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Adams, Polk and Houston

ISSUE:  Winter 1930

The Diary of John Quincy Adams. 1794-1845. Edited by Allen Nevins. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $5.00. Polk. The Diary of a President. 1845-49. Edited by Allen Nevins. New York; Longmans, Green and Company. $5.00. The Raven. A Biography of Sam Houston. By Marquis James. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. $5.00.

Biography is today not very fashionable among many professional historians. History, so their opinion declares, is not primarily a matter of individuals ; it is a matter of social forces and mass movements of which this or that great figure may be an expression, but which transcend individual efforts and individual aspirations. It is the common people we must study, not the so-called leaders.

There is something to be said for this view. But there will never be a time when individual personality is not one of the most interesting things in the world; or when the mass of mankind can become as much interested in history treated socially as they can in the smallest details in the life of a great statesman, or leader in any of man’s varied activities. So biography maintains its place, and, if not universally honored, manages to command the talents and the interest of many historical writers.


Biography is never more engrossing than when it is auto biography, that is, if the autobiographer is as much interested in himself as an autobiographer ought to be. Professor Nevins therefore, has done a great service in publishing in condensed form the Diaries of John Quincy, Adams and of James K. Polk. The twelve impressive volumes an which Charles Francis Adams some fifty years ago published the jottings of his father have long been out of print and difficult to procure. They richly repay reading, and are a mine of information for the historical investigator; if only from the point of view of their inaccessibility, the time was ripe for some new edition of them in condensed form. Mr. Nevins has performed the task of so condensing them with the greatest skill; he has sacrificed almost nothing that was vital; and he has left us the picture of this New England Puritan in all its lights and shade. It may well be doubted whether there exists in either American or English literature a piece of self-revelation more engrossing. The Adams acidity, the Adams sarcastic humor, the Adams exacting conscience, the Adams painful and self-conscious introspection, the Adams courage at times raised to nobility, all these appear in the Diary. And with what literary skill the thing was written, written in the small hours of the morning or late at night, when the powers of so many mortals flag. What immense vitality, intellectual and physical, breathes forth from these pages! And, after all, what rigid devotion to the ideal of the good life! Of Adams, as of other moralists, it is of course true that he was not always moral, in the large sense of the term; bitterness, intolerance, hardness, these no doubt appear in the lineaments of his own character that he has traced for posterity. But one finds also an iron moral strength as well; an unsullied devotion to the public weal; a noble sense of personal and public honor.

And viewing it all in all, is it possible to conceive a more interesting story? Prussia and Holland in the days when French Revolutionary armies were sweeping over Europe, Washington under Mr. Jefferson, Russia and the quays of the Neva when Napoleon was marching on Moscow, Ghent where Adams and his able colleagues wrestled with second-rate men to win the peace that followed the war of 1812, Washington again, and the long tussle of negotiation that ended in the acquisition of Florida, the tense dramatic debates of the Missouri compromise, the no less tense discussions that brought forth the Monroe Doctrine—the elections of 1824, with the agonized suspense of the election in the House of Representatives, the preoccupations of the Presidency, and then after a breathing space, Capitol Hill, with the battle for freedom of speech in the House, and the long bitter struggle against the slave-holders, fought with courage, if not with charity or fairness, until Death itself came into Statuary Hall to call away this great public man.

To turn from Adams to Polk is to experience a very decided let-down. Polk, too, was conscientious, devoted to the public weal, courageous and tenacious in his beliefs, more successful in establishing and carrying through his leadership in the Presidency than Adams himself. But there is always a difference. Polk seems a pinched personality; a little hard dry man who, while he deserves a more favorable judgment than he has frequently received, never suggests that sweep of imagination or judgment associated with greatness. There is a matter-of-fact, narrowly practical tone about all that he writes; no suggestion of wide interests or broad views, such as crop up again and again with Adams. Perhaps the best of what he has to tell us is to he found in his characterizations of other men, characterizations lacking in the singular patness of Adams’s, but often highly entertaining. Buchanan (whom Adams, by the , way* pithily described as “the shadow of a shade”) appears in Polk’s Diary as the irresolute and timid person that he actually was; there are interesting evaluations of Calhoun, whom Polk hated; there are revealing paragraphs on the pompous and egotistical, but able, Benton. The Diary is

i well worth while, too, as revealing the official side of the life of the President of the United States. Herein it perhaps excels Adams’s. For it covers in detail the years of Polk’s residence in the White House, and nothing else, whereas Adams’s Diary is most meager for the years of his

i Presidency, One discovers (if one has not already discovered) what an immense pressure for patronage the Chief Executive of the United States is compelled to meet. One gains a knowledge of the practical relationship between the President and Congress. One even finds a prescription for shaking hands with the minimum of fatigue.


There is no revelation of character like self-revelation. But Sam Houston kept no twelve-volume, and even no four-volume diary; and if this picturesque contemporary of Polk and Adams is to be understood, one cannot do better than turn to Mr. James’s work. Mr. James is conscious, as not all historians can be said to be, of the obligation to write something that is readable, something that has literary quality as well as historical solidity. For this the reader must be duly grateful. There are occasional purple patches perhaps a little too brilliant; but the general effect is excellent. Mr. James is to be congratulated, too, on avoiding the temptation to psychoanalysis which debases some of our modernist biography; he does not try to tell us what Houston thought when there is no evidence on the point, and there is a scholarly caution where caution is needed. Indeed, for all the “popular” title, and a flaming red cover, there is steady and conscientious research in “The Raven,” not only a careful plumbing of the more obvious materials, but a search into local records, and even local tradition, that adds something worth while to our knowledge of this salient personality. It is the romance of Houston’s earlier career that has captivated the author most; and he is perhaps less successful in dealing with the President of Texas and the Senator of the United States than with “The Raven,” living among and sharing the life of the Indians. But the picture is not only interesting, but one which has the air of truth. And it needed to be drawn. For if the author’s view that Sam Houston determined the destiny of a continent and the type of civilization which should prevail there, is exposed to challenge, it is none the less true that there are few figures in the history of the Middle Period that more deserve careful study than this extraordinary man. One may well wonder whether he does not mean much more than the conventional idols of the time, than Clay or Calhoun, whether there was not in him more independence, more strength in the face of adverse criticism, more of the quality that makes a man, in some degree, at least, the master of his own destiny.

Mr. James has not been content with painting Houston; he has also given us some excellent pictures of the society of the time, and none better than his picture of the frontier, and of sordid land agents and naif savages and grasping fur-traders.

To read the book as a whole is better to understand a striking and important figure. And is not this the purpose of biography?


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