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Paths of Glory

ISSUE:  Winter 1938

Andrciv Jackson: Portrait of a President. By Marquis James. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. $5.00. Henry Clay: Spokesman of the Netv West. By Bernard Mayo. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company. $4.50. The Life of Henry Clay. By Glyndon G. Van Dcuscn. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $4.00. Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man. By Charles Wins-low Elliott. New York: The Macmillan Company. $5.00. Old Puss and Peathers: The life and Uxploits of Winfield Scott. By Arthur D. Howden Smith. New York: The Grcystonc Press. $4.00. Jefferson Davis. By Robert McElroy. New York: Harper and Brothers. Two Volumes. $8.00. The American Civil War. By Carl Russell Fish. Edited by William Ernest Smith. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $3.50.

Biographies, some brilliant, some good, and none mediocre, of Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Winfield Scott, and Jefferson Davis, have come from the press almost simultaneously in recent months. At the same time Dr. William E. Smitlh has edited Carl Russell Fish’s unfinished commentary on the Civil War. There is a significant relationship between all these books, written in different parts of the world and brought out by different publishers: they all deal primarily with men and events of the “ancien regime” which came to a violent end as a result of the Civil War. Furthermore, the biographies are those of Southern leaders, and they constitute only a small fraction of the recent output of biographical and historical literature on the Old South. It would seem that the trend today is strongly in the direction of Southern historical biography, a fresh field for the writer, filled with glamorous personalities hardly to be matched anywhere else.

Marquis James, whose first volume of the life of Andrew Jackson appeared in 1933 under the title, “Andrew Jackson: The Border Captain,” now has brought his work to completion in a second volume, “Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President.” The second volume, like the first, suffers at times from the author’s weak grasp of some of the forces of American history: for example, had he chewed, swallowed, and digested Frederick Jackson Turner’s essays on sectionalism he would have realized more fully that sectionalism— and even biography—runs deeper than personalities. Nevertheless, Mr. James has produced the most readable and probably the best personal account of Andrew Jackson we now have. Naturally he has been carried far at times by the powerful and lovable (to all save his enemies) character and personality of Old Hickory.

He retells the familiar story of Jackson’s rise to the presidency, through the efforts of his shrewd friends, Major Lewis, Senator Eaton, Amos Kendall, Frances Preston Blair, Sam Houston, William Carroll, and Thomas Hart Benton. The “corrupt bargain” charge against Henry Clay is presented with considerable logic and evidence: certainly it is perfectly easy to understand why Jackson was convinced that Clay had sold out to Adams in 1824. However, the evidence is not sufficient to convince an impartial student of history. Again, Mr. James shares Jackson’s belief that Henry Clay sponsored the resuscitation of the libelous tales about Rachel—slanders which hastened her death.

The Eaton scandal is retold with certain fresh detail, though Mr. James seems to reject the frequently suggested idea that Andrew Jackson made use of this affair deliberately to rid himself of Calhoun, who was becoming a political liability because of his tariff views. So also with regard to the struggle over the United States Bank, the specie circular, the Texas question, and the collection of the spoliation claims from France, the author furnishes much new and interesting detail, but few if any fresh interpretations. In the character of Jackson, however, Mr. James has somewhat changed the traditional portrait—and I am convinced that he is nearer right than any other biographer of Jackson. In the first place, he has in both volumes portrayed a man who was an aristocrat always, in everything except practical politics. He adds strength to the already growing belief that Jackson’s power of leadership, his naked personal authority, has been unsurpassed in American history. Self-mastery and self-containment are new attributes of Jackson’s character that have been overlooked or denied by other biographers ; his deep and tender love for his young relatives and dependents, his never failing patience, his stability of temper in the face of exasperating circumstances, are fully and convincingly portrayed.

Neither Glyndon G. Van Deusen nor Bernard Mayo, in their biographies of Clay, who was Jackson’s greatest personal enemy and political rival, would accept Mr. James’s estimate of Andrew Jackson; for in that case, their protagonist, Clay, would appear in a bad light. Like Mr. James, these biographers are inclined to view the world through the eyes of their subject. This will in no way damn their work; it is merely to say that they are sympathetic in their treatment of Clay and are not entirely objective. Mr. Mayo lias set out to portray the life of Henry Clay upon a magnificent scale; he proposes to devote three massive volumes to his subject. His first volume—the only one published to date—  “Henry Clay: Spokesman of the New West,” which carries Henry Clay to the War of 1812, is an impressive work. It is based upon wide and apparently thorough research, and the author displays an intimate knowledge of the historical background of his character. Whether he always has a deep insight into the meanings of this background there is some doubt. Henry Clay, the young law clerk and student in the office of George Wythe of Virginia, the eloquent and brilliant young lawyer and legislator of Kentucky, elected to the United States Senate before he had reached the legal age for senatorial rank, the young War Hawk Congressman elected speaker his first day in Congress (he made the office at times more powerful than that of the presidency), the unrelenting champion of war against England—this Henry Clay was probably the most glamorous and fascinating personality of the period. Mr. Mayo seems entirely swept along by the magnificent Clay. Thinking of Clay the trimmer and time server of later days, the champion of the American System when it had come to mean not economic nationalism but economic sectionalism and class discrimination, we may be prone to feel that the author has been too uncritical of his character. However, this is not entirely a fair judgment, for the deterioration of Clay’s character had not become visible in this period. His patriotism, courage, physical and moral, and his great gifts as a parliamentarian and orator were still uppermost.

Mr. Van Deusen, taking perhaps the long view—that is, looking back over Clay’s fifty years of public life—is more objective and more critical. His research, like Mr. Mayo’s, has been both wide and thorough, and he displays a keen knowledge of and insight into the historical setting of his character. “The Life of Henry Clay” is a brilliant and compact historical biography of the highest rank. In presenting to us Clay, the boy, the young lawyer, the young congressman, the middle-aged aspirant for the presidency, the old man grasping for the presidency, the author has reconstructed both a romantic and a tragic figure: a man always eloquent, magnetic, powerful, deeply emotional, fundamentally patriotic, yet a man slowly but surely losing sympathy with the aspirations and sorrows of the people, a man of vaulting ambitions slowly but surely compromising with his principles. In his early life he could have truthfully said that he had rather be right than be president; but when he did say it in his later life, he could better have said that he had rather be president than be right.

Henry Clay’s failure to become president rested upon such a small margin that one might easily attribute it to accident; but Mr. Van Deusen, while admitting accidents, nevertheless points out certain basic causes. First, Clay’s loss of understanding of the West and Southwest, where his great strength should have lain, resulted in his never realizing that the West wanted cheap land more than it wanted internal improvements, that it hated the national bank and was not enthusiastic for the tariff. Clay came more and more to be a spokesman of the East and to occupy the position of Alexander Hamilton, with much the same result. Then again, Clay failed to understand the strength of the demand for Texas. Finally, while courting the anti-slavery Whigs of the East by his tariff and territorial program, he nevertheless remained a Southern man in his attitude toward slavery, and thereby offended the abolitionists. This certainly lost him the state of New York, if not other states as well. In short, Clay’s efforts to unite the industrial East and the agricultural West upon the basis of economic nationalism, restriction of land sales in the West, and opposition to territorial expansion—to please the East—was premature. It took abolition and bloody shirt propaganda and an Eastern reversal on the land question to make this East-West combination. Perhaps the greatest stumbling block in Clay’s career was Andrew Jackson.

Just as Clay, Jackson, Calhoun, and Webster were approaching the end of their careers, a new crop of brilliant leaders was taking their places: Lincoln, Douglas, Seward, Toombs, Alexander Stephens, and Jefferson Davis. I believe that Professor Robert McElroy would rank Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as the ablest men in the North and South during their lifetimes. George Fort Milton, of course, would rank Douglas first, Andrew Johnson second, and Davis last; Robert W. Winston would rank Johnson first and Davis at the bottom, agreeing on the latter with Milton. Professor McElroy would doubtless place Andrew Johnson at the bottom of the list of all contenders for honors. All this simply illustrates the great ascendency which a strong character may gain over his biographer.

Professor McElroy, though a highly trained historian possessed of an international reputation, has not equaled, in “Jefferson Davis,” the work of Messrs. James, Mayo, or Van Deusen. His research bulks large; but it seems to have lacked thoroughness and accuracy. This impression is strengthened by his refusal to cite specifically in footnotes his sources of information. His two-volume work is a combination of factual material and interpretation. He documents his work very heavily, but he fails to tell the reader what he is citing. This, of course, would not do vital injury to his work; but it gives an indication of his method of research and of writing. Unlike the other authors whose work is under discussion, he seems to have failed to make a wide search for collateral material: at times the manuscripts and letters of Davis’s contemporaries are lacking, with the result that the perspective is narrow. However, Professor McElroy’s work has distinctive merit. He certainly presents an impressive array of Davis material and he is thoroughly cognizant of Davis’s point of view and philosophy. He accepts Davis’s unswerving belief that the contest between the North and the South was not a contest between slavery and freedom, that, in fact, slavery was a false issue brought in by the North, a moral cloak to cover political action; that the true issue before the war was a desire on the part of the South to maintain local self-government under the strict construction of the Constitution, and the determination of the North to consolidate the Federal government and weaken the local self-government of the states. The Civil War grew out of this divergence and became a struggle on the part of the South, not to maintain slavery, but to maintain self-government; while the North was interested not so much in destroying slavery as in retaining the South in the Union against its will.

Davis was doubtless expressing the belief of many of his contemporaries in thus stating the sectional issue. However, Professor McElroy’s acceptance of this “constitutionalist” theory is a bit surprising in the light of present-day historical thought. Centralization per se and local self-government per se are not regarded very widely as ever having had enough merit to cause a Civil War. It is only where localities, regions, and sections have diverse interests—social, economic, cultural, religious, and otherwise—that centralization and state rights are thought to become principles over which wars are fought. Of course, the United States was broken up into many divergent regions, which combined into the sections; the greatest divergences lay between the East and the South in ante-bellum days, and centralization would seem to have threatened local interests.

Professor McElroy has undoubtedly reconstructed the character of Davis with skill, and lie has effectively told the story of a tragic life. One cannot read this biography without realizing that Davis possessed a brilliant and stable intellect, that he was a man of integrity and of great moral and physical courage. At the same time one can readily see that his weakness as the president of a nation fighting for independence was his contentiousness, his inability to refrain from controversy, that caused him to break with some of his leading generals and able subordinates.

Major Charles Winslow Elliott’s massive biography, “Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man,” is a joy to read. The painstaking and astounding research will impress any careful scholar. I think at once of the twenty years’ labor of Douglas Southall Freeman on his life of Robert E. Lee. Major Elliott’s labor was long, no doubt; but when he finished he knew his man, and his historical setting. This mastery enabled him to write with great freedom and assurance.

Major Elliott is thoroughly aware of the idiosyncrasies of General Scott, and he thoroughly enjoys them. They do not take away from but add to the personality of the General. In Dr. Freeman’s account of the Mexican War in his “Robert E. Lee” I became thoroughly aware for the first time that Scott was an able general. Elliott shows that this gigantic epicurean, this hot-tempered, handsome, vain officer was without doubt one of the ablest generals of the nineteenth century. Trained as a lawyer, appointed to the army as captain of artillery through his political influence with the Virginia dynasty, Old Fuss and Feathers could never resist the lure of politics. He had a life-long hankering after the presidency, and even when not actively anticipating a “call” to that office, he kept his hand in the game. But his great love was the army, and here he made a record which will always bear careful study by the military historian. He had that unflagging and dynamic energy that is characteristic of all great military captains, and an inborn instinct for strategy. But Scott did not rely merely on his native ability: he always carried about with him a “five foot shelf” of the latest and best military treatises. His knowledge of military history, the great principles of strategy, and the conduct of an army in the field extended from ancient times down to contemporary wars. No wonder he trained practically all the able generals of the Civil War!

Arthur D. Howden Smith’s biography of Scott, “Old Fuss and Feathers,” is a well-written popular account. It deals fairly accurately with the main events of Scott’s career. Mr. Smith’s grasp of history is weak. However, his understanding of Scott and his estimate of the general’s character are good. If you ever visit West Point, he says, “go to the cemetery where he lies, surrounded by the serried ranks of his ‘young gentlemen,’ including many who came after him, and were brought up in the traditions and ideals he taught. You will have the satisfaction of paying honor to one of the greatest Americans who ever lived.”

I shall close with a brief mention of what is a commentary upon all matters referred to in this review and much more: Carl Russell Fish’s “The Civil War.” I thumb the pages with keen regret that Professor Fish was not permitted to live, if for no other reason than to finish this work, which Dr. William E. Smith has with great labor and conscientiousness edited, added to, and rounded out. This compact book represents the work and thought of many years. It is not an account of the war, but an analysis, keen and objective, of its meaning, its cause, and its results. No student of the period can afford not to read and reread this thoughtful and philosophical interpretation of the great sectional conflict.


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