When Abraham Lincoln was chosen President in 1860, this predecessor of his by a quarter century was a true historical figure. The bright, genial old man connected, visibly and really, those stirring and dangerous modern days with the first political struggles under the American Constitution, struggles then long passed into the quiet of history, to leave him almost their only living reminiscence. Martin Van Buren was a man fully grown and already a politician when in 1801 the triumph of Thomas Jefferson completed the political foundation of the United States. Its profound inspiration still remained with him on this eve of Lincoln's election. Under its influence his political career had began and had ended.
At Jefferson's election the aspiration and fervor which attended the first, the new-born sense of American national life, had largely worn away. The ideal visions of human liberty had long before grown dim during seven years of revolutionary war, with its practical hardships, its vicissitudes of meanness and glory, and during the four years of languor and political incompetence which followed. In the agitation for better union, political theories filled the minds of our forefathers. Lessons were learned from the Achæan League, as well as from the Swiss Confederation, the German Empire, and the British Constitution. Both history and speculation, however, were firmly subordinated to an extraordinary common sense, in part flowing from, as it was most finely exhibited in, the luminous and powerful, if unexalted, genius of Franklin.
From the open beginning of constitution-making at Annapolis in 1786 until the inauguration of John Adams, the American people, under the masterful governing of Washington, were concerned with the framework upon which the fabric of their political life was to be wrought. The framework was doubtless in itself of a vast and enduring importance. If the consolidating and aristocratic schemes of Hamilton had not met defeat in the federal convention, or if the separatist jealousies of Patrick Henry and George Clinton had not met defeat in Virginia and New York after the workof the convention was done, there would to-day be a different American people. Nor would our history be the amazing story of the hundred years past. But upon the governmental framework thus set up could be woven political fabrics widely and essentially different in their material, their use, and their enduring virtue.
For quite apart from the framework of government were the temper and traditions of popular politics out of which comes, and must always come, the essential and dominant nature of public institutions. In this creative and deeper work Jefferson was engaged during his struggle for political power after returning from France in 1789, during his presidential career from 1801 to 1809, and during the more extraordinary, and in American history the unparalleled supremacy of his political genius after he had left office. In the circumstances of our colonial life, in our race extractions, in our race fusion upon the Atlantic seaboard, and in the moral effect of forcible and embittered separation from the parent country, arose indeed, to go no further back, the political instincts of American men. It is, however, fatal to adequate conception of our political development to ignore the enormous formative influence which the twenty years of Jefferson's rule had upon American political character. But so partial and sometimes so partizan have been the historians of our early national politics in their treatment of that great man, that a just appreciation of the political atmosphere in which Van Buren began his career is exceedingly difficult.
There was an American government, an American nation, when Washington gladly escaped to Mt. Vernon from the bitterly factional quarrels of the politicians at Philadelphia. The government was well ordered; the nation was respectable and dignified. But most of the people were either still colonial and provincial, or were rushing, in turbulence and bad temper, to crude speculations and theories. Twenty-five years later, Jefferson had become the political idol of the American people, a people completely and forever saturated with democratic aspirations, democratic ideals, what John Marshall called "political metaphysics," a people with strong and lasting characteristics, no longer either colonial or provincial, but profoundly national.
The skill, the industry, the arts of the politician, had been used by a man gifted with the genius and not free from the faults of a philosopher, to plant in American usages, prejudices, and traditionsin the very fiber of American political life, a cardinal and fruitful idea. The work was done for all time. For Americans, government was thenceforth to be a mere instrument. No longer a symbol, or an ornament or crown of national life, however noble and august, it was a simple means to a plain end; to be always, and if need be rudely, tested and measured by its practical working, by its service to popular rights and needs.
In those earlier days, too, there had been "classes and masses," the former of whom held public service and public policy as matters of dignity and order and high assertion of national right and power, requiring in their ministers peculiar and esoteric light, and an equipment of which common men ought not to judge, because they could not judge aright. Afterward, in Monroe's era of good feeling, the personal rivalries of presidential candidates were in bad temper enough; but Americans were at last all Democrats. Whether for better or worse, the nation had ceased to be either British or colonial, or provincial, in its character. In the delightful Rip Van Winkle of a later Jefferson, during the twenty years' sleep, the old Dutch house has gone, the peasant's dress, the quaint inn with its village tapster, all the old scene of loyal provincial life. Rip returns to a noisy, boastful, self-assertive town full of American "push" and "drive," and profane disregard of superiors and everything ancient.
It was hardly a less change which spread through the United States in the twenty years of Jefferson's unrivaled and fruitful leadership. Superstitious regard for the "well-born," for institutions of government as images of veneration apart from their immediate and practical use; the faith in government as essentially a financial establishment which ought to be on peculiarly friendly relations with banks and bankers; the treatment and consideration of our democratic organization as an experiment to be administered with deprecatory deference to European opinion; the idea that upon the great, simple elements of political belief and practise, the mass of men could not judge as wisely and safely as the opulent, the cultivated, the educated; the idea that it was a capital feature of political art to thwart the rashness and incompetence of the lower peopleall these theories and traditions, which had firmly held most of the disciplined thought of Europe and America, and to which the lurid horrors of the French Revolution had brought apparent consecrationall these had now gone; all had been fatally wounded, or were sullenly and apologetically cherished in the aging bitterness of the Federalists.
There was an American people with as distinct, as powerful, as characteristic a polity as belonged to the British islanders. In 1776 a youthful genius had seized upon a colonial revolt against taxation as the occasion to make solemn declaration of a seeming abstraction about human rights. He had submitted, however, to subordinate his theory during the organization of national defense and the strengthening of the framework of government. Nor did he shine in either of those works. But with the nation established, with a union secured so that its people could safely attend to the simpler elements of human rights, Jefferson and his disciples were able to lead Americans to the temper, the aspirations, and the very prejudices of essential democracy. The Declaration of Independence, the ten amendments to the Constitution theoretically formulating the rights of men or of the States, sank deep into the sources of American political life. So completely indeed was the work done, that in 1820 there was but one political party in America; all were Jeffersonian Republicans; and when the Republican party was broken up in 1824, the only dispute was whether Adams or Jackson or Crawford or Clay or Calhoun best represented the political beliefs now almost universal. It seemed to Americans as if they had never known any other beliefs, as if these doctrines of their democracy were truisms to which the rest of the world was marvelously blind.
Nothing in American public life has, in prolonged anger and even savage desperation, equaled the attacks upon Jefferson during the steady growth of his stupendous influence. The hatred of him personally, and the belief in the wickedness of his private and public life, survive in our time. Nine-tenths of the Americans who then read books sincerely thought him an enemy of mankind and of all that was sacred. Nine-tenths of the authors of American books on history or politics have to this day written under the influence which ninety years ago controlled their predecessors. And for this there is no little reason. As the American people grew conscious of their own peculiar and intensely active political force, there came to them a period of national and popular life in which much was unlovely, much was crude, much was disagreeably vulgar. Books upon America written by foreign travelers, from the days of Jefferson down to our civil war, superficial and offensive as they often were, told a great deal of truth. We do not now need to wince at criticisms upon a rawness, an insolent condescension toward the political ignorance of foreigners and the unhappy subjects of kings, a harshness in the assertion of the equality of Caucasian men, and a restless, boastful manner.
The criticisms were in great measure just. But the critics were stupid and blind not to see the vast and vital work and change going on before their eyes, to chiefly regard the trifling and incidental things which disgusted them. Their eyes were open to all our faults of taste and manner, but closed to the self-dependent and self-assertive energy the disorder of whose exhibition would surely pass away. In every democratic experiment, in every experiment of popular or national freedom, there is almost inevitable a vulgarizing of public manners, a lack of dignity in details, which disturbs men who find restful delight in orderly and decorous public life; and their disgust is too often directed against beneficent political changes or reforms. If one were to judge the political temper of the American people from many of our own writers, and still more if he were to judge it from the observations even of intelligent and friendly foreigners prior to 1861, he would believe that temper to be sordid, mean, noisy, boastful, and even cruel.
But from the war of 1812 with England to the election of Buchanan in 1856, the American people had been doing a profound, organic, democratic work. Meantime many had seen no more than the unsightly, the mean and trivial, the malodorous details, which were mere incidents and blemishes of hidden and dynamic operations. Unimaginative minds usually fail to see the greater and deeper movements of politics as well as those of science. In the public virtues then maturing there lay the ability long and strenuously to conduct an enterprise the greatest which modern times have known, and an extraordinary popular capacity for restraint and discipline. In those virtues was sleeping a tremendously national spirit which, with cost and sacrifice not to he measured by the vast figures of the statistician, on one side sought independence, and on the other saved the Unionan exalted love of men and truth and liberty, which, after all the enervations of pecuniary prosperity, endured with patience hardships and losses, and the less heroic but often more dangerous distresses of taxationat the North a magnanimity in victory unequaled in the traditions of men, and at the South a composure and dignity and absence of either bitterness or meanness which brought out of defeat far larger treasures than could have come with victory.
1 From Shepard's "Life of Martin Van Buren." By permission of and by arrangement with the authorized publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Company. Copyright, 1888, 1889. Mr. Shepard was an eminent lawyer in New York, at one time unsuccessful as the Democratic candidate for Mayor. In 1911 he became one of the leading candidates in New York for the United States Senate, but after a long contest failed of election. He died in the summer of that year.
THE PURCHASE OF LOUISIANA