1846: Nelson N. Clark to William W. Reynolds

The signature on this letter appears to read “Major N. N. Clark” but I have not been able to identify him definitely. There was a Brevet Major N. N. Clark (sometimes written in N. S. Clark in military records) that led the expedition of the U. S. Army’s 2nd Infantry into Maine during the First Aroostook War and who oversaw the construction of the Hancock Barracks on our northern border. This same individual claimed to be residing in Shelburne, Chittenden county, Vermont, in October 1829 when he requested a 1 year furlough from the military to visit southern France for the purpose of regaining his health. I can’t be certain if he is the same Nelson N. Clark who was a 2nd Lt., 4th Infantry in 1829. I feel there must be a connection, however, as he signed the letter “Major” in this letter even though it appears he was not longer in the military but was employed as a lawyer working out of Macon, Georgia—prominent enough in the community to have been asked to give a speech at the Washington’s Birthday Ball in Macon in 1846. He may have been employed as a lawyer for a cotton factor. He clearly had ties to the North though he was no abolitionist.

In his letter, Clark shares with his friend the content of the extemporaneous speech he gave at the Washington Birthday Ball, extolling the many virtues of George Washington, including having “habituated the people to our peculiar institutions” prior to his leaving office. He then speaks of the potential impeding conflicts with England over the Oregon Territory and with Mexico, particularly with the latter whom he says the U. S. will have to “teach a lesson” and take the war deep into their interior and claim as much land as is needed to pay for the expense of the war.

Clark wrote the letter to William Whitford Reynolds (1816-1876) of Petersburgh, Rensselaer county, New York


Macon [Georgia]
March 2nd 1846

Dear Sir,

After my respects, I would say that my health is very good. It is something strange that I can’t get any letters from you. I have written to you three or four times since I have heard from you and I certainly must believe that you do not receive my letters or I begin to think your Post Office is not as honest as it should be or that my letters are miscarried. I have heard from my cotton and find it is not as bad as reported although I have been compelled to commence suit against the Insurance Company for about twelve thousand dollars but I do not expect to recover nothing like that amount.

I must give you some account of our celebration of the 22nd of February [Washington’s Birthday] which came off in the City of Macon. We had a ball at night at the Washington Hall 1 and several beautiful remarks made on the occasion and among the number I was called upon. I will give you some of the items.

I commenced by saying that as long as the Anglo-Saxon race shall inhabit the continent and our early country’s history be remembered, this day will be looked on as a period for rejoicing—for proud recollection of the bright annals of the past—as a glorious incentive to patriotism for the future. It is the natal day of the illustrious Washington who was “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen”—whose noble fame soars as far above those of his own or other ages as the snow-capped summits of the loft Andes to the petty molehills which arises at their base. Other heroes, patriots and sages, who have left behind them imperishable monuments of this superiority, possessed so complete a mixture of divine and earthly elements, which were so inseparably mixed in their mental and moral structure, that their purest acts were affected by the flaws of their selfishness—their most elevated sentiments debased by human weaknesses.

But in the character of Washington there seems to have been so harmonious a combination of ennobling moral and commanding intellectual faculties, that like some classic remnant of antiquity, he stands forth a pure model of a man, to be emulated by the wise, the generous, and the good of all succeeding ages. In his character, the observer will perceive none of those vast inequalities so often remarkable with earth’s noblest benefactors, none of those debasing vices, which cause us to conclude that genius is a dangerous privilege, too often leading its possessor to reek his present or future happiness. No! the “father of his country” resembles none of these. Wielding a power sufficient to have endangered his country’s liberties, he possessed self-control enough to rise superior to the temptation. Possessing naturally a vehement disposition, his innate intelligence soon led him to control its influence and no person ever saw Washington debase himself by envy, or degrade himself by intemperance. View him as a statesman or a warrior and none will surpass him!

Opposed to the best European troops commanded by experienced generals, we see him keeping together is little band of undisciplined, half-starved and ill-clad militia, present at every point of assault, ever presenting his foe the same bold front, undismayed in the hour of defeat, unintoxicated in the moment of triumph. As a statesman, we see him adopting that policy which has been universally acknowledged the best fitted to our country’s condition and institutions, warily guiding the national helm during the stormy period of the French Revolution, so that our weak bark of state withstood the monarchies of the Old World. Nicely adjusting the balance between opposing parties at home, he repressed the violence of both and habituated the people to our peculiar institutions, 2 before he retired from the sphere of public service. The poet has sung the praises of Washington—the orator has depicted his career in soul stirring language—the historian has recorded his noble deed—and genius has essayed to hand down to posterity the chiseled features of the “father of his country,” but as long as this continent shall endure, a votary of freedom exists, or the name of America be remembered, the republican institutions of our country, her millions of intelligent and happy inhabitants, and vast intellectual and pecuniary wealth, will be the true monument of Washington’s glory—the imperishable memorials of his undying fame.

The anniversary of his birthday coming on Sunday, the different volunteer companies of our city paraded on Monday and paid the usual honor to the occasion. The ear piercing-fife, soul-stirring drum, and echoing sound of the discharge of musketry. all told that a grateful people were rejoicing in commemoration of the anniversary of their benefactor, whilst the rising generations were reminded to emulate his virtues and perpetuate his memory.

I received the notice of the ball that was to be given whilst I was in Darien and I only arrived home in the evening the ball was to come off. The ball was graced with beauty of the city and many of the surrounding country. The company did not engage in the exercises of the merry dance until a very late hour on account of the many remarks made upon the occasion, after which the gay scenes gave place to the more quiet routine of the “stilly night.” I did not expect that I should be called upon or I would have been prepared in the presence of so many Ladies to have given something more brilliant.

Before you shall receive this letter, I shall be in Hawkinsville, Pulaski county, State of Georgia, where I expect to remain for about six weeks and shall expect to receive an answer to this at that place. I am getting along with the cases which I have in court but the suit which I have commenced agains the insurance company cannot be tried in any less than twelve months so that the suit will have no detriment to my coming North this next June and by the help of the Almighty, I will see you this summer. In case you will come home with me in the fall, it will not cost you one cent whilst you are with me and I will pledge myself to go home with you in the summer following. I went to Darien about the tenth of February and would have written to you from there but my business was such that I had no opportunity of writing to you from there. I have effected so many settlements of cases which I had in the courts in the different counties that I shall get through much sooner than I expected.

By the news we get from England, she does not care to fight for the Oregon [territory] but wishes to have it settled on friendly terms, but I can see nothing but we will have to give Mexico a lesson and if we do, I hope that they will carry the war into the interior of Mexico and will claim as much of her lands as will pay the expense of the war. And in case that England should conclude to fight for the Oregon [territory], it is my wish that the United States would send an army of 50,000 into the Canades and carry the war there and doing so, we will find plenty of friends there.

It is now about two o’clock in the morning and I think it is time for me to bed and must close my letter. Give my respects to all whom you have been at liberty of doing and you have my best wishes. Give me all particulars of what is going on in your country.

Yours respectfully, — Major N. N. Clark

[to] William W. Reynolds, Esqr.

1 Washington Hall was completed in February 1827 and was located on the south corner of Mulberry and Second Streets. It was destroyed by a fire in September 1855 with several other structures on Mulberry Street.

2 “Peculiar institution” was a euphemistic term that white southerners used for slavery. John C. Calhoun defended the “peculiar labor” of the South in 1828 and the “peculiar domestick institution: in 1830. Ther term came into general use in the 1830s when the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison began to attack slavery. [Enclopedia.com]

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