Page images

tors, the poets, and even the scientists of earlier times; but it must be remembered that in previous centuries knowledge and power were the property of the few and only here and there a choice spirit was to be found who seemed, as it were, to have snatched fire from the altars of the gods; that while occasional brilliant minds rose above their environment and illuminated the world with their transcendent genius they were but as beacons in a sea of ignorance and superstition. Now the ignorant man in America is the exception, and only in the most remote corners of the country or under abnormal circumstances of life and society is superstition to be found.

It is noteworthy that great periods of growth have almost invariably been ushered in by wars. The great reforms at the beginning of the nineteenth century had as their fore-runners the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic wars; the mid-century movements, too, were conceived in blood,-the Crimean war, the Indian Mutiny, and the Civil war of the United States were the preludes of widespread progress and reform and loftier national ideals. It would seem that a new era is opening with the twentieth century, an era of arbitration, of peaceful modes of solving international problems, of philanthropy and altruism; the Spanish-American war and the Great Boer war would almost seem to be the conflicts marking the transition between the period of ambition and progress among the nations and the period just opening up which it would be hard to name, but which will probably be marked among the nations by a wider realisation of the fundamentals of Christianity and an application of Christian principles in international affairs, and

in the dealings of civilised powers with less civilised and barbarous peoples.

For an understanding of the great problems that have occupied the minds of the American nation it is only necessary to study the lives of the presidents. Take for example the life of Pierce. It is often a source of wonder how the Southern Pro-slavery party made such headway aganst the Abolitionists in the opening years of the great Civil war. If the life of President Pierce is studied carefully the reason will be evident. The South was a unit; the North at the beginning of the strife was divided. Pierce, while a Northern man and no friend of slav ery as such, held, like many others in the North, that the Constitution sanctioned slavery and on account of the vested interests it should be sustained. In his desire for justice, as he saw it, he gave a helping hand to the slavery party. Again, when he came into office his country was reaching out commercially, and the rehearsal of the part he played in opening the gates of Japan, in establishing a reciprocity treaty with Canada and more favourable terms with European powers, in helping on ocean traffic, etc., gives in a more living manner the progress of his country between 1853 and 1857 than could be done if volumes of bald facts on these questions were presented to the reader.

It is the same with the period between 1861 and 1865. To understand why the North triumphed over the South it is only necessary to live in spirit with Abraham Lincoln. The sturdy and typical Americanism of which he was the embodiment, the indignation caused by man's inhumanity to man which focussed in his heart, the determination that knew no defeat, find expression in his life. The spirit

that animated Abraham Lincoln was the spirit of the Abolitionist party as a whole, and to know that party well and to know the spirit of the nation enduring a bloody war, making superhuman sacrifices for an ideal, it is only necessary to study carefully the life of Lincoln from his rude early surroundings in his Kentucky home to his martyrdom through the malice of the party he had crushed.

There is another tendency in the nation, the tendency to marshal the forces of democracy against the plutocracy, the people against the trusts and combines. The true spirit of democracy can best be gathered from a perusal of the career of Grover Cleveland. He was, during his presidential life, a type of sober-minded democracy, a man free from the extreme points of view that are so often associated with the word Democrat, a man of sound judg ment and great business capacity, and to know his life is to know the history of his country between 1885 and 1889 and 1893 and 1897.

But the nation was slowly but surely growing in sobriety of judgment, humanity, and spiritual life; and in the last great President, who has just fallen beneath the bullet of the assassin-the third President to die by the hand of an assassin within a period of only thirty-six years-there was the highest manifestation of the national life at the close of the nineteenth century. He possessed good judgment, fine business capacity, an unbending, though not stubborn, will, and a religious depth of feeling. He was but a type of the nation, on the one hand keenly awake to business, on the other desiring a life higher than this mundane one.

The period covered by the lives of the eleven presidents included in this volume is one rich in


material prosperity and national growth. In this period, for instance, the Atlantic cable has been laid chaining the old world to the new, Niagara has been spanned, and the thunder of the trains overhead mingles with the roar of the giant fall beneath them, the modern weapons of war have been invented, the great processes for manufacturing steel have been perfected, and electricity, the terror of the ancients, has been made the handmaid and the plaything of man. It is this age, in the most progressive of modern countries, we would study in the light of the men chosen from the nation by the nation to be their rulers. As Carlyle has said, "Great Men, taken up in any way, are profitable company," and it would be impossible among the rulers of the nineteenth century or of all preceding centuries to find more profitable subjects for study than the Presidents of the American people.




DURING the first half of the nineteenth century a race of strong men swayed the wills of the people of the North and the South; chief among these were Calhoun, Clay and Webster,-men keen to grasp a situation, quick to see a weak spot in the armour of their opponents and powerful in the presentation of their ideas. For the most part they were too brilliant; and though they were ambitious to occupy the chief place in the nation, they found themselves beaten in the race for presidential honours by such blunt soldiers as Jackson, Harrison, and Taylor and by such mediocre statesmen as Polk and Fillmore or such a smooth-tongued diplomat as Martin Van Buren.

No nation was ever in greater need of a strong man in every sense of the word at the helm than was the United States at the middle of the nineteenth century. She had had a "critical period" after the Revolution, and she was only saved by the wisdom of Washington; she was now approaching a still more critical period, and had there been a Washington in the Capital during the time of the Mexican war and in the days when

« PreviousContinue »