A Great Biography: Mahan's Nelson

THERE comes a period when the work and character of a great man can be fairly summed up for all time by the biographer; when the judgment is as nearly in focus as ever the fallible human judgment can be ; when the distortion of passions and the multiplicity of details inseparable from nearness of view, and the obscuring, sometimes magnifying effects of distance are both at a minimum. Certainly that time had not come for Nelson when Charnock and Barker, or even Southey, wrote the life of the great admiral. But the right man does not always come at the right time, and the world’s general estimate of its illustrious men not infrequently remains without any adequate concrete expression.

Individual judgments are necessarily fallible and incomplete. They are either strong and masterful, tainted by prejudices and warped by that constitutional way of looking at things which we call the personal equation, or weak and colorless, the loose gathering up of that crude public opinion which surrounds a great name as the photosphere surrounds the sun. Still, the general consensus of opinion of great men, as of great books, is not far out of the way. The critical acumen of the scholar, the professional knowledge of the expert, the feeling, taste, and judgment of the few. and the shrewd common sense of the many, — something of all these is found in the popular verdict; and this composite picture, as it were, derived from so many sources, is usually not far from right. But just because, though so well defined, it is so composite, the biographer who can intelligently represent it is rare. “ A true delineation of the smallest man,” says Carlyle, “ is capable of interesting the greatest man.” What an interest a man would have for us if we knew that he was thus to sum up for posterity our life-work! We should ask, not only, What access has he to the record ? but also, What professional capacity, what temper of mind., what human experience of life, will be bring to the analysis of our motives, the judgment of our acts, the weighing of our character?

We had the right to expect much from Captain Mahan, especially that he would give us a critical estimate of Nelson’s genius from the point of view of the naval expert, and that he would show us the relations of Nelson’s naval operations to the general course of contemporary events in that same original way in which he had already made real for us, to a degree no previous writer had done, the influence of sea power upon history. But he has done very much more than this, He has made the man Nelson live to us as he has never lived before.1 Nelson we knew already as a born fighter, heroic, vain, affectionate, sensitive, nervous, yet as a name rather than a man, — a name symbolizing certain brilliant achievements, but a man only as he emerged from the obscurity which belongs to the sea, when the flash-light of glory was turned upon him. We know him now a man among men, a real human personality, in a sense in which we have never known him before.

It is not so easy to make the great admiral thus real to us as it is the great, general. We know Grant better than we know Farragut, as we know Wellington, Marlborough, and Ney better than Tromp, Rodney, or St. Vincent. The sailor lives apart, in a round of professional duties which lie beyond the range of our observation. Aside from the interest due to the greater relative magnitude and diversity of land over sea operations. the former are more intelligible and bring us into closer touch with the actor because the drama in all its details takes place at our door. It is not great achievements which tell us most of character, but the minute details of daily life, and it is through their revelation of human nature that we know Napoleon better before Austerlitz than Nelson before Copenhagen. Brilliant exploits give men a place in history, but they do not tell us the story of their inner lives or give them a place in our hearts. The modern historical method, in aiming at something more than the chronological record of events, has reversed the saying of Dr. Johnson that history sets forth “ the pomp of business rather than the true and inward resorts thereof.” Still more true is it that in biography the “ pomp of business ” is the mere outward show. Captain Malian says in his preface : —

“ It has not seemed the best way to insert numerous letters, because, in the career of a man of action, each one commonly deals with a variety of subjects, which bear to one another little relation, except that, at the moment of writing, they all formed part of the multifold life the writer was then leading. It is true, life in general is passed in that way ; but it is not by such distraction of interest among minute details that a particular life is best understood. Few letters, therefore, have been inserted entire ; and those which have, have been chosen because of their unity of subject and of their value as characteristic. The author’s method has been to make a careful study of Nelson’s voluminous correspondence, analyzing it, in order to detect the leading features of temperament, traits of thought, and motives of action ; and thence to conceive within himself, by gradual familiarity even more than by formal effort, the character therein revealed. The impression thus produced he has sought to convey to others, partly in the form of ordinary narrative, — daily living with his hero, — and partly by such grouping of incidents and utterances, not always, nor even nearly simultaneous, as shall serve by their joint evidence to emphasize particular traits or particular opinions more forcibly than when such testimonies are scattered far apart; as they would be, if recounted in a strict order of time.”

It is interesting to read this statement of the author’s method, for he has completely realized its purpose. Doubtless the last word will never be said on so fascinating a personality as Nelson, and there are matters of opinion and inference on which readers will differ, — as, for example, the direct influence of Trafalgar upon Moscow and Waterloo, — but it is not probable that a more faithful, complete, human portrait of Nelson will ever be drawn.

There is one striking characteristic of Captain Mahan’s work, — the entire absence, from first to last, of anything like an attempt to establish a point, a preconceived theory. At no time does he seem to be endeavoring to prove anything, or to be seeking facts to support propositions. His logic is the logic of inference and induction. This is the more noteworthy because there are acts in both the official and the private life of Nelson on which extreme positions may be and have been taken. We never feel that Captain Mahan is juggling with the evidence, and he brings a sturdy common sense as well as a judicial temper to its interpretation. There were certain strongly marked traits in Nelson’s character which brought him into conflict with conventional maxims, and it is natural for the reader to turn with special interest to the author’s critical, estimate of those acts in Nelson’s career which have given rise to such widely differing verdicts.

In three conspicuous instances Nelson assumed the perilous responsibility of violating a rule to which he himself gave the first place in his advice to a young midshipman: “You must always obey orders, without attempting to form any opinion of your own respecting their propriety.” The general rule of obedience to superiors is one upon which a subordinate may rely for justification, whatever the outcome of such obedience may be. He may, indeed, be criticised for failing to rise to the level of a great opportunity, for a deficiency in the moral courage requisite for accepting exceptional responsibilities, yet all obedience which is not stupid adherence to the letter in face of the clearest call to duty carries with it immunity from official blame. But to disobey is to exchange the immunity offered by the general rule for the precarious protection of its exception ; to risk all, not upon success, — for to see the one thing to be done and to do it is always the right thing, whether it leads to the wisked-for success or not, — but upon the hazard of its being the right thing, upon the chance that one’s own opinion of the conditions in the case in question may be the wrong one. “ It is difficult for the non-military mind to realize how great is the moral effect of disobeying a superior, whose order, on the one hand covers all responsibility, and on the other entails the most serious personal and professional injury if violated without due cause; the burden of proving which rests upon the junior. For the latter, it is, justly and necessarily, not enough that his own intentions and convictions were honest; he has to show, not that he meant to do right, but that he actually did right in disobeying in the particular instance.” There is no other test of obedience, and Captain Mahan applies it, though with different results, to the several instances in which Nelson challenged it. One of these occurred in the engagement with the Spanish fleet, under Sir John Jervis, when, by wearing out of the line of attack as prescribed by the admiral ‘ for which he had no authority by signal or otherwise, Nelson entirely defeated the Spanish movement; ” an act of which Jervis said to Calder on the evening of the victory, “ If you ever commit such a breach of orders, I will forgive you also.” “ Success,” says Captain Mahan, “ covers many faults, yet it is difficult to believe that had Nelson been overwhelmed, the soundness of his judgment and his resolution would not equally have had the applause of a man who had fought twenty-seven ships with fifteen because ‘a victory was essential to England at that moment.’ ”

The more dramatic instance of Nelson’s disregard for orders, also occurring in the heat of action, at the battle of Copenhagen, — more dramatic because an act of positive disobedience, and not a mere assumption of authority, and because associated with the incident of his applying the glass to his blind eye, exclaiming that be had the right to be blind sometimes, and could not see Sir Hyde Parker’s signal to withdraw his division,— was another case of seeing the right thing to do and doing it. “To retire with crippled ships and mangled crews, through difficult channels, under the guns of the half-beaten foe, who would renew his strength when he saw the movement, would be to court destruction.— to convert, probable victory into certain, perhaps overwhelming disaster.” In both these cases Nelson’s fighting quality was united with sound judgment,— a judgment almost intuitive in the rapidity and tenacity with which he seized upon opportunity and made the most of it.

Captain Mahan brings out very clearly not only Nelson’s independence of character, but also his accurate reasoning on technical matters, in his account of the controversy over the Navigation Act, and of Nelson’s refusal to admit the validity of Sir Joseph Hughes’s order authorizing an officer holding only a civil appointment to exercise naval command when not attached to a ship in commission ; but he does not justify Nelson’s disobedience of Lord Keith’s instructions to detach a part of his fleet for the defense of Minorca. In his letters to the Admiralty Nelson made the wholly inadequate defense of the uprightness of his intentions. As events proved, Keith failed to meet with the enemy’s fleet, and the safety of Minorca was not imperiled. It is useless, therefore, to speculate upon the assistance that would have been afforded in either case by the cooperation of Nelson had events turned out otherwise. It nevertheless remains true that in this instance Nelson assumed to decide upon matters which were certainly without his province, and that there was nothing in his position which entitled him to override the judgment of his superior as to the relative importance of Minorca and the kingdom of the Two Sicilies to British influence in the Mediterranean.

Captain Mahan’s review of the unfortunate events which took place at Naples in June, 1799, is admirable in its clearness and for its conclusions. It has been maintained that English honor was stained when Lord Nelson annulled the capitulation ratified by Cardinal Ruffo as vicar-general of Naples, and issued the order for the execution of Prince Caraccioli. It is certainly unfortunate that he held no written warrant from the king for the authority he assumed. There is, however, every reason to believe, on the one hand that he had such authority, and on the other that Ruffo had been expressly forbidden to grant a capitulation. The parallel drawn between what has been called the “judicial murder” of Caraccioli and the assassination of the French ministers at Rastadt cannot be maintained. Nor is there the slightest evidence to show that Nelson’s conduct of the affair was determined by any other considerations than those of right and duty. “ Saturated ” he doubtless was “ with the prevailing court feeling against the insurgents and the French,” but that he “ yielded his convictions of right and wrong, and consciously abused his power, at the solicitation of Lady Hamilton, as has been so freely alleged, is not probably true ; there is no proof of it.” Technically Nelson was justified in the execution of Caraccioli, as probably he was also in the annulment of Cardinal Ruffo’s agreement, yet for both he will always be blamed, for those general reasons which give the more magnanimous spirit of justice precedence over its strictly formal laws.

The part played by Lady Hamilton in Nelson’s life cannot be omitted by his biographer. Whatever else it was, Nelson’s infatuation was at least no mere intrigue, no low amour. And whatever else Lady Hamilton may have done, she certainly inspired in Nelson what no other woman did, a great and lasting passion. We know her so well from other sources that his idealization of her is almost unaccountable, and would be altogether inconceivable if we did not recognize the power of a great passion to invest its object with qualities of its own creation. When we smile at such idealization, it is not so much because of its exaggerations, but because we assume that it cannot endure. Its redeeming quality is its persistence. As faith forsworn loses all its nobility, so idealization once exhausted becomes ridiculous. We resent the intrusion of this coarser nature into a life so consecrated to duty, its association with a character so conspicuous for its love of honor, its influence upon Nelson’s public actions, and its perversion of his views of right. We could forgive so much more to a nobler nature!

Whatever praise Captain Mahan may receive for this biography, it must be admitted that Nelson furnishes the materials for one. His was a career of brilliant exploits, finished at its supreme moment, before failing energies, possible misfortunes, or the belittling commonplaces of private life could tarnish its glory. He Had no Waterloo, no St. Helena. He disappears in the smoke of victory at the very moment he finally establishes England’s supremacy on the sea. This is much, but it is not what endears him to us. It, is rather his possession of so large a share of our common humanity, its weaknesses as well as its strength. Weak as he was, he was not ignoble. He was vain, childishly fond of praise, sensitive to blame, ambitious of personal renown, but he was not selfish. Few great men had his charm, and with all his faults he had the right to his last words: “Thank God I have done my duty—God and my country.” No one owed less than he to the influence which opens doors to mediocrity ; no one owed his success less to opportunity. There is such a thing as opportunity, when fortune is thrust upon us. But we have only to imagine, as we reasonably may, what would probably have happened in the north seas had Nelson been absent from the council of war off Cronenburg, to realize in what a true sense he created opportunity. And although ever ready to take great chances for great results, whether his course of action was based upon close reasoning or well-known conditions, as at the battle of Copenhagen, or was an inspiration, coming to him in the perplexity and anguish of doubt, as in his pursuit of the French fleet to the West Indies, he neglected no precaution. He loved battle, he panted to lay his ship alongside the enemy, his cardinal object was the destruction of the enemy’s fleet; but he was prudent, and had a broad conception of the relation of his particular act to the general course of events, and it is impossible to limit his capacity to that of the mere fighter simply because it was by fighting that he achieved his ends. “ Responsibility,” said St. Vincent, “ is the test of a man’s courage.” Emergency, Captain Mahan well adds, is the test of his faith in his beliefs.

There is nothing so interesting to man as man’s nature, and there is no revelation of it so interesting as unconscious self-revelation. What Captain Mahan thinks of Nelson is vastly less important than what Nelson himself thought and felt. This is the crowning distinction of this biography : that besides the narrative, always clear and often brilliant; besides the personal judgment of the author, always candid yet moderate; besides the critical estimate of the naval historian, there is the story of Nelson’s “ own inner life as well as of his external actions,” told by himself.

  1. The Life of Nelson, the Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain. By ALFRED THAYER MAHAN. Boston : Little, Brown & Co. 1897.