Life and Letters of Thomas Jefferson/Jefferson and Hamilton: The Struggle for Democracy in America

by Francis W. Hirst. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1926. 8vo. Illustrated. xx+588 pp. $6.00.
by Claude G. Bowers. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1925. 8vo. Illustrated. xx+531 pp. $.5.00.
THE Fourth of July. 1926, will stand out as a remarkable anniversary both in history and in biography. It marks not only the sesquicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence but the exact centennial of the deaths, within a few hours, of the writer of that epochal instrument and of one of its most influential signers, John Adams. July 4, 1826, has always shone forth in the glow of this coincidence.
The two books under the titles of which these words are written have their significance also, in that each is the work of a modern liberal — the first an Englishman, the second an American. Each has been a student of politics and a journalist. Ten years ago Mr. Hirst brought to an end a term of nearly as many years as editor of the Economist. He is the author, besides, of various books, of which the latest was From Adam Smith to Philip Snowden. He was associated with Lord Chancellor Loreburn at the second Hague Conference, and with Lord Morley in the preparation of his biography of Gladstone. Indeed it was Lord Morley who spurred him on to write this book. Another incentive seems to have been his desire, as an Englishman, to offset for his countrymen the hostile delineation of Jefferson in Mr. F. S. Oliver’s account of Hamilton.
Mr. Bowers has enjoyed a more typically American professional experience. He has taken an active part in Democratic politics and conventions, has produced several books, including The Party Battles of the Jackson Period, and has been an editorial writer both in Indianapolis and in New York, where in recent years he has held this relation with the World.
These items of personal background have a bearing on the task each of these writers has undertaken. They suggest the degree of sympathy to be expected for Jefferson—and for Hamilton, for it is as impossible to deal with one of these men without reference to the other as it would be to consider an Oliver without a Roland, a Wilson without a Roosevelt. It should be said at once that both writers are sufficiently touched with the modern spirit of biography to paint protagonist and antagonist alike, ‘wen and all.’ Mr. Hirst, to be sure, disposes summarily of many of the old aspersions upon Jefferson in a footnote: ' A low-class Richmond paper, edited by Callender, throve for a time on the circumstantial lies which he circulated against Jefferson’s private life and character.’ And in his final chapter he writes: ‘Speaking on his deathbed of the many bitter calumnies which political and religious enemies had uttered against his public and private character, Jefferson said he had not considered them as abusing him, whom they had never known. They had created an imaginary being, clothed it with odious attributes, to whom they had given the name of Thomas Jefferson; and it was against this creature of the imagination that their anathemas had been leveled.’ In the light of all the facts laboriously adduced by his latest biographers, an open-minded reader can hardly dissent from this dictum.
The biographic methods of the two writers afford an interesting contrast. It can hardly be called a national contrast, for Mr. Bowers may be classified much more appropriately than Mr. Hirst with Messrs. Strachey and Guedalla. The contrast is rather one of journalistic quality and degree. Mr. Hirst’s volume suggests the dignity and thoroughness of the English weekly. With all the merit this implies — and the measure of it is large — goes a certain feeling of surprise that the telling of the story takes quite so long. Mr. Bowers, on the other hand, — perhaps through drawing upon a wider variety of sources, — produces an impression of considerably greater liveliness. The sources, frequently newspapers, are drawn upon, to be sure, with an avowed freedom from discrimination: ‘It is no more necessary.’ says the author, ‘to know what the truth was than to know what the people who formed that [public] opinion thought the truth to be.’ This very freedom, indeed, gives the reader more frequent occasion to question the soundness of historical implications and conclusions in the pages of Mr. Bowers than in those of Mr. Hirst.
The books may well be read in close conjunction. Their blended effect is to bring vividly before us of this later day the figures of two great leaders, the feelings of partisanship beside which our own party antagonisms seem pale and thin, the conflict between domination by the few and by the many which has characterized the entire political history of America. ‘The spirits of Jefferson and Hamilton,’ says Mr. Bowers in his final words, ‘still stalk the ways of men — still fighting.’ The clearer realization of all that brought these spirits into their undying antagonism will make the political descendants of the Federalists better Republicans, and of the early Republicans better Democrats.