THE common ground on which Mr. Bryant and Mr. Weed may be said to meet seems at first sight merely conventional. Both had a long and contemporaneous career as editors of influential journals; but Mr. Bryant, in the eyes of most people, was a poet, and Mr. Weed a political manager. The occupations which they followed were their means of livelihood ; the real lives which they led, and for which they will be remembered, were widely remote and distinct. Nevertheless, each was too individual a man for any mechanical separation between his vocation and his occupation, and the biography of each
offers an interesting opportunity for a comparison which may help to bring out both the common qualities of the men and their peculiarities.
It is a great pity that Mr. Bryant’s autobiography should have been a mere fragment, introducing the completer narrative of his life,1 which his son-in-law has provided ; for although Mr. Godwin has probably made a fuller and more methodical record than Mr. Bryant would have cared to furnish, he has also divested the record of that personal quality which constitutes the charm of autobiography, and of which we have a glimpse in the delightful chapters contribute! by Mr. Bryant. The mellowness of this autobiographic fragment, its playfulness and serenity, are the true notes of a reflective old age, and had the strain been continued the work would have been a notable one. It is not difficult to understand why Mr. Bryant left a fragment only ; he might well have carried the narrative a little farther along; yet the reserve of his nature would infallibly cause him to feel a growing disinclination as he moved away from that period of childhood and youth, and the contemplation of those figures of the past, which to an old man may easily seem properties of another world and another person.
This reserve has doubtless controlled the biographer, partly through a force of personality, which would deter one who knew Mr. Bryant well from indulging in too curious observation; partly through the necessary obscurity attaching to Mr. Bryant’s life. There was no mystery about his career, or his judgments of men and events ; but what one man knew every one might know, and the sum of knowledge has left the world still unacquainted with Mr. Bryant. It is possible, indeed, that his was one of those natures so classic in form and style that their grace is impenetrable because wholly open ; we are so wonted to the romantic conception of human life, which demands deep shadows and yields to subtle analyses, that when we come to apply our habits of mind to more rigidly classic models we set aside too lightly, as thin and superficial, a cast of human nature which is rarely fine in outline and firm in form.
Certainly, a careful reading of Mr. Godwin’s Life of Bryant does not add to the impression which has already been formed of a man so long in the public eye. The image created by his poems and public utterances is not essentially enriched or modified by the extracts given from his private correspondence. Here and there are glimpses of a tenderness of nature which might not be apparent otherwise to any but a very close reader of his poetry; but the general result is to deepen those familiar lines of passionless fidelity to elemental properties in literature, politics, religion, and society which have conspired to make Mr. Bryant’s personality one respected and admired rather than enthusiastically loved. Enthusiasm, indeed, did follow him ; but it was wrested from a long-indifferent public by the accumulation of sentiment, as the severe figure of the poet held with unswerving integrity the same characteristics in old age which had marked it in youth. It was impossible to withhold hearty applause from so venerable and sturdy a product of American democracy, and the public seemed to regard Mr. Bryant finally as a sort of human mountain.
The more one studies Mr. Bryant’s career, the more do his poetry and his profession display their essential unity. The subjects of his verse were not the subjects of his editorial articles, but the man behind each was the same, and the two modes of expression have a common origin and end. Simplicity, love of truth, and a lofty conventionalism characterized both poems and political leaders. Now and then there was a verse in his poetry which had the flight of a bird in the highest ether, and occasionally in his political precepts he rose to a noble strain of patriotic fervor; but in the main there was an evenness of tone which expressed the dignity of his life and thought. There was a constant reference in his mind to certain large, elemental conceptions of nature and society ; so that while he could not be called a doctrinaire in politics, he was apparently indifferent to the personal element, and moved on his way with a confidence in his political views which was born of a confidence in the order of things. Other men might look at the clock to see what time it was, but he was satisfied with the sidereal system for a timepiece. At the outset of his career as a journalist he had something to say of the profession which might stand as a tolerable expression of his professional creed.
“ The class of men,” he said, “ who figure in this country as the conductors of newspapers are not, for the most part, in high esteem with the community. . . . The general feeling with which they are regarded is by no means favorable. Contempt is too harsh a name for it, perhaps, but it is far below respect. Nor does this arise from the insincerity or frivolousness of their commendation or their dispraise in the thousand opinions they express in matters of art, science, and taste, concerning all of which they are expected to say something, and concerning many of which they cannot know7 much; as from the fact that, professing, as they do, one of the noblest of sciences, that of politics, — in other words, the science of legislation and government, — they too often profess it in a narrow, ignorant, ignoble spirit. Every journalist is a politician, of course ; but in how many instances does he aspire to no higher office than that of an ingenious and dexterous partisan ? He does not look at political doctrines and public measures in a large and comprehensive wray, weighing impartially their ultimate good or evil, but addicts himself to considerations of temporary expediency. He inquires not what is right, just, and true at all times, but what petty shift will serve his present purpose. He makes politics an art rather than a science,— a matter of finesse rather than of philosophy. He inflames prejudices which he knows to be groundless because he finds them convenient. He detracts from the personal merits of men whom he knows to be most worthy. . . . Yet the vocation of the newspaper editor is a useful and indispensable and, if rightly exercised, a noble vocation. It possesses this essential element of dignity: that they who are engaged in it are occupied with questions of the highest importance to the happiness of mankind. We cannot see, for our part, why it should not attract men of the first talents and the most exalted virtues. Why should not the discussions of the daily press demand as strong reasoning powers, as large and comprehensive ideas, as profound an acquaintance with principles, eloquence as commanding, and a style of argument as manly and elevated as the debates of the senate ? ”
In the exercise of journalistic duties, Mr. Bryant acquired a somewhat more flexible style of writing. Yet the grave, formal English in which he was trained was so expressive of his nature that the above passage fairly represents the serious attitude which he always maintained toward journalism. He did not ignore personal politics, and he used a direct and forcible form of attack when engaged in political warfare; but after all, he fought constantly from behind those intrenchments of political philosophy which he believed were most necessary to defend, and most efficient bulwarks of democratic liberty. It must be remembered that journalism, when this was written, — that is, when Mr. Bryant had just succeeded to the principal editorship of the Evening Post, — was of a pretty acrimonious order ; and though it may be doubted if Mr. Bryant had as great an influence upon the development of journalism in the country as some of his contemporaries, it is quite certain that the cool temper and even tone of his paper had a conservative power not to be despised. Mr. Bryant’s democracy was of a somewhat ideal order, and more inflexible than the democracy of the party which bore the name. It was, indeed, somewhat regardless of historical movements, but, as we have intimated, was saved from the unwisdom of mere theory by its integral consistency with the wrhole tone of Mr. Bryant’s mind. His democratic faith was a part of the severe principle which extended to the most mechanical routine of his daily life, and so lofty was it that it becomes impossible to give it a party significance. Who would ever think of calling Mr. Bryant a war democrat! Like Wordsworth’s cloud,
Mr. Bryant’s nature comprehended professional duty, poetic inspiration, and religious faith within one consistent, large, and simple whole.
Just when Mr. Bryant was assuming full control of the journal with which his name is identified, Mr. Thurlow Weed was engaged, with the assistance of friends, in establishing the Evening Journal at Albany ; and although he relinquished his editorial duties earlier than Mr. Bryant, the careers of the two men were substantially synchronous. We are not so ill off in our knowledge of the details of Mr. Weed’s life as we were in the case of Mr. Bryant. The distaste which the poet had for a minute record of his experience gives place to a hearty and genial review2 of his career by the political manager. Mr. Weed’s autobiography shows, as Mr. Bryant’s fragmentary sketch does, how significant and interesting to an old man are the incidents of early life and the circumstances out of which his education has come. Mr. Weed dwells with affectionate and lingering concern upon the sterile ground of his boyhood, and without much moralizing presents a very clear picture of the local scenes among which he moved. Both Mr. Bryant and Mr. Weed were country boys: but with Mr. Bryant the country, as a recollection, was chiefly nature; with Mr. Weed it was rustic humanity. Indeed, Mr. Weed remained to the end of his days a countryman. Not that he was wanting in the civility of cities, and engaged in the companionship of men of the world, but he was always at home with the farmer and the legislator from the country districts. There was a homeliness in his nature which appeared in the strong local attachments which he manifested, and in his minute acquaintance with a wide range of life.
The autobiography was written at different times, under different impulses, and it hears the marks of leisureliness and of indifference to complete form. Names of men who have figured in New York politics, but are only village Hampdens to the general reader, fall from Mr. Weed’s pen as if he were sitting in his editorial office, and talking uninterruptedly with friends who had been with him in interminable political contests. He is an old soldier telling over his battles, and he recites catalogues of heroes who are as real and as valiant as Homer’s are to him. Mr. Weed is as minute in his political history of New York as Gilbert White in his Natural History of Selborne. There is the same absence of perspective, the same delightful parochialism. There is not much attempt at individualizing the persons who crowd these pages ; but they are so real to Mr. Weed, and the circumstances which he relates are so vivid in his memory, that he leads the reader on and on simply by the force of his own energetic companionship.
To Mr. Weed a journal was a political instrument, and politics was a most interesting and absorbing occupation, requiring a minuteness of knowledge of men and affairs to be compared only with the detailed acquaintance which a stock-broker has with the market. The time when Mr. Bryant and Mr. Weed were most deeply engaged in journalism was one when politics in America was a passion. It was the one excitement which overbore all other occupations, once in every four years at least. As we look back upon those days, we are able to see that there was a ground swell of real political movement, and a superficial froth and fume which were thrown off by the wind and current of present feeling. It was a time when a rapidly growing nation was fitting itself not only to the land which it occupied, but to the political principles which were its birthright; when men were learning the use of that most delicate instrument of modern civilization, the ballot. It was a time, also, when the order of society was ruder and simpler, and the passions of men had freer play. If the ballot was a weapon, it was also a toy ; and in the absence of those resources which a more complex society offers, politics was the opera-house, the theatre, the club, the library, the music-hall, the ball, the picture - gallery, the foreign tour, the summer sport, the dinner-party, the institute, and one may almost say the church.
1 The Autobiography of Thurlow Weed. Edited by his daughter, HARRIET A. WEED. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1883.
Let any one acquaint himself with the circumstances of the “ campaign ” of 1840, and he will understand this. How it appeared at the time to our two journalists illustrates the difference in the two men. Mr. Bryant, to be sure, was on the losing side ; but one does not need that fact to explain the contempt which he had for the wild nonsense of the Whig party. Mr. Godwin, in describing his work at this time, says, “ Mr. Bryant was at first disposed to treat this immoral tomfoolery, which the most respectable classes promoted by a personal participation in it, with serious and indignant argument. But he soon saw that he might as well attempt to reason against the northwest wind or the tides of the sea. The only answer would have been a hurrah and a horselaugh ; and so he took the times in their own spirit, and flung at them the keenest shafts of banter and ridicule. On no other occasion were his humorous powers so frequently called into play; and his hits at the muzzled candidate, the mouthing orators, the immense parades, and the junketings, though ineffective, were among the best sallies of his pen.”
Mr. Weed, on the other hand, in recalling the time, recounts eagerly the political incidents both in state and national affairs, and if we had room we should like to quote the whole of the naive narrative which relates the coup d'état by which New York State was wrested from the democratic party on the eve of election. The political change was effected, according to Mr. Weed, by the judicious use of money paid to him by New York gentlemen, whose names are given. They brought packages of bank-notes of various denominations, amounting to eight thousand dollars, and stood ready to draw checks for as much more as might be required.
“ The election,” says Mr. Weed, “ was to commence on Monday morning, and to terminate on Wednesday evening. I informed them that it would be quite impossible, in so short a time, to use any such amount of money, and, after explaining what I thought might be accomplished in the brief interval before the election, took $3000, S1500 of which was immediately dispatched by messengers to Columbia, Greene, Delaware, and Rensselaer counties ; $1500 was reserved for Albany. . . . Thus a memorable coup d’état, completely revolutionizing the State, was effected, on the very verge of the election, by the thoughtfulness and liberality of a few zealous politicians in the city of New York. The secret was well kept, for until now no whisper of it has ever been heard.”
The circumstance is related chiefly to give opportunity for telling an amusing “ blind,” by which the politicians of the \ other side were hoodwinked, when the news got abroad of the appearance at a strange hour of a steamboat at Albany; for the zealous politicians of New York had chartered a steamer for their purpose. All this is very well; but the critical reader will notice that Mr. Weed does not explain to him, however carefully he may have explained to the New York gentlemen, just what was done with three thousand dollars in twentyfour hours to effect a change in political sentiment or principle in the doubtful district. Are we then hastily to accept the conclusion that the money was used corruptly ? Familiarity with recent political operations would go far toward justifying one who should take such a view; but while, in the absence of fuller information, we are unable to settle the question conclusively, the real evidence is all the other way.
That is to say, the book before us is so frank, and the incidents of Mr. Weed’s career are related with so much minuteness and fullness, that the reader has no great difficulty in forming a tolerably consistent conception of a man of singular force of character. Mr. Weed had great astuteness, but it is impossible, in the face of the full revelation which this book affords, to believe him a man of low cunning, least of all a man capable of glorying in such cunning. On the contrary, his very faults had the air of noble defects. He tells with evident gusto how he once “got even” with Mr. Everett, who had treated him with cool civility in London, and one begins to think him a vindictive man ; but the incident, taken with others, leads one finally to regard him as a man of spirit, of long memory, and extremely jealous of his rights. To be sure, these qualities are not of the highest order: they made him an enemy to be feared, but they also made him an unflinching friend. The persistency with which he pursued his object in the extraordinary Morgan affair was a persistency which made his enemies helpless ; and while, in all his political and journalistic career, he was capable of working in the dark, of keeping his own counsel, and of meeting subtlety with subtlety, his strength lay not in his adroitness, but in his steadfastness and unflagging zeal. The autobiography abounds in entertaining incidents, illustrative of this quality, and illustrative also, by the way, of the circumstances of journalistic and political life at the time.
“ There used to be a sharp rivalry,” says Mr. Weed, “ between the Argus and the Evening Journal to obtain the earliest news. The earliest copy of the President’s annual message to Congress was the occasion of much solicitude. Such messages were usually received about the close of the season of navigation. On one of these occasions I went to New York to obtain the earliest possible copy of President Jackson’s message. Mr. Obadiah Van Benthuysen, one of the proprietors of the Argus, went to New York on the same boat and on the same errand. Colonel J. Watson Webb, one of the editors of the Courier and Enquirer, had been favored with a copy of the message in advance of its delivery to Congress. No other New York paper had it. Colonel Webb, then in political accord with the Argus, promised Mr. Van Benthuysen the first copy printed of the Courier, while I was to receive the second. The steamboat De Witt Clinton, Captain Sherman, by an arrangement which Mr. Van Benthuysen had made with the agent, was to delay her departure from five o’clock, P. M., until Mr. Van Benthuysen came on board, should he be able to do so by eleven o’clock.
“ My friend Captain Sherman advised me of this arrangement, adding that his orders were to have everything in readiness and cast off his lines the moment Mr. Van Benthuysen could get on board; expressing the hope that I might also get there before the boat was out of the dock. We both passed the evening at the office of the Courier and Enquirer, with hacks in waiting at the door. Towards ten o’clock the first proof impression of the message was taken, and handed to Mr. Van Benthuysen, who instantly made his exit. There was a delay of nearly two minutes before I obtained my copy. In descending three flights of stairs I found the lights extinguished, and was compelled to grope my way down. In this way I lost another minute, in consequence of which I reached the wharf to And the steamer under way about twenty feet from the dock. I learned from an acquaintance, who was standing on the dock, that a freight steamer would leave early the next morning. Proceeding to the dock of that steamer, I induced the agent to fire up and get under way at as early an hour as practicable. We were off in two hours after the departure of the De Witt Clinton, and reached Poughkeepsie, where both boats were detained by the ice an hour or two, after Mr. Benthuysen had departed in the mail stage for Albany. I found Bally, a wellknown and active livery-stable man, who assured me that he could overtake the stage before it reached Albany. In a very few minutes, therefore, I was seated in a cutter (for the sleighing was good) and off, express to Albany. Bally was as good as his word ; for in approaching Greenbush the stage was in sight, scarcely a quarter of a mile ahead of us. Mr. Van Benthuysen and myself ran a foot-race across the river on the ice, and the Journal and the Argus issued the message in an extra simultaneously.”
A paper like the Albany Evening Journal probably offered a better fulcrum for a political manager then than it would now. At any rate, Mr. Weed seated in the editor’s chair was a power behind the throne, and his narrative gives abundant illustration of the activity with which he exercised his power, He believed heartily in the newspaper, and he used it vigorously as a means to an end. In 1841, while in Washington, he learned privately that there was a secret understanding in the Senate, under the lead of the South Carolina senators, by which the nomination of Everett as minister to England was to be rejected. This information Mr. Weed received when calling, one Sunday evening, upon Senators Mangum, of North Carolina, and Morehead, of Kentucky. He had with him Mr. Christopher Morgan, and all four gentlemen were agreed that such a proceeding would wrong the Whig party. The senators had been under a pledge of secrecy, but had revealed the secret to the other two.
“ Both senators,” Mr. Weed naively says, “ then became disembarrassed, and a plan to avert this evil was arranged. Messrs. Mangum and Morehead said that they would either prevent an executive session on Wednesday, or, failing to do so, would get the question on Mr. Everett’s confirmation postponed for a week. Meantime, Morgan and myself were to arouse a strong popular sentiment against the ‘deep damnation ’ of rejecting the nomination of the most distinguished citizen for a position to which his eminent talents and character entitled him. We repaired to Morgan’s apartment, and set ourselves to work writing ‘ correspondence ’ for Whig journals in Raleigh, N. C., Richmond and Winchester, Va., Wilmington, Del., Louisville, Ky., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Trenton, New York, New Haven, Providence, Boston, Albany, etc., followed by brief letters to influential Whigs, asking them to write to all Whig members of Congress with whom they were acquainted, protesting against the contemplated rejection. This labor was completed at sunrise, just in season to get our letters off by the morning mails. The question of Mr. Everett’s rejection was laid over for a week. Meantime, indignant ‘public opinion’ poured in through journals and letters from so many quarters, and with such telling effect, that Mr. Everett’s nomination was confirmed, nearly all the Whigs and two or three Northern Democratic senators voting for it. No one except Messrs. Morehead, Mangum, Morgan, and myself knew what had caused that ‘ great commotion.’ ”
There are many disclosures of political secrets in the volume, but the most interesting of all is the general revelation of that species of political manipulation which found its most complete exponent in Mr. Weed, and its most perfect apparatus in the partisan press. The greater part of the volume is a more or less conscious exhibition of this ; and no student of our political life can fail to find interest in the story, for it is a personal narrative of a régime which is fast becoming historical and obsolete. Political manæuvring has been bolder and coarser since Mr. Weed’s day, and the changes which have taken place in society and government render exactly such a career as his no longer possible. There is an element of picturesqueness in the personal politics of his day which redeems it from grossness, and an individual value in leadership which was in part a tradition from the early days of the republic, when leaders and led were farther apart than they are now.
As the autobiography passes into the later years of Mr. Weed’s life, it grows more desultory, but it also deals with larger, more vital subjects. We no longer are confronted by a host of New York village politicians, but by the names of men of historical significance. Very interesting is the whole of Mr. Weed’s report of his interviews with Mr. Lincoln ; the report, also, of his diplomatic journey to Europe, of his shrewd dealings with Mr. Bennett, when Mr. Lincoln sent him to convert the New York Herald; and the judgments which he passes upon the men who were in affairs are valuable and sometimes surprising. We are a little disappointed at the brief mention of Mr. Greeley; but perhaps this is due in part to the fact that some of the latter portion appeared in the form of letters to The New York Tribune.
The reader rises from this most interesting autobiography with an impression of the growing power of the man whose life is told in it. The polemic character of the early part of the book gives place in the conclusion to the broad, catholic judgment and charity of a man whose years had mellowed him. What was it, we ask, in Mr. Weed’s disposition and education which enabled him to pass the test of an active politician’s career, and issue unimpaired in conscience and integrity? If a single word can cover the answer, it would be “ patriotism.” In these later days, we have become used to thinking of the word in connection with the ordeal of battle; but a life like Mr. Weed’s shows very clearly what a passion patriotism was in the days when the nation was gathering itself together. We do not think this power of patriotism has been sufficiently recognized in taking account of the national forces forty years ago. The country was not so large; the memory of the men who had established its order was still alive ; the parties which strove in conflict had no geographical lines; there were fewer distractions in life, and a keener interest in public affairs. Mr. Weed was a patriot. He believed in his country heart and soul ; and while he was a thorough partisan, his party, in his mind, was the servant of the nation. This passion for his country ennobled his political energy and gave it bent and direction. It caused that, after having been a Warwick in New York, he could go to Washington and show himself something more than merely a friend of Mr. Seward. His counsels in the critical time after Mr. Lincoln’s first election were the wise counsels of a patriot, and it is entirely just to revise one’s judgment of his early career by a reading of his later. No man could have brought the wisdom which Mr. Weed brought to government whose life had been one of political chicanery, for that warps and twists a man’s judgment.
How strangely different were the two journalists ! Yet they meet on this common ground of patriotism, after all. In a crisis, they were found on the same side ; in the movements which led to the crisis they were often opposed. Their modes of working were very different: Mr. Bryant contented himself with the exposition and insistence of a few strong ideas ; Mr. Weed was forever working at his ends through men. The former has more classic dignity, the latter more human picturesqueness. In a great profession like journalism there is room for both characters ; and while journalism could not hold the poet, neither could it limit the politician. Later times will furnish other types of journalists, but we doubt if there will ever be more marked contrasts in the types.