Recent Books on American History

WORKS on American history are descending upon the country in a flood. Either publishers are doing a very losing business, or our people are rushing into the task of reading about their country and their Constitution with the same wholesale ardor with which they have extirpated Indians, felled forests, built railroads, crushed rebellion, and populated a continent. From modest monographs on town government to elaborate constitutional treatises and voluminous histories of the country and the people, the new list which each month brings is various and crowded. This epidemic has come suddenly. Those of us who are not far advanced in middle life recall the days when American history was eschewed by common consent as the dullest of topics, and when American writers of an historical bent, turned their backs on the unalluring prospect presented by their own country and took refuge in the picturesqueness of other lands. Not many years ago, a faithful student of the full curriculum at our best universities could have graduated with honor, yet in ignorance of the fact that the United States had any history. The real reason of this condition was not that American history was in fact intolerably dull, but rather that prior to 1865 no man could feel entirely sure that our republic would not prove merely a fleeting, unsuccessful experiment. It was with the removal of the peril of disintegration and the approach of centenaries — an hundred years implying to the American mind hoary antiquity and aged traditions — that there arose a genuine interest in that past which the war made really remote, without regard to the actual measurement of years. Thereupon, with characteristic readiness, the host of writers spread themselves over the narrow space which the century presented, and have already betracked and betrampled it into a sadly dusty condition.

Weariness, however, must not be allowed to prevail until the volumes lately contributed by Mr. Adams1 have been read, for they contain the work of a diligent student and a trained and profound thinker on historical subjects. The book has to encounter the misfortune of having been overmuch expected, since nearly a score of years must have elapsed since it was first whispered abroad that this work was in process of creation; and when a member of the historic Adams family, presumably steeped in fitness for this especial labor, devotes so long a time to incubation the world has a right to anticipate a great production. The anticipation is very nearly fulfilled ; Mr. Adams has given us a history which, if the subsequent volumes maintain an equality of merit with the first two, will be almost great. That he should have added much to the store of facts previously known concerning the period was impossible ; but he has shed upon the old facts many new lights, has established for them fresh relationships and hitherto unappreciated proportions, and has illustrated them by comments and reflections of very great value.

The opening chapters contain a sketch of the moral, political, intellectual, social, and industrial condition of the country about the year 1800. Infinite reading and research have gone to the making of this sketch, and probably in its accuracy not a flaw can be detected. Yet in dealing with the New England and Middle Atlantic States, Mr. Adams’s point of view is very unfortunate ; he is too obviously possessed by a carping, critical spirit, which enables him to discern no good whatsoever in a community which can hardly have been altogether devoid of abilities and of serviceable qualities. He seems to like to express the truth through negatives, and he makes his chief object the furnishing antidotes to the somewhat exaggerated praises of which other writers have been undoubtedly over - liberal. He allows himself to be run away with by this disposition, and at the very threshold of his work he shows a certain contradictoriness of temper, which is too often perceptible throughout, as though the truth were now to be told for the first time, and all the blunders of earlier groping and ill-informed writers were to be exposed and swept away. Thus at first false tones are given to a picture whose outlines are probably correct, and our author appears more accurate as a draughtsman than successful as a colorist. If the people were as he depicts them, they were a sorry set of fellows, quite unfit for liberty, and whose recent achievement and subsequent wise use of it are incomprehensible. In describing the Southern States he lapses into gentler paragraphs; and at last, in taking leave of this part of his book, he frees himself for a brief while from his contradictory habit; even his style, which thus far has been dry, labored, and uneasy, suddenly improves; the reader, who has felt, himself jolting uncomfortably over a cobblestone road, through scenery very distasteful to him. rolls out on a smoother way and is cheered by a fairer prospect. Perhaps it is a cloudland that now seems ravishing ; for Mr. Adams, laying aside the rôle of historian for that of seer and orator, engages in sketching, by dim rhetorical innuendo, the destiny and the mission of the new country, and he does it with a swelling enthusiasm which pleasantly offsets his earlier denying disposition. One only wonders a little where, in the society which he has been sketching, he finds a basis for this cloudy palace of his imagination.

Through these radiant portals Mr. Jefferson is ushered upon the scene, bringing with him the new American revelation, and assuming to be the wise and good man who is to give to the nation its first powerful impulse along the road of human happiness. Mr. Adams admires Jeffersonianism, and so depicts it that his readers will admire it likewise, at least as an abstraction. But the observant ones among them will separate Jeffersoniauism from Jefferson. The doctrine Mr. Adams sets forth attractively, but his position as towards the man is curious. He constantly interrupts his narrative to attribute some fine quality to his hero, yet it is impossible not to remark how widely the Jefferson of his fancy differs from the Jefferson of his facts: for no sooner does he ascribe a trait than he seems to adduce evidence to disprove it. He utters repeatedly the undeniable assertion that Jefferson was a great man, but he wholly fails to set forth how or wherein he was great. In creating and organizing the Democratic party, giving it a policy and leading it to a brilliant victory, Jefferson had shown the highest powers as a politician and no small capacity as a statesman. A brief preliminary sketch, showing us what the man was and what he had done, would have been a valuable introduction. Many students of Jefferson’s career think that as chief administrator and head executive of the country his greatness was less apparent than it had previously been. But Mr. Adams does not hint at all this, contenting himself with alleging the greatness at frequent intervals throughout a history in which he shows his hero abandoning every principle he has ever avowed, creating no new policy in place of that which he throws away, yielding to others, failing to carry his own points, drifting along the current of circumstances. Even if Mr. Adams were Jefferson’s detractor instead of his admirer, this would be unfair ; and as it is, the reader feels a little irritation at a display falling so far short of the advertisement, and is justly provoked that the showman will not make his monkey perform his boasted tricks.

In other ways more trifling Mr. Adams pursues the same course, impelled apparently by that strange vein of contradictoriness which too often sets him obliquely and very uncomfortably across the stream of received belief and universal opinion. For example, he insists that Jefferson’s private life was eminently pure, contrary to accepted traditions. Then by a strange perversity he places upon one page two statements: first, that there was foundation for the story that Jefferson was turned out of a gentleman’s house for writing a secret love-letter to the gentleman’s wife ; and second, that Jefferson’s “ nature was feminine; he was more refined than many women in the delicacy of his private relations.” Many women are pretty bad in their private relations, of course ; but this thought hardly saves Mr. Adams’s consistency.

Our author reaches the extreme of audacity in his strenuous reiterations of Jefferson’s honesty, even his guilelessness and simplicity. Now Jefferson’s honesty has been much more seriously impugned than ever were his greatness and his purity; and his best friends have preferred to describe him as astute rather than as artless. In this, as in all the rest of his description, Mr. Adams alleges one thing and proves another. He uses euphemisms not altogether ingenuous. “The exaggerations or equivocations,” he says, “ that Jefferson allowed himself . . . amounted to nothing when compared with the dishonesty of a corrupt man. . . . He was true to the faith of his life, and would rather have abdicated his office and foregone his honors than have compassed even an imaginary wrong against the principles he professed.” Now the position thus laid down is fairly tenable, as many writers who have held a brief for Jefferson have shown. But Mr. Adams, with a strange kind of impartiality, having thus set up his abstract assertion in favor of his great-grandfather’s enemy, goes on to array his facts with much skill upon the opposite side. He has told us of “ equivocations,” but in a few pages he narrates a deliberate and direct falsehood ; he calls it “ incorrect,” but it is impossible to accept his own gloss of his own story. He next assures us and convinces us that Jefferson was saying in public precisely the opposite of what he was saying in private ; and perhaps the strangest argument that ever was made for a man’s consistency and honesty is here introduced. For while Jefferson’s public official utterances are stated by Mr. Adams to have given the lie to all that he had been saying for years, we are told that, in fact, he was all right, since his private utterances showed no change of sentiment and were probably true. How far it is possible for any man utterly to repudiate all the principles he has for long years been professing, and still to be politically honest, may perhaps be an open question beneath those singular rules which constitute the code of political ethics. But certain it is that no writer, Federalist, or Jeffersonian, has ever yet set forth Jefferson’s desertion of his published faith with such painstaking elaboration, such conclusive elucidation, as Mr. Adams has brought to the task. The result, is that the reader finds himself hopelessly bewildered between that, which he is bidden to believe and that which the facts, as narrated and explained, compel him to believe. Mr. Adams’s condition of mind as towards Jefferson becomes almost a psychological study, though such an element of perplexity is not altogether agreeably introduced when the reader would like to be clearly guided to sound conclusions.

In praising Jefferson Mr. Adams buries very deep the ancestral hatchet. But he cannot do the same for Hamilton. During the last hundred years four generations of Adamses have clung to the faith that Hamilton was nothing greater than an ingenious treasury clerk, and no more fit to meddle with statesmanship than Jefferson would have been to conduct a campaign against Napoleon. True to the family feud, Mr. Adams now assures us that Hamilton’s ” “ supremacy ” among men of the calibre of the leading Federalists of Washington’s and Adams’s days was chiefly due to no higher intellectual quality than “the faculty of expressing the prejudices of his followers more tersely than they themselves could do ”! And he introduces to us that blatant orator and mimic statesman, William B. Giles, for whom rarely has any writer had words of commendation, as the person who had “ distinguished ” himself by an attack upon Hamilton; whereas in fact Giles was much nearer to extinguishing than to distinguishing himself by one of the most ridiculous fiascos in history. But to have aimed a shot at this quarry is enough to secure Mr. Adams’s good-will.

Mr. Adams is not especially happy in depicting persons ; he leaves Madison no more lifelike than a mummy, and even his favorite Gallatin performs acts after the fashion of a marionette rather than a man. But with Randolph Mr. Adams achieves greater success, and we have many lively glimpses of that erratic creature. Chief Justice Marshall also seems to bring some little inspiration. Yet on the whole the portraiture of these volumes is disappointing.

In narration our author is happier, telling a story with clearness and force. The most interesting and novel portion of his work relates to the acquisition of Louisiana, and the history of this transaction has never been so exhaustively given. Mr. Adams keeps us long in Europe with Bonaparte, whom he hates and would like to despise, and no short time in St. Domingo with Toussaint Louverture, whom he rather fancies, and sketches kindly and well. The scenery is more picturesque than the American stage setting, and we linger not unwillingly to see Napoleon take his perfumed bath before our very eyes, and to hear naughty bans mots concerning the Queen of Spain. We forgive Mr. Adams for putting all this into his story, where it does not at all belong, because Jefferson’s career certainly needs a little lighting up, or one would get sleepy in its monotonous half-light. The position of the Jeffersonians concerning this great deviation from strict construction is very fairly given, and the arguments and bearing of the whole business are very lucidly stated. The same may be said of the impeachments of Pickering and of Chase. If Macaulay had never drawn the scenery of Warren Hastings’s trial, Mr. Adams’s sketch of that of Judge Chase would have seemed very fine. But it is fair to remember that the American accessories and stage setting were not picturesque in spite of the effort of Aaron Burr. Further, it should be said that Mr. Adams displays great skill in the terse statement of the arguments, the lucid explanation of the political position.

It may he thought that we have spoken of these volumes in a somewhat critical temper; it is therefore only fair to say that it is the very importance of the work and the high ability shown in it which tempt, and in some degree necessitate, the mention of its peculiarities, and of those of its views which seem questionable. It is those writings which have such merits as to insure them a far-reaching influence that stimulate discussion, criticism, and in some particulars inevitably also dissent. The historian is a guide to his less instructed reader through the domain of history as the compass is to the mariner, and the personal bent of the writer must be discovered and allowed for no less than the deviation of the compass. It is certainly true that by this sample of his whole work Mr. Adams appears to have written a history which will not be soon or easily displaced from the important function of largely shaping the views of Americans concerning the interesting changes and developments carried on during the Jeffersonian era. It is evident that he has exhausted all accessible knowledge, has turned it to and fro and churned it, so to speak, in his mind, until accumulation, analysis, and comparison can no further go. The period may be discussed with different predilections ; it will never be discussed more keenly or more profoundly. In a word, the book is one of marked ability and very great value. It is also to be said that Mr. Adams’s idea of the way in which history should be written leaves nothing to be desired. He has an excellent sense of the proportion to be preserved between the narration of facts, the presentation of political arguments, and the explanation and comments properly to be furnished by the historian. His own elucidations and reflections, strung thickly, but not too much so, along the thread of his story, are always an important aid, always a stimulus to independent reflection. He has many of the best qualifications for historical writing: not only is his industry untiring, his research unlimited, but he is thoroughly trained in the difficult art of thinking historically ; he is also, perhaps, as impartial as a man who has ideas and strong convictions ever can be. His style is a trifle uneven in its quality ; possibly it is because his pages are so full of condensed thought that they often cannot be read without a sense of exertion. Yet, on the other hand, he is usually clear ; often he glides onward with a pleasant current, but anon he shows inflexibility and hardness. If he is seldom brilliant, he is nearly always correct and scholarly. In a work which manifests so much care and painstaking, more observant proofreading ought to have eliminated some grotesque disfigurements in such little details as the division of words ; but on the whole the accuracy in all matters of literary finish is highly commendable.

A contribution to American constitutional literature is made by A. Lawrence Lowell.1It is pleasant for the New Englander to see so often as he does the young men who bear the historic names familiar in his part of the country still working along such lines of public service, proving the enduring qualities of the strong old Puritan blood. Mr. Lowell has chosen topics which the ordinary reader usually passes by, with a slight sensation of surprise at the attraction which they seem to possess for persons more studious than himself. But even such a reader may find pleasure as well as profit in this small and very well written volume. Mr. Lowell’s style flows so clearly, his skill in expression is so great, that one runs easily and rapidly through his pages without once losing the thread of his reasoning.

His first essay deals with the oft-suggested plan for giving to the President’s Cabinet ministers seats in the House of Representatives, and shows plainly that, instead of being the simple and easy matter which it is usually supposed to be, it would work fundamental and farreaching alterations in the whole character of the government. The second essay is the most interesting in the book, dealing with the nature and the sufficiency of the safeguards erected in this country against democratic tyranny. There is much new and suggestive thought in this paper, admirably set forth. The character of the power with which the Supreme Court is invested for declaring acts of Congress unconstitutional is very ingeniously discussed. It seems as though the court, in thus avoiding a statute passed by the representatives of the sovereign people, was exercising a very perilous privilege of veto. But, says Mr. Lowell, “ a legislature which passes an unconstitutional statute is usurping power over the people; and the court, in refusing to enforce such a statute, is giving effect to the popular will.” The declaration is in effect “ that the present wishes of the people cannot be carried out, because opposed to their previous intention and to the views of their remote ancestors.” These ancestors wisely believed “ that there were principles more important than the execution of every popular wish, and rights which ought not to be violated by the impulse and excitement of a majority.” We have reason to be thankful that later generations have not eschewed the good sense of the forefathers; but our safeguards look uncomfortably tragile.

Speaking of the Constitution, Mr. Lowell makes the excellent statement, “ The utmost that a Constitution can be expected to do is to protect directly a small number of vested rights, and check indirectly the growth of a demand for radical measures.” He adds timely words of warning against " the growing tendency of the people of the States to take a direct part in legislation by means of constitutional amendments.” What he says concerning the advance of paternal theories of government cannot easily be abbreviated. Once it was fancied that the franchise given to the people might satisfy them, but it has proved only a tub to the whale, not satisfying at all. What the poor man wants is not a vote, which pays no bills for food, fuel, or clothes, but a rearrangement of industrial systems to enhance his material comforts; and to compass this end he will use his vote persistently. The comparison between the United States and Great Britain in this respect, made by Mr. Lowell, is very striking, and we fancy that most readers will be surprised, and even startled, at the recitation of recent English legislation, some of which is simply confiscatory. With Germany adopting nationalism, and England legislating communistically, it seems not impossible that the United States will soon appear like one of the conservative laggards in the march of the nations. In this connection, it may be remarked, Mr. Lowell gives one of the most intelligent criticisms which we have yet seen of a portion of Mr. Bryce’s book.

The essay on The Theory of the Social Compact is an interesting historical sketch of that plausible but untenable theory. The Responsibilities of American Lawyers also is excellent. There is space only to name these, but when a man can write on such subjects so well and so agreeably as Mr. Lowell has done, wise readers will not rest content with reading only a review of his book.

Another work,2 which Monsieur le Due de Noailles has ill-advisedly seen fit to write and publish concerning our hundred - year - old republic, we cannot so confidently recommend. Our royalist critic has fortunately never seen the country or the people. We say fortunately, for if his views had been gathered from personal observation among us, we should have reason to feel both hurt and discouraged. As it is, however, he has got his ideas by reading a few standard writers, some magazinists, and many newspapers. It is really curious to see what an impression is conveyed by the perusal of our newspapers by a person who does not know how to construe them as the native American does. The hook also gives us cause to wonder whether we are as ludicrously astray in our opinions and judgment concerning French systems as this Duke is concerning American systems. If so, we had better rub out our ideas, and leave our minds a blank upon the subject.

Some of the ducal statements may prove entertaining. The Pittsburg riot, for example, which we regard as an isolated episode, is to the Duke an appalling and instructive indication of a national status. To us it seems like the fall of a meteorite ; to him it is a deplorable symptom of a permanent social and industrial condition. The Philadelphia Exposition, now almost forgotten, is resuscitated as a painful display of social, political, and financial scandals, which astounded and disillusioned European visitors. Let us take warning for our coming “ World’s Fair” ! Communism, saith Monsieur, is striding to rapid success, and has lately obtained full domination in California. The enfranchised negroes have become the oppressors of the vanquished white race in the South, and “ America may be said to be governed by Ethiopia.” The Constitution has degenerated into a “panoplie hanale,” furnishing weapons as freely for the attack as for the defense of the national institutions ; the old-time machinery of checks and counter-checks has grown rusty, and the limitations of power, originally prescribed, but long since passed by, serve now only as milestones to show the distance traversed on the road to ruin. The presidency, as an office, has lost all inherent force, and is weak or strong only according to the personal character of the incumbent. The Supreme Court is admitted to have preserved its dignity, but inferior tribunals have become the field of scandalous trafficking. The legislative business is conducted in a lax, ill-organized fashion by standing committees; independence no longer exists in legislative bodies ; debates in proper form have been superseded by obscure underhand practices, and effective power is lodged in the lobby. The Duke discusses the propriety of seating the Cabinet officers in Congress, but hardly gets so far into the subject as Mr. Lowell has done. He considers that the present arrangement leaves Congress bereft of intelligent guidance and that it has been disastrous, and he pronounces the “ American method ” a failure.

All this is discouraging indeed ; yet a little comfort may be gathered from the statement that the American people, dissatisfied with the wretched condition of their affairs, constantly make violent efforts at reactionary movements to check the fatal speed with which the great republic is spinning rapidly down the grooves of decadence. Unfortunately, however, these wrenches, doing only slight and temporary good, produce, on the other hand, a very uncomfortable instability, vacillation, and change, peculiarly distasteful to the French mind. The Duke admits that reform may be thus effected, but he admits it with a mournful and ominous air, which shows that it is French courtesy rather than sincere hopefulness which inspires the remark. He frankly explains that the trouble lies in the fact that the people are no longer of much real account in the management of their own public affairs, having been rendered helpless by the arts of politicians and party mechanism.

There may be wholesome food for reflection in much which this writer says, and at least it might prove really useful as a medicine to moderate the shrill cry of the national bird, especially on the Fourth of July. But it is certain that the seasoning of his dish will not suit the American palate, too long pampered by the highly flavored rhetoric of its flattering orators. We could not honestly advise any enterprising publisher to offer a translation of these two goodly octavos to American readers.

  1. History of the United States of America, during the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson. By HENRY ADAMS. Vols. I. and H. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1889.
  2. Essays on Government. By A. LAWRENCE LOWELL. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1889.
  3. Cent Ans de République aux Etats Unis. Par le DUC DE NOAILLES. Paris: Calmann Lévy, Editeur. Vol. I., 1886. Vol. II., 1889.