James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Nathaniel Irwin, 31 March 1801

From Nathaniel Irwin

Bucks County, Pennsya: March 31st. 1801.

Dear Sir

I condole with you on the death of your honoured father, whose politeness & attention I do not forget. Such are the changes in this world, that with the same breath, I congratulate you on your accession (I will not say elevation) to the Office of Secy of State. On this occasion I would remind you, that “you were once my friend.” Do not be alarmed. I am not going to ask your influence with the President, that I may be promoted to an embassy or the government of an Island, like Sancho.1 My views are more moderate & will yield to consideration of public utility. I have a son; 21 years old; who writes a good hand, & is acquainted with accounts. He wishes very much, to be employed as a clerk in some public office. As he has never served in that capacity, I expect for him, only some inferior Clerkship, by which he may support himself, with œconomy. Should such be in your gift or within your influence; you may command his services within 15 days after the receipt of your orders; or at any longer day, as you shall prescribe. But first let me do justice to my conscience, & my friend, by giving you his true character. Tho’ a father, I can say with Brutus, “I love not his faults,” nor am partial to them. He has a good appearance—a pleasing address; & readily insinuates himself into the good graces of his acquaintances, who have not been of the higher class. His memory is good, & capacity for learning very considerable. But he wants ballast. Loves company & amusement; drinks, but not to excess. I have had fears, that he would not have the necessary steadiness for a public Office: but after warning him of the uninterrupted attention which would be required, in office-hours; he is confident, that he can conform; & only wishes a trial, nothing doubtful of the issue. If you can be the means of giving him such a trial, consistently with the public service; your own feelings & character, I also believe that the experiment will succeed; but will stand prepared for any reverse, which your wisdom may afterwards pronounce.

So much for business. A few words now on friendship, if you are at leisure to. You have not had a letter from me in twenty years. I have often been in Philada when you was there & heard you speak; without calling on you. I hope you have the sagacity to see, that all this, was perfectly consistent with unshaken friendship, & increasing admiration, on my part. I saw you engrossed by national business. American liberty, assailed from every quarter, looked up to you, as one of her chief defenders. In this situation, the letters & calls of an obscure country parson; could only operate as draughts on your time. Do not think me deficient in candor, when I add; that the splendor of your talents, threw me to a distance, & checked the presumption of a nearer approach. I was content with the humbler ambition, of telling my friends, when you became the subject of discourse, that I had the honour of being known to you at College.2 In the mean time, I was not without the means of cultivating an acquaintance with you. Your speeches—your writings, I read with pleasure. Perhaps you would think I had laid down the Clergyman & assumed the Courtier, were I to tell you what I think of the spirit, & reasoning of your most candid & masterly work, entitled, Proceedings of the Virginia Assembly &C. Among your speeches, I was most pleased with a very short one, in which you stated the insufficiency & impropriety of the reasons given by Washington, for witholding the documents relative to the British Treaty.3 Thus, My dear Sir, I have all along been familiar with you, tho’ perhaps you did not know it. You have not had the like opportunity of a continued acquaintance with me. Judging from my own feelings, that you are not wholly indifferent to what concerns me; I shall add a sketch of my modern history. Chesterfield say[s], that a man always writes dully, when he writes about himself. I shall try to finish this sketch, before you are tempted to sleep. I was divorced in—84: my Ce devant wife died in—95: I remain a widower, with one daughter; married agreeably; & one son: my fortune, not affluent; yet sufficient to satisfy my moderate desires: I continue Pastor of the Church of Neshaminey; but since the year—96 have been rather a politician; than a divine. As an apology for the seeming vanity of what follows, you should know; that genius & education, are more rare in this County, than you can well conceive. We have scarce a person, on the republican side, who can draught a resolution, which our friends would not blush to see in print. Therefore, partly from my devotion to the cause: partly from persuasion of others, & concurrence of the Congregation, almost purely republican; I have been led to attend County meetings; & am now almost a sine qua non, in political councils. Besides various Resolutions & occasional squibs I penned two Addresses to the people in—99; one of which Judge Patterson pronounced to be actionable, under the sedition-law.4 Last Fall & winter I wrote three others, the last of which may be seen in the Aurora of  .5 All these were issued as the Acts of the Republican Committee of the County; published in several Newspapers & in handbills the last only excepted. In—96 the federalists carried the elections in this County, by a majority of more than two to one. In—99 their advantage was about 100 in 4260 votes. Last fall we took the lead, & carried the prize by more than 500 votes.

Gen. P. Muhlenberg, our Representative in Congress from this District, having been removed to the Senate; I have been spoken of as his successor. Could I consent to be a Candidate, I have at present no doubt, that I should be taken up by the Republicans of the District; & if so, must certainly succeed.

“O mihi preteritos referret si Jupiter annos”6

“Its now the five & fiftieth simmer

 I’ve seen the bud upon the timmer”7

My Constitution, perhaps, is older still. My present situation more suited to the repose which age requires. Nor do I feel the inward call of the spirit (as we divines speak) enforcing the outward call. We can send another man to the house, who will attend well & vote right. As to speakers,

“Non talis auxilio, nec istes opibus, tempus eget.”8

I have therefore declined & shall not be a Candidate; unless the election should be postponed to the fall & some change of mind, or circumstances prepare the way.

By this time you must be nodding: I shall therefore bid you good night & suppress all that should preceed

Nathl. Irwin.

P. S. No answer is expected, save on the article of business; which may be as short as you please sent by Mail, & directed to the care of David Jackson Junr., Apothecary, No. 69 Chesnut Street Philada P—

N. I.

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