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Footnotes to History


ISSUE:  Autumn 1929

Historical Documents, Institut Franis de Washington: Cahier I, The Treaties of 1778, $2.50; Cahier II, Lafayette in Virginia, $2.50; Cahier III, L’linfanl and Washington, $3.00. Kditcd hy Gilbert Chinard. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. Colonel William Smith and Lady. By Katherine Metcalf Roof. Boston: Houghton Midlin Company. $5.00.

The revival of interest in our early history which the last dozen years have witnessed, has brought about certain curious phenomena. None is more so than the tendency for picking up odd bits of information about various characters or events, appending them to documents usually already well studied and published, and printing the result with a loud hurrah. This has been done with increasing frequency during the past few years, both under the guise of scholarship and in those books designed, as they say, to make a lowbrow feel highbrow. To be sure, it is difficult for a country to accumulate very much history in three short centuries of existence. Doubtless this offers an excuse for studying and restudying such as we have.

Three volumes have recently been issued under the patronage of the Institut Franis de Washington, with the diligent M. Chinard as editor. The Institut, described as “an association to promote in the United States of America the study of French civilization and history, literature and art, and to preserve the memory of French contributions to the development of American civilization”—an aim which at other times and in the other cases has been anathematized as propaganda—has published, as its “Cahier I,” “The Treaties of 1778,” which have many times received the attention of able scholars and arc here rejuvenated with an introduction by .Tames Brown Scott. The contribution consists in the preamble taken from a minute in the handwriting of Charles Thompson, recently found in the Library of Congress.

Cahier III, “L’Enfant and Washington,” “published and unpublished documents now brought together for the first time,” assembles Washington’s letters and L’Enfant’s reports, earlier printed in the “Records of the Columbia Historical Society,” and scattered letters in other publications, with certain new material, chiefly from the L’Enfant-Digges-Morgan Collection at the Library of Congress. It is interesting to have all this together, but the added documents do not in any, way change the conclusions already reached by Jusserand in 1916 in his “Major L’Enfant and the Federal City,” here reprinted as an introduction. L’Enfant remains the proud, quixotic, difficult genius; it is still hard to see how the authorities could have acted otherwise than they did.

In Cahier II, “Lafayette in Virginia,” the papers are all unpublished but certainly add little to our knowledge, as indeed the editor indicates when he remarks with a modesty bordering on inferiority complex: “Such as they are, the historical and human value of these documents amply seems to warrant their publication.” They confirm that Lafayette showed real abilities, and that Jefferson (contrary to charges still current in spite of frequent refutation from the evidence) seconded him quite as effectively as his military successor in the Governorship, General Nelson.

II

In “Colonel William Smith and Lady” Katherine Met-calf Roof has written a book that is at once annoying and full of human interest. From the mange of published and unpublished papers out of which the author has evolved the biographies of William Smith and his wife, only daughter of John Adams, the journal and letters of Abigail Adams emerge as the most interesting document. These, first published in 1841, have, of course, long been known to students of the period. Abigail’s fresh comments on European society and manners, her naive acceptance of the superiority of New England to heaven itself, as when she says, “After all, neither Mount Edgcomb nor Plymouth, or any other place I have seen in Europe, will bear comparison to Milton Hill,” are, however, as diverting today as when they were directed to her friends in 1787. It is unfortunate that the author has felt it necessary to dress up the forthright charm of these old letters with comments that can only be described as somewhat saccharine and cheaply witty.

For the rest, Mrs. Roof has made the mistake of trying to cast into heroic mould the figure of a young man of volatile and engaging personality, who made a brilliant beginning as aide to General Washington and secretary to Ambassador Adams. Unfortunately, the Colonel’s abilities were not such as would enable him to rise to greater heights. When well past his first youth, after having made a great deal of money in real estate speculation and having filled

various political posts to which his distinguished father-in-law succeeded in having him appointed, Colonel Smith became involved in the Miranda expedition. The author takes occasion to lay all blame for this and for the Colonel’s subsequent trial for violation of the neutrality laws of the United States, at the door of Thomas Jefferson, who has recently likewise served as scapegoat, at the hands of another writer, for Edmond Charles Gen, quite overlooking the fact that the charges against the executive were withdrawn by the very man who had presented them to Congress. The popular sport of baiting Jefferson goes on with happy, indifference to any documents except those favorable to the authors’ contentions. It is so comforting to their biographers not to blame L’Enfant’s chimerical insubordination, Genet’s overweening rashness, Burr’s ambiguous ambitions, and Smith’s amiable mediocrity, but to saddle all their failures on the shoulders of Jefferson.

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