From Thomas Ritchie: A Study in Virginia Politics by Charles Henry Ambler

Ritchie was not a genius. Either of the others of the great “Democratic Triumvirate” of political editors, Francis P. Blair of the Washington Globe, or Edwin Croswell of the Albany Argus, was his equal in natural ability. Possibly John Hampden Pleasants, Duff Green, and even others surpassed him in one or more of the qualities requisite in a great editor. In versatility, broadness of vision, soundness of judgment, and constructiveness, any of a half score of modern editors surpass him. Why then was he justly called the “Napoleon of the Press”? Some would say that it was because he was the first of the great editors, but that answer is not satisfactory and does not adhere to the truth. No less distinguished an editor than Benjamin Franklin preceded him. There was something of worth in the man himself, which caused him to live and to bear this title of distinction. As his numerous nicknames, “Thomas Nous Verrons,” “Old Nous Verrons,” “Momentous Crisis Ritchie,” “Obita Principiis Ritchie,” “Old State Rights,” “Father Ritchie,” etc., indicate he had a distinct personality.

Success and distinction came to Thomas Ritchie because of his superior tact, his sound judgment, his genial temper, his persuasive manner, and his ability to work. He knew how to improve a victory and equally well how to recover from a defeat, characteristic Napoleonic traits; he seldom distrusted a friend and was as rarely deceived by an enemy; he never surrendered but chivalrously flung away his sword the moment he heard the cry of quarter; he counseled with the aged without becoming obsolete and carressed the young without becoming an enthusiast; he enjoyed the confidence of the sages of the “Mother of Commonwealths” and was admired for his sterling character and devotion to principle throughout the nation; he united Parisian manners with republican simplicity and possessed versatility without caprice, wit without malice, grace without affectation, courage without Quixotism, zeal without bigotry; and he combined with his broad patriotism an intense love for Virginia. Like our greatest and most successful lawyers, he never fought without an object and beyond the pale of his conscience. Then, too, he did not enter the field of national politics until after he had distinguished himself as the recognized spokesman of a great state in the center of the border section. From this strategic point his vision extended to the very outskirts of the nation whence it gathered facts later to be boiled down in the crucible of conservatism and national patriotism. Thus he became an oracle for the whole country and a guide for all other editors less favorably situated and constituted. It should also be borne in mind that he won his prestige when the American press was comparatively in its infancy and when Virginia and her sons were directing the affairs of the nation. After Jefferson and Madison passed from the stage of action Ritchie was, through some of our greatest crises, looked to as the oracle whence they continued to speak.

Historians and casual readers have done Ritchie a grave injustice by handing him down to posterity as a political boss and by overlooking the importance of his editorial career. Such a verdict is not surprising, however, in the light of contemporary comment of which the following from the New York Express is a sample: “If anybody ever understood the politics of the Old Dominion it was Father Ritchie, for he had sounded the depths of all the abstractions of that old Commonwealth from the Resolutions of ’98 to the resolutions of 1844, when a new era seemed to dawn upon the Democracy of the country.” From this and similar comments it was easy to confuse a thorough knowledge of political principles, conditions, and methods with adeptness in the use of political machinery, at which art Ritchie was as ignorant and as helpless as a child. True, there are brief periods in the history of Virginia when his influence and organizing power seemed to dominate, but it is also true that he was more frequently opposed to the leading politicians of that state than in accord with them. The methods of the boss were unknown to him. During the twelve years from 1829 to 1841, when he was a power at the federal court, he recommended only one person for a federal appointment, and during the whole term of his service as national spokesman for his party, he scrupulously refrained from any part in the distribution of the patronage. Certainly Ritchie’s editorial career in Washington, when he became the political football in the contest between the North and the South over the goal to be reached on the Pacific, argues him anything else than a practical politician. With him knowledge and art were not synonymous.

If destined to live among the sons of men, Ritchie must be known as a great editor. His influence upon men came, not from a skillful use of political machinery but from an enthusiastic adherence to fundamental principles, from his power and versatility as a writer, and from his unselfish and patriotic love of the Union. He was not a Tweed. A contemporary of opposite political faith has given the following explanation of his great power: “It proceeded from a knowledge on the part of the public that he was aiming with his whole soul to promote, as far as he thought right, the public interest and particularly to sustain Virginia in her highly prized principles, and to sustain her in the ascendancy among the states. It strengthened in the confidence felt in his disinterested devotion to these things and his freedom from selfish aspirations for himself and his friends.” Had the “Virginia doctrines” lived as the popular theory of the nature of the federal government, the motto, “The Rights of the States and the Union of the States,” would to-day have been as popular as that other motto, “The Union, now and forever.’ As in other great contests so in this, failure attracted attention to the minor incidents by which it was sustained and not to the principles involved. In the light of modern developments, when section is being arrayed against section and interest against interest, who can not see the possibility for a resurrection of this great apostle of the rights and interests of the sovereign states of America and of the classical school of thinkers in politics and economy? Should that time ever come, it would be as impossible to think of Ritchie as a mere politician as it is now impossible to think of Webster in that role.

To Ritchie more than to any one of his contemporaries the press of today owes a debt of gratitude for the high ethical conceptions which he brought to and made a part of his profession. Although caustic and at times severe in his attacks upon public men he never rioted in an unnecessary massacre of private character and always proceeded to such attacks with the recollection that he too had a character of generosity and liberality to maintain and that abuse and scurrility are not always antidotes for ignorance and vice. When he entered the editorial profession the Billingsgate of foreigners was its chief characteristic, necessitating as it had done the enactment of the sedition laws and rendering the profession dangerous to life and limb. Actuated by a high conception of his calling and the importance of a free press as the basis of popular government, he sought to remedy these conditions by proposing to his fellow editors a code of rules, which served to elevate the tone of the press of the whole country and to put the editorial profession upon a higher plane.“

Ritchie’s exertions did not end with an effort to purify editorial ethics. Throughout his whole career he lost no opportunity to elevate the personnel of the press and to increase its usefulness. It was he who called and presided over the first convention of editors held in this country. A review of his address on that occasion (the convention met at Richmond in January, 1838) furnishes ample evidence of his multitudinous services to his profession. After humorous references to the fact that he was already called “the venerable,” he dwelt at length upon the magic power of the press in promoting the progress of art, extending the sphere of science, and in keeping alive a spirit of vigilance over the republic. The irksomeness of tasks “still beginning, never ending” in rolling the stone of Sisyphus up the mountain and in listening to the going and returning footsteps of “the poor Devil” had not stolen the joys of his prison house, the editorial department, and he admonished his co-editors, each as poorly paid as himself, to aim for something higher than fortune, for a position of distinction and power as constructive members of society. In the distinction, high standing and power of the editors of the London Examiner and the Edinburgh Review he saw encouragement for every patriotic American editor who was willing to devote his best to his profession and to cast off the maliciousness and licentiousness of the press in an honest effort to raise the tone of the public morals and to strengthen the character of the public councils. Thoughts of our present subsidized and commercialized press seem never to have crossed his mental vision.

As in most other things Ritchie lived his precepts of industry and application. The demands upon him were great. During the period of his residence in Richmond he was the moving spirit in almost every public gathering, the manager of public balls and dinners, the toastmaster for great occasions, such as that when Charles Dickens, on his second visit to America, was received as the guest of the city, the hospitable host of the politicians, and the faithful reporter of the proceedings of the General Assembly and of all conventions whatsoever, except those in which the hated Whigs held their councils of war. After a night spent in conviviality or in study (he did not retire before three in the morning), an attenuated form, thin and wand and apparently wasted to a shadow, appeared clad in civilian suit with white Marseilles vest, thin pumps, and white socks on schedule + time at the office of the Enquirer. Through heat and cold, snow and rain, mire and dust, Father Ritchie was always the same both in dress and manner. When Congress and the General Assembly were in session, work piled upon him thick and fast, and he then frequently carried to his home large bundles of exchanges and copy bound in his white cambric handkerchief. Under such circumstances it was his habit to retire to an upper apartment of his residence, for the time ceiled to the world, where in dressing gown and slippers and frequently upon the flat of his back with two large candle sticks at his head, he examined exchanges and produced those editorials which shaped the political thinking of others and won for their modest and retiring author the name of a “managing politician.”

This disinterested devotion to duty and to principle largely explains that stoicism and heartlessness with which Ritchie could change his course and strike down a friend without remorse. As his editorials constantly show, the immortal examples of Roman patriotism were his constant sources of inspiration, inspiring as they did others of the fathers who, like Ritchie, could have played the role of a Brutus. Thus it was that he favored the abolition of negro slavery in 1832, following the Southampton insurrection, and the retention of the state banks as depositories of the federal moneys, later to become the very Cerberus of the South’s “peculiar institutions” and a most violent opponent of W. C. Rives who continued friendly to the “pet banks.”

Thus it was that he struck down Van Buren in 1844, without, so far as he himself was concerned, going beyond the pale of his friendship or the possibility of a reconciliation. It is not strange that his ideas and principles, when acted out in the life of that body politic which he did more to shape than any other, except possibly Thomas Jefferson, carried eastern Virginia out of the Union in 1861 and kept western Virginia loyal to it.

In one very essential particular Ritchie was a complete failure as an editor. Though himself the impersonation of honesty and square dealing, he was ignorant in matters of domestic and business economy. His accounts went uncollected until they aggregated thousands and were then frequently forgotten. After Van Buren had ceased to be his political friend, he was forced to a use of strategy in an effort to pay his arrears to the Examiner. With a large and extravagant family to maintain and educate, with a home a center of the hospitality of hospitable Richmond, and with tastes better suited to spending than to accumulating a fortune, Ritchie was kept constantly to the wall. At times his dependence upon friends and banks for loans embarrassed him as an editor, and, in an evil hour of his fame, it was the hope of remedying his finances that induced him to go to Washington. Had it not been for the timely and deserved relief extended by Congress, he would doubtless have died in poverty.

Ritchie’s home life was ideal. At the age of twenty nine he had married Miss Isabella Harminson Foushee, daughter of Dr. William Foushee, a distinguished physician of Richmond. To this marriage were born twelve children: Isabella, always referred to by her father in his correspondence as “my dear Bell,” Mary, John, William Foushee, Robert Ruffin, Margaret, Thomas, Jr., Charlotte, Frances, Anne Eliza, George, and Virginia. In the midst of this large and charming family circle Father Ritchie appeared at his best, the beau ideal of a gentleman of the model of the old French school and a kind and indulgent parent. The sons received the best education obtainable in this country, and William F. spent some years abroad in a study of the modern languages. The daughters received training in the private schools of Richmond and under the direction of their father who spent many an hour in their instruction. To them he was peculiarly tender and affectionate. When speaking of them to friends and acquaintances, it is said, that his eyes sparkled with that pleasure which evinces true satisfaction and pride. He also loved his grandchildren, and a large part of his holidays and of the period of his retirement was spent in romping with them upon the green lawn or in the halls of the palatial home of his dear Bell at Brandon. Both children and grandchildren had his first thoughts and deepest interests. On the occasion of the birth of his fifth daughter and eighth child he wrote his brother Archibald as follows: “What a load upon a man to do justice by such a crowd and give them all a good education. However, they must do as well as they can for themselves (the boys, of course, I mean). As to the girls, they must behave well and try to fix themselves as well as they can, or live contentedly without extravagance in their father’s house.”

It is needless to say that children thus carefully reared rarely fell short of their father’s expectations. Isabella married George E. Harrison and became the mistress of Brandon, whence her famed hospitality extended throughout the states and even to Europe; Mary became Mrs. Thomas Green. William F. became the editor and proprietor of the Enquirer, which he continued to edit with marked ability even into the period of the War between the States, always adhering to the conservative and conciliatory policy of his father. Robert Ruffin was a distinguished physician and practiced in the vicinity of Brandon. Margaret became the wife of Robert King Stone, a celebrated physician of Washington and a friend of Abraham Lincoln. Until his death, which occurred on May 22, 1854, about six weeks before that of his father, Thomas, Jr., was associated with his brother as joint editor and proprietor of the Enquirer. It was he who accepted a challenge in an affair of honor which resulted fatally to John Hampden Pleasants and cast a shadow over his own life to the time of his death. Charlotte married John Gittings, and Anne Eliza, a famous beauty, became Mrs. William B. Cross. George died while yet a young man, and Virginia never married but, after her sister’s death, continued to reside at Brandon and to share in the distribution of its hospitality.

Thus Ritchie had lived to see most of his children happily married and some of them on the road to service and even to fame; he himself had a comfortable living; friends were respectful and appreciative; and the joys of the several firesides around which he was called grandfather were sources of true comfort and delight. These were certainly suitable blessings for a stormy life spent in the service of others, and human justice would have continued them indefinitely. But the God of nature decreed otherwise. Beneath the outer cover of cheer and vigor the iron constitution of the venerable editor was wearing slowly away. When his final illness came he expressed the belief that he would never recover; nevertheless, he was calm and poised, patient and benevolent, conversing freely and frankly upon public affairs and uttering his counsels and warnings with his usual tone and power, and declaring, as he had ever done, that his solicitude for his country was high and buoyant.

On many notable occasions the pealing anthems of our national anniversary have mingled with the requiem and the dirge of statesmen and patriots, but never did they fall upon a nobler, purer soul than that of Thomas Ritchie. He died at 12 o’clock noon, July 3, 1854. Following a brief funeral service which was attended by the President, members of his cabinet, scores of senators and representatives in Congress. and a vast concourse of loving admirers, his remains were taken to Richmond and laid to rest in Hollywood at a beautiful spot overlooking the James which he loved and by the side of which his greatest battles had been won. The inscriptions upon his monument are those that Ritchie him self might have selected. In one side this appears: “In memory of Thomas Ritchie, founder of the Richmond Enquirer, and for more than forty years, the controlling spirit of that Journal,” and on another this expressive characterization: “He never turned his back upon his country, was always devoted to his friends, and never dreaded his enemies.”

Regardless of party affiliations the press of the whole country hastened to pay tribute to the venerable dead. His political enemies, for he had few others, had never hated him personally, the charm of his personal purity having made even them to be “at peace with him.” Of the many tributes paid to him the following from the Washington Sentinel, then edited by a man whom he had practically reared, is the most appropriate for this biography:

“No impure thought ever found a resting place in that old man’s heart. The world thought that he was shrewd and cunning, but the world did not know him. Mr. Ritchie was a plain, free spoken man with intense personal attachments, and, we believe, without an animosity toward a living man. For fifty years he has been an active combatant. He has gone down to the tomb without an enemy.”

Ritchie died as he had lived, a patriot, loyal to the whole country and true to his original conception of the nature of the federal government. At the time of his death all efforts, to compromise the differences between the North and the South seemed futile, and he was distressed to see the states again estranged and the stars of the great constellation of commonwealths dimmed and unstable in their spheres. Unlike the venerable George Mason he did not, however, despair of the republic. In the closing paragraph of his last will and testament, which is its own apology for quoting here as the closing paragraph of this biography, he, in a patriotic retrospect of the past and vision of the future and in a concise statement of his own political philosophy, dedicated his sons to the public service. Said he:

“I hold it to be the duty of every citizen to watch over the interests of the country of which he is a member, and such a free and glorious country as this is! Who is not proud of her destiny? Who is not willing to give his services and even his life to the maintenance of the great principles on which her free and federal institutions are based? America has made one of the greatest political discoveries which the world has witnessed: a form of government which reserves to the states and their people the power of regulating most of the functions which appertain to government, leaving but very few powers, and they only of the most general and yet important character, to the jurisdiction of the federal authorities. Hence the specification which is made in the constitution of those powers, which the United States are to exercise in their legitimate sphere; and hence the necessity of watching over the operation of the machinery and repairing its excesses, when it threatens the rights of the States. We are already the greatest power among the nations. We are destined to be greater still, but let us not be too ambitious, or too rapid in our advances. Let us fill up the immense territory which we own. Let us not be too anxious to step our foot from the mainland to the islands, unless indeed, as in the case of Cuba, we are threatened by the barbarization of that beautiful island and its conversion into a black and hostile neighborhood. Let us not deny to the inhabitants of other lands a free asylum into our own shores; but let us confine ourselves to the operation of natural causes. In this way we may best acclimate the emigrant to our free institutions. Preserve both the Rights of the Union and the Rights of the States. These are the two great pillars of American prosperity and glory.”

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Abbeville Institute.

Abbeville Institute

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