A Sap and an Open Ticket

Last week, my friend David sent me an excerpt of a 1778 letter from Alexander Hamilton to George Clinton that closes with some thoughts on “a certain faction” that had reared its head and now has gone back into hiding.

You and I had some conversation, when I had the pleasure of seeing you last, with respect to the existence of a certain faction. Since I saw you, I have discovered such convincing traits of the monster, that I cannot doubt its reality in the most extensive sense. I dare say you have seen and heard enough to settle the matter in your own mind. I believe it unmasked its batteries too soon, and begins to hide its head; but, as I imagine it will only change the storm to a sap, all the true and sensible friends to their country, and of course to a certain great man, ought to be upon the watch, to counterplot the secret machinations of his enemies.

I struggled with the oblique writing here and had track down the meaning of “sap” as well. It’s a military term for a covered trench. An eighteenth-century encyclopedia entry included among the OED illustrations lists several kinds of sap, from the single parapet sap to the “flying” sap, which is outfitted with gabions. In the siege of a fortification, sappers excavate a trench toward the wall, allowing infantry to advance without being cut down by artillery fire from above. So the “sap” came to stand for an insidious or devious method of attack, as opposed to the “storm” or direct assault. Having prematurely shown its batteries and revealed its position, the faction will now resort to devious means and secret machinations.

It has not been so easy to solve another little mystery that presented itself just two days later, when I was reading the autobiography of Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, which first appeared in 1902. In his account of the McKinley assassination. Gibbs explains that he is going to focus

on a peculiar phase of the catastrophe, that for the truth of history and in the interest of justice should not be so rudely and covertly buried ‘neath the immature “beatings of time.”

The quotation marks are Gibbs’; the source of the quotation is an open question.

I may be wrong in assuming that Gibbs is actually quoting some other writer, and not just using — I would say misusing — the quotation marks to offset his own figurative turn of phrase. I had a passing thought it might be Wordsworth; but that was just a passing thought and a bad guess. Whitman? Think Leaves of Grass: “The indications and tally of all time…” in “The Song of the Answerer,” or, again:

…from the sea of Time, collecting vasting all, I bring,
A windrow-drift of weeds and shells.

Great stuff, but so far as I can tell Walt Whitman is just another bad guess. Charles later that same day offered the “wild guess” that it might be William James, but I haven’t been able to unearth the phrase in James’ vast work. Besides, I suspect that if Gibbs is indeed quoting another author, it’s probably a poet, one his audience would recognize, and it’s probably a work of poetry along the lines of Sonnet 55 (“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes,” etc.), a meditation on the passing of all things. So Gibbs’ ticket is still open, and I welcome suggestions, thoughts and wild guesses that might help close it.

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