Two Historic Americans

THE present season brings us two biographical studies which easily suggest comparison and contrast. Each intends less a sketch of personal characteristics than an estimate of public position, but the two persons were so individual that their characters refuse to be relegated to a secondary consideration ; they make the very places which the persons occupy. It is a pleasant task, therefore, to read from these studies the personal element, to form some conception of the figures thus presented to the eye, and to watch the lengthening shadows which they cast.

John Adams, regarded under the limitations of family life, stands as the head of a succession of vigorous personalities. It is not impossible that something more than hereditary influence has passed from him down the line; that the judgments which he formed and held with such tenacity have been part of the family possession ever since. Mr. Morse, at any rate, the first of the present generation to attempt a full-length portrait,1 finds himself obliged to turn to the wall now and then the frame which contains John Adams’s picture as painted by his grandson, although in the main he naturally is guided by it. The Adamses, however, have never lacked representation, since they have projected their own features with a good deal of energy from the pages of their diaries and correspondence, Mr. Morse reminds us that Adams was cast for the ministry as the one learned profession of his day, but that by his own choice he adopted law. “The figure,” he adds, “of impetuous, dogmatic, combative, opinionated, energetic, practical, and withal liberal John Adams in a pulpit is exceedingly droll. He was much too big, too enterprising, too masterful, for such a cage.” The law was held in disrepute, and his friends thought John Adams had made a sad mistake. It is curious how the position is reversed to-day. We may fancy a future biographer saying of some strong figure in American history, whose choice of a profession fell in the last filth of this century, that to the dismay of his friends he took his gifts, his fine persuasive powers, his insight into the order of the universe, his practical sense, into what then seemed the sorry estate of the Christian ministry.

As it turned out, it was something more than the practice of law for which John Adams was intended. There was a profession of statesmanship then forming, at the head of which he was to stand. In truth, he summed in himself those political virtues which in the community about him issued in protest, revolt, and continuous organization. He was an incarnate New England. He was the best interpreter the country has ever seen of those English institutions which were transplanted into American soil and put forth new forms. A new and vigorous school of historical students is engaged in tracing the genesis of local institutions and political customs. It is doing scientifically what John Adams did by virtue of his political insight. His philosophy of the town-meeting remains the best statement of that democratic germ.

It was, however, in the line of practical statesmanship that Adams won his most enduring fame ; not, indeed, the statesmanship which avails itself of men, but that which never loses sight of a political end and perceives the meaning of the larger movements. If Adams had had the tact and adroitness of Franklin, he would not have been so rugged a figure in our history ; but what is that but to say that Franklin and Adams each contributed forces which were united in Washington ? Adams disliked Washington, and Mr. Morse lias not sufficiently intimated this antagonism. It sprang naturally from the opposition of natures. How could this irritable, dogmatic, insistent, egotistic New Englander fail to fume in the presence of the self-controlled, heavily-weighted Virginian ? Could there be a greater contrast in methods than that by which Washington managed the Jay treaty and Adams the French mission ? Each did a patriotic deed. The results proved the wisdom of each measure; but while the English treaty was followed by no domestic catastrophe, the French mission was the occasion of the downfall of the Federalist party. Of course other influences were at work, but it is doubtful if any single disrupting power was so great as Adams’s utter willfulness.

The contrasts which make John Adams’s character so attractive to the large lover of his kind, so repellent to the merely fastidious, are not of great virtues and mean vices, but those of a robust nature which is entangled by its own petty weaknesses. We have sometimes wondered how the truly great woman whom he loved and honored bore with his impatient egotism. She must have seen him as he was, and as students to-day may know him. His own contemporaries, too near to avoid his faults, magnified them, and made a reluctant concession to his mastery. To his wife, who thought his greater thoughts, the violence of his jealousies doubtless seemed just, for the most part, and for the rest she may have given the charity which a wise love knows how to bestow. We suspect that in the turbulence of the passions of his time John Adams owed more than he has confessed to the faithfulness and serenity of his wife.

If John Adams was the progenitor of a line of marked men, all following with unequal paces in his steps, Emerson was the eminent close of a series of men from whom he drew characteristics refined by a long process of selection. Dr. Holmes 2 has touched with skill upon the race and class qualities which found their consummate flower in this last of a line of preachers, and any student of New England life is likely to halt before the interesting problem of Emerson’s environment and derivation. John Adams had completed his public life when Emerson was born. The profession which he had refused, because he knew himself made for other things, was still the leading profession, and Emerson, growing lip in its traditions, was to let it slip from his shoulders as a cloak when he should stand up under a self-ordination, or, if one chooses, under a laying-on of unseen hands. The descent from ministers was something more than a matter of hereditary inlluence ; for Emerson’s thought, even when iconoclastic, may fairly he taken as the outcome of that spirit of iutellectualism which ministers more than any others had kept in flame in New England. As John Adams was the incarnation of the political New England, so Emerson was the finest product of tire free-thinking New England, which had found no subject outside the range of its speculation. The two were both critical men. Adams came to the front in tlie crisis of political independence; Emerson, in the crisis of religious independence. Theodore Parker was the wind which stormed against the conventionally religious man, and only made him draw his cloak closer about him, while Emerson, shining and smiling, made him loosen his robes and bare himself to the outer air.

The visit of Emerson to England was the return of New England to the mother country in a more emphatic sort than was Hawthorne’s. Never does England seem farther away from America than when one is reading English Traits. Below the surface of shrewd observation one may catch sight of the spirit of England driven across the Atlantic two hundred years before, given new environment, set upon the same questions hut bidden ask them in the open air, and getting its answer in such wise as to make everything strange when revisiting its old haunts. The individuality of Emerson, testing and trying England, is sharp enough, if one looks only for that, but it is easy also to resolve it into a speakership for a new people.

It is, however, in the attitude of Emerson toward his own countrymen that his personality is most interesting. With all his written and spoken words concerning America, — and it is impossible to read his May Day without perceiving how great a relief to him was the return of peace after the separating war, — one fails to find the evidence of any passionate devotion to his country. The service which John Adams rendered in his loyalty to the nation, which he saw less by imagination than by an heroic, sturdy realization of the facts of human life about him, was such a service as racked the giver. Emerson, in speaking of the volume of Letters and Social Aims, which Schmidt introduced to the German public, used the expression “ village thoughts.” A piece of slightly conscious humility must not be taken too gravely, yet the estimate really does partially set off Emerson’s defect on this side. He was at home in Concord. Anywhere else he was a stranger. Even Boston was a place to visit, though he gave that city an affection which is embodied in some noble verses. The occasional glimpses which Dr. Holmes gives of the poet on his travels in his own country serve to deepen the impression which one forms of the purely spectacular shape of the country in Mr. Emerson’s vision. He was not indifferent to the struggles going on, and yet they were rather disturbances to his spirit than signs of a life which quickened his own pulse.

To some minds this may seem to lift Emerson above other men. In our judgment it separates him--from them, to his own loss. It is precisely this passion of nationality which differentiates other seers and poets from Emerson. Milton had it. Carlyle had it. Tennyson has it. Victor Hugo has it. Goethe did not have it. The absence of this passion is indeed the sign of an inferior ethical apprehension. At any rate, the passion of country is never far removed from the passion of righteousness. The cry over Jerusalem was the last echo of those prophetic voices which make Israel and Israel’s God to he joined by closer than human ties. When one collects his God from ethnic fragments he is very apt at the same time to distribute Ins country.

Dr. Holmes says finely that there was “ a sweet seriousness in Emerson’s voice that was infinitely soothing.” “ I remember,” he adds, “ that in the dreadful war-time, on one of the days of anguish and terror, I fell in with Governor Andrew, on his way to a lecture of Emerson’s, where he was going, he said, to relieve the strain upon his mind. An hour passed in listening to that flow of thought, calm and clear as the diamond drops that distil from a mountain rock, was a true nepenthe for a careworn soul.” This is the impression which Emerson’s nature leaves most ineradicably on the mind. The serenity of his life and thought was a great gift to his countrymen. The smile which played about his features is the last token of his personal presence which they will forget. With what a striking contrast of mood these two historic Americans passed out of ken ! Adams, stormy even in his reminiscence of life from the quiet harbor of old age : Emerson, unperturbed when receiving the angry criticism of his day, subsiding into a long reverie of peace.

  1. John Adams. By JOHN T. MORSE, JR, [American Statesmen Series.] Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1885.
  2. Ralph Waldo Emerson. By OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES[American Men of Letters Series.] Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1885.