The Life and Times of Sir William Johnson, Bart

By WILLIAM L. STONE. Albany : J. Munsell.
WE well remember the interest with which, more than twenty years ago, we heard that Mr. William L. Stone was preparing a life of Sir William Johnson. His collection of material was very large, comprising several thousands of original letters, besides a great mass of other papers. He had written, however, but a small part of his work, when death put a period to his labors, and the documents which he had gathered with such enthusiastic industry seemed destined to remain a crude mass of undigested material. We think it fortunate for all students of American history, that a son, bearing his name and inheriting in the fullest measure his capacity for the work, has undertaken its completion, partly from affection and a sense of duty, and partly, it is evident, from a natural aptitude.
In the whole range of American history no other personage appears so remarkable in character and so important in influence, and at the same time so little known to general readers, as Sir William Johnson. The reason is, that his great powers were exercised on a theatre which, though vast and wellnigh boundless, was exterior to the familiar field of political action. Yet on the single influence of this man depended at times the prosperity and growth of all the British American colonies. Could France have won his influence in her behalf, England could not have broken that rival power in America without an exhausting expenditure of men and treasure, and without leaders of a different stamp from the blockheads with whom she long continued to paralyze her Cisatlantic armies. At the darkest crisis of the last French War, the influence of Johnson alone saved the English colonies from the miseries which would have ensued from the enmity of the powerful confederacy of the Six Nations; and for many years after, in his capacity of Superintendent of Indian Affairs, he continued to exercise an unparalleled power over the tribes of the interior, soothing their jealousies, composing their quarrels, and protecting them with equal justice, benevolence, and ability from the fraud and outrage of encroaching whites.
Johnson settled on the Mohawk in his youth, and immediately fell into relations with his savage neighbors. He was accustomed to join their sports and assume their dress; and it is an evidence of the native force and dignity of his character, that, in thus taking a course which commonly provoked their contempt, he gained their affection, without diminishing their respect and admiration. He gained a military reputation — not unqualified — by the Battle of Lake George, in 1755, where he commanded the British force ; and he won brighter laurels by the capture of Fort Niagara in 1759. His true fame rests, however, on his civic achievements,— on the tact, energy, and judgment, the humanity and breadth of views, with which he managed the important interest placed in his hands. It would be hard to say whether the Indians or the Colonists profited most by his influence ; for while with a fearless adroitness he overthrew the schemes of hungry speculators, he averted from peaceful settlers many a peril of whose existence, perhaps, they were unaware. He gave peace to the borders, and sweetened, as far as lay in the power of man, that bitter cup which had fallen to the lot of the wretched races of the forest.
Mr. Stone’s book covers a period extending from a few years before the French War of 1745 to the death of Johnson in 1774. In accordance with its title, it is largely occupied with the “times” as well as with the “ life” of its subject. In fact, it is a history of the period, relating with considerable detail contemporary events with which Johnson was connected only indirectly. This detracts from its character as a work of purely original research, to which, as far as regards the personal history of its subject, it is preëminently entitled.
Johnson’s vast correspondence relates chiefly to matters of public interest, and supplies comparatively few of those details of private life which give liveliness to pictures of scenes and character. The book, in respect to execution, is perhaps necessarily unequal. The first seven chapters were written by the father of Mr. Stone, who endeavored to continue the work on its original plan. The attempt, always difficult, to carry out a design conceived in the mind of another, seems at the outset to have somewhat hampered the author ; but as he proceeds with his work, his excellent qualification for it becomes more and more apparent. He is thorough and faithful in the use of his great store of material, anti clear, vigorous, and often picturesque in his narrative. The period with which he deals is one of the most interesting and most important in American history, and the treatment is worthy of the theme. The hackneyed phrase, so often meaningless, is in the case of this book emphatically true, — that no library of American history can be said to be complete without it.