The Tragic Era: The Revolution after Lincoln. By Claude G. Bowers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $5.00.
The series of events culminating in the conviction of Albert B. Fall, charged with accepting a bribe while he was a member of the President’s Cabinet, has given the modern generation the impression that the administration of Harding was unprecedentedly, villainous, and that Warren Gamaliel was the worst President who ever occupied the White House. This is far from true. In his new book, “The Tragic Era,” Claude G. Bowers proves beyond a reasonable doubt that for sheer swinishness the Harding administration was miles behind the Grant administration. When all is said and done, Fall was found guilty. No member of the Grant Cabinet ever saw the inside of a jail, or ever stood in real danger of seeing the inside of one. It may be that most of the great Harding rascals have gone un-whipped of justice; but all the great Grant rascals escaped, which fact marks a depth of ignominy, to which the country had never sunk before, and which it has not touched since.
To the delineation of the orgies that attended the Grant administrations, Mr. Bowers brings extraordinary equipment. He is immensely learned, and immensely industrious. He writes gracefully and vividly and—most important of all for a job of this kind—he is by long odds the most furious historian now in practice in America. Mr. Bowers clings to the quaint old theory that public office is a public trust, and betrayal of that trust fills him with indignation, not with admiration. Therefore contemplation of what happened in the time of Grant makes him seethe.
His theory is that after Abraham Lincoln died, a complete revolution occurred in the Federal government. The Radicals, led by Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, hated the ideals of Lincoln much more than they hated those of Jefferson Davis. Indeed, they promptly accepted Davis’s main contention, which was that the Confederate States had actually gone out of the Union. Only by doing so were they, able to regard the South as alien territory, conquered by force of arms, and therefore at the mercy of the conqueror.
Against them stood one of the few magnificent figures of the Tragic Era—honest, stubborn, brave old Andrew Johnson. He could not cope with the situation, but what man could have done so? He caught the thunderbolts that were forged for Lincoln, and they smashed him; but the chances are they would have smashed Lincoln. The inevitable aftermath of war is the triumph of the venomous. Stevens and Sumner could no more be stopped than Lodge and Fall were stopped by Woodrow Wilson in 1919. When the public has been lashed into emotional fury, wise and scrupulous men are helpless. Then steely haters and limber opportunists find their harvest time: and the country pays the penalty for decades, perhaps for generations, afterward.
Bowers does a portrait of Johnson that is admirable. He has been accused of idealizing his subject, but that is due to the fact that his accusers are familiar only with the libellous caricatures of Johnson which passed for portraits until De-Witt, and then Judge Winston, spoke up. Bowers admits that Johnson was tactless and ferocious. He admits that Johnson was drunk when he took the oath as Vice-President, but he has an explanation of, if not an excuse for, the lapse. But, while admitting these imperfections, he emphasizes the honesty, the high ability, and the blazing courage of the man; and in an era when the government swarmed with the crooked, the stupid, and the craven, surely these are high virtues and worthy, of the emphasis of historians.
His portrait of the great, Satanic genius of the period, Thaddeus Stevens, is less satisfactory. Perhaps this is inevitable in a writer who observes any sort of space limitations at all, for it would probably require an entire volume as large as “The Tragic Era” to unravel the complexities of this amazing figure. Yet it is a pity that Mr. Bowers did not add two or three pages to furnish a better explanation of why Thad Stevens hated the South so poisonously. Probably it is a job for a psychiatrist, but it would be a fascinating study.
As for Charles Sumner, he fares worst of all, since it is plain that Bowers considers him not worth the waste of time. In a way, this is one of the most charming features of the book. To find the lordly, grandiloquent Sumner dismissed with mild contempt is such a complete reversal of the procedure of the conventional historian as to make one gasp.
Perhaps the best features of the book, however, are the thumb-nail sketches of minor figures which are scattered thickly throughout its length. I fancy particularly the acid lines in which Schuyler Colfax is suggested, rather than represented:
Of statecraft he had partaken daintily, but a fluency of expression, added to a pleasing personality and a perpetual smile, had made him a popular figure on the platform. In debate the nimbleness of his tongue stood him in good stead. In speech he was the master of the obvious.
It is a matter of fifty words, but it is enough. We know all that it is necessary to know about Colfax, and nothing he can do thereafter will surprise us. But to describe any man, especially a sinuous politician, in fifty words is an achievement of no low order of excellence. Yet Bowers does it again and again; and this, not his learning, or his assiduity, makes him irresistible.
He ranges through most of the whole welter. His pages on what happened in the ravaged South are superb, as are his pictures of the glittering society which flourished alongside the foul growths of politics. He has, perhaps, hardly done full justice to the tremendous economic changes in the North, which affected the politics of the period powerfully, but, after all, he was writing a book, not an encyclopedia in thirty volumes.
The fly in the ointment, the thing which I believe pre-vents “The Tragic Era” from being a great masterpiece, is the fact that while Mr. Bowers, as the description of Colfax shows, has wit, he has no humor. He is an idealist, and it is to be feared that humor and true idealism are forever incompatible. Thus he misses completely the uproarious farce that permeated the entire period. In the first place, what gave rise to all the orgies? Why, the war, of course, and the war was regarded on both sides as “a great social experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.” Surely, there is something farcical in the fact that whenever a nation whips itself up to tremendous emotional stress in support of lofty idealism, it promptly imitates the Gada-rene swine and rushes down a steep place into a sea of corruption. It was so after the Revolution, when the speculators in government scrip, with the blessing of Alexander Hamilton, stole everything in sight; it was so after the Civil War; it was conspicuously so after the late war—indeed, we are still half-choked with the corruption that followed our latest adventure in idealism.
Bowers assumes that the horror was ended at last by a revolt of the common people in 1876. But why did they revolt? Possibly because they were disgusted by the stench, but more probably because the panic of 1873 enraged them against the Republican party and made them strike out viciously against the ring then in power. Certainly the I similar scandals of the Harding regime have not led to a similar revolt. It is at least arguable that the South was rescued from complete extinction, not by an uprising of honest men, but by the downfall of a rascal, namely, Jay Cooke, whose failure precipitated the panic, which caused the loss of the election of 1876, which led to the bargain by which the South sold out Tilden in exchange for withdrawal of the army of occupation.
If this isn’t farce of the broadest, what else can it be called? But Mr. Bowers does not hint at it.
Nevertheless, he has written an excellent book which is not only filled with salutary truth, but also with delight for the reader.
BEYOND AND BEFORE By Carroll Mason Sparrow
THERE grew in Wonderland a certain mushroom which Alice ate to change her size. Those who would enter into the wonderland described by Sir James Jeans must take with them some of this potent fungus. First it is a story of beyond and beyond and beyond. Let us eat and start to grow, and as we grow the earth and all the universe seems to shrink. When the earth has dwindled to the size of a golf ball, the sun, a ball some two hundred feet in diameter, is half a mile away, the nearest fixed star is a similar ball some sixty, thousand miles off.. Another bite, and the earth’s orbit shrivels to the dimensions of a pin-head, the sun a tiny dust speck at the center, and the earth too small to be seen by any microscope. The nearest star is now another dust speck over two hundred yards away and if we scatter a few billion such specks a hundred yards or so apart we have the milky way, filling a flat pancake over five thousand miles across and about one tenth as thick. And still we have only begun. Beyond and beyond are other galaxies like this, millions of them, and we need about four million miles to include those we can see with our present telescopes, with no hint of an end in sight. And yet, if Einstein is right, there is an end, and sooner or later space comes back upon itself. Beyond and beyond—but if we go on a billion times as far as we can see, we find ourselves home again. It is a fascinating tale, this story of man’s explora-
The Universe Around Us. By Sir James Jeans. New York: The Mac-millan Company. $4,50.