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ROGER ATKINSON PRYOR
VIRGINIA'S PART IN AMERICAN HISTORY
(Speech of Roger A. Pryor at the annual banquet of the New York State Bar Association, given in the City of Albany, January 15, 1889. The President, Martin W. Cooke, introduced Justice Pryor in these words: “ The next in order is the benediction. There is no poetical sentiment accompanying this toast, but if you will bear with me I promise you learning, poetry, and eloquence. To that end I call upon General Roger A. Pryor."]
MR. CHAIRMAN:-I don't know what I am to respond to. I have no text; I have no topic. What am I to talk about? I am not only unlike other gentlemen, taken by surprise, but I am absolutely without a subject, and what am I to say? I don't know but that, as His Excellency the Governor of this Imperial State expatiated, eloquently and justly, upon the achievements and glories of New York, it might be pardoned me in saying something of my own native State.
What has Virginia done for our common country? What names has she contributed to your historic roll? She has given you George Washington. [Applause.) She has given you Patrick Henry, who first sounded the signal of revolt against Great Britain. She has given you John Marshall, who so profoundly construed the Constitution formed by Madison and Hamilton. She has given you Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. [Applause.] She has given you Madison and Monroe. Where is there such a galaxy of great men known to history? You talk of the age of Pericles and of Augustus, but remember, gentlemen, that at that day Virginia had a population of only one-half the population of the city of Brooklyn to-day, and yet these are the men that she then produced to illustrate the glory of Americans.
And what has Virginia done for our Union? Because sometime a rebel, as I was, I say now that it is my Union. [Applause.] As I have already said it was a Virginian-Patrick Henry—kinsman, by the way, of Lord Brougham, kinsman of Robertson, the historian, not a plebeian as some would represent, and one nominated by George Washington to be Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, which nomination was carried to him by Light-Horse Harry Lee-I mention that because there is a notion that Patrick Henry was no lawyer. He was a consummate lawyer, else George Washington would never have proposed him to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States; and he was a reading man, too, a scholar, deeply learned, and he printed at his own expense Soame Jenyns' work upon the internal evidence of Christianity. He was a profound student, not of many books, but of a few books and of human nature. He first challenged Great Britain by his resolutions against the Stamp act in 1765, and then it was that Virginia, apropos of what you said to-day in your admirable discourse—I address myself to Judge Cooley—Virginia was the first free and independent people on earth that formulated a written complete Constitution. I affirm that the Constitution of Virginia in 1776 was the first written Constitution known to history adopted by the people. And the frontispiece and the fundamental principle of that Constitution, was the Bill of Rights—that Bill of Rights, drawn by George Mason, you, gentlemen, in your Constitution of New York, from your first Constitution to your last, have adopted. So when you expatiate upon the merits of writtenover prescriptive constitutions, and with such eloquence and convincing force, I beg you to remember that this now forlorn and bereaved Commonwealth was the first people on earth that ever promulgated a formal, complete, written Constitution, dividing the functions of government in separate departments and reposing it for its authority upon the will of the people. Jefferson gave you the Declaration of Independence in pursuance of a resolution adopted by the Legislature of Virginia, instructing the delegates in the Continental Congress to propose a Declaration of Independence.
The first suggestion of your more perfect union came from the Legislature of Virginia in January, 1786, and your Federal Constitution is construed upon the lines laid down by Edmund Randolph, and proposed in the convention as the basis of the Constitution which resulted in your now incomparable, as Mr. Gladstone says, incomparable instrument of government.
Furthermore, your great Northwest, your States of Ohio and Michigan, whose jurisprudence Judge Cooley so signally illustrates, Indiana and others, to whom are you indebted that this vast and fertile and glorious country is an integral part of our Union? You are indebted to a Virginian, to Patrick Henry, then the Governor of Virginia, for the expedition to the Northwest headed by George Rogers Clark, as he was called, the Hannibal of the New World, who with three hundred untrained militia conquered for you that vast domain of the Northwest, which Virginia, in her devotion to the Union gave, a free donation with magnanimity surpassing that of Lear. She divided her possession with her associates, and let me add, it has not been requited with the ingratitude of Lear's daughters, for the disposition and the policy of this Government toward Virginia at the end of the war, and toward the people of the South has been characterized by a magnanimity and clemency unparalleled in the history of the world. [Applause.]
You must remember that the war commenced, as you gentlemen believe, without provocation; we believe otherwise. This war so commenced, costing a million of lives and countless millions of treasure, has not been expiated by one drop of retributive blood. [Applause.) You must further remember, Mr. Chairman and gentlemen, that at the formation of the Constitution every distinguished Virginian was hostile to slavery and advocated its abolition. [Applause.) Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, all without exception, were the enemies of slavery and desired its extinction, and why it was not then abolished I leave you gentlemen to determine by consulting history; it was certainly not the fault of Virginia.
Now will you pardon me, I have been led into these remarks because you did not give me a text, and I had to extemporize one, or rather adopt the suggestion of his Excellency, the Governor of this State. Now, here we are asked, why did Virginia go into the War of Secession? Let me tell you as one who was personally cognizant of the events. Twice Virginia in her convention voted against the ordinance of secession, the deliberate will of the people of Virginia, expressed under circumstances which did not coerce their opinion, was that it was her interest and her duty to remain loyal to the Union, but meanwhile a blow was struck at Sumter, war, actual war, occurred. What then was the course of Virginia ? She said to herself, I know I am to be the Flanders of this conflict; I know that my fields are to be ravaged and my sons to be slaughtered and my homes to be desolated, but war has occurred, the South is my sister and I will go with her. It was a magnanimous and it was a disinterested resolution, and if her fault was grievous, grievously hath she answered it. When this war occurred, she, beyond dispute, occupied the primacy in the Union; she is to-day the Niobe of nations, veiled and weeping the loss of her sons, her property confiscated and her homes in ashes. Perhaps, you may say, the punishment is not disproportionate to her trespass, but nevertheless there she is, and I say for her, that Virginia is loyal to the Union. [Applause.) And never more, mark what I say, never more will you see from Virginia any intimations of hostility to the Union; she has weighed the alternative of success, and she sees now, every sensible inan in the South sees, that the greatest calamity that could have befallen the South would have been the ascendency of this ill-starred Confederacy. [Applause.) Because that Confederacy carried to the utmost extreme, to the reductio ad absurdum, the right of secession, carried in its bosom the seed of its own destruction, and even in the progress of war, welded together as we were under pressure, some were so recalcitrant, that the president of the Confederacy recommended the suspension of the habeas corpus act for the suppression of disaffection, and let me say, rebels as we were, so true were we to the traditions of Anglo-Saxon liberty that we never would suspend for a moment that sacred sanction of personal freedom. [Applause.] And, moreover, we see now, you will be surprised at what I say, I voice the sentiment of every reflecting man in Virginia, and woman too, we see now that slavery was a material and a moral evil, and we exult that the black man is emancipated and stands as our equal under the law.
Why didn't we see it before? You know the story of the view of the opposite sides of the shield. We had been educated under slavery, our preachers had taught us that it had the sanction of the Divine Scripture, we never saw any other aspect of the question, but now since it is changed, we look at it and we perceive that slavery is not only incompatible with the moral principles of government, but is hostile to the material interests of the country, and I repeat that to-day, if the people of the South were permitted to vote upon the question to re-establish African slavery, there would not be a hundred votes in the entire South, in favor of reshackling the limbs of the liberated negro.
Gentlemen, that is the attitude of old Virginia, the Old Dominion, as we proudly call her, and as such I am sure you will pardon her, because when she was in the Union she never failed you in any emergency; when you were menaced by the invasion of the British, it was Winfield Scott and the Cockade Corps of Virginia that repelled the enemy from your shores. Old Virginia has always been true to the Union, if you blot from her history that recent episode which I say you have blotted generously from your memory, and she from hers; we stand now with you, and I have personal testimony of the fact, because coming among you, not only an utter stranger, and having against me natural prejudices as a rebel, nevertheless, I have been received in the State of New York with nothing but courtesy and kind
Mr. Benjamin, in England, is no parallel instance, because he went among a people who sympathized with the Rebellion, and who, if they had dared to strike would have taken sides with the Rebellion, but I came here to those who naturally would have repelled me, but instead of rejecting me, they have kindly taken me to the bosom of their hospitalities and have rewarded me infinitely beyond my merits; and to them, and especially to my brother lawyers of the State of New York, I feel the profoundest gratitude, in attestation of which I trust that when I go, my bones may rest under the green sod of the Imperial State. [Applause.)