WE owe a large debt to Mr. M’cMaster for the great industry which he has displayed in accumulating and sorting a
mass of detail respecting the every-day life of the American people since the war for independence. The second volume 1 of his history covers the period from 1790 to 1803, and to illustrate the time he has searched contemporary journals and pamphlets, narratives of travel, diaries, town histories, legislative journals, and other public documents. No student of our history and no general reader can quarrel with an author who has been so diligent and in the main so discriminating in this laborious task ; and no matter how many histories of the country may be written, upon how many various plans, this work is likely to remain a repository of curious and suggestive facts.
The comprehensiveness of Mr. McMaster’s interest gives the greatest value to the work. Nothing comes amiss, from a “ brass - nail - studded hair trunk” to Jay’s Treaty, and the orderly manner in which kindred topics are arranged and made to slide into the next theme is of assistance to the reader’s memory. The wearisome newspaper warfare, which made the Federalist and Republican contest a “ kettleopotomania,” has evidently been followed patiently by Mr. McMaster, who has reported it in his digest style, and so given the reader a sufficient notion of its fury without subjecting him to the nauseating details. By means of the full excerpts one is able also to follow the contemporary discussion of such public measures as Jay’s Treaty, without himself hunting down the newspapers and pamphlets of the day. A full index adds to the ease with which one consults the book for the light which it sheds on our history.
For, when we have recognized to the full the great value of Mr. McMaster’s work, it remains that this value is rather in the illustration of history than in its interpretation. The work is a library of interesting and useful information on a multitude of points touching the life of the people, and it gathers these details into convenient groups. It follows a careful chronological order, and it intends a consecutive narrative, but it fails to impress one as a clear exponent of the organic growth of the nation ; and thus far, at any rate, one may read it without discovering that the author sees into the principles of development, or comprehends the meaning of the movement of that great mass which he describes in so many of its features.
It is this absence of a strong underlying historic thought which makes the book entertaining rather than really instructive, and the reader is carried along from point to point by a certain superficial cleverness of transition in place of a real nexus of purpose. Indeed, these ingenious loops of one subject to another betray an almost whimsical eagerness of the author at times to cajole the reader into further diversion. One is tempted to think of a variety stage, where each successive entertainment is hurried forward as the last scene slips out of the spectator’s sight. The very abundance of illustration employed by the author serves to defeat his purpose, by presenting the reader with all the instances, and leaving him to find for himself the principle, and to pass judgment. He cannot see the forest for the trees. This effect is heightened by the rotundity of expression in which the author indulges. The style is the man, and we regret to say that the multitude of words which flow from Mr. McMaster’s ready pen bear testimony to the exuberance and fertility of his mind rather than to his power of seeing into his subject, and saving the reader’s time by concentrating his attention upon the really fateful historic passages. When a historian, wishing to tell us of Cobbett’s early life, begins by informing us that he “ first saw the light of day ” in a farmhouse in the town of Farnham, Surrey ; or heralds an account of a launch with the words, “ After three years of unavoidable detention the first naval vessel built by the United States under the Constitution was to be committed to the waves;” or prefaces a description of the jerks by the extravagant assertion, “ On a sudden this community, which the preachers had often called Satan’s stronghold, underwent a moral awakening such as this world had never beheld,” we cannot help wishing that he had adopted some model of style less florid, and more than that we wish that he were not so rich in indifferent material. It is a fine thing to value our own history, but if, when we come to display its riches, we dwell endlessly upon petty squabbles and ignoble details, the mere fullness of our chronicle does not save it from meanness.
It is this which disappoints us in Mr. McMaster’s treatment. To use a homely phrase, he is trying very hard to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. To take, for example, the chapters which relate the complications of national policy and the contentions of party arising from the state of affairs in Europe. A mighty conflict was going on in the Old World, full of meaning and epochal in its significance. The incidents to which it gave birth were of a kind to tax the powers of the greatest of modern picturesque writers. Our own country, independent in name of Europe, and really independent in its destiny, was yet unavoidably entangled with European affairs. What was going on in France and England and Spain was of the greatest interest in Philadelphia and New York and Boston, while these places were apparently indifferent to the silent, unheroic march of American life to the westward, To trace the real influence of Europe on America at this period, and not to lose sight of the native forces at work, would be one of the most exacting pieces of work to which an historian could put his hand. Our complaint is that Mr. McMaster has confused the theme by his wearisome elaboration of the newspaper and pamphlet war which was waging on this side of the Atlantic. The significance of such men as John Butler and Matthew Lyon, and of such a fracas as that between Lyon and Griswold, is lifted out of all proportion to real importance, and for page after page we seem to be reveling in the affairs of Little Peddlington.
It seems to us that Mr. McMaster is misled by his authorities, and that a too industrious reading of the Aurora and other redoubtable papers has made him not a partisan, but a chameleon. His method of digesting speeches or newspaper articles, and giving the gist of them to the reader, seems to have made him at times scarcely more than a skillful digester. What is the use of retailing at length, even in the form of a report, the scandal concerning Adams and Jefferson which filled the papers of the day ? We do not want to read those papers. Mr. McMaster is kind enough to do it for us, and we beg of him not to read so many extracts aloud, but to give us his own judgment of the rights and wrongs in the cases in dispute. We expect him to go through the disagreeable task of making himself acquainted with all the rubbish which political and partisan newspapers contain, but not for the purpose of laying it before us and leaving us to form our conclusions. It may be said that the author shows his judicial mind by such a course. Not at all. A judge is bound to sum up the evidence, and not merely to read us the pleas on both sides. Mr. McMaster’s mind is rather that of a reporter than of a judge, and as he passes to one side or the other, in the tiresome battledore and shuttlecock style, we are ready to cry out, But what was the truth, after all ? or, Have you not made up your mind yourself ?
In all this rhetorical enumeration of endless detail, the real proportions of history become confused, and unless the reader brings to the book a tolerably distinct notion of the historical development, he is likely to get lost in the woods, and be almost as helpless as if he were to try to pick out the history of a year from the file of a newspaper. In his desire to make a fluent narrative, Mr. McMaster sometimes disregards the needs of the humble reader, and talks about his subject in an allusive way which does not always afford to analysis a distinct and usable fact. Such is his treatment of the Embargo, which never, we think, is sharply defined, but presumes upon the reader’s previous knowledge. An illustration of this indirect style is in the reference to Washington’s recall to the head of the army in 1798. “To command them’’ (the regiments), Mr. McMaster says, “ two major-generals, an inspector-general, and four brigadiers were provided. The chief command was given to a lieutenant-general, and for this post the whole country agreed that but one man was fit.” Singularly enough, our author is entirely silent regarding the quarrel over the second place, and omits wholly any reference to Hamilton’s schemes for the army in the West.
It may be a part of Mr. McMaster’s
plan to make little of leaders and much of plain people, yet we think it is unfortunate that he should, by the proportion which he follows, give but little hint of the significance of the great men in our early history. The American people was not a headless mob, and the shaping of history which resulted from such leadership as that of Hamilton has not yet ceased to be operative. The picturesque elements in our history are by no means wanting, but they are scarcely to be found in the thin colonialism which waited on European movements. The real points to be emphasized in the early years of the republic are rather the personal and human forces which were at work, and were to justify the promise of democracy. The few men who grasped the political situation are worth the historian’s attention far more than the curs who barked at their heels, and the rising tide of democracy was not, we are convinced, so much the result of party conflict as the action of that undercurrent of American life which is only partly revealed in this volume, — a current which had its most notable disclosure in the formation of Western and Southwestern society.