John Quincy Adams
John C. Calhoun
William H. Seward
Salmon P. Chase
Sir John Alexander Macdonald, G. C. B.
Read More Articles About: American Statesman
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A singular charm pervades the great national portrait galleries of Europe. In the faces that peer out from the gloom of faded paintings we read in new and vivid light the stories of their lives, and seem to discern the secret of their and their country's power. In the graphic studies which make this volume we possess a gallery of American immortals, men of varying degrees of greatness and goodness, their stature to be measured equitably by the varying conditions of time and circumstance in which they were placed, yet men of such calibre that when prejudiced criticism has done its worst, their country can proudly honor them as equalling in the patriotic virtues the illustrious nation-builders of old or modern times.
So familiar are the lineaments of these figureheads of our history, and their careers, that any bare enumeration of the facts must risk the fate of a twice-told tale. Here, however, each of the subjects is portrayed in character as well as appearance, in action more than in repose. We are enabled to form our own analytical judgments upon these men from the vantage-ground of retrospect, seeing the working of their minds in the safe light which time alone can throw.
We have called it the safe light of time, but if safe it is so because it is first a pitiless searchlight. The lapse of a hundred years of fierce scrutiny of what can be dragged in as evidence, not only leaves our first Presidents and states-men in full possession of the laurels worn in their life-time, but has mellowed the wreaths with the glory-tint of imperishable fame.
Washington must forever remain the grand Hero-figure of his people. By virtue of rare qualities in leadership and rulership his great personality will dominate the national stage until the curtain of world-doom shall fall. And this precedence in headship is confirmed by the more we learn of his humanness. There are moments when the calmest student of Washington's career finds himself verging on pardonable idolatry. Yet never was a people's captain less in need of extravagant adulation. Himself, he would have scorned, and actually did scorn, the trumpetings of shallow or fanatical partisans. The Gilbert Stuart picture is responsible for this semi-deification to a greater extent than is generally known. Admittedly it is picture more than portrait. The veritable Washington must be sought in the portraits of Wright, Du Simitiere, Houdon, and others, whose faithful limning showed him as he was, and drew from him and his circle strong tributes to the truth of the portrayal. Stuart admits that his unfinished picture is inferior as a portrait to Houdon's, but its happy touch which imparts the godlike serenity and sublimity won instant and abiding popularity. The artist had to paint a hundred copies, and it will stand as our ideal Washington. Well it may, for a great man's influence towers high over his personality, however grand, and in this higher light Washing-ton truly reaches the midway plane below the fabled gods but above common humanity.
Franklin is another whose stature grows with the years. The sorely abused attribute of "greatness," so emptily applied by almost everybody nowadays to anybodies and nobodies, would have drawn a smile from the genial philosopher-statesman if bestowed on him, then or now, although his modesty only veiled a well-justified self-appreciation. His life and works as here exhibited give him a firmer hold not only upon national fame, but affectionate pride and well-deserved gratitude.
The same just appreciation is awarded to Jefferson, Lincoln, and Hamilton as constructive statesmen, and to the equally essential if minor national services rendered by the powerful pleaders whose echoes will long resound through the land.
Rightly included among the statesmen of North America, though not of the United States, is the study of Canada's most eminent Prime Minister, the late Sir John Macdonald. From our own leaders in statecraft wide differences of political doctrine separated him and the party he so brilliantly led. It is peculiarly interesting to compare the duty-paths so faithfully trodden by the national pioneers and champions of the Republic and the Crown Dominion. A world of suggestive thought, and perhaps of prophetic venturings, is stirred by parallel readings like these, inspiring to the young, and to the mature student of the trend of international relations, fraught with momentous possibilities.
An unbiased reading of these personal records intensifies our faith in the great future of a nation that could produce, in its prentice days and under adverse conditions, so splendid an array of strong men of light and leading. Other peoples have their heroic figures, to whose names and achievements the traditions of centuries have given the glamour that poetizes history. The makers and establishers of our land of freedom are not in so remote perspective that we cannot see their human failings. They stand in the clear light of day to be known and judged for what they were and what they did. In this lies the strength of our legitimate boast that in a dispassionate comparison of national leaders America's statesmen, Northern and Southern, Eastern and Western, right worthily sustain the noblest traditions of Old World statecraft.