James Ford Rhodes, American Historian

by M. A. DeWolfe Howe. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1929. 8vo. vii + 376 pp. Illus. $3.50.
ONE of the many difficult problems for the biographer is to settle the gain and loss in an intimate personal acquaintance with his subject. There is a peculiar insight into character and motive, an appreciation of ideal and effort, which only personal friendship can afford. On the other hand, the biographer has to recognize frankly, though he can never altogether discount, the danger of bias in judgment and statement which inevitably accompanies personal association and regard. In dealing with Rhodes, Mr. Howe has met this problem with his usual tact, restraint, and skill. He has taken every advantage which a long and intimate friendship could give him. and at the same time he has treated his subject with an impersonal and judicial detachment which makes the reader feel perfectly safe in his hands. But it must be confessed that with Rhodes the advantages of personal contact were greater and the dangers less than they might be in many similar cases. For he was a man who gave himself at all points with charming, intimate, alluring frankness, and while he had obvious limitations, there are few men whose excellent qualities are less obscured by weakness and defect.
Only those who have worked long in such material can appreciate the pains and skill shown by Mr. Howe in preparing this book. Rhodes had a very extensive correspondence with many important people, but it has not been always easy to recover his letters and he was not himself a sufficiently distinguished letter writer to make his own part in the exchange always very significant. It was necessary to choose what would bring out essential traits without long-windedness or tediousness, and this has been done with judicious forethought and success.
The full revelation of Rhodes’s labor as a historian was of course to be looked for. There is the long, conscientious, assiduous self-training, there is the patient, indomitable industry, there is the unfailing desire to get at all sides of a question, to give all theories and all contestants a fair and sympathetic hearing, whatever the final verdict might be. Every page of this book amply justifies the claim of Rhodes’s great work to an enduring place in the records of America.
What is less expected, what is really quite surprising, is the general evidence of Rhodes’s larger intellectual activity and interest. He may not have been always a profound thinker. It is clear that he was always an intensely active and interested one. Not only in politics, but in science, in religion, in literature, even in art, he was curious, inquiring, anxious to get at the point of view of others and to establish a point of view of his own. which should at least, be independent
But the personal qualities with Rhodes are even more winning than the intellectual, and though there is nothing in the revelation of him here that will surprise those who knew him intimately, they will carry away from Mr. Howe’s portrayal a deepened and strengthened impression of the social traits which won and held them for so many years. There was the infinite simplicity combined with a keen intellectual acuteness. It cannot be denied that Rhodes liked and sought the best society and made it an effort of his life to mingle in it. But he was utterly unspoiled by it, and remained to the end as candid, as straightforward, as absolutely and spiritually honest, as he was at the beginning of his career.
It is probable that the qualities of the man and the qualities of the historian were at one in Thucydides, in Tacitus, in Clarendon: they certainly were at one in Rhodes. And it is patent from this book that he wrote an honest, a broad-minded, a tolerant, a human history, because he had a candid and a human soul.