Two Biographical Studies

THE careers of the two men whose biographies form the subject of this notice were widely different. Chance has brought them together here, and the odd juxtaposition suggests some curious contrasts, and at least one very interesting and very instructive resemblance.

John Quincy Adams was cradled in the purple of early American politics. While a mere boy he was the companion of his father, who was then engaged in some of the most important negotiations of the time. Before he was thirty he was a minister at a foreign court, and rose through nearly every degree to the highest diplomatic post in the service of the United States. He saw and knew everything that Europe could offer, and was familiar with every society, from that of emperors and kings down through all ranks of statesmen, soldiers, judges, men of affairs, of letters, and of art. Ambassador, senator, secretary of state, president, and finally the great champion of a great principle, on the floor of Congress, Mr. Adams, for more than half a century, was one of the most conspicuous men in the United States.

Noah Webster was the son of a plain New England farmer, and sprang from a pure English stock. He fought his way upward through school and college ; carried a musket in the Revolution ; supported himself at first by school-teaching, and afterwards as a political writer, newspaper editor, and book-maker ; sustained himself and brought up his family in the teeth of a constant struggle against poverty. After years of patient toil he gave to the world his life-work in the great dictionary which bears his name, and which has gained him a place among American men of letters.

Between these two men, the president and the lexicographer, widely separated as they were in their lives, their fortune, and their fame, there is one bond of union which stamps them as the offspring of the same era, and makes them both typical of a great force then making itself felt in the United States. Both Adams and Webster represented the national sentiment, and in very different ways were strong exponents of the same principle. Mr. Adams stood forward on many a hard-fought political field as the champion of the national as opposed to the colonial spirit, whose fetters had not been broken by the Revolution. In a similar fashion, Webster made war upon English traditions in spelling and pronunciation, attacked Johnson, exchanged hard knocks with those who assailed his reforms, and insisted, in season and out of season, that a people destined to be a great nation must settle the rules of their own language. Many of his ideas were crude and mistaken. The expression of the feeling with which he was imbued was in a curious direction, and yet the national sentiment which moved him so strongly was a noble one, and no one can fail to admire his earnest convictions and unflinching courage.

At the same time, Noah Webster’s life offers but little material for a biographer. We do not know that we can praise Mr. Scudder more highly than by saying that, with a dry and unpromising subject, he has given us a very interesting book.1 Mr. Scudder always writes agreeably; his style is good and varied, and he has a perception of humorous points which he brings out quietly and effectively to the great advantage of his narrative. We have here a very vivid picture of the old schoolmaster and lexicographer, and no excuse is left now, even to a college student, to describe Webster as “ the wellknown author of the dictionary, who subsequently fell into bad habits, and was hanged for the murder of Dr. Parkman.” Mr. Scudder has made his hero a very real and living figure, and one which interests us, and excites our sympathies. This is no small achievement, for the composition of a wonderfully successful spelling-book and of a hardly less successful dictionary is not a feat calculated to appeal to one’s imagination. Before we close the book, however, we find ourselves much attracted by the sturdy Connecticut Yankee, who was a good deal of a busybody, and not a very great man, but brave, honest, and persistent. No one can help admiring the restless energy with which he traveled from State to State to secure copyright laws, or the dogged courage and tenacity which carried him through years of narrow circumstances and disheartening drawbacks to the completion of his magnum opus. The greatest success as a writer obtained by Webster was to be mistaken in some of his essays for Hamilton, who stood at the head of our literature when it was nothing more than the literature of politics. This is a tribute to Webster’s simplicity and force of expression and thought, but there was after all very little of the literary man about him. He was a school-teacher and self-educated philologist, yet he cared but little for literature. We admire him most for his pluck, persistence, and rugged honesty, and for his devotion to the principle of nationality.

Mr. Scudder has filled out the measure of his book by what would be termed padding if it were ill done, but which, as it is extremely well done, may be called very fit and pleasing digressions upon colonial life and manners, upon Hartford society and the “ Hartford wits,” and upon the effects of the constitution. Mr. Scudder takes Dr. Von Holst to task (page 116) for saying that the “constitution was extorted from the grinding necessity of a reluctant people.” The remark was made by John Quincy Adams, and its truth is very evident if we study the current opinoin of the time and examine the history of the struggles in the state conventions of 1788.

If Mr. Scudder has suffered from lack of material, and has had his labor increased in this way, and also by the limitations of his subject, Mr. Morse must have been embarrassed in a directly opposite fashion by the abundance of matter presented to him. In many ways Mr. Morse has been fortunate, He is the first to write with sufficient knowledge the life of one of the most eminent men in our history, who possessed a strongly marked character and great abilities, and who has left behind him a Diary of unequaled fullness and enormous length, in which he has minutely depicted from day to day not only himself, but innumerable men and women, both great and small, among his contemporaries. Mr. Morse has done justice to his subject and to his opportunity, both of which were unusual, and he has gained success despite the difficulties attendant upon condensation, where incidents and material were alike important, new, and unlimited. Mr. Morse’s style is always attractive. He writes forcibly and with much liveliness, and like Mr. Scudder he has a sense of humor, which comes out very pleasantly whenever there is fit occasion for its exercise.

If it is difficult to write, as Mr. Morse has done, a very interesting and suggestive biography of John Quincy Adams within the compass of one small volume,2 it is hardly less difficult to attempt to consider critically the life of such a man within the bounds of a brief review. It is only possible to make one or two observations on points which, by chance, come uppermost in one’s mind. In discussing Mr. Adams the first thought is of the Diary, which tells posterity what manner of man he was. This vast work, in its way one of the greatest monuments of unrelenting human industry and will which we possess, is described by Mr. Morse at the beginning of his volume with some of the happiest touches, in the way of historical criticism, that we have seen in a long time. The Diary, as a whole, and also in its details, fitly pictures its author, with his wide learning and experience, his stubborn courage and iron persistence, and his rare extent of experience and achievement. Few persons, probably, who are not. special students have read the twelve large volumes of the Diary, but the admirable biography which Mr. Morse has drawn from them, as well as his dexterous use of quotations, ought now to tempt many to undertake the task.

In dealing with Mr. Adams’s quarrels with the Federalists, Mr. Morse has shown a remarkable freedom from prejudice. He has frankly admitted that in this bitter controversy Mr. Adams was in the right. When it is remembered that the author’s grandfather, the late Judge Jackson, was one of the thirteen Boston Federalists who attacked Mr. Adams in 1829, and was probably the writer of their pamphlets, Mr. Morse’s attitude deserves praise for an openness and impartiality of mind as rare as it is honest. Indeed, we think Mr. Morse has gone too far in the opposite direction. He censures the conduct of the Federalists in 1807 and in the years immediately following with great severity ; but the criticism is one-sided, because he says nothing, or next to nothing, of the short-comings of the Jeffersonians. The Federalists were much in the wrong, but their policy of an alliance with England was at least more reasonable and intelligent than the helpless, timid shuffling of the administration, with no policy at all except that of weakly deprecating the buffets of both England and France. That Mr. Adams was right in demanding war after the affair of the Chesapeake cannot be doubted, and he was almost the only man who was right at that miserable time. Whether he was also right in taking what may have seemed the only practicable step of supporting any move of the administration, no matter how feeble, is much more questionable.

With much skill Mr. Morse traces Mr. Adams’s fortunes through all his embassies and foreign negotiations. He gives us a very clever picture of Washington and its society, and of life at the capital in 1817, and tells in a very interesting way the story of Mr. Adams’s career as secretary of state and president. But it was after Mr. Adams had attained the highest official success possible to an American that he reached the position of one of the really great men of our history. The years in Congress were the years of Mr. Adams’s truest glory. Mr. Morse has done them all the justice that his space permitted. It is a grand picture, that of the old man, rich in years, in learning and official honor, standing alone upon the floor of Congress, the champion of a despised and hated cause, and beginning single-handed the attack upon slavery and upon the literally solid South, not with a strong majority at his back, but utterly unsupported except by his conscience, his talents, and his indomitable will and courage. It is then that Mr. Adams emerges from the ranks of statesmen, great and small, who were only statesmen, and becomes one of the few who have in their day and generation represented to the world great ideas. He was alone in Congress, but he had the silent companionship of large masses of the people. The conscience of the North was not yet awakened; the people there felt as yet but dimly the force of the slavery question, but they knew by instinct that Mr. Adams stood for a great principle, and his words stirred an ever louder echo in their hearts. The " old man eloquent” was lonely, terribly lonely, in Washington, but he was not so among the people ; their sympathy and support were latent, but they were sure to come. John Quincy Adams was waging war upon a powerful system for the sake of the right, and the right ultimately prevailed. A great party took up the work of the solitary old man and carried it on to victory, and if he was isolated in Congress he now has a nation to sympathize and share in his principles, and to honor his courage and devotion.

  1. Noah Webster. [American Men of Letters.] By HORACE E. SCUDDER. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1882.
  2. John Quincy Adams. [American Statesmen.] By JOHN T. MORSE, JR. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1882.