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ART. I. Memoirs of my own times. By General JAMES WILKINSON. In three volumes, 8vo. Philadelphia, 1816.
EX pede Herculem, is an adage of great antiquity and approved truth-the giant is known by his tread. Hence the inutility of putting into the title page the name of our author; for in every sentence we discover the Atlas of two wars, the Captor of Burgoyne, the Hero of La Cole and the Saviour of NewOrleans. Yet is the author, according to his own modest statement, though much talked of, little known, and it is to supply this great desideratum in-public knowledge, that he benevolently determines to give his story to the public; to rescue from oblivion, many incidents and occurrences, known only by himself;' and to put upon record, the follies, the ignorance, the vices and the crimes of all, who have, at any time or on any occasion, ventured to question the integrity of his principles, or the wisdom of his conduct.c With these laudable motives, the General unlocks his trunks and treasures, and pours them out in two thousand three hundred pages,' which now lay open before us! Nor imagine, Reader, that this precious fund is yet exhausted; for, 'setting aside,' he says,
a Stating the benefits he conferred on the south, he appeals to 'Forts 'Bowyer and St. Philip, which spoke in thunder, and to the Petite Coquille, '[a half-finished redoubt,] whose name alone,' he says, 'saved the city.' Jackson and his army, according to our author, were surprised by the British, fought with halters about their necks, and beat the enemy, but (with better management) might have destroyed them. See vol. I. p. 546.
b Introduction, p. 6.
c Idem, pp. 6 and 9.
d Letter to Mr. Monroe, on the subject of his papers left at New-Orleans, p. 529. VOL. I.
'the illustration of my persecutions, I have not been able to touch 'the last twenty-five years of my public services, which embrace the 'most interesting and important scenes of my life; and comprehend 'a four years' Indian war; conferences and treaties with Indian 'nations; the transfer of Louisiana under the purchase of 1803; 'Colonel Burr's conspiracy; and a variety of subordinate oc'currences; with many voyages by sea, and travels by land, [to the amount of 16,000 miles] in two years: all of which,' he will endeavour to comprise in three additional volumes, of the 'size of those now published.'a
Without the smallest reproach to the facility of the General's pen, we cannot but express our fears, that we shall not live to see the end of this great work. Posterity may be more fortunate and then will the future hero read, with delight, the story of a murderous warfare, in which cunning, cowardice and cruelty are often predominant; the infant jurist gather instruction from the luminous details of Indian talks and Indian treaties-from the sublime effusions of Red Jacket and the more sage considerations of Blue Breeches ; and succeeding wits, sentimentalists, politicians and christians, dwell enraptured on the gay remarks, pointed sentences, amusing anecdotes, profound reflections, tender sentiments and pious ejaculations, which cannot fail to enliven and relieve the ennui of this long march of 16,000 miles. But from these anticipations of future glory and usefulness, let us return to our proper task.
The ponderous work before us, appeared in the spring of 1816, but without attracting the notice of any reviewer. As an article of trade, it had advantages and disadvantages; its bulk frightened the indolent, and its price deterred the calculating;-but to these causes of obstructed circulation, was opposed the love of scandal ; which, in our age and country, may be safely denominated the universal passion. What has been the issue of this conflict, between curiosity and laziness-gossiping and parsimony, we do not know, and will not inquire; since it is our duty to consider, not the fortunes of a book in the market, but its value to society, its tendency to illustrate science, to promote truth and satisfy justice.
Literary works, in general, come under some particular denomination. They are either comedies or tragedies; tales or novels; sermons or songs, &c. and it rarely happens that we meet with a
a Introduction, p. 7. "It was customary with the northern warriors (Danes, &c.) to sing their own exploits, when they became old." Bertholin, lib. I. chap. 10. Why should not our heroes follow the example? Though no lovers of song, they can be very poetical in prose, as various biographical sketches (which may come under our future cognizance) will show. In this branch of literature there is still an-hiatus valde deflendus !
b Names of great Indian chiefs.
production, partaking so much and so equally of two or more different kinds of writing, as to puzzle the best judges, who shall attempt to characterize it by any simple uncompounded term. Such however is the work before us: but, from this objection, our author escapes with his characteristical adroitness; for, besides pleading a sort of literary insolvency, he avails himself of what he calls 'the latitude peculiar to memoirs,' and which-if we are permitted to infer his creed from his practice-puts him as to manner, "far above the critic's law," and as to matter, confers the invaluable privilege, of employing a little more truth than would be useful to romance, and much less than would be necessary to history. To book-makers, these advantages are obvious, and require no illustration beyond the well-known fact, that they have been long and duly appreciated, and frequently used by decayed artists, unsuccessful generals, disappointed politicians, cast mistresses, and notorious malefactors.
Having thus acknowledged the dispensing power of our author's title, with regard to style and arrangement, we pause for a moment on these subjects, merely to remark the proud use made of the liberty with which he was invested; and above all, the noble and uniform contempt he shows for the "brevis et densus" of the schools; which indeed, if rigorously enforced, would have dismissed one half of his personages and obliterated two thirds of his book. The laws of transition also, are, in his judgment, ridiculous. and absurd, and he clearly demonstrates the advantage of abrupt and unexpected movements in letters, as well as in arms; and lastly, what is usually called decorum, he solemnly abjures ; showing that none but pimps and parasites would use it; that the nervous language of Billingsgate is the true heroic style, and that tenderness for the dead is treason to the living. With these few remarks, on the form of the work, we proceed to its substance, which may be divided into three parts: 1st. The author's birth, parentage and education : 2d. His persecutions: and 3d. His opinions, reflections, and details, political and military.
I. His birth, parentage and education.
Under this head, the author has shown a very becoming degree of care in settling the place of his nativity, which might otherwise have become a source of much and violent contention. 'I was 'born,' he says, 'in Calvert county, in the state of Maryland, near 'the Patuxent river, about three miles from a decayed village, called
a See vol. I. p. 12.
b He represents Mr. Madison as 'a Tiberius, cold, cruel, hypocritical and in'terested; disregarding the professions of his youth, the principles of his party, 'and the oaths of his office;' a coward,' ' a murderer,' and 'a nose of wax.' Of several Secretaries of War in succession, he speaks with as little respect; and of Generals Brown, Scott and Swartwout, with a malignity truly 'diabolical.'
Benedict, after a Baron of Baltimore.' It is to be lamented, that the author has not been equally circumspect in noting the time of this event, and in recording, like Sir John Falstaff, the hour of the day-the colour of his hair, and the shape of his belly. For this negligence, however, he amply atones by some reflections, equally new and philosophical, on the impossibility of a man's choosing his own father and mother; and by recollecting that the public curiosity might yet be awakened with respect to Robert Skinner, his grandmother's great grandfather: whose last will and testament he gives to the world, merely to forestall inquiry,' and perhaps, to show the old gentleman's very singular turn of thinking; as, in this instrument, he bequeaths to his eldest son Robert, one farm, one bed, one chair, one pewter dish, one Concordance of the Bible, and one half of his carpenter's and turner's tools.b After this very interesting and satisfactory account of Robert Skinner, we are informed, when, where, by whom, and with whom, our hero was inoculated; what were his amusements, and what the places and means of his instruction, classical, mathematical, medical, military, moral and religious! From this detail it appears,-that he was the mere creature of education, and that just as the twig was bent, the tree inclined; that his religious sentiments, which, in his bosom, never slumbered or slept,' were owing to the care of a pious mother; his impatience under insult, to the last words of a dying father; his notions of honour, to the suggestions of a high-minded friend; his military propensities, to the traditions of a country doctor; his successful cultivation of the graces, to the ladies of Philadelphia; and his moral principles, to an Irish regiment quartered in that city, and distinguished, like all other Irish regiments, for temperance and chastity.c
II. His persecutions.
Among many questions, which under this head have been impertinently asked, are two, of preliminary character, but considerable weight, viz.: how it happened, that a man, whose temper was never out of christian trim, should, in exculpating himself, have uniformly thought it necessary to criminate others? and by what extraordinary accident, or management, it was, that he, who only went about doing good, and who, on reviewing a long life, private and public, found no cause for remorse and but little for repentance,' should have provoked a series of persecutions, on charges of conduct, the most vile and flagitious,-made by different men,
a Second part Henry IV. scene 2.
b Appendix, vol. I. document No. 1.
c Vol. I. chap. 1. p. 13, he says, 'to the connexions then formed, [the ladies ' and the Irish regiment] I owe the insuperable aversion I have ever had to 'libertinism and profligate dissipation.' How pitiable is the man, who has lost memory, modesty and conscience!