We’ve read a lot of histories that include biographies of families and founders and most of them are pretty, well truthfully, either dull or so full of platitudes that we don’t stay with them very long. But one we have enjoyed for many years was published in 1878 by W. V. N. Bay (William Van Ness Bay), a tome that needed 611 pages to live up to its title:
Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar of Missouri: With an Appendix, Containing Biographical Sketches of Nearly All of the Judges and Lawyers who Have Passed Away, Together with Many Interesting and Valuable Letters Never Before Published of Washington, Jefferson, Burr, Granger, Clinton, and Others, Some of which Throw Additional Light Upon the Famous Burr Conspiracy.
Bay’s writing style is graceful, respectful, and honest. While most books of the era were often written in a stilted or flowery language, his was conversational and genteel.
Here’s an example from Bay’s book. As I read it, I was reminded of a recent conversation with an acquaintance who is considering whether to get into politics but has had trouble dealing with some of the things said about him in his business. I’ve suggested that thinking of entering the political realm will expose him to much worse. Bay’s story addresses that and also has a certain resonance with contemporary events. Bay has a couple of quotes, too, that respond to a part of the world of politics that never seems to get better. Here’s Bay:
Many of our readers will recollect the deep sensation produced upon the public mind by the announcement of the tragic death of this gentleman, who took his own life while governor of the state. He was not only one of the profoundest jurists of the West, but possessed a versatility of talent that would enable him to adorn any position to which he might be called.
Governor Reynolds was born March 12, 1796, in Bracken County, Kentucky. But very little is known respecting his early education, but it was, no doubt, as good as could be obtained in the schools where he resided. He certainly was not a classical scholar, though he had some knowledge of Latin. He was admitted to the bar in Kentucky, about the time he became of age, but in early life he removed to Illinois, where he filled the several offices of clerk of the House of Representatives, speaker of the House, attorney-general, and chief justice of the Supreme Court.
In 1829 he moved to Missouri, and located at Fayette, Howard County. He brought with him a high reputation as a jurist, and soon secured a good practice. It was not long before he was chosen to represent Howard County in the Legislature, and became speaker of the House. After leaving the Legislature he was appointed judge of the judicial circuit comprising the counties of Howard, Boone, Callaway, et al.
In 1840 the Democratic party met in convention at Jefferson City, to nominate a ticket for state officers, and Judge Reynolds was nominated for governor almost by acclamation.
It was at this time we made his acquaintance, and formed a very high estimate of him as not only a man of ability, but of undoubted integrity and honesty of purpose. As a delegate in the Convention we gave him our support, and had occasion frequently afterwards to meet and transact business with him, as we were in the Legislature during most of the time he was governor. He was elected over J. B. Clark by a handsome majority.
No very important event transpired during his administration. He was the first governor who strongly urged the abolition of imprisonment for debt, and probably to him more than any other person are we indebted for this humane enactment.
Governor Reynolds had few superiors as a jurist, and hence it is that most of his life was spent on the bench. There was nothing superficial in his law learning. He drank from the lowest depths of the legal well, and there secured the gems which can be nowhere else found.
“Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow; He who would search for pearls must dive below.”
He studied the law as a science, and we have heard him say on several occasions that he had read Coke, Bacon, and Blackstone a dozen times. His mind was as clear as a bell, and his power of analysis very great. As a forensic speaker few excelled him, and in canvassing the state for governor but few were willing to encounter him.
At the time of his death his prospects for distinction were greater than those of any man in the state, for his genial habits, pleasant demeanor, and unquestioned integrity had made him exceedingly popular, and it was a mere question of time as to his elevation to the Federal Senate. He had a dread of being thought disloyal to his party, which often induced him to appoint men to office unfit for the position. A noted instance of this will be found in our memoir of James Evans.
Shortly after breakfast, on February 9, 1844, the report of a gun was heard from the executive mansion in Jefferson City, and some persons passing by at the time went into the governor’s office to ascertain the cause of it, and there found the governor weltering in his blood, with the top of his head blown entirely off, and of course dead. He had just before sent for a rifle, the muzzle of which he placed against his forehead, and by the aid of a strong twine tied to the trigger, with one end wrapped around his thumb, he discharged it. On the table near where he fell was found a letter addressed to his most intimate friend, Colonel William G. Minor, in the following words:
“In every situation in which I have been placed, I have labored to discharge my duty faithfully to the public; but this has not protected me for the last twelve months from the slanders and abuse of my enemies, which has rendered my life a burden to me. I pray God to forgive them, and teach them more charity. My will is in the hands of James L. Minor, Esq. Farewell.
“Col. W. G. Minor.”
Here we might stop, and throw a mantle over this mysterious and tragic event, but truth and candor force us to state that many of Governor Reynolds’ friends attributed the suicide to a very different cause from that designated in his letter to Colonel Minor. To be more explicit, they believed it grew out of his domestic troubles. It is certainly a very great draft upon our credulity to suppose that a man who had been a quarter of a century in public life, and who was an old and experienced politician, would take his own life because of the ill-natured squibs of the opposition press, which every public man has to encounter. No greater truism was ever uttered by man, than was uttered by Dean Swift when he said, “Censure is the tax a man pays for being eminent.”
That he may have been more than ordinarily sensitive in this respect is not improbable, but the comments of the press respecting his administration were no more uncharitable than those which had been aimed at the governor who preceded him. He should have found some consolation in the words of Pope:
“The villain’s censure is extorted praise.”
If the letter to Colonel Minor was worded with the view of drawing the attention of the public from the true cause of the suicide, he had a motive which others can conjecture as well as ourselves. We express no opinion in relation to it.
—In months to come, we shall wade thigh-deep through censure, “the tax a man pays for being eminent.” It is most often the product of those with little to offer for themselves or those they support and is, when you think of it, a form of “extorted praise.”
February, 1844 and February 2015. Tragedy comes when the “villain’s censure” seems to be the only part of the equation that is recognized and the tax paid for eminence becomes unbearable.
Let’s see in the election year of 2016 whether our lawmakers will do anything about cutting this tax.