Three Americans

ONE of the happy consequences of the contemporary demand for biography is the light which is turned so searchingly upon American history and leadership. No historian of to-day is more zealous to cite past examples for present guidance than James Truslow Adams, who here appraises three American caneers.


THE fortuitous little collection of three volumes which has arrived for my appraisal raises some interesting speculations on the American mind. Here are three men, — Franklin, Polk, and Hanna,—none of whom had an intellect of the first order, two of whom at least have been considered essentially mediocre. Yet the first has been called by some the greatest American; the second rose to be President; the third made a President and for years was the most powerful man in the country. It makes one ponder.
Bernard Faÿ has unquestionably given us the most important biography of Franklin yet written (Little, Brown, $3,00). He has had access to for more manuscript material than any previous writer on the subject, and, which does not always follow infallibly, has known how to use it. This new material has not altered the main outlines of the picture, but has helped to give color and life to many a hitherto dim patch. A minor fault in the book is its occasional bad English, for which the translator, Mr. Bravig Imbs (curious name for an English translator), and not the author should be held accountable. To finish promptly with adverse criticism of what is in other respects an admirable book, we may say that Faÿ is not always thoroughly at home in the American colonial background, and, what is far more serious for the ordinary uninformed American reader, he has been led by his own French patriotism to give what most scholars would consider a false estimate of the motives of trance and of Vergennes for their entering the war on the side of America. To draw Louis and his Minister as simple-minded idealists whose confidence was abused by scheming Americans is, in plain words, to falsify history, and this portion of the book is very unsatisfactory. The influence of Freemasonry is also overstressed.
Outside of these blemishes, the book can be heartily praised and recommended. A very clear and definite impression of Franklin emerges from its reading, though he does not appear as great as Fay says he is. We have the great career of a man who lacked many of the essentials of real greatness. He is a clever adapter of other men’s ideas, which he turned to practical use in‘Poor Richard,’the ’Franklin stove,’his electrical experiments, and all else. He was canny, but not truly wise, a great actor who knew how to play a great part, not above duplicity, a character that does not ring true. Fay is not a ’debunker,’and seems himself not aware of the feet of lead he adjusts to the statue of his hero.

Allan Nevins in Polk, The Diary of a President

(Longmans, Green, $5.00), has ably condensed the four volumes of the Diary as originally printed, in a now scarce edition, into one. The years covered are the presidential ones of 1845 to 1849, and include, of course, many great events in our history, including the Mexican War and the negotiations with Great Britain over Oregon. There is a steady revaluation going on of the figures in our past, resulting in a great and sometimes unexpected shuffling of places among the company across the Styx. Polk’s reputation has advanced from ‘Polk the Mendacious as far as ‘Folk the Mediocre.’ He is non viewed as an honest, extremely hardworking man of limited mind and yet more limited tastes and interests. As the editor points out, a man of this type has frequently been a better President than those of more brilliant mentality, even if one cannot get very enthusiastic over him. The years he served as President were in a real sense critical, and in this volume we have an original document of the first importance for understanding them. Mr. Nevins’s scholarly editing leaves, as usual with him, nothing to be desired.
in Hanna, by Thomas Beer (Knopf, $4.00), we are introduced to another American of very different type, the self-made plutocrat, uneducated (‘one of the best and worst informed men I have ever known,’ Adler said of him), but with a marked flair for certain unexpected things, such as the drama and running the U. S. A. Beer has written a fine book, as far from the new biography’ on the one hand as it is from the old standardized sort on the other. I confess, for the benefit of others who may find the same thing, that for the first half-dozen pages I was annoyed and disappointed. The author seemed trying to be extremely clever — and failing. But once the rather confusing entry is past, the story goes at a great rate, and, what is more, I think it sound. Beer’s father was behind the scenes in the politics of those decades and the author gives us a lot of extremely illuminating bits from his father’s papers. Those of us around fifty recall vividly the Hanna of the cartoons of the 1890’s, and now at last we meet the real man. Beer has not whitewashed him, but the book is so convincing in its presentation that we feel as though the author had just taken us into a room where Hanna was and left us with the living personality. We come out at the end saying to ourselves, ‘So that is the old boy!’ I am very tired of hearing books hailed as great. It is only once in a blue moon that a really great book is written. But this is a good book. It has its own original contribution to make for the student and is written extremely well. It is one of the most interesting I have read in a long time.
So we come back to our three Americans, all different and all somehow unmistakably American. Not one of them had a great original idea. Not one had a genuine, balanced education. Not one had a genuinely great combination of mind and character. All were essentially ‘practical.’ They took what was at hand, — other people’s ideas, business opportunities, politicians, issues of the moment, and somehow made something of them. They ’got there,’as we say, and all rendered service to their country. Franklin was much the showiest, but one somehow feels, in a way, also the shoddiest in the deeps of his character. Then Polk the Mediocre, then Hanna, buying votes wholesale, yet priding himself justly on his business honesty. A queer trio, and yet all so American as to make one sit down and think.