“The Life and Public Services of James Buchanan.” Saturday Evening Post (August 9, 1856): 2.
THE LIFE AND PUBLIC SERVICES OF JAMES BUCHANAN and
THE LIFE, EXPLORATIONS, AND PUBLIC SERVICES OF JOHN CHARLES FREMONT
| These books owe their birth solely to the fact that the
eminent persons of whom they treat are candidates for the Presidency. They
are both clever specimens of adroit special pleading, put forth for campaign
purposes, and cannot be said to have any permanent value. No doubt they
are written with as much fairness as it is possible in the nature of things
for such books to be; and they certainly follow with a precision and accuracy
sufficient for their purposes, the outlines of the careers of the Presidential
nominees. The general objection to works of this kind is that they serve
their purposes too well to materially aid the operations of an honest mind,
oscillating in doubt between the respective claims of opposed parties,
and endeavoring to fix its attachment to one or the other by mentally deciding
which has the greatest political worth. Lawyers rarely assist judgment;
they often confuse it; and the impartial voice of the Bench is frequently
the sole guide juries have from the maze of bewilderment in which they
have been lost by following the pleas of the advocates. Who shall adjust
the claims the authors of these books make for their respective clients?
Between them the reader is a shuttlecock between two battledores. An active
fancy might picture the desperate puzzlement of some conscientious person
who, desiring to know intelligently which candidate he ought to support
by knowing which is the most honest and the most capable, has perused diligently
these records of the lives and public services of Messrs. Buchanan and
Fremont, and discovered that with the greatest possible distinction there
is the least possible difference – the lives of both seeming to glow
with an equal luster, and the services of both appearing equally remarkable.
For each biographer has lavished the choicest superlatives the language
affords upon his client, and shown him to be absolutely and utterly without
spot or flaw, and the veriest exemplar of all a patriot should be. Our
conscientious friend has privately agreed with himself that none but the
supereminent patriot shall get his voice and vote, but when he finds that
all the patriotism which looks to the White House for its reward, is equally
supereminent, his difficulty is to know upon which particular supereminence
he shall settle! Until circumstances decide his dilemma, he will actually
fume at the writers who have degraded the lives and services of the candidates
from their proper place in the impartial sunlight, to drape them in showy
rhetoric, and exhibit then in a delusive atmosphere of rose-colored eulogy.
We suppose, however, that the main offices these volumes propose to perform, are to stimulate party feelings into a more fiery zeal, to quicken the laggards, and to reconvince the convinced. Their functions are not to make converts, but to confirm those already made. And, doubtless, they proceed on the principle that it is allowable for political ends, to omit all mention of those public sins of omission and commission of which public men, being mortal men, may be supposed guilty; to put the fairest gloss on every unpopular or immoral word and actions of their lives; and to give prominence only to the good things they may have said or done in their several careers. Such a principle we consider extremely questionable. The noblest service the American biographer of a political man can render to his countrymen, is to write the exact truth of his subject-to omit nothing-to palliate nothing-to conceal nothing-and to let the weight of the and right good he records, bear down in the balance of popular judgment, the error and the wrong, if it can. Every important public word or act of such a man should be set forth, with all its relations and consequences, in a simple and colorless language of truth;-every one, no matter what its character-for every one is needed as an element in those mental operations of the nation which aim to decide the amount of his virtue and capability. Wise and good men never support a statesman on the assumption that he is immaculate; but they seek to know his general proclivities and tendencies, and they give him their confidence in the precise ratio in which they find his wisdom and virtue to preponderate ever the sins, the mistakes, and the follies from which the noblest man cannot be exempt until Death uplifts him into that life where he losses the weakness which inevitably compounds with morality. Our American habituation to the falsehood of extremes-to unqualified panegyric and pasquinade-in the treatment of public men, has become proverbial, and suggests rather for sober and sorrowful thought. We cannot be just and frank and truthful, because we must serve the fleeting interests and passions of the hour, or flatter our self-conceit, or lend our voices to the chorus of some popular idolatry. The great mass of our biographies, like old Fuller’s tombstones, are “grave liars.” They sacrifice truth by intermixing it with those suppressions and exaggerations which transmute it into falsehood; and sometimes they do not take the trouble to make it even one of their component elements-content to use only such facts as may lend them a delusive color of veracity. No doubt many of the falsifications and errors which creep into history have their nests in partial or portion memoirs, and millions of men are misled, and engaged in wrangling feuds from which countless evils are created, solely because biographers choose to forget the duty they owe to truth and God.
It is due to Mr. Horton, to say that his book is skillfully composed, and has considerable interest. In the latter respect, however, Mr. Upham has the advantage of him. The larger portions of the life of Fremont is the story of his adventures with Kit Carson and the free hunters in the mountains and valleys of the West, and consequently has potent charms for the reader. Much of it is made up of extracts from Fremont’s published Reports, with whose vigor and picturesque power of narration many of our readers have been familiar in past time, long before the Pathfinder was dreamed of as a candidate for the Presidency. The work is, moreover, embellished with a finely executed portrait, and numerous aqua-tint engravings, representing sceneries and incidents of adventures in the far West. Mr. Horton’s volume is adorned with an engraved portrait of Mr. Buchanan. It contains numerous and copious extracts from his speeches, which renders it valuable to the Democrats as a text-book with which to meet their opponents. As a memoir it is tolerably complete, and is clearly and forcibly written. In point of abstract literary merit, we should award Mr. Upham’s performance the palm.