Von Holsts Constitutional History of the United States

AFTER a long delay since its publication in Germany, we have the third volume of Dr. Von Holst’s Constitutional History of the United States 1 in an American edition. This delay occurred with the preceding volumes, but neither in their case nor in the present instance does it seem to have produced a corresponding carefulness in the translation. The English is sometimes slovenly, and there is a more than reasonable number of typographical errors. The sentences are frequently awkward and involved, the choice of words is often bad, and there is too great a flavor of the German idiom. It is surprising that with a translator of Mr. Lalor’s reputation and scholarship the work of the American editors should be open to this criticism.

Dr. Von Holst’s history is now well known, and its importance fully recognized. To say, as has been said, that it is the most remarkable work upon this country by a foreigner is saying very little. It not only deserves this praise, but is entitled to a place in the front rank of American histories, whether by native or foreign authors ; and the fact that it is written by an outsider, who is a scholar and student, and who has devoted his life to this task, gives it a peculiar value and interest. Lord Bacon coupled foreign nations and posterity in his will, as the legatees to whom he devised his memory, and in a history of this sort we are perhaps as near to the judgment of posterity as it is possible for us to come. There must be of course a wide gap between the opinion of a foreign historian and that of our children and successors in point of accurate comprehension, where those to the manner born have a great advantage ; but the foreign student has one quality in common with posterity, that of freedom from persona] bias, and it is this which gives Dr. Von Holst’s work a peculiar claim to thoughtful consideration, apart even from its other merits.

This volume has the same strong points as its predecessors, as is shown by the keen analysis of constitutional questions, the incisive delineation of character, and the vigorous invective and denunciation of all that the author believes to be wrong and despicable. We find too, it must be admitted, the same defects. Now, as previously, Dr. Von Holst fails to do justice to the development of the national sentiment which Washington and Hamilton rightly believed the constitution would create. He treats this sentiment a little more kindly, perhaps, than in his previous volumes, but he does not yet fully perceive all that it meant, nor does he properly conceive its real grandeur. The truckling of Northern men to Southern slave-holders is the most wretched page in our history, and yet the underlying love of the people for the Union, which for years made this meanness possible, was a fine trait. Dr. Von Holst sneers at Clay and those who helped him with the compromise measures of 1850 as “Union rescuers;” but, miserable as those measures were, futile and disastrous as they proved to be, their authors appealed, in their defense, to the noblest idea of the American people, to the eager longing to make the North American continent the home of one great nation, united and free. However much their courage failed at the pinch, however much they erred in methods or in motives, Clay and Webster believed deeply and sincerely that, as Cicero said, “ neque enim villa res, in qua propius ad deorum numen virtus accedat humana, quam civitates aut condere novas aut conservare jam conditas.” It was this sentiment which made the Union, it was this which saved the Union ; and, however much it may have been abused before the election of Lincoln, it has been justified by its works.

We share to the full Dr. Von Holst’s righteous wrath against such settlements as those of 1850; but nevertheless, on the general question of compromises, although not in this volume, he has shown the foreign inaptitude for dealing with the political principles of the English race. English - speaking people have displayed a political capacity, and have achieved an amount of political success, which are simply beyond comparison in modern times. In truth, they stand alone. One great secret of this success lies in their genius for compromise. The political history of the English race is a history of compromises, and because some were infamous it does not follow that all were bad. The compromises of the constitution, however unfortunate in their after-effects, were wise and statesman-like, for they were essential to the one primary object, national existence. On the other hand, the compromises of 1850 were disgraceful. In condemning both, Dr. Yon Holst simply shows his inability, as a foreigner, to do justice to one leading element of the English political character.

The difficulties inherent in the subject, and which were apparent in the second volume, are still more noticeable in this. Dr. Von Holst is dealing with a period which is too recent to be fully ripe. The private letters, diaries, and the like have hardly been published at all, and the truest sources of information, therefore, are still inaccessible. Meantime, the mass of contemporary and current material is constantly increasing in bulk as we come nearer to the present day, and it is wonderful that without the guidance of the still hidden authorities Dr. Von Holst has been able to draw out from the confusion such a clear, succinct, and forcible narrative.

The first half of this volume is not easy reading, but through no fault on the part of the author. It would be wellnigh impossible to make the intrigue and deceptions by which Polk brought on the Mexican war interesting, and still more arduous to enliven the boastful beginning and tame, conceding end of the Oregon negotiations. Polk’s administration was, in fact, the meanest period in American history. Ruthless spoliation and bad appointments characterized the civil service, and were fit accompaniments of a policy at once sly and overbearing. It was the day of radical and loud-mouthed democracy, utterly out of keeping with the true democratic spirit, when judicial offices were made elective in most States, when judges were pledged to give opinions before election, and when the slave power was at its height, so far as men could see. There was, however, no lack of great names in the lists of public men. An eminent historian, who has been one of the ornaments of American literature and scholarship, was at the head of the navy department. Marcy, too, was in the cabinet, with his “ gigantic abilities,” and James Buchanan ; while in the senate could be seen Calhoun, Clay, Webster, and Benton. In the House were many able men ; and there, too, might be heard the voices of John Quincy Adams and Joshua Giddings crying in the wilderness against the evils to come. Yet it was a period of real torpor. The brilliant leaders, who on the one side had carried through the war of 1812, and on the other had survived the destruction of the federalists to create the whig party, were old men, and those who followed in their footsteps were equally old in ideas. They were gathered about the “ peculiar institution : ” some bowed in admiration, some in fear; no one of them grasping it with the fearless hand of strong statesmanship, but all bending before this idol, which was rotten and dead within, although decked without in all the trappings of power, and incarnate with mischief and misfortune to the whole country. It is a relief to pass out from the choking atmosphere of Polk’s administration into the first years of the slavery conflict, when it ceased to be smothered and distorted, and became a fair and declared battle in the open field. The “ free soil ” party was founded, and instead of the wild cries of the abolitionists we have the beginning of the slow, sure, and irresistible antislavery movement, which fought and triumphed under the constitution. Seward and Chase came to the Senate, and at last words were spoken which showed that new leaders had arisen, with eyes fixed on the future, and not on the past. The author again breathes freer, and the incisiveness and vigor which have so strongly marked his work are once more in full play. The treatment of the compromise measures of 1850 is as strong and good as anything Dr. Von Holst has done, and at this point the narrative closes.

We have referred already to Dr. Von Holst’s power of analyzing characters. The sketches of Marcy and Taylor in this volume are admirable, although very brief, but it is Calhoun who has always an especial fascination for Dr. Von Holst. He dwells on the peculiarities of Calhoun’s great but narrow intellect, on his profound and masterly discussions of the constitution, with their mingling of relentless logic and strange contradictions, on his theories of government and politics, on every phase of his thought and character, with loving care. No one has studied Calhoun so closely, or has dealt so justly with him, as Dr. Von Holst, and the biography which he has promised us will be read with great interest. Another excellent piece of work of the same kind is the description of Webster which follows the account of the 7th of March speech. Dr. Von Holst does Webster full justice, and defends him against the imputation that this famous speech was dictated solely by a desire to obtain Southern votes for the presidency. At the same time he does not hesitate to point out the moral unsoundness of a man of such eminence, who lived extravagantly and far in excess of his income ; who “ violated the seventh commandment,” did not pay his debts, lived on his friends, and received large sums of money for speeches in the Senate. The glamour surrounding Webster’s name is so great that even to repeat these things may seem to some persons a kind of profanation. Yet they are true, and Webster cannot be judged fairly without taking them into account. Daring opponents of slavery attacked Webster savagely enough in days gone by, but unstinted and unqualified laudation has usually been his portion. Dazzled by the brilliancy of his talents, awed by the memory of that great personality, everything which was not in his favor has been and still is pushed aside and covered up. It is no answer to say that many public men and politicians were more deserving than Webster of the censure passed upon him by Dr. Von Holst. Webster cannot and must not be tried by ordinary standards, but by the standards of such men as Fox and Pitt, Burke and Hamilton ; above all, according to the responsibility imposed upon him by his own splendid intellect.

The last chapter in this volume is perhaps as instructive and important as any, and certainly as valuable. We know well enough the horrors of the slave-trade and the misery of many of the negroes held in bondage, but the terrible effects produced upon the slaveholders and upon the South in every way by slavery are yet to be written. These effects Dr. Von Holst, necessarily limited in space on this topic, has drawn in bold outline. We commend this chapter to Southern readers, and particularly to the clergyman who has recently been giving his own opinion, and the opinions of equally respectable individuals, in the pages of one of our reviews, as to the high moral and intellectual condition of the South under the slavery dispensation. Opinions are all very well, but their value must be determined by the hard test of facts, and these Dr. Von Holst gives. A stubborn refusal to recognize facts and deal with things as they actually existed was a principal cause of the war, and of all the consequent misfortunes of the South. The time has come when, if ever, the South should be ready to look facts in the face. With an eloquent array of figures, Dr. Von Holst shows the blighting effects of slavery. In contrast with the North, the condition of the South in the year 1850 was really pitiful. Their population was decreasing in a country flooded with immigration. Their towns and cities were decaying. They had hardly any manufactures, and less commerce; few arts and no literature, in comparison with the North. They were poor and in debt. Their railroads were defective and of slow growth, their agriculture was low, and even the cultivation of their great staple was poor. Every attribute of civilization was warped and stunted in a greater or less degree. Yet the South was led by a strong, educated, aggressive aristocracy, and the force and vitality of the race of both people and landlords were terribly shown in the desperate war which they waged for four long years. As Dr. Von Holst points out, it was the weakness of slavery as a system, deeply felt but neither understood nor acknowledged, which drove the South forward from one Pyrrhic victory to another, until at last it hurried them into secession and ruin. All the education, all the force, all the ability of the South — and they were very great — were poured into politics, and then into war, and were devoted to the defense of slavery, an accursed thing, perishing from the earth, at odds with all human progress, and eating out the hearts of the very men who gave their lives to its support.

  1. The Constitutional and Political History of the United States. By DR. H. VON HOLST. Translated from the German by JOHN J. LALOR and PAUL SHOREY. 1846-1850. Annexation of Texas. Compromise of 1850. Chicago: Callaghan & Co. 1881.