Andrew Jackson and John Randolph

AMONCT all the political leaders of modern times who have risen to be the chiefs of great states there is not one so absolutely devoid of every quality proper to a statesman, and at the same time so picturesque and dramatic, as Andrew Jackson. In his own day Jackson was a mighty political force. In history he is a deeply interesting problem, which involves in its solution much that bears on the intellectual and moral character of the society and politics of a great people. Professor Sumner, Jackson’s latest biographer,1 has the misfortune of coming after Mr. Parton, whose Life of Jackson, whatever its defects, is on the whole the most brilliant and entertaining of American biographies. Mr. Parton dealt with Jackson, the individual, as a great personal force, which he was. Professor Sumner has treated him as a statesman, which he was not. The questions of state and the political questions of Jackson’s administration, although vitally affected in their decision by the president’s overshadowing personality, did not originate with him, were not raised by him, and were not dealt with by him on any settled system of policy. The fact was that Jackson had no policy on any subject. lie had violent prejudices, uncurbed and stormy passions, fierce love or hatred for men and women: and he took part in great public questions in accordance with his prejudices, and governed by his feelings towards the individuals who were interested on one side or the other. The result of discussing the political questions of Jackson’s administration, as Professor Simmer does, is that we obtain a very good history of these questions, and we see how Jackson, when they came within his ken, swept down upon them like a dens ex machina, and hurled them to decision in one direction or another ; but as to the man Jackson, and the nature and causes of his influence, we are no wiser than before. In a word, Professor Sumner has given us a careful, thoughtful, and learned history of Jackson’s administration, rather than a life of Andrew Jackson himself.

Professor Sumner deserves all praise for his research, his industry, and his thorough and able discussion of the political questions of the Jackson administration, especially those which relate to finance and economy. He has undoubtedly made a valuable and scholarly contribution to our knowledge of that period, but he has not helped us to a much better understanding of Jackson. The hero of New Orleans was preëminently picturesque, but the political issues of his administration, as a rule, were not, except when he was engaged in them. The result of confining his attention to these questions of policy has made Professor Sumner’s book dry reading, and this is enhanced by the form and style of the biography. One chapter suffices for the first forty-five years, and two pages for the last eight years, of Jackson’s life, while ten chapters are given to the affairs of his administration. This is not the way to treat the life of a man who was an incarnate will and mastering personal force in the events of his day and generation. The defects of style are similar to those of form. Professor Sumner’s style is rigidly and conscientiously correct and exact in point of grammar and construction, but the sentences are too uniformly short and abrupt, and, as a whole, it is fatiguing and discouraging to the reader. It gives the sensation of climbing a slippery hill, where you fall back one step for every two you take forward. Professor Sumner, in fact, has made the mistake of treating Jackson, who was a very remarkable man, brimming over with the strongest passions of human nature, and who was the very embodiment of a violent and despotic will, too much as if he were merely a factor in a question of political science, or in a problem of political economy. We are not prepared to say, looking at Jackson solely from the point of view of his absolute effect upon the political events of his time, that this is not a legitimate method of writing his life, or one portion of it, at least. But it is certainly a limited and rather narrow method, and not the one, in our judgment, which is suited to this collection. Professor Sumner’s rather elaborate title is comprehensive enough, but the trouble is that he does not live up to it. This series of biographies, if we apprehend its purpose aright, is intended to present studies of certain public men as individuals, and of their personal influence upon the history of the United States ; showing the meaning and extent of that influence, and what the subjects of the various biographies represented to the world they lived in, and represent now to us. For such treatment Andrew Jackson is peculiarly well fitted. There is a sort of barbarian picturesqueness and wild dramatic effect about his character and career, and its many varied incidents, which appeal strongly to the imagination, and are the best material for effective description and analysis. Considered merely as a story, the biographer could ask nothing better than the narrative of Jackson’s career. But all this, striking as it is, is overshadowed by the historical problem presented by the popular adoration of “ Old Hickory.” In all our history, no man, with the exception of Washington, has ever possessed one tithe of the popularity and influence of Jackson. His enormous popularity and the hold which he had upon the people of the United States enabled him to enforce his will, and to practice an amount of personal despotism such as this country has never known before or since. This vast power for good or evil was exercised by a man who, throughout his civil career, may bo described, without exaggeration, as an almost unmitigated curse to the politics and the political morality of the United States. He must have been in sympathy with the masses of the people and with the political and social forces of his time, or else he simply blinded and bewitched the nation by the force of his personality. In any event, the gigantic popularity of Jackson is one of the most interesting facts in our history, and a study of his life should show the sources and causes of his power. The elucidation of this matter would throw a flood of light upon our condition as a people at that time, and, as a necessary consequence, upon our subsequent growth and history. Mr. Parton, with much force and acuteness, has pointed out the problem and its conditions, and Professor Sumner fully appreciates its existence; but neither has solved the riddle, or offered the explanation, which, when it comes, will be a great contribution to the history of the United States.

It is always desirable to be able to teach by example ; and if, as we venture to think, Professor Sumner’s book does not quite fulfill the purpose of such a series as this, in Mr. Adams’s Randolph2 we have a biography which seems to us to meet every condition. If we except Jackson, John Randolph of Roanoke is perhaps the best figure in our history for a vivid and artistic picture. The danger, indeed, in the case of Randolph, with his unlimited eccentricities, his venomous eloquence, his queer politics, and still queerer beliefs and prejudices, is of overdoing the picturesque, and degenerating into simple grotesqueness. As he said of himself, Randolph was the man upon whom all the bastard wit of the country was fathered, and his memory is enshrouded in a perfect mist of anecdotes, good, bad, and indifferent. With such a subject it is very easy to go too far, and fall into scenic effects and mere piquant story-telling. It is therefore quite as high praise to say that Mr. Adams has avoided the perils of his subject as that he has made the most of it, and he deserves great credit for both. The biography is in every way admirable, and if we were compelled to describe it in one word we should say that it was one of the most effective books in the whole range of our historical literature. The men among whom Randolph lived and the events in which he took part are carefully subordinated to the central figure. The history of the times, illuminated enough to be readily understood, is used as a dusky background, upon which the figure of Randolph is projected with the pitiless brilliancy of the whitest and most intense light. It is impossible to pick out this passage or that as a peculiarly favorable specimen of the treatment employed. Mr. Adams has followed the philosophy of the One-Hoss Shay: —

“ ‘Fur,’ said the Deacon, ’ ’t’s mighty plain
Thut the weakes’ place tnus’ stan’ the strain;
’N’ the way t’ fix it, uz I maintain,
Is only jest
T’ make that place uz strong uz the rest.’ ”

In other words, the execution is very even and very strong. We have a series of vivid pictures without any break in the continuity of the story. We see Randolph in childhood and boyhood, growing up in the midst of the grandeur and the absurdity of the most extreme Virginian aristocracy, and absorbing at every pore all that was good or bad, and all the prejudices and passions of that vigorous but narrow society. Then he appears facing with consummate audacity the dying eloquence of Patrick Henry. Then comes his political career, his “ old republican principles,” his leadership of the house, and his fall from power. An aimless, ineffectual period, a species of interregnum, ensues, which may be called the guerrilla period of Randolph’s strange life; and then, when the war of 1812 had cleared the way for new issues, he appears again as a living force in American politics. It is in this last stage of his career that Mr. Adams has put Randolph in a wholly new and very striking light. It was John Randolph who first sketched, in bold, strong outline, that scheme for the union of state rights and slavery which was afterwards filled out in every detail, and was preached as the true political gospel, by John C. Calhoun. Randolph was the author of the first outline of that Southern slave-holding policy which, subsequently adopted and extended, became of such vast importance and strength that it was only crushed by the four years of awful civil war, of which it was itself the cause. When Randolph was engaged in formulating this evil doctrine, and screaming it in the ears of every one, in season and out of season, he was an isolated man, feared and wondered at, and almost as much of a political Ishmael as he was in the years before the war with England. His jarring appeals went straight home to the nervous centre of the South ; but no one loved him for it even there, however much he stirred their passions and was in accord with their bitterest fears and prejudices. It is owing to this isolation, probably, that the part which Randolph played at the beginning of tlie slavery struggle in shaping the Southern policy has never until now been fully understood and appreciated, even if it was known at all. Mr, Adams has thus given us what is practically an entirely new conception of Randolph in his last years, or in the third period of his life,—a contribution of great importance in the study of a question on which the history of the United States turned for forty years, and which it took four years of desperate fighting to finally settle. Mr. Adams has done more than this, however, in carrying out the purpose of the series to which this biography belongs. He has shown ns just what John Randolph was, what he meant, what he represented, and what his influence was; and above all he has made clear the effect which Randolph had upon the history of the republic.

  1. Andrew Jackson. By WILLIAM GRAHAM SUMNER. [American Statesmen Series.] Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1882.
  2. John Randolph. By HENRY ADAMS. [American Statesmen Series.] Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1882.