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Destiny and Men

ISSUE:  Winter 1928
Men of Destiny. By Walter Lippmann. New York: The Macmillan, Company. $2.50. Uncle Joe Cannon, The Story of a Pioneer American. As Told to L. White Busbey, For Twenty Years His Private Secretary. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $5.00.

Talleyrand, The Training of a Statesman, 1754-1838. By Anna Bowman Dodd. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $5.00.

Bismarck, The Story of a Fighter. By Emil Ludwig. Translated from the German by Eden and Cedar Paul. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. $5.00.

In the year 1834, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, ci-devant Abbe de Perigord and Eveque d’Autun, later Prince de Benevent, now only Prince de Talleyrand, eighty years old but of sound and disposing mind, long since divested of every illusion, and tickling his fancy with the picture of his dead hand reaching up from the tomb and hurling sundry hand grenades among the complacent descendants of the men of his generation, addressed himself to the dictation of his Memoires, to he released at the expiration of half a century. The slight ripple they made in the pool of literature and history must have been a grievous disappointment to the shade of their author. Oblivion had been more busily scattering her poppy than even the cynical ex-churchman had reckoned upon. Men and issues had ceased to revolve about the Revolution; and the great world, much in the spirit of the Bishop of Autun himself, only paused for a bored glance at the clever pages, and went on its way.

Yet the Memoires will still repay their reading, and must ever be the basis of any serious study of that elusive personality. A fascinating picture, too, this of the Prince de Talleyrand, the sands of life in his always frail body, almost run, afflicted even more grievously than Job, but, dressed and set in his place, commanding of aspect, with the steely gray-blue eye, the “insolent retrousse nose,” the noble head, the last living figure of the great age that had seen the eighteenth century out with the drums and tramp-lings of two mighty revolutions. Before his cynical sphinxlike face passed sixty years of close acquaintance with

every great figure of European politics. But, beneath that cold exterior that had awed his contemporaries, what must have been his bitterness, ever renewed, as he reflected

how, though he had been born to the purple, of a family antedating the stodgy parvenu Capets, the carelessness of a maidservant in a dingy street of Paris had doomed him from infancy, to club-feet, to the loss of his rights of primogeniture, to be not as other men, in a word, to the Church. How his polished engine, in the dead vast of the nights, must have revolved the supreme j est of Fate whereby his own and

France’s destinies had been made to hang upon so slight an issue. With what cynical appraisement must he have dwelt upon the women who had dazzled him or whom he had won

and thrown away; upon the men from Mirabeau to Napoleon with whom he had plotted or crossed swords or whom he had betrayed; upon the seven governments of France to which he had sworn allegiance; upon the Universal Church

to whose service he, a young priest, had been vowed with loathing, in whose bosom he had risen to be Bishop of Au-tun, whose claims he had joyfully allowed the tide of the Revolution to sweep from his conscience; whose thunders he had defied as Constitutional Bishop of Autun, as secularized cleric, as married and excommunicated apostate; in whose restoration, chained and shackled as she was by the Concordat, he had with cool cynicism been chief colaborer with the vulgar Corsican.

Yet the Prince in his retrospect had other points whereon to dwell with pride. He had welcomed the Revolution— had really made it possible by leading over the Clergy to join the Tiers Etat; had moved the legislation to despoil the swollen coffers of the Church; had for France’s sake gone into the market-place and offered his incomparable services to such diverse men and currents as Mirabeau, Danton, Barras of the Directory, Napoleon, Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis Philippe. The Prince had likewise lived in and known the England and the America of the closing years of the century, and as exile had sucked the brains of every outstanding figure of each.

And now there remained but one other scene in which he wished to play, his part. This was to be received back into the bosom of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, a consummation upon which he had for years set his heart. The obstacles were so huge as to daunt any other man but Talleyrand—but then no other man has ever had Talleyrand’s cold nerve. Through good Abbe Dupanloup, favorite confessor of one of his protegees, intercession was made to the Archbishop of Paris in behalf of the august penitent. Talleyrand’s will, imperious to the last, set the exact hour for signing his formal and complete recantation and his submission to the Holy See. So passed, amid the blessed mutter of the mass, with bell, book and candle, in full odor of sanctity, the soul of Charles-Maurice de Talley-rand-Perigord.

And yet this man, steeped in deceit and fraud, regarded as the incarnation of the Spirit That Denies, had his point of honor. This was his passion for la belle France. This is the key to the Memoires. Again and again he returns to labor the point of his single-hearted devotion to the wellbe-ing of France. Governments had changed, chameleon-like. He had but served each in order the better to serve that which did not change, the France of his dreams. To prove this, he uses every device of rhetoric, of argument, of sophistry, even of that emotion he had so scorned through sixty years of diplomacy. On Talleyrand’s sincerity on this point, very diverse judgments have been rendered. In the vortex of uncertainty, perhaps Sainte-Beuve’s final judgment is as toutes les fois quil etait a son interet de le faire.”

Otto von Bismarck in personality and environment, was the antithesis of Talleyrand. The Frenchman was the suave blend of Celt, Roman, and Frank. The German sprang from a strain of original Teutonic blood perhaps as undiluted as has existed since mediaeval times. Back of Talleyrand stretched centuries of polished give-and-take, which had registered themselves urbanely in every pulse-beat. Back of Bismarck were centuries of forebears, swifter with the blow than the circumventing word or the disarming jest. The Frenchman had as his point d’appui the Monarchy upon which Europe had for centuries modeled itself and into whose groove all diplomatic thought had been switched. The German had, it is true, the military State of the Great Frederick to build on, but Frederick’s quarry had been too plainly the incompetencies of the other European States for his success to be other than an embarrassment to future German state-craftsmen.

Talleyrand had also had the tremendous advantage of rebuilding with a wealth of material scattered chaotically but ready to hand, and in an era which, not yet disillusioned, and not yet denying its revolutionary ardors, was being steadily guided by Napoleon toward centralized imperialism. Bismarck, on the other hand, inherited a Prussia which had produced but one Frederick, had won but a detested primacy among the smaller states of Germany and, most serious obstacle of all, had ceased to nurse the ambition to be more than a prima inter pares. In post-Revolutionary France, Talleyrand had enjoyed a thousand helping hands and currents, which pushed him on to the realization of his dream. Bismarck, his life set in the back-wash of his disillusionized century, had to labor through fruitless and thankless years, making ready the ground, planting the seed of imperial union, guarding it from being uprooted even by those for whom it was meant, bullying, cajoling, bribing, leading, driving, those whom fate had assigned him to work with. The Frenchman had had seldom, if ever, to complain of stupidity among his collaborators. Through many, tedious years must the German have exclaimed with his great national poet:

Gegen die Dummheit streben die Goiter selbst vergebens.

And yet, with these and other glaring diversities of inheritance and setting, the Frenchman and the German had strangely parallel tasks and incentives from youth to old age. The suave, cynical, circumscribed young cleric came to hold steadily before his eyes, through the changes and chances of sixty years, the well-being of his beloved France, The crude, blunt, arrogant Junker, the chartered libertine who sought to drown his surplus energies in mad emotionalism on his Pomeranian estates or in the swinish university life of his early century, came to merge it all in a devotion to Prussia and her aggrandizement wdiich is unexcelled, if equalled, in diplomatic history.

It is this love’s labor of the ruthless Bismarck that forms the iron cord on which must be strung his every impulse, every thought, every action, every, personage he touched and turned into a puppet for the realization of his all-absorbing dream of a super-Prussia. From it he never swerved a hair’s breath, beginning with the year 1847, when, as a Junker of Junkers, the muttering clouds of discontent beginning to gather, he sat first in the United Land-Tag of Prussia, until fifty years later he roamed his ancestral woods, brooding, tasting the world’s acclaim but as Dead Sea fruit.

With that acute sense of artistic values so marked in his “Napoleon,” Ludwig has traced this leit-motif through the five books of his “Bismarck,” characterizing the mighty protagonist successively as The Wanderer, The Striver, The Builder, The Ruler, The Outcast. Again as with his “Napoleon,” Ludwig’s Bismarck the Man is made to stand forth on the canvas with a lifelikeness that is never dimmed.

To the last, the dour old man amply bears out Ludwig’s subtitle, “The Story of a Fighter.” He throve on hate, or on what is perhaps its final sublimate, contempt of opposition and opponents, whether German or foreign. Indeed, he hated pretty much everything and everybody, save only the German people, “whose sterling qualities,” says Ludwig, “he recognized too late, and who, steadfast, saved Bismarck’s work from destruction.”


The Prince de Talleyrand, Count Otto von Bismarck are men who have each an essentially international appeal. Every stage in the life of each opens doors upon ever-broadening vistas. Each is highly individualized, yet neither could have realized his destiny without the contact, be it cooperation or opposition, with other countries.

The Honorable Joseph Gurnay Cannon, however, for nearly half a century representative in Congress from the Danville, Illinois, district, owed nothing whatsoever to any influence outside Danville, Illinois. The fact is significant of the man, of the era, indeed, is it too much to say, of the United States of his youth and maturity? Though not physically an autochthon of the soil (Cannon’s parents were in the great trek of those dissatisfied with slavery who moved out from North and South Carolina in the thirties and forties, and he was then himself a child of three), it was always his boast that he was in every, essential a product of the Wabash country. The story of his life is a minor edition of the Lincoln legend: meagre advantages, reading the Bible and Shakespeare by firelight, hard work in childhood, growing absorption in the tightening grapple over the slavery issue. Here the parallel ends. Mr. Lincoln came East for his four years of tragedy. Mr. Cannon stayed in the Mid-West, did not go into the army (he meticulously explains why), did go into politics, represented the Danville district, rose as committeeman and Speaker to the seats of the mighty, and became through cartoon and newspaper publicity the best known man in American public life. The eternal cigar rakishly balanced in the corner of his down-drawn mouth, the clean-shaven upper lip and Lincolnesque chin whisker, the unchanging collar and tie, deliberately reminiscent of the generation that had preceded him, the quaint bucolic expletives with which he garnished his conversation, the mock ferocity of his games of checkers surrounded by his satellites of the Press Club, all combined to make him easy, copy for the bright young men of the press. As “Uncle Joe,” the institution of Washington life, he was the incarnation of that American humor whose major prophet had been Mark Twain. The “Uncle Joe” legend grew up — and “Uncle Joe” grew with it, of which he was not slow to take full advantage.

To the student of democracy, and its American brand, “Uncle Joe” is an important specimen. He fully illustrated the tendency of all reform movements to slow down, to be captured by their ancient foes. He was the child of parents so radical as to embrace the hardships of the unknown West for principle. His youth was nourished in an atmosphere rabid against a certain phase of national life. His party triumphed at the polls and on the battle field. In less than a decade it had become as uncompromising in its protection of every vested interest as had ever been the slavocracy it had overthrown. Mr. Cannon became its high priest and symbol.

No corruption in party ranks so malodorous as ever to give him the least qualm. To him the voice of party was ever the voice of God. The choicest vials of his fine invective were poured upon bolters and kickers and insurgents. The Blaines, the McKinleys, the Hardings were the gods of his idolatry. The Clevelands, the Roosevelts, the Wilsons were his loathing aversions. All this and more his sedulous Boswell, Mr. L. White Busbey, diligently, sets forth.


Walter Lippmann enjoys unique advantages as a writer. He has put years of serious study upon the men and issues that have come to hold the stage. Hence his firm grasp of facts and causes. He has had varied experience as “de-bunker” in such capacities as secretary to “Colonel” House’s machinery to gather data for the Peace Conference, and member of our Commission to Negotiate Peace. He has therefore a humorous disillusionment with current appraisements of men and issues, which has taught him to count no politician as statesman or issue as “paramount” until both are dead—if then. He has had experience as newspaper and radical magazine editor, and he can set down a plain unvarnished tale in vigorous English.

Mr. Lippmann knows his Washington almost as well as the author of the “Mirrors.” He also knows the folks back home, from the Honorable Al Smith’s boroughs even unto Mr. Harding’s Marion and Mr Mencken’s Bible Belt. His range of vision includes even the Nicaragua of the barefoot “patriots” as well as the other now in process of benevolent assimilation by “Nervous Nellie’s” marines.

In “Men of Destiny,” Mr. Lippmann has written eighteen essays on American life and thought, centering about their protagonists. He swings from Mr. Bryan with his flaming cross of Free Silver to Mr. Bryan the Embattled Fundamentalist of Dayton. He launches into prophecy in “The Outlawry of War.” He studies, acutely and searchingly, the causes of the political indifference of today, and gets under the surface of the too easy explanation of the Babbitts’ and the Bankers’ complacency at Mr. Coolidge’s safety and sanity. “Men of Destiny” delightfully illuminates the larger issues with the human and the personal; and what is even more delightful, it lacks the preachment, the addiction to this or that school, that is often pitchforked into essays of this nature. To the “Lit’ry Fellers,” Lippmann’s estimates of Mencken and Sinclair Lewis are worth almost the rest of the book-though it might be a moot question just why these holders up of the mirror should be included here. Rebels and gadflies, however, they could never have been omitted from a serious study of America up to date. They had to come as leeches for our plethoric prosperity and smugness. Aristotle thought that pity and terror were the sovereign cathartic: can it be that ridicule must succeed to them for the needs of a democracy?


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