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Figures in Perspective

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

John Brovtm. The Making of a Martyr. By Robert Pcnn Warren. New York: Brewer and Warren. $5.00. Jefferson Davis: Political Soldier. By Elisabeth Brown Cutting. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. $5.00. Rutherford B Hayes: Statesman rf Retw’on. By H. J. Eckcnrodc. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. $5.00.

It is one of the fascinations of history that the past which it reveals is always open to re-interpretation and re-evaluation. There are, thank Heaven, no final truths to accept, no dogmatic standards to which to bow. There is always room for the play of imagination and fancy, for a reassessment of facts already known, and as time passes, and brings perspective with it, room, too, to understand more accurately and more sympathetically, the views of widely differing men, of widely differing cultures, of widely differing societies. Looked at from this standpoint, no historical period could be more interesting, or more worthy of study, than the period from 1850 to 1876, with the deep division of the North and South which it reveals, with the clash of arms in which it culminates, and with the slow return to normality and the healing of the breach after the years of war. The time has now long gone by for the partisan of narrowly sectional view. Northern-trained historians must, perforce, recognize and teach many things in a spirit widely different from that of their fathers or grandfathers. They know that the slave system as it grew and flourished in the South was by no means the utterly repulsive thing painted by Northern abolitionists, that, condemned though it was to be by the spirit of the age, it could even appear gracious and humane in its highest form, and that there is nothing particularly strange in the fact that those who lived under it, and who saw its operation, could hardly envisage any other relationship between the white man and the black man. They, can readily understand the injured pride of the South, the passionate resentment that was generated there, as the propaganda against slavery gained headway in the North. When it comes to the Civil War, they can comprehend that the South, in its own view, at any rate, was fighting the same battle for self-determination and the right to determine its own destiny that the thirteen colonies had fought in 1776, and that, whatever the constitutional historians on the one side or the other may say, on this broad issue of self-government the South was right. As for the period after the War, it is now many years that it has been frankly recognized that the policy of foisting negro suffrage upon the former slave states was a dismal failure, and that it accomplished far more evil than good, in sharpening racial antagonism and sectional cleavage. These facts no longer require demonstration. On the other hand, the objective Southerner has his allowances to make for the Northern point of view. That slavery deserved to perish, both from the moral and the economic point of view, he can now cheerfully admit. That the victory of the North in the War between the States was fortunate for both sections he will be ready to acknowledge. Even the Reconstruction period may look a little different in perspective. It is to be set down that the rejection of the Fourteenth Amendment by the Southern legislatures in the summer and fall of 1866 had much to do with strengthening the Vindictives in the North, and in paving the way for the process of military rule; and that the process of political, proscription was perhaps less prolonged and less savage in the case of the War Between the States than in the case of almost any similar struggle in history. These things, on the one hand and the other, stand out in the cool view which a perspective of more than half a century makes possible.

The books which stand at the head of this review all have to do with this perspective, though contributing in varying degrees to making it clearer. The most interesting of the three (not wholly because it deals with so interesting a figure) is Mr. Robert Penn Warren’s “John Brown.” No character more fully illustrates the moral cleavage of the sections in the ‘50’s and the ‘60’s than the subject of this work. To the Northern troops who marched out to vindicate the Union, John Brown became a martyr whose soul was “marching on”; to the Southerner he could be nothing less than a fanatic whose criminal enterprise at Harper’s Ferry justified his end at the hands of the common hangman, a foe of the human race, as Colonel Preston phrased it that grim November day of 1859.

The most significant biography, of John Brown, until that of Mr. Warren, was undoubtedly the careful, even monumental, work of Mr. Oswald Garrison Villard. Mr. Villard did spade-work in the gathering of materials, and he writes with a commendable effort at fairness; but none the less his book is suffused with the Abolitionist view-point. To Mr. Villard the memory of this Northern farmer, who died upon the gibbet in the cause of anti-slavery, is “a sacred, a solemn, and an inspiring American heritage.” This is not the view of Mr. Warren, No excessive admiration for John Brown can be attributed to him. It is very clear that the fanatic point of view, represented by the subject of his research, is not congenial to him, and not entirely easy for him to understand. One may readily grant that the motives actuating John Brown, like the motives actuating most human beings, were mixed ones, that altruism and self-interest often operated side by side. Yet it seems to the reviewer that Mr. Warren is a little harsh in striking the balance, and has hardly realized the depth of the fanatic passion that led Brown on to the massacres on the Pottawatamie, and to the crowning folly (if you will) of Harper’s Ferry. It is difficult to steer a true course between sentimentality on the one hand, and cynicism on the other.

In the main, however, Mr. Warren has produced a picture of this fascinating character which seems a little truer, and, on the whole, more objective than that of Mr. Villard. With careful marshalling of the facts, and with an attractive literary style (all too rare amongst contemporary historians), he has painted for us a skilful picture of this shiftless Northern farmer and business man, of the clash of factions in Kansas, of the unscrupulous and not always courageous activities of the Massachusetts Abolitionists who backed Brown in his final enterprise, and of the stern and impressive drama with which Brown’s life closed. It can truly be said of this book that it is a notable biography, and a notable contribution to the understanding of a complex personality.

On the central question raised by the figure with which he deals, Mr. Warren expresses no clear-cut opinion, though his point of view is hardly doubtful. What, in proper historical perspective, must be our view of John Brown? The answer, hardly doubtful, is that he does not seem very admirable or very important in the long run. There is room to admire the courage and fortitude with which he met his death; and it is, of course, true that the cause in which he believed triumphed. But the eventual extinction of slavery in the United States ought not blind any thoughtful man to the fact that Brown sought that extinction by methods utterly to be reprobated, and that he contributed very little to the final result. The judgment of moderate men condemned him at the time, and it must still more overwhelmingly condemn him today, . It was his good fortune to die in the manner of a martyr, and for the slaves whom he attempted to succour to become free in due course of time; but it is difficult to imagine that events would have run a very different course if he had never lived, or that he contributed anything vital to the cause which he championed. That cause had been gaining ground long before he appeared upon the scene as its protagonist; and its eventual success lies in forces and events far more vital than his personality. To admire Brown, moreover, one must take the uncompromisingly radical view of life; and in the radical method, yes, the method of naked force, force to the uttermost, in settling public questions. This is a good deal to ask of most of us. The Northern historian of today, indeed, musing upon the events of three quarters of a century ago, has doubts which the men of the Ws never felt, and asks himself the question (even if he cannot answer it), whether the only road to the extinction of slavery led through the hard path of sectional antagonism and bloody war, or whether, with more forbearance and understanding on the part of the North, the slave system might not have perished in the South, as it perished elsewhere, without a great civil convulsion accompanying its demise. Neither as matters were, nor as they might have been, does John Brown appear the hero that he seemed to the Abolitionists of 1860.

The perspective that it is now possible to apply to John Brown is equally possible to apply to Jefferson Davis. No one today would be so caddish as was Theodore Roosevelt in the hot days of his youth, in linking the names of Jefferson Davis and Benedict Arnold in a common condemnation. But it is also almost impossible today to conceive of this Mississippi slave-holder as a very imposing figure. The symbol of the heroic resistance of the South to Northern domination he may still remain. A certain distinction he may fairly be conceded to have possessed. But he need no longer be the subject of romantic admiration, any more than of blind hostility. Miss Cutting’s work upon him covers not uninterestingly the story of his life, and the salient facts in the larger story of conflict about which that life revolved. Much of it, indeed, is the history of the period, rather than straight biography. The figure that emerges from its pages is not strikingly different from that already known. What is striking is the even temper in which Davis is discussed. Miss Cutting’s book, like Mr. Warren’s, is written with a considerable degree of objectivity.

There is one respect, however, in which the author treaJ; on perilous ground. In more than one place she suggests a comparison between the President of the Confederacy and Woodrow Wilson. Points of likeness there may be, pride, the temperament of the orator, intensity of feeling, and high public spirit, to mention several. But in larger matters there can be no comparison. Mr. Davis, by Miss Cutting’s own showing, was hardly a great executive. There is, on the other hand, no example of war leadership in our whole history more magnificent than that of the man who led us through the Great War. Mr. Davis’s public career ended in the collapse of the cause to which he dedicated himself. Only in the superficial sense is this true of Wilson. The great international institution which he did so much to found still lives, and grows, a monument to his vision. The aspirations which he voiced find constant expression in the foreign policy of the United States. The foreign policies of the great states of Europe in the last decade bear the impress of the noble idealism which he embodied, Time may weaken the peace forces which are now so strong. But it can only serve to make clearer that Woodrow Wilson was the protagonist of a great and successful movement of opinion, in his own day and generation, and that in essentials (despite the election of 1920) he and the things for which he stood have won no small measure of triumph.

In one sense, of course, the statement that Jefferson Davis failed requires qualification. If, in the essential matter of slavery, the North imposed its views upon the South, in the building up of new relationships between white and black the ideal of states’ rights was in the long run vindicated. The career of Rutherford B. Hayes derives its principal interest from the fact that it illustrates this vindication. Mr. Eckenrode has written a most interesting biography, of this important figure. He frankly adopts the view, now so widely accepted, that the North, in its Reconstruction policy, was wrong. In the judgment of the reviewer, he could do more than he does to make that policy understandable, if not justifiable. He intimates that Hayes approved that policy during his years in Congress from the pure conformity of the politician. But Hayes was, in the Presidency, one of the most independent-minded executives we have ever had. May he not, with others, have shared in the passion and mistrust of the South which characterized the later ‘60’s? On the other hand, Mr. Eckenrode stresses a point of high significance when he points out that it was a great boon to both sections that the final act of withdrawing the troops from the South came from a Republican President. Had Tilden taken office in 1876, and acted precisely as Hayes did act, the partisan debate might have raged for some time to come. But for a Republican President to take such action closed the door to further controversy. Though Mr. Eckenrode believes, and indeed demonstrates, that an honest examination of the returns in the hectic campaign of ‘76 would have shown that Tilden was elected, it was a piece of national good fortune that Hayes attained the Presidency Mr. Eckenrode has done well with Hayes, without blind eulogy. He does not, perhaps, quite do justice to his subject as Governor. But the general impression is accurate and sound.

All three of these books bring perspective to their respective subjects. As one lays them down, one finds oneself inquiring if perspective must always be the virtue only of historians. Might not a little more detachment, and a broader understanding of other peoples’ motives and point of view be of value if it were more often brought to the study of our contemporary problems, from national prohibition to international peace?


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