Defying Conventions (Part XII)
CHAPTER 9 (continued)
The General Assembly seemed to be busy on every previous occasion that Camden had been afforded the opportunity to visit, but today was by far the busiest he had ever seen it. Mr. Randolph also seemed to be impressed with the sheer amount of activity and the press of bodies that seemed to line every hallway and room. The hectic atmosphere, however, was not the only thing that made this visit to the makeshift capitol significant.
Today, Camden was there not merely as an observer, but also as an advocate. The members of the General Assembly would soon be voting on how to instruct the members of the Confederation Congress regarding amendments to the Articles. Over the course of the past weeks, Mr. Randolph had identified those members who had more or less decided where they stood already. Few who found themselves committed supporters of Mr. Madison’s nationalism were likely to be convinced. Yet there were those who vacillated or who expressed no firm opinion one way or the other that might still be convinced. It was those members that he and Mr. Randolph were there to see.
The first on their list was a member of the House of Delegates from Amherst County, Carter Taliaferro. He had agreed to meet with Mr. Randolph that morning, but had apparently already had similar meetings with Mr. Madison and Governor Randolph. The stakes were clear to everyone.
They arrived at the appointed time and place--a small book shop near the New Academy, the site where the House of Delegates had been meeting in recent days. Mr. Taliaferro arrived only a few minutes later and greeted Mr. Randolph.
“Mr. Taliaferro, may I introduce my apprentice, Mr. Camden Page.”
“Ah, yes, Mr. Page,” Taliaferro exclaimed. “Your reputation precedes you. I hope you will not find the same set of skills necessary in Richmond as you did in Philadelphia,” he said, before slapping Camden on the meat of his upper arm. Camden saw his eyes widen momentarily, as if he had not expected an apprentice to a lawyer to be quite so muscular.
“I can tell you gentlemen that after meeting with Mr. Madison and the governor, the case for their amendments is compelling.”
“The governor and Mr. Madison would not be in positions of influence, “said Mr. Randolph, “if they had not the powers of persuasion. However, I think you will find that I, too, can be persuasive.”
“What means of persuasion have you, then?”
“To begin with, we would ask you what you believe it was that Americans fought for in 1776?”
A confused look came across Taliaferro’s face. He then bit his lower lip for a moment before speaking. “You mean you are to persuade me with the force of your arguments?” He paused, as if to gauge the reaction to his question. “I had hoped that you gentlemen were prepared with some means of persuasion that would prove more . . . lucrative.”
Camden turned to look at Mr. Randolph, whose face had darkened in a way that he had never seen it before. “You will be sure to find us a disappointment in that regard, Mr. Taliaferro,” he forced out through clenched teeth. “Good day to you, sir.”
The last word was pregnant with meaning, Camden thought. Mr. Randolph brushed past Taliaferro to leave and he followed closely, noting the look on Taliaferro’s face that was some mixture of astonishment and rage. They walked in the direction of Mr. Randolph’s house for several minutes, before Mr. Randolph finally stopped and broke the silence between them.
“Men like Taliaferro are . . . well, a certain amount of what you need to know about them is obvious, I suppose. His attitude toward government will be the death of our republic. And that not merely because he will go along with the tendency toward consolidating power in a national government. No matter the level of government, there will always be those who will abuse it for their own aggrandizement.”
“Do you suppose there are more like him?”
“Some, yes. There always have been and always will be. The difficulty is in uncovering who they are before they have the chance to do real harm. With him I have no doubt that it is too late.”
Here, Mr. Randolph drew in a deep breath and let out one of his characteristic sighs.
“Men like him make it difficult to want to do what must be done. Difficult, but not so difficult that I am willing to let them win without a fight. Come.”
With that, Mr. Randolph turned on his heel and headed back in the direction they had come. “Take out that list of Delegates, please, Mr. Page. There is much work to be done. I’ll be hanged if a rascal like Carter Taliaferro will succeed in accomplishing what a murderous English conspiracy could not.”
Yet another new look appeared on Mr. Randolph’s face. Camden had seen his mentor deep in thought before and this look was something like that one. But it was, at the same time, something more. Whatever was going through Mr. Randolph’s mind at the moment, Camden was sure that he would not want to be anyone who stood in his path.
They spent the rest of the morning speaking to a handful of delegates who practiced law. They would be, Mr. Randolph thought, the most likely to support the amendment to establish a national supreme court of limited jurisdiction.
“You see, Mr. Copeland,” he told one apprehensive delegate, “the court will exist for no other purpose than to resolve controversies between two or more states and disputes between a state and citizens of another state. The court can exercise no jurisdiction in any other cases and has no power of its own, owing the appointment of its judges to the states as assembled in congress. It is not a consolidation of power, but rather an agreement among the states about the best means for arbitrating disputes amongst themselves.”
“I see your point, Mr. Randolph,” Mr. Copeland responded. “I cannot say that you are wrong, but others also make compelling arguments. I simply need more time to reflect before I come to a decision.”
“Indeed. But the time for action is very close at hand, as I suppose I need not tell you. Will you inform me as soon as possible after you have settled it in your mind?”
The man nodded politely before excusing himself.
“He seemed convinced, Mr. Randolph,” Camden offered. “But I think he just doesn’t want to seem as if he has not given the matter sufficient deliberation.”
“I tend to agree. If we can count on Mr. Copeland’s vote, the amendments may succeed.” Mr. Randolph mopped at his forehead with his handkerchief. “Who is next on our list?”
Camden pulled the list from his vest pocket. “He was the last.”
“Very well then. All we can do now is wait. And hope.”
Nat awoke to the unusual sound of knocking on his room’s door at Mrs. Daniels’ boarding house. He had no friends or family in Philadelphia and he kept his lodgings as a closely-guarded secret even from his clients.
“Who is it?” he asked tentatively, realizing that the mental haze to which he ordinarily awoke was absent. His efforts on behalf of Monroe and Camden Page seemed to have resulted in considerably less late-night imbibing than before.
“My name is Peter Tobin. Have I come to the wrong place? I was told I could speak with a Mr. Nathaniel Aldridge here.”
Nat swung his feet out onto the floor and said “Just a moment,” as he pulled on his socks. Shuffling over to the door, he opened it just a crack. Standing in the hallway, his face half-illumined from the early morning sun, was a finely-dressed man who appeared vaguely familiar to Nat.
“What did you say your name was?”
“Peter Tobin, sir. If you are, in fact, Nathaniel Aldridge, then I may have a business proposition for you.”
Nat was never one to turn away a potential client without giving him a fair hearing, especially a client whose wealth and status was so immediately apparent. He noticed now that the man also carried a well-constructed walking cane with what appeared to be a polished, silver handle.
“Come in then, please. I am Nathaniel Aldridge.” Nat knew the man must have known already that he was the man he was looking for; the burns on his face served as a unique if somewhat grotesque trademark.
“Before we proceed I must ask who sent you here. My residence is not common knowledge, Mr. Tobin.”
“Oh, I had not thought of that. It was James Monroe.” Mr. Tobin fidgeted with his hat and cane, seeming to be unsure whether he should set them down or hold them. That the man was somewhat ill at ease in this meager establishment was clear to Nat immediately.
“If you come on Mr. Monroe’s advice, then you are very welcome. Please, have a seat, and tell me about this business proposition of yours.”
Mr. Tobin lowered himself gently into the room’s only chair, setting his hat in his lap and folding his hands on top of his cane, the gleaming tip of which he planted directly between his feet. It was, Nat thought, a striking pose for such a humble abode as his.
“Mr. Aldridge, your work in uncovering the Doane conspiracy has not gone unnoticed. Perhaps your name has been kept out of the papers to a large degree, but a word shared in confidence is often far more important than a full page in print. Depending on whose word it is, of course.”
Nat shifted forward to the edge of the bed and nodded.
“Perhaps in the course of your investigation into the Doane matter you came to be aware that Benjamin Doane and I had a fair amount of business dealings together. I assure you, however, that I am a patriot through and through; the last thing I want is for America to be plunged into the sort of chaos that might invite an attack from a foreign power, especially one from the British.”
“I take you at your word, sir,” Nat offered, seeing that the man was clearly uncomfortable at his former association with the now-infamous criminal Doane. “Mr. Monroe certainly would not have sent you to me if what you say is untrue.”
“Then my proposal to you, Mr. Aldridge, is this: work for me, help me disentangle myself from Benjamin Doane and his abettors.” Mr. Tobin continued just as Nat was opening his mouth to speak. “Perhaps you are going to protest that you are merely an inconsequential thief-taker who is not qualified to the task. I refuse to believe it. Your skills should be put to use for something larger than running down drunken gamblers for less than a day’s wages.”
Nat’s mind drifted to the handful of empty liquor bottles remaining in the corner of his room. “I’m not sure I’m made out for much more than what I already am, Mr. Tobin. The truth is that those gamblers and I have a lot in common.”
“I see,” said Mr. Tobin, a slight furrow appearing on his brow. “Perhaps you are right. But perhaps that is a risk I am willing to take.”
Nat pondered this. The man seated across from him knew almost nothing about him save what had been passed on from others, others that he clearly trusted. The thought of a better life and work with more significance appealed to him, but he also knew that old habits, having taken up residence, are not easily dispatched. A drunk who lurked in the shadows was one thing, but to have his vices reappear in full view of the general public was another thing entirely.
“Well, Mr. Tobin,” he started. The other man raised his hand.
“You must know, however, Mr. Aldridge, that your employment would not be without its conditions. In fact, I have only one condition on which I will accept no negotiation.”
Here, Mr. Tobin gestured to the bottles in the corner. “You must give up your drunkenness. Whether you decide to abstain entirely is of no consequence to me, but if you are ever indisposed such that I cannot immediately call upon your services, the relationship will be terminated immediately and irrevocably. I hope that is sufficiently clear.”
“Perfectly clear, Mr. Tobin.”
“Very well then. Do we have an agreement, Mr. Aldridge?”
Nat paused for only a moment, then stood, and taking a deep breath, extended his hand. Whether this Mr. Tobin could transform him into a member of respectable society remained to be seen, but Nat was, to his own surprise, willing to take that chance.
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