Anti-Slavery History and Biography
THE time has come for some one to write the classical biography of Abraham Lincoln. All the essential materials for such a life are now in our possession. Memoirs and Reminiscences without number have given us to the full the singular flavor of Mr. Lincoln’s personality : a close friend has left us an authoritative account of his life ; his secretaries have overwhelmed us with ten volumes of particulars concerning it; and Mr. Herndon, his partner in the practice of the law. has disclosed it to us with a frankness little short of brutal. We know the man as those who were imaginative saw him, and we know him also as those who could not penetrate beneath the mere external features of his life would have us believe him to have been. All the evidence being in, it is eminently desirable that some master of the art of biography should sum it up, sift, assess it, and picture for us the man Lincoln as he was.
If Mr. Morse has not done what we hoped and ventured to expect,1 the reasons why he has not are obvious. He has attempted a bit of scientific painting, and not a portraiture to the life. The book is a criticism, consequently, rather than an appreciation. It unquestionably adds, and adds a great deal, to our command of the materials out of which a real and definitive Life of Lincoln is to be extracted ; but it adds very little, if anything, to our knowledge of Lincoln himself. We are advanced several stages nearer a correct apprehension of the facts of that singular life by reason of this careful book, but it may be doubted whether we are any nearer to Lincoln.
This result is not due entirely, however, to the colorless scientific method which Mr. Morse endeavors to maintain. It is due also to the plan of the book. The series in which it appears carries by its title the assumption, not of biographic study, but of an inquiry into the public relations of the persons dealt with, the part which they played in the great political drama of their day. Mr. Morse is concerned with the statesmanship of Lincoln, and with his personality only so far as this accounts for individual notes in the story. Only one hundred and sixty of the seven hundred and forty-five pages of his volumes are given to the consideration of the fifty years of Mr. Lincoln’s life which preceded his election to the presidency, and these are devoted largely to his political career; the rest of the two volumes is given up to a narrative of the events of the five years which ensued. The reason for this is, of course, that those five years were of incalculably more consequence than the preceding five decades, in their transcendent importance both as respects the destinies of the country and the opportunity which they afforded for the display of Mr. Lincoln’s character. During those years he stood forth one of the most conspicuous figures in the world’s history, for he held steadily in his hand the destinies of a great nation. They were not simply the dramatic culmination of his own life; they were also one of the chief points of dramatic culmination in the history of the United States, and even of the world. If length of life is to be reckoned by intensity, there was unquestionably more of Mr. Lincoln’s life in those five years than in the preceding fifty : and in these years he was not a mere political orator, as before ; he was a statesman, having to put his political principles into action, to translate his theories into momentous practice. Our keen regret is that, in leading up to this great period, Mr. Morse has not given us a more penetrating study of those American forces which shaped Lincoln in his youth and obscure manhood. History underlies statecraft, and there is as much history in those forces as in the events which furnished scope for Lincoln’s great powers amidst the tumults and storms of war. Even the very broad scale Mr. Morse has allowed himself for the consideration of the events of Mr. Lincoln’s presidency is not broad enough for the purpose ; he is obliged to refer to more history than he tells; and if Mr. Lincoln remains somewhat dim and shadowy the while, it is because we did not know him well before the stage became so crowded. If we could have mastered his character and made it real to our thought before this rush of momentous history came upon him and upon us, the outlines of his part would remain clear-cut and prominent throughout. As it is, we note him only when our attention is called to him.
This explains the inadequacy of the book as a personal biography. Mr. Lincoln can be known only by a close and prolonged scrutiny of his life before he became President. The years of his presidency were not years to form, but rather years to test character. The strain was too great to harden and perfect any sinew but that which was already tough and firmly knit. There is something of the quality and method of the analytical novelist in Mr. Morse’s manner of dealing with his subject. He frequently pauses to explain and analyze Mr. Lincoln ; modestly, indeed, and without the novelist’s confidence that he thoroughly understands the workings of his singular hero’s mind, since he did not create him, but still with the novelist’s art of making the character distinct by description rather than by action. And yet these descriptions of the man are confessedly incomplete. Like most modern historians, Mr. Morse uniformly suspects and rejects, if he can, every explanation that is extraordinary, and insists upon believing that some quite commonplace explanation exists, if it could but be discovered ; though he very often admits a failure to discover it, and rather helplessly suggests that we must feel convinced both of its existence and of its sufficiency without knowing what it is. He is subtly disquieted, nevertheless, by the consciousness, which every one must have in studying Lincoln, that the more ordinary and within easy view of reason you seek to make the life of this strange man, the more extraordinary it becomes, and the more inexplicable. Mr. Morse is keenly alive to the desirability of avoiding the foolish habit of most biographers, of beckoning their great men impatiently on to their greatness, wondering the while and fretting at their laggardliness and blindness to the destiny in store; and yet he himself gives frequent evidence of having his eye on the future always rather than directly on the present, in dealing with Lincoln’s years of preparation. He is himself irritated by the narrowness of the life Lincoln so long led, and hurries over it as merely preliminary to his narrative.
And yet the real Lincoln was alive in 1850 quite as much as in 1860. Mr. Morse presents the key to the whole matter on pages 31-34 of his first volume : “ The preëminently striking feature in Lincoln’s nature,” visible in the early days scarcely less than in the later, “ was the extraordinary degree to which he always seemed to be in close and sympathetic touch with the people ; that is to say, the people in the mass wherein he was embedded, the social body amid which he dwelt, which pressed upon him on all sides, which for him formed 'the public.’ First this group or body was only the population of the frontier settlement; then it widened to include the State of Illinois ; then it expanded to the population of the entire North.” But it strikes us that he hardly sees the full value of the solution ; he only marvels at the rapidity of the transition from the public of Illinois to the public of the Union, on Lincoln’s part, without loss of head or flaw of complete insight and sympathy, and leaves the capacity a sign and wonder rather than an explanation. The fact would seem to be that there was no sudden broadening of view, no marvel of an instantly widened vision. Lincoln’s capacity to understand and persuade men was indeed marvelous in its perfection, its inerrancy, but in kind it was no new wonder. And in Illinois, in Lincoln’s day, there was every opportunity for an eye like Lincoln’s to see the thought and spirit of the whole country. The youth of the State was coincident in time with his own youth, and Illinois grew to maturity as rapidly as Lincoln did. The Western frontier population was, moreover, an intensely political population. It felt the very keenest throbs of the nation’s life, for the nation’s energy was directed westward. The West was not separate from the East: its communities were every day receiving fresh members from the East, and fresh impulse of direct suggestion ; their blood flowed to them directly from the veins of the older communities. Elements separated in the East, moreover, were united in the West, which displayed to the eye a sort of epitome of the more active and permanent forces of the national life. In such communities as these Lincoln mixed daily with men of all types and from every quarter of the country. With them he discussed neighborhood politics, the politics of the State, the politics of the nation, now more and more centring in Western questions. He went twice down the Mississippi to its mouth, and his eyes, so accustomed to look directly, point-blank, upon men and affairs, saw characteristic regions of the South. He worked his way slowly and sagaciously, with the larger sort of sagacity, into the active business of state politics, he sat twice in the legislature and for one term in Congress ; his singularly sensitive mind open all the time to every aspect, especially every human aspect, of what was going on about him. All the while, too, he was canvassing, piece by piece, every item of politics, familiarly around the stove, more formally upon the stump, in direct contact always with the ordinary views of ordinary men. He was reading, too, as nobody else of those around him read, seeking a complete mastery over speech with the conscious purpose to prevail in its use; deriving zest from the study of mathematical proof, amusement in clean and naked statements of truth. It was all irregularly done, but it was strenuously done, and done throughout with the same instinct and with a steady access of facility and power. There was no sudden leap for this man, any more than for other men, from crudeness to finished power, from an understanding of the people of Illinois to an understanding of the people of the United States. He came to his great national task with a capacity trained to an equality with its magnitude. You could not then set a pace in learning and perceiving that was too hard for him.
If we have dwelt upon the possibilities contained in such a study, it is because every fresh presentation of Lincoln makes us more eager for that characterization of the man which shall not indeed detach him from his times, but which shall build up the figure with such truthfulness and skill as shall justify the unique position which he holds in history. For the rest, Mr. Morse’s contribution is marked by such full knowledge, calm judgment, and eminent fairness that after we have regretted the neutral tints in which the chief figure is drawn, we can thank the writer heartily for an able historical study.
Both the plan and the subject of Mr. Pierce’s volumes2 are very different. They complete his monumental Memoir of Charles Sumner in the style of which the earlier volumes gave promise. They do not attempt a portrait of the man ; a portrait extended throughout four octavo volumes would of course be no portrait at all. They are a careful and elaborate recital of all the events, both great and small, of Mr. Sumner’s interesting and eventful life ; full of long extracts from his speeches and addresses; full of his letters, both formal and familiar, and of letters written to him by others. They are not an historian’s work, but teem with such materials as historians are most grateful for; such materials as furnish minutely elaborated pictures of men, of situations in affairs, of places and social conditions, and bring the imagination into direct contact with persons and times now passed away. This Memoir, with due allowance made for the prepossessions of the devoted biographer, unquestionably gives us Charles Sumner as he was, a man of high tastes and refined sensibilities ; meant for the profession of the scholar, but forced by exceptional times and causes into public stations for which he had a decided distaste, into public functions for which he had little real capacity or fitness of temperament. Mr. Sumner was by nature a philanthropist. His capacity for affairs was a capacity for understanding them in their larger aspects rather than for conducting them in detail. Immediate hot contact with practical politics sometimes destroyed his self-possession, as it is so apt to do in the case of all men of fervid moral temperament. He now and again suffered himself to be goaded into utterances which were wholly unbecoming his elevated genius. He often spoke like an apostle, too, when the occasion required that he should speak like a statesman. Powers meant, perhaps, for mankind were given up to an agitation. His life had dignity, had largeness, had even, in the broader conception of events, a generous measure of success ; but one cannot suppress a regret, after reading Mr. Pierce’s worthy memorial, that such a man should have been denied to some quiet time, when his powers could have worked the gentler works of amity and peace.
So far, such materials of our history as this great biography affords have proved more interesting and enlightening than the formal histories that have been constructed out of them. Biographies, especially when they are full of letters, as this one is, are at least pervaded by the flavor of the personality of the men whose lives they recount. But the historian introduces what individualities he will, distributes flavor to bis taste, reconceives the story, recasts it, colors it to his own eye. And it must be said that we have not been very fortunate in our later historians of the anti-slavery struggle. Elevated as are the character and purpose of Mr. Schouler, it is impossible to convey right impressions in his swashbuckler style. Mr. Rhodes has been hardly more successful. It is unpleasant, it even seems ungrateful, to set less than full value on his painstaking volumes.3 They are studiously conceived, they are full of a pleasing candor, they try diligently to tell the whole story, their purpose is just and their manner unpretentious. But for all that, if the balance be wisely cast, they must be pronounced not to be what a history of the period they cover ought to be. Nothing short of catholicity of sympathy, a most delicate and discriminating appreciation of opposite points of view, and a rare literary skill in nicely modulated statement is required by the historian of the time since 1850 ; and Mr. Rhodes does not, if the truth may be candidly put, possess these elements of success. This is not harsh criticism ; it is simply the inevitable conclusion of the critic.
His attitude towards the South is of course the crucial test of the whole matter. He declares, with his usual candor, at the outset of his chapter on slavery, that what he shall have to say “ can only be a commentary on the sententious expression of Clay: ‘ Slavery is a curse to the master, and a wrong to the slave.' " He has already avowed, in a previous passage, the belief that only “ the historian whose sympathies are with the antislavery cause of 1850 ” “ can most truly write the story ” of the ways in which that cause was advanced. Accordingly, his volumes become a superior sort of anti-slavery pamphlet, and, by reason of the extreme exaggeration of his emphasis of the national life and feeling, the features of the story are thrown hopelessly, almost grotesquely, out of proportion. There was space enough in these two large volumes, surely, to tell the history of the whole country during the ten years they cover, stirring times as those were ; but Mr. Rhodes’s view is confined to the Northern States, and, within the Northern States, almost exclusively to the anti-slavery struggle. All other matters, even all other features of national legislation, not only fall into the background, but practically pass out of view altogether. No one now needs to be persuaded that slavery ought to have been extirpated, the country rendered homogeneous and safely united both in spirit and in interest; and yet those who believe in the necessary and indissoluble nature of the Union, before the war as since, can hardly be satisfied with Mr. Rhodes’s treatment. He quietly dissolves the Union from the outset of his narrative. The South is throughout, for him, a foreign country, whose condition and sentiments he learns piecemeal and at intervals from travelers. It is a region from which many rumors come to him ; he speculates and concludes concerning it, but he has no authentic knowledge or direct realization of it himself. His Union is not to be preserved so much as created by the suppression of slavery.
That the whole matter of the condition of the South and the character of slavery is foreign to his apprehension is shown most sharply in his deliberate estimate of the slave system. He sets forth the evils of slavery in black catalogue, and then he turns suddenly about and smilingly recites the brighter and more benignant features of the institution. The two passages are simply contradictory ; and he is either unconscious of the fact, or quite helpless in the presence of it. He makes no attempt at a consistent assessment of the thing as it was when seen whole and in its normal aspects. This is the result in part, perhaps, of the leisurely spaces of the narrative, and in part, no doubt, of the false canons of modern historical writing. Both long histories and modern canons prompt the historian to set forth his material rather than to digest it, to give grounds for a conclusion rather than the conclusion itself.
But such methods, such temptations, when yielded to, simply rob history of all significance or right to be. Mr. Rhodes ought to have realized for himself, and ought to have written the history of the whole country. Even during the decade 1850-1860 that history by no means narrows itself to a history of the Northern States and the anti-slavery struggle. The forces that were to win in the deadly contest coming on were gathering head in the North, and the South was approaching the end of her belated régime. But the historian who confines his view to these things merely skims the surface; he by no means penetrates to the real life of the times. There was much genuine community of view between North and South in those days. The South was rashly forfeiting the confidence of those who nevertheless held her general principles of politics as stanchly as she did ; but the Republican party, fast as it gathered strength, was the party of a minority even at the very threshold of the war. There was a real and abiding basis for the Union in spite of slavery; and if there had been no persistently open question concerning the extension of slavery, its mere continued existence in the Southern States would never have been a question at all, — at any rate never a question capable of affecting the vitality of the Union. The history of the anti-slavery propaganda, therefore, is not, taken apart, the history either of the affairs or of the thought of the country. Its affairs had a deeper guiding principle, its thought an infinitely profounder complexity, than one would dream of in reading these pages. The very term which most comprehensively characterizes the war which followed, the war for the Union, is a protest against a more limited conception of the principles involved in the contest.
The truth is that Mr. Rhodes has no insight, at least into complex characters, taking men either individually or in the mass. His delineations of character and appraisements of motive in public men give even a painful evidence of the fact. No historian of real insight could for a moment accept his portrait of Calhoun, or of Douglas, or of Seward, or of Sumner. The historian needs nothing less than the insight of the best novelists into character and the grounds of action. Mr. Rhodes gives us only very singular and whimsical sketches of the outsides of men. The same man is now one thing, and again quite another, according as his acts are approved or disapproved. Seward is a politician when he is wrong, a statesman when he is right. Douglas is a time-server when he proposes the repeal of the Missouri Compromise; yet he suddenly becomes unselfish and disinterested at the very moment when he might, by trimming, reap the identical advantage he is supposed to have played for in that legislation. The author’s descriptions of the personal appearance and outward fortunes of his characters are equally capricious and oddly proportioned, reminding one sometimes of the dear old lady who described an intellectual friend who had impressed her very deeply as “ having a great mind and shaggy eyebrows ” ! Lincoln, " like Socrates, was odd in personal appearance, though with a different grotesqueness of exterior. And to Lincoln, as to Socrates, were denied the felicity of domestic life and the pleasures of a quiet home.” Could Mr. Rhodes find no homely man whose wife was uncongenial who was at the same time in other respects more like Lincoln than Socrates was ? Such comparisons are not even like Banks, “ sagacious in appearance.”
These, it will be perceived, are not mere literary defects. They betoken a real obtuseness of vision. Mr. Rhodes’s method is crude and with the flat hand rather than refined and discriminating. It never penetrates to any interior meaning, nor to the real centre of any complex situation. His soft-spoken judgment of John Brown, his tendency to speak of “ the South ” in a lump, his sometimes credulous entertainment of rumors, of which his pages are often as full as Washington itself, are evidences of this that will occur to any one who has read the book. The writing is not dogmatic in terms, one feels, only because the author is aware that it is “ bad form ” to be dogmatic ; for it is strongly dogmatic in spirit.
However much one deplores these grave defects of the book, and however radical he must pronounce them to be, he cannot quit its perusal without a kindly feeling for the author. It is so honest a piece of work. It is elaborate, — unduly, inartistically elaborate, indeed, — giving symptoms everywhere of that demoralizing disease known as “ materials-in-the-footnotes ; ” but its elaborateness is unmistakably the result of a painstaking examination of the sources. If the colors of the narrative are not successfully blended, they are at least not pale or neutral in tint, but the strong and definite colors of conviction. It is a pleasure to see the period so studiously canvassed, so frankly discussed. There are vigor, honesty, and knowledge throughout; and so full a setting forth of the matter for judgment will contribute in a very important degree, it may be hoped, to the formation of right views. Where there is no concealment the truth may be expected eventually to emerge.
An old member of one of our historical societies used to say, some years ago, that he did n’t know but the time had about come when we might tell the truth concerning Great Britain and the Revolution. Dr. Woodrow Wilson 4 evidently thinks the time has come when the country is ready to hear the truth about the South and the war. We believe that he is right. The generation which participated in the final struggle has largely passed away. It has contributed much toward bringing on the better era in the historical treatment of the conflict by the good work it has done in the impartial discussion of its military history. In this field it was easier to bring the views of the opposing parties into reconciliation. But that participants in the political history of the time should come to agreement about its events and questions was not to be expected. Unquestionably, our civil war is not exempt from the fate of all other civil wars, — that the ultimate judgment of mankind upon it is something different from that held at the time by either of the parties engaged. But for this judicial and intermediate view we look rather to the new generation, which can more easily acquire that sympathy with both sides which is the indispensable condition of just narration. This new generation Dr. Wilson fully represents. Such a temper is a primary qualification toward writing the history of the period of sectional division and reunion in the United States. The resulting view of the conflict is one which we believe will commend itself more and more, especially to the newer generation. We may quote as typical Professor Wilson’s words regarding secession : " The legal theory upon which this startling and extraordinary series of steps was taken was one which would hardly have been questioned in the early years of the government, whatever resistance might then have been offered to its practical execution. It was for long found difficult to deny that a State could withdraw from the federal arrangement, as she might have declined to enter it. But constitutions are not mere legal documents : they are the skeleton frames of a living organism ; and in this case the course of events had nationalized the government once deemed confederate. Twenty States had been added to the original thirteen. . . . These are not lawyer’s facts : they are historian’s facts. There had been nothing but a dim realization of them till the war came and awoke the national spirit into full consciousness. They have no bearing upon the legal intent of the Constitution as a document, to be interpreted by the intention of its framers; but they have everything to do with the Constitution as a vehicle of life. The South had not changed her ideas from the first, because she had not changed her condition. She had not experienced, except in a very slight degree, the economic forces which had created the great northwest and nationalized the rest of the country, for they had been shut out from her life by slavery. . . . She had stood still while the rest of the country had undergone profound changes; and, standing still, she retained the old principles which had once been universal.”
In other words, Professor Wilson refuses to engage in the old debate upon the ground originally occupied by the disputants, but leads us away to another position, from which both sides of the shield can easily be seen. From the strictly legal point of view, that which was the Constitution in 1789 was the Constitution in 1830 and in 1860; and what it was, was to be discovered by inspection of the document in the light of the remarks of those who originated it. In the old debate, each party argued from this assumption, and claimed the victory on this battle-ground. In Webster’s great speech, the best remembered portion is the impassioned appeal to the sentiment of nationality with which he closed ; but the bulk of the argument is upon the documentary evidence as to the original meaning of the Constitution. Taken upon this ground, the Southern chieftains were in reality difficult to assail. While we should not wish to assent to the proposition that the extreme state-rights theory would hardly have been questioned in the early years of the government (for the writings of the fathers give an uncertain sound), the weight of evidence seems on the whole to be with those who think the doctrine of state sovereignty to have been the doctrine held, consciously or unconsciously, by most instructed persons at the time when the Constitution was formed. But the legal point of view is not the only one from which a constitution can be considered. There is another, — that of the historian, regardful of development; of the practical statesman or humbler man of affairs, to whom it seems obvious that the growth of a nation to adult maturity should cause, and sufficiently justify, a fortification of its vertebrae. Hence arose, by 1861, another theory of the Constitution, equally valid with the other, and, as the event proved, vastly more potent, hut quite irreconcilable therewith. It is one of the chief merits of Dr. Wilson’s little book that he has perceived not only the irreconcilable quality of the two, but the real validity of each, its genuine title to respect.
We have lingered long upon those portions of the book which deal with the great crisis toward which the thirty preceding years of the period were leading us, and from which the thirty succeeding years have but slowly, painfully, and in some respects imperfectly extricated us. These are the parts of the hook which will most arouse discussion, and in regard to which the author’s lucid mind and liberal spirit will have their most ample chance to exert a beneficent influence on those who may use his volume for reading or as a textbook. Yet, after all, the slavery conflict was, in its relation to the logical development of American democracy, only an episode, though a gigantic one, and Dr. Wilson is careful not to give it undue prominence in his narrative, nor to neglect for its sake the record of that development. We could ask for a student of Mr. Rhodes’s History, for example, no better preparation than would follow upon a careful reading of Dr. Wilson’s volume. Considered as a general history of the United States from 1829 to 1889, his book is marked by excellent sense of proportion, extensive knowledge, impartiality of judgment, unusual power of summarizing, and an acute political sense. Few writers can more vividly set forth the views of parties. Indeed, we should be inclined to say that the book is stronger in its exposition of the development of political thought than in any other department of the narrative ; certainly stronger here than in regard to the development of external institutions, the anatomy of government. Yet here it is only fair to remember how little has been done to elucidate the history of our governmental institutions during the present century. What do we know about the history of the nominating convention, for instance ? Have we not left it to he described by M. Ostrogorski and Mr. Bryce? And the writer of the small book upon a long period, however zealous he may be in research, is to a great extent limited by the existence or absence of larger or more special treatises.
Though Dr. Wilson’s book is mainly a history of our political development, he has a manifest desire to consider the history of our civilization, at least in so far as it illustrates our political history. In his remarks on such topics one notes the influence of the writings of the late Professor Alexander Johnston. One notes, too, an appreciation of the fact, which we hope will he increasingly perceived by our historians, that at many points in our history subsequent to the Treaty of Ghent there have been intimate connections between the movements of public thought in Europe and those in America. In spite of our political separateness since 1815, more is common in the nineteenth-century history of the two continents than is usually imagined.
If one compares Dr. Wilson’s book with the two which have preceded it in the same series, some results of the comparative want of predecessors are apparent. There is not the same evidence of compression forced upon the writer by the presence of a vast body of facts already long recognized as of necessity to be included in a history of the time. The narrative is easier, the style more fluid. It may be that the book will not be so easy to use as a textbook as Dr. Hart’s admirable volume, but it will be more enjoyed as reading. As regards arrangement, the author has intentionally dealt somewhat more fully with the years of Jackson and Van Buren’s administrations, as constituting a formative period the understanding of which is in an especial degree necessary to that which follows. Particularly interesting and important is the short chapter on the constitution and government of the Confederate States. Dr. Wilson rightly remarks that, " stupendous as was the war struggle from every point of view, its deepest and most extraordinary qualities are revealed only when it is viewed from the side of the Southern Confederacy.” He therefore gives an instructive account of the constitution of the Confederate States, of their resources, army, and finances, and of the character of the government, the symptoms of opposition, and the final collapse.
Save for a number of annoying misprints in the references, the volume has the same excellence in respect to bibliographical aids which characterized its predecessors in the series.
- Abraham Lincoln. [American Statesmen Series.] By JOHN T. MOUSE, JR. In two volumes. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1893.↩
- Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner. By EDWARD L. PIERCE. Volumes III. and IV. 1845-1874. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1893.↩
- History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850. By JAMES FORD RHODES. Volumes I. and II. 1850-1860. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1893.↩
- Division and Reunion. 1829-1889. [Epochs of American History.] By WOODROW WILSON, Ph. D., LL. D., Professor of Jurisprudence in Princeton University. New York and London : Longmans, Green & Co. 1893.↩