Vol. I. New York: D. Appleton & Co., Broadway. 1857.
COMIC Histories have never been to our taste. The late Mr. Gilbert a Beckett, we always thought, might have employed his vis comica, or force of fun, better than in linking ludicrous images and incongruous associations with the heroes of ancient and modern times. The department of Comic Biography, we believe, has received few contributions, if any, from the frolic quills of wicked wags. The cure, however, of this defect in our literature, if any there be, may he looked upon as begun in the work whose title stands at the head of this notice. The author, indeed, had not the settled purpose of the facetious writers we have just dispraised, of making game of the subject of his book, no more than he has the wit and cleverness which half redeem their naughtinesses. The absence of these latter qualities is supplied in his case by the self-complacent good faith in which he puts forth his monstrous assumptions and the stolid assurance with which he maintains them. But the effect of his labors, as of theirs, is to throw an atmosphere of ludicrous ideas around the memory of a great man, painful to all persons of good taste and correct feelings.
Filial piety is a virtue to which much should be forgiven. And the son of such a father as Alexander Hamilton might well be pardoned for even an undue estimate of his services, if it were kept within the decent bounds of moderate exaggeration. But when he undertakes to make his father the incarnation of the Revolution and of the Republic, and to concentrate all the glories of that heroic age in him as the nucleus from which they radiate, he must pardon us, if we think, that, by long contemplation of the object of his filial admiration, his mental sight has become morbid and distorted, and sees things which are not to be seen. Beginning his book with the assumption that Hamilton was the first to conceive the idea of “the Union of the People of the United States,”—an assumption which we can by no means admit, though supported (as we learn from a foot note) by the opinion of Mr. George Ticknor Curtis, —the author proceeds “to trace in his life and writings the history of the origin and early policy of this GREAT REPUBLIC.” Through the whole volume, “THE REPUBLIC” stands rubric over the left-hand page, and “HAMILTON” over the right, and the identity of the two is sought to be established from the beginning to the end. Now, deep as is the sense we entertain of the services of Hamilton to his country, and scarcely less than filial as is the veneration we have been taught from our earliest days to feel for his memory, we must pronounce this pretension to be as absurd and futile in itself as it is unjust and ungenerous to the other great men of that pregnant period.
We do not know whether or not Mr. John C. Hamilton is of opinion, that, had his illustrious father lived and died a trader in the island of Nevis, the American Revolution would never have taken place, nor the American Republic been founded; but he plainly considers that the great contest began to assume its most momentous gravity from the time Hamilton first entered upon the scene, as an haranguer at popular meetings in New York, as a writer on the earnest topics of the day, as a spectator of the broadside fired by the Asia on the Battery, as a captain of artillery at White Plains, and especially as the aide-de-camp and secretary of Washington. This part of the history of Hamilton, and particularly the testimony about his selection by Washington for this great confidence when scarcely twenty years of age, bears to his eminent qualities, one would think, honor enough to satisfy the most pious of sons. But from this moment, according to the innuendoes, if not the broad assertion of Mr. Hamilton, Washington was chiefly of use to sign the letters and papers prepared by his military secretary, and to carry out the plans he had conceived. On the theatre of the world’s history, from this time forth, Washington is to be presented, like Mr. Punch on the ledge of his show-box, squeaking and jerking as the strings are pulled from below by the hand of his boy-aide-de-camp. He writes letters to Congress, to all and singular the American Generals, to the British Generals, to the Governors of States, and to all whom it may concern, “over the signature of Washington,” (which detestable Americanism Mr. Hamilton invariably uses,) the whole credit of the correspondence being coolly passed over to the account of the secretary! That Hamilton did his duty excellently well there is no question, but it was a purely ministerial one. He furnished the words and the sentences, but Washington breathed into them the breath of their life. As well might the confidential clerk of Mr. John Jacob Astor claim his estate, in virtue of having written, under the direction of his principal, the business letters by which it was acquired. If we are not mistaken, this Mr. Hamilton some time since included Washington’s Farewell Address in the collection of his father’s works. Perhaps Mr. Jefferson owes it to the accidents of time and distance, that the Declaration of Independence is not reclaimed as another of Hamilton’s estrays. We forbear to characterize this attempt to transfer the credit of the correspondence of Washington from the head to the hand, in the terms which we think it deserves; for we apprehend the mere statement of the case will enable every right-judging man to form a very competent opinion of it for himself.
Though we cannot conscientiously say, judging from this book, that Mr. Hamilton has inherited the literary skill of his father, it is very clear that he is the faithful depositary of his political antipathies. At the earliest possible moment the hereditary rancor against John Adams bursts forth, and it bubbles up again whenever an opening occurs or can be made. His patriotism, his temper, his manners, his courage, are all in turn made the theme of bitter, and of what is meant for strong denunciation. His journeys from Philadelphia to Braintree, though with the permission of Congress, are “flights”; his not taking the direct road, which would bring him in dangerous vicinity to the enemy, is a proof of cowardice! His free expression of opinion as to the conduct of the campaign in the Jerseys— made before the seal of success had certified to its wisdom—was rancorous hostility to Washington, if not absolute conspiracy against him; and so on to the end of the chapter. As this volume only brings the history of the Republic, as contained in that of Hamilton, then in the twenty-second year of his age, to 1779, we tremble to think of what yet awaits the Second President, as the twain in one grow together from the gristle into the bone. What we have here we conceive to be the mere sockets of the gallows of fifty cubits’ height on which this New England Mordecai is to he hanged up as an example to all malefactors of his class. We make no protest against this summary procedure, if the Biographer of the Republic think it due to the memory of his father; but we would submit that he has begun rather early in the day to bind the victim doomed to deck the feralia of his hero.
The literary execution of this book is not better than its substantial merits deserve. The style is generally clumsy, often obscure, and not unseldom harsh and inflated. Take an instance or two, picked out absolutely at random.—“The disaffected, who held throughout the contest the seaboard of the State in abeyance, driven forth, would have felt in their wanderings there would be no parley with them.” p. 127.—Again, “It became the policy of the Americans, while holding the enemy in check, to draw him into separate detachments, in successive skirmishes to profit of their superior aim and activity, and of their better knowledge of the country, and to keep up its confidence by a system of short and gradual retreats from fastness to fastness,—from river beyond river." p. 129.—These sentences, taken at hap-hazard from two consecutive leaves, are not unfair specimens of the literary merits of this intrepid attempt to convert the history of the nation, at its most critical period, into a collection of Memoirs pour servir to the biography of General Hamilton.
We are very sure that Mr. Hamilton has undertaken a task for which he has neither the necessary talent nor materials, and which can only end, as it has begun, in a ridiculous failure. If we could hope that our words would reach or influence him, we would entreat him to be content with the proud heritage of fame which his father left to his children, without seeking to increase it by encroachments on that left behind them by his great contemporaries. The fame of Hamilton, indeed, is no peculiar and personal property of his descendants. It belongs to us all, and neither the malice of his enemies nor the foolish fondness of his son can separate it from us. Notwithstanding the amusement we could not help deriving from the perusal of this volume, and sure as we are that the book must grow more and more diverting, in its way, as it goes on, we cannot but feel that the entertainment will be dearly purchased at the cost of even the shadow of just ridicule resting, even for a moment, on so illustrious and venerable a name as that of ALEXANDER HAMILTON.