precepts by which you were contaminated—and to the examples with which you were surrounded. It is due to a fair development of your character, and a full display of your pretensions, to trace your footsteps from an early period.

If I am not greatly misinformed, you sprung suddenly into village notice, like Minerva from the head of Jove, an adroit and accomplished practitioner in the pie poudre courts of Kinderhook, covered with the buckler of impudence, and armed cap-a-pie with quirks and quibbles, cavils and evasions, subtleties and sophistications. This town was a distinguished theatre for the display of forensic talents—and if rumour speaks truth, you were a very Hercules in the cradle, exhibiting prematurity of talents for contention, and strangling in your infancy the gallimatias and logomachies of pretenders. Here the noted Gardenier, the prince of pettifoggers, had erected his victorious standard, and had grown grey in the art and science of advocating small causes, and encouraging petty controversies. After having in your first attempts been held by suitors in their aims, or placed by them on the table, so that you might be distinctly seen as well as heard by the presiding magistrate, you at length attained a sufficiency of size to harrangue on your own legs, and to speak with a Stentorian voice. In this situation you were called on to enter the lists with the formidable Gardenier. Like the youthful David, you went forth to engage in a polemic duel with the Goliath of the pie poudre bar. Expectation was excited—the whole country was in commotion—and the village and the landing of Kinderhook swarmed forth hordes of spectators. The fame of the contest had reached Castleton, and even Coeymans, and Coxackie, and Toghanick, and the Hildebergh stood on the tip-toe of wonderment. The battle was commenced—dire was the clash—dreadful the onset—terrible the struggle—the victory was for a long time held in suspense. At length the scale of your competitor kicked the beam. The cause was decided in your favour, and you were attended to your home by the shouts, and carried on the shoulders of an admiring audience.

A gentleman who resided in the town, competent to judge, and willing to encourage the effusion of genius, took you into his law office, and removing to New-York, you were initiated into all the mysteries of political intrigue, and the labyrinths of political contention. Your career as a petty advocate had sharpened faculties naturally acute, and made you dexterous in attack—prompt in reply—quick to discover the weakness of your adversary, and astute to observe the ’vantage ground of your position. And above all, the chicanery of the head had infected the purity of the heart, and your cunning and hypocrisy marked you out as the Machiavel of the village. In the place of your translation, these auspicious virtues budded, blossomed, and fructified; and when you assumed the toga of a professional life, you were a complete adept in the science of dissimulation, and in the arts of cunning.

Unfortunately, however, the absence of education has distinguished all your efforts in the press, at the bar, and in the senate. You cannot speak three minutes without violating the rules of grammar, and all your writings are at war with the canons of criticism. Your literary acquisitions are so few that you can hardly be said to be in a pupillary state. You are ignorant of the first elements of any science. Your range of reading is confined to your law library. You are master of no language—not even the English; and there is nothing creative in your genius—fertile in your invention—profound in your researches—sublime in your eloquence—or conclusive in your logic. You can never be a truly wise or great man, until your faculties undergo a decomposition, and your moral sensibilities are remoulded. And when I pronounce this sentence on your character, I do not mean to deny you a vast fund of left-handed wisdom. I fully admit, that you are a smart, cunning, sharp, astute attorney, with considerable fluency of speech; great quickness of perception, and some plausibility of manners.

It is understood that you look up to a foreign embassy as the dernier resort of your ambition, and as the closing scene of your political honours. Let us suppose for a moment, that you are transferred to Paris, the central seat of science, and the metropolis of human knowledge. Let us further suppose, that you are enrolled in the corps diplomatique, and that you occupy the seat which has been filled by Franklin and Jay, Armstrong and Adams, Livingston and the Pinckneys; the curiosity of that great city would be excited, to see the new minister of the far-famed republic of the west. What then would be its astonishment to see the places of those distinguished personages, occupied by a man “nulla cognitione rerum, nulla scientia ornatus;” a fribble, a sciolist, and a smarterer; a political grimalkin, purring over petty intrigues, and mousing over sinister stratagems of cunning, without elevation of mind, or dignity of conduct.


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