Some Radicals as Statesmen: Chase, Sumner, Adams, and Stevens
ROBERT AVALPOLE’S oft - quoted remark, “ Anything but history, for history must be false,” would not have been regarded as either cynical or jocose if he had added that historians largely rely upon biographers, who are rarely impartial. The old style of biography was to be undiscriminating, — to praise as if the subject had been a faultless hero throughout his life, making no reference to his shortcomings, or to criticise him as an unusually successful villain. This sort of writing can influence only immature minds ; it rarely appeals to thoughtful readers, because it fails to make real the incidents and the characters it describes. The pioneers of the new school of biography began to appear many years ago, but the earlier methods and ideas are often met with. “ If you see so much to criticise in your subject,” a writer of the new school was asked, " why have you spent so much time in studying and writing about him ? ” His answer was, “ I studied his career because it interested me, and I wished to speak with some authority if I discovered anything new.”
Biography of the highest order has two general characteristics : it conveys correct impressions, and attains the rank of literature. Schopenhauer was writing less like himself than like Emerson when he said, that the way to appreciate men of genius is to attend to the qualities in which they excel ; that genius should be estimated by the height to which it is able to soar when the circumstances are most favorable. And one of Seward’s many wise observations was, that the faults of great men drop out in history. If either opinion meant that only what was best or most attractive should be mentioned, it was not sound ; but both were right if the idea was that real greatness is not to be understood or qualified by incidental failings. The biographer, at least, must not keep back from the reader anything that would help to make the picture lifelike ; yet if he should tell everything he would certainly shock some persons, bore others, and mislead all. To put as much stress upon the private lives of Franklin, Webster, and Clay as upon their public services would probably cause every third person to strike these names from his list of national heroes. So the accurate biographer must imagine the thoughts of his reader almost as much as he must study the acts of his subject. And in many respects, it is as difficult to write good biography as it is to write good history.
The style, method, and purpose of political biography in the United States have been greatly improved by the American Statesmen Series. It must be confessed that a few of these volumes are commonplace ; a few others show neither research nor knowledge of men and public life ; but fully three fourths of the twenty-nine studies are excellent in scholarship and composition; and several of them, such as Mr. Morse’s Lincoln and John Quincy Adams, and Mr. Schurz’s Clay , prove that biography can bo brought up to the level of pure literature, and can be made as interesting as any literature. But the purpose of these few pages is not to describe the series, but only to comment on the four volumes that bring it to an end.
The task of writing a satisfactory narrative of Chase’s varied and important public life would have been difficult under the most favorable circumstances. To make it complete, scholarly, and attractive, and yet short enough to fit into the procrustean measure of this series, was a problem that only a very few persons could have solved. Warden and Schuckers lack almost everything except historical material and ink and paper. The way they left the field reminds one of the backwoods of New England ; here and there a half-cultivated patch, studded with great boulders and stumps, and the remainder part swamp and part hillside covered with scraps of forest. The prospect must have been rather discouraging even to an enthusiast for work.
There were four distinct periods in Chase’s political life. The first comprised the years from 1828 to 1848, when his interest in public affairs was shown by his activity in writing anti-slavery addresses and resolutions, encouraging antislavery efforts of nearly all kinds. He was heroic in his generous championship of fugitive slaves, and came to be known as their " attorney general.” His ringing appeals for independence from the narrow and selfish aims of existing parties influenced thousands of Democrats to revolt from the leadership of such men as the time-serving Cass and the scheming, energetic Douglas. By rare good fortune he became the intellectual leader of the Free-Soil party, and was chosen United States Senator. Professor Hart’s account of Chase’s influence in hastening the development of the antislavery movement in Ohio, and what was then regarded as the West, is fresh and interesting ; Chase was the best exponent of a great uprising which as a rule used political methods wisely.
The second period covers the years from 1849 to March, 1861. During most of this time Chase was United States Senator or governor of Ohio. As Senator he was peculiarly excellent. He was more than a man of principles and courage and independence, for his principles were thoroughly statesmanlike, his courage was well directed, and his independence was not due to selfish motives. Doubtless on account of lack of space, Professor Hart has not given an adequate account of Chase’s great services in undermining the Democratic party after the introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska bill. But the author’s characterization of Douglas displays insight and a critical faculty of a high order. With the formation and growth of the Republican party, the belief steadily grew in Chase’s mind that he must reach the White House.
Chase’s theories and acts in the field of national finance are now for the first time explained in so clear and popular a manner as to make them thoroughly intelligible. And although some serious mistakes are frankly admitted, his right to be regarded as a financier of the first order is satisfactorily demonstrated. It is therefore time to give him a place in history determined by his positive services, rather than by his inordinate but not fundamental weaknesses. His ambition thwarted itself, and he has had rather more than his share of critics.
Chase as Chief Justice is not admirable. The main influences that led Lincoln to appoint Chase were undoubtedly a desire to treat him magnanimously while removing him from politics, and to put in Taney’s seat a man that was the antithesis of Taney, whom Republicans hated so bitterly that the hatred is transmitted from generation to generation. It was one of Lincoln’s few great mistakes to overlook such lawyers as Trumbull, Evarts, and Fessenden, not to mention a score of others. Chase lacked the mind, the temperament, and the training for the position; and not even Professor Hart can convince us of the contrary. To suggest that the appointments of Marshall and Taney from political life warranted the selection of Chase is sophistical. One might as well attempt to defend the appointment of politicians to high military commands because a few of the political generals of the civil war became excellent soldiers. However, the careful exposition the author has made of Chase’s leading decisions is sure to increase his reputation as a justice. The candor with which the author tells us how Chase continued to dream of reaching the White House is commendable, but it creates a feeling of pity for the unwise Chief Justice. Yet we ought not to be surprised, as Senator Chase had the amazing egotism to say, “ I should like to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and overrule all the pro-slavery decisions; I should like to be President of the United States and reverse the policy of the administration as Jefferson reversed it.”
For a man of wide political experience Chase was strangely lacking in savoir-faire. His petty weaknesses and consuming ambition, which did not affect the perfect rectitude of his life, seriously injured him in the opinion of both contemporaries and scholars. Professor Hart has told us practically everything of importance about Chase ; and — what is the biographer’s most difficult task — he has stated the facts and arranged his proportions so as to give due weight to the really important acts. We cannot quite reverence Chase nor regard him as a great political leader, but he had real nobility of character, and his life is intensely interesting because he was so very human.
No public man whose career is reviewed in this series has been less written about than Charles Francis Adams. His acts attracted very little attention except between 1860 and 1868. He was conspicuous for only a few months at other times. Many persons must have been surprised when it was announced that he was to have a place among the American Statesmen, and that his career was to be described by his son and namesake, in complete disregard of the axiom that there should be no kinship between the subject and the biographer. But fears were all in vain. The present biographer writes with a freedom and good-natured independence such as hardly any one else would have been likely to feel. Already a reviewer of the book has charged him with not doing his father full justice. The charge is not quite groundless, for Mr. Adams seems to regard it as useless, or worse, to fill his space with praise. He knows how to marshal the facts with dramatic force, and leave nearly all else to the judgment of the reader. Especially after 1860 the narrative is much like a series of historical essays, with only a thread of biography. And on all questions between the United States and Great Britain during the civil war, it is by far the best short study that has yet been made. The book has a special charm, because the author is able to see and to appreciate all that his father understood, and to view the whole fleld as no one could do when the events were taking place. His style is unstudied ; it is more like the talk of a thoughtful scholar, with a keen sense of humor. It both fascinates us and inspires entire confidence.
In the winter of 1860—61 Adams believed with Weed and Seward that the recent Republican victory meant the permanent overthrow of the influence of slavery in national politics ; that as the Republicans had not then the power to resist secession by force, it would be better to offer such concessions as would indicate that they had no unconstitutional purposes, and that therefore secession was unwarranted. When the Southern leaders rejected all concessions as inadequate, they put themselves in the wrong, weakened their influence over Southern conservatives, and made it clear to Northerners that the revolutionary movement must be resisted. To help bring about this conclusion was Adams’s important service in the House of Representatives. As Minister, he went to England with the conviction that a war with Great Britain would soon lead to the recognition of the independence of the Confederacy by nearly all foreign powers. Adams’s method was to gather careful information as to the assistance, direct or indirect, the Confederacy was receiving from Englishmen. He used his facts so effectively that he put the British government on the defensive. Neither Palmerston nor Russell was a match for him in a diplomatic argument. He was always straightforward, sincere, and well prepared. He used none of the artifices of the sly diplomatist, and had no fear of them. As has been aptly said, Adams was a strange combination of ice and fire. When Russell was cold, Adams could be a little colder ; and when Palmerston was hot, or for political effect pretended to be, Adams could show indignation of decidedly higher temperature. At another time, when the signs indicated that the Confederate ironclad rams were to be allowed to go forth from England, and that peaceful relations must cease, Adams sent Russell that impressive warning, " It would be superfluous in me to point out to your lordship that this is war; ” but he was too discreet to throw down the cards, or in any way make matters worse. His courage and perfect self-control enabled him to get past this difficulty as he did others. And one of his greatest successes was in eliminating from the regular Alabama claims those that were called the “ indirect claims.” No man of the time was Adams’s superior in personal dignity, self-possession, sound judgment, and ability to make the most out of circumstances without running any great risks. He had no marked weaknesses ; he made few mistakes ; he grew with the dangers ; he was a thorough success.
Charles Sumner was an idealist and a politico-moral revolutionist. He acted with enthusiasm and intense feeling, and was the representative of the anti-slavery extremists. In regard to all the phases of the question of slavery, he was as unyielding as cast iron. He entered the United States Senate as an exponent of the protest against Webster’s ideas of compromise in 1850, and representing the hatred Northern reformers felt against slavery in all its manifestations. He was determined to give expression and emphasis to their conviction that it was not only wrong, but was so demoralizing also that slaveholders had no right to claim high respectability; he meant to put them under a ban. He thought of other subjects, and gave some of them his serious attention ; but he considered it to be his mission in life to undermine slavery. After the civil war began, of course his purpose changed ; then the problem was how to destroy slavery in the shortest possible time, and to free the negro from all danger of subjection to the white man.
Few persons conscious of their political power have been less selfishly ambitious than Sumner. Although egotistical, vain, and overbearing, he never sought control and glory chiefly for his own advancement. To him public life was not a personal affair. If there ever was a brutal, cowardly act, it was Brooks’s assault. It made Sumner an invalid for years, and permanently injured his health; yet the victim bore the bully no grudge. In the days of Reconstruction many Republicans, notably Stevens, insisted that the Confederate leaders must pay a bloody penalty. If not practicable to deprive them of their heads, they must at least be impoverished and disfranchised. But whatever extremes Sumner advocated were not for purposes of revenge or punishment, but strictly for what he supposed to be the welfare of the negro. Perhaps he was exhibiting his idealism quite as much as his statesmanship when he advocated so soon after the war the removal from battle flags of the names of victories won over fellow citizens. Whatever we may think of his judgment, there can be but one opinion as to the magnanimity of his character. He never saw a wrong that he dared not attack, and never deceived himself with that most demoralizing question, “ What is the use ? ” He was preëminently a man of principles and strong personality.
Sumner also possessed some of the best attributes of statesmanship ; he was a great student, and always commanded a vast fund of information. By far his best work was done as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs. His influence and his argument regarding the Trent incident were excellent. But he was in many respects very much of an agitator and a zealot; his imagination often conjured up horrible images ; he was impatient to lead an attack. Mr. Storey’s biography is too subdued to give the reader the impression which Sumner made upon persons who knew him. It chills enthusiasm to represent Sumner as a wise, sober-minded statesman. Even Mr. Pierce, on whose great work this volume is based, only incidentally shows the ardor and intensity of Sumner’s nature, which often blinded his judgment, and made him wholly unconscious of the significance of the words he was uttering.
Thaddeus Stevens was in character and temperament unlike Adams, Chase, or Sumner. They were primarily philanthropists and reformers, and, in different degrees, men of sentiment. While Stevens did many generous and philanthropic acts, his course was the result of careful, logical thought, often radical and daring, yet still a product of the mind rather than of the heart. In fact, the reason he could see so clearly was that no sentiment came in to obstruct the view. Chase and Adams were cultured, polite, and considerate ; but Stevens was often harsh, intolerant, cynical, and even brutal in his severity. The twist of his club foot seemed to be a true expression of his nature. He was a gnarled oak. It would not be easy to find three men with less humor or wit than Adams, Chase, and Sumner. None of their contemporaries possessed quite so much wit or used it with such effect as Stevens; at times he employed it roughly, almost fiercely. To a person still living he said, shortly after the attempt to assassinate Seward, “ Why, it won’t kill him ; you might cut out his heart and he would still survive ; but if you deprived him of offices, that, would he fatal! ” It was only in jest, but it was typical of his lack of fine feeling and sympathy. Although born and educated in New England, and never a resident of the West, he belonged in the class with Ben. Wade, Oliver P. Morton, and, Zach Chandler. They were all virile, daring, and aggressive rather than refined or brilliant.
These facts have very little to do with a proper estimation of the value of Stevens’s services to his country ; they were hardly more titan the clothes he wore. His public life commenced over thirty years before the civil war, but, he was near the line of threescore and ten years when he began to play a leading rôle. An opponent of Jackson, a political antimason, a Whig, and then a Republican, he had always been anti - slavery, and usually a member of the opposition ; yet his manner and his ideas suggest the politician much more than the reformer: he was extreme and fearless, but he never lost sight of what was practical, — a radical, yet also a partisan. When the Republicans came into power, March 4, 1861, there was never more need of men with clear vision and a capacity to shape and push through policies that would grow in scope as fast as the dangers they were designed to overcome. In this respect, at least, Stevens met the first demand of the time. From July, 1861, until his death in 1868, he was the leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives. He fully realized the seriousness of the conflict with the Confederacy, and constantly insisted that nothing less than promptness, energy, and a determination to succeed would make success possible. The slaveholders were trying to destroy the Union to save slavery ; so Stevens, almost from the first, was in favor of destroying slavery to save the Union. The Southern states had broken the Constitution in the attempt to gain their independence ; so Stevens would play their own game and wage war against them regardless of the Constitution until they were conquered. He always stood ready to give the Federal government all the resources it could use ; he was dictatorial in his management of affairs in the House, and had only scorn and contempt for those who wished to debate or to protest against, measures he advocated. We may not like men of this type, but they are necessary in a really serious civil war.
Stevens’s influence in reconstruction was much less beneficial if, perchance, it was beneficial at all. When the war ended he was in his seventy-fourth year ; his health was shattered ; he knew that but little time remained for him. Yet he was never more eager to lead nor more confident of the importance of his opinions. He was in favor of keeping the seceding states as conquered provinces until the leading secessionists should be punished by confiscating much of their property, and until there should be a change in social and political relations. And he was enough of a partisan to feel that it was his duty to provide for the supremacy of the Republican party for a long time to come. So when the cotton states passed their “ black codes,” and Johnson undertook to restore the states to their old places and otherwise to disregard the wishes of Congress, Stevens favored giving suffrage to the negroes and impeaching the President. Stevens’s satire and bad manners greatly embittered the conflict between Johnson and Congress, and without his resentful and angry leadership matters would not have gone to such extremes. His remark, that since Seward had entered into Johnson he had been running down steep places into the sea, was characteristic of his rasping wit.
Mr. McCall’s style is clear, and he grows in power and self-confidence as he proceeds. He has collected many of Stevens’s witticisms, which have historical importance, besides being very amusing. On the whole, however, he has taken Stevens too seriously. The man that ridiculed others so freely should have been treated less solemnly.
If any one had prophesied, early in the fifties, that within ten years Chase would be at the head of the nation’s finances, and then a little later be Chief Justice ; that Charles Francis Adams, the Free-Soil candidate for the vice presidency, would have the most important office abroad ; that Thaddeus Stevens, the favorite of Free-Soilers for the speakership in 1849, would rule the House of Representatives ; and that Charles Sumner, the fiery and passionate orator, would be the most powerful Senator, —he would have been regarded as insane. But in time they came into power, and even the preservation of the Union was very largely dependent upon their ability to devise and carry out wellconsidered and far-reaching plans. Stevens died before the election of 1868 ; but before that of 1872 Chase, Sumner, and Adams had broken away from the Republican party, and had again become independent. Their careers illustrate how circumstances may change the radical into a statesman, and how the statesman may again seem to be resolved into the radical. These interesting volumes bring this important series to a conclusion. It would be still more interesting and important if it contained biographies of Stephen A. Douglas and of Jefferson Davis. Where Cass and Calhoun are admitted, it is not well to bar Douglas and Davis.
Frederic Bancroft .