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AMERICAN
MEN OF ACTION


BY


BURTON E. STEVENSON


AUTHOR OF "A GUIDE TO BIOGRAPHY - MEN OF MIND,"
"A SOLDIER OF VIRGINIA," ETC.; COMPILER OF
"DAYS AND DEEDS - POETRY," "DAYS AND
DEEDS - PROSE," ETC.


GARDEN CITY NEW YORK:

DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY

1913


* * * * *


COPYRIGHT, 1909, 1910, BY

DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY


* * * * *


[Illustration: WASHINGTON]


* * * * *




CONTENTS


CHAPTER

I. - A TALK ABOUT BIOGRAPHY

II. - THE BEGINNERS

Summary to Chapter II

III. - WASHINGTON TO LINCOLN

Summary to Chapter III

IV - LINCOLN AND HIS SUCCESSORS

Summary to Chapter IV

V - STATESMEN

Summary to Chapter V

VI. - PIONEERS

Summary to Chapter VI

VII. - GREAT SOLDIERS

Summary to Chapter VII

VIII. - GREAT SAILORS

Summary to Chapter VIII

INDEX


* * * * *




LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


Washington _Frontispiece_

Columbus

Jefferson

Jackson

Lincoln

Cleveland

Franklin

Webster

Boone

Grant

Lee

Dewey


* * * * *




AMERICAN MEN OF ACTION


* * * * *




CHAPTER I

A TALK ABOUT BIOGRAPHY


No doubt most of you think biography dull reading. You would much rather
sit down with a good story. But have you ever thought what a story is?
It is nothing but a bit of make-believe biography.

Let us see, in the first place, just what biography means. It is formed
from two Greek words, "bios," meaning life, and "graphein," meaning to
write: life-writing. In other words, a biography is the story of the
life of some individual. Now what the novelist does is to write the
biographies of the people of his story; not usually from the cradle to
the grave, but for that crucial period of their careers which marked
some great success or failure; and he tries to make them so life-like
and natural that we will half-believe they are real people, and that the
things he tells about really happened. Sometimes, to accomplish this, he
even takes the place of one of his own characters, and tells the story
in the first person, as Dickens does in "David Copperfield." That is
called autobiography, which is merely a third Greek word, "autos,"
meaning self, added to the others. An automobile, for instance, is a
self-moving vehicle. So autobiography is the biography of oneself. The
great aim of the novelist is, by any means within his power, to make his
tale seem true, and the truer it is - the truer to human nature and the
facts of life - the greater is his triumph.

Now why is it that everyone likes to read these make-believe
biographies? Because we are all interested in what other people are
doing and thinking, and because a good story tells in an entertaining
way about life-like people, into whom the story-teller has breathed
something of his own personality. Then how does it come that so few of
us care to read the biographies of real people, which ought to be all
the more interesting because they are true instead of make-believe?
Well, in the first place, because most of us have never tried to read
biography in the right way, and so think it tiresome and uninteresting.
Haven't you, more than once, made up your mind that you wouldn't like a
thing, just from the look of it, without ever having tasted it? You know
the old proverb, "One man's food is another man's poison." It isn't a
true proverb - indeed, few proverbs are true - because we are all built
alike, and no man's food will poison any other man; although the other
man may think so, and may really show all the symptoms of poisoning,
just because he has made up his mind to.

Most of you approach biography in that way. You look through the book,
and you see it isn't divided up into dialogue, as a story is, and there
are no illustrations, only pictures of crabbed-looking people, and so
you decide that you are not going to like it, and consequently you don't
like it, no matter how likeable it is.

It isn't wholly your fault that you have acquired this feeling.
Strangely enough, most biographies give no such impression of reality as
good fiction does. John Ridd, for instance, is more alive for most of us
than Thomas Jefferson - the one is a flesh-and-blood personality, while
the other is merely a name. This is because the average biographer
apparently does not comprehend that his first duty is to make his
subject seem alive, or lacks the art to do it; and so produces merely a
lay-figure, draped with the clothing of the period. And usually he
misses the point and fails miserably because he concerns himself with
the mere doing of deeds, and not with that greatest of all things, the
development of character.

All great biographies are written with insight and imagination, as well
as with truth; that is, the biographer tries, in the first place, to
find out not only what his subject did, but what he thought; he tries to
realize him thoroughly, and then, reconstructing the scenes through
which he moved, interprets him for us. He endeavors to give us the
rounded impression of a human being - of a man who really walked and
talked and loved and hated - so that we may feel that we knew him. But
most biographies are seemingly written about statues on pedestals, and
not good statues at that.

I am hoping to see the rise, some day, of a new school of biography,
which will not hesitate to discard the inessential, which will disdain
to glorify its subject, whose first duty it will be to strip away the
falsehoods of tradition and to show us the real man, not hiding his
imperfections and yet giving them no more prominence than they really
bore in his life; which will realize that to the man nothing was of
importance except the growth of his spirit, and that to us nothing else
concerning him is of any moment; which will show him to us illumined, as
it were, from within, and which will count any other sort of
life-history as vain and worthless. What we need is biography by X-ray,
and not by tallow candle.

Until that time comes, dear reader, you yourself must supply the X-ray
of insight. If you can learn to do that, you will find history and
biography the most interesting of studies. Biography is, of course, the
basis of all history, since history is merely the record of man's
failures and successes; and, read thus, it is a wonderful and inspiring
thing, for the successes so overtop the failures, the good so out-weighs
the bad. By the touchstone of imagination, even badly written biography
may be colored and vitalized. Try it - try to see the man you are reading
about as an actual human being; make him come out of the pages of the
book and stand before you; give him a personality. Watch for his humors,
his mistakes, his failings - be sure he had them, however exalted he may
have been - they will help to make him human. The spectacle of
Washington, riding forward in a towering rage at the battle of
Monmouth, has done more to make him real for us than any other incident
in his life. So the picture that Franklin gives of his landing at
Philadelphia and walking up Market street in the early morning, a loaf
of bread under either arm, brings him right home to us; though this
simple, kindly, and humorous philosopher is one of the realest figures
on the pages of history. We love Andrew Jackson for his irascible
wrong-headedness, Farragut for his burst of wrath in Mobile harbor,
Lincoln for his homely wisdom.

I have said that, read as the record of man's failures and successes,
history is an inspiring thing. Perhaps of the history of no country is
this so true as of that of ours. By far the larger part of our great men
have started at the very bottom of the ladder, in poverty and obscurity,
and have fought their way up round by round against all the forces of
society. Nowhere else have inherited wealth and inherited position
counted for so little as in America. Again, we have had no wars of greed
or ambition, unless the war with Mexico could be so called. We have, at
least, had no tyrants - instead, we have witnessed the spectacle, unique
in history, of a great general winning his country's freedom, and then
disbanding his army and retiring to his farm. "The Cincinnatus of the
West," Byron called him; and John Richard Green adds, "No nobler figure
ever stood in the forefront of a nation's life." He has emerged from the
mists of tradition, from the sanctimonious wrappings in which the early
biographers disguised him, has softened and broadened into the most
human of men, and has won our love as well as our veneration.

George Washington was the founder. Beside his name, two others stand
out, serene and dominant: Christopher Columbus, the discoverer; Abraham
Lincoln, the preserver. And yet, neither Columbus, nor Washington, nor
Lincoln was what we call a genius - a genius, that is, in the sense in
which Shakespeare or Napoleon or Galileo was a genius. But they combined
in singular degree those three characteristics without which no man may
be truly great: sincerity and courage and singleness of purpose.

It is not without a certain awe that we contemplate these men - men like
ourselves, let us always remember, but, in many ways, how different! Not
different in that they were infallible or above temptation; not
different in that they never made mistakes; but different in that they
each of them possessed an inward vision of the true and the eternal,
while most of us grope blindly amid the false and trivial. What that
vision was, and with what high faith and complete devotion they followed
it, we shall see in the story of their lives.

This is the basic difference between great men and little ones - the
little ones are concerned solely with to-day; the great ones think only
of the future. They have gained that largeness of vision and of
understanding which perceives the pettiness of everyday affairs and
which disregards them for greater things. They live in the world,
indeed, but in a world modified and colored by the divine ferment within
them. There are some who claim that America has never produced a genius
of the first order, or, at most, but two; however that may be, she has
produced, as has no other country, men with great hearts and seeing eyes
and devoted souls who have spent themselves for their country and their
race.

One hears, sometimes, a grumbler complaining of the defects of a
republic; yet, certainly, in these United States, the republican form of
government, established with no little fear and uncertainty by the
Fathers, has, with all its defects, received triumphant vindication.
Nowhere more triumphant than in the men it has produced, the story of
whose lives is the story of its history.

There are two kinds of greatness - greatness of deed and greatness of
thought. The first kind is shown in the lives of such men as Columbus
and Washington and Farragut, who translated thought into action and who
_did_ great things. The second kind is the greatness of authors and
artists and scientists, who write great books, or paint great pictures
or make great discoveries, and this sort of greatness will be considered
in a future volume; for all there has been room for in this one is the
story of the lives of America's great "men of action." And even of them,
only a sketch in broad outline has been possible in space so limited;
but this little book is merely a guide-post, as it were, pointing toward
the road leading to the city where these great men dwell - the City of
American Biography.

It is a city peopled with heroes. There are Travis and Crockett and
Bowie, who held The Alamo until they all were slain; there is Craven,
who stepped aside that his pilot might escape from his sinking ship;
there is Lawrence, whose last words are still ringing down the years;
there is Nathan Hale, immortalized by his lofty bearing beneath the
scaffold; there is Robert Gould Shaw, who led a forlorn hope at the head
of a despised race; - even to name them is to review those great events
in American history which bring proud tears to the eyes of every lover
of his country.

Of all this we shall tell, as simply as may be, giving the story of our
country's history and development in terms of its great men. So far as
possible, the text has been kept free of dates, because great men are of
all time, and, compared with the deeds themselves, their dates are of
minor importance. But a summary at the end of each chapter gives, for
purposes of convenient reference, the principal dates in the lives of
the men whose achievements are considered in it.

* * * * *

In the preparation of these thumb-nail sketches, the present writer
makes no pretense of original investigation. He has taken his material
wherever he could find it, making sure only that it was accurate, and
his sole purpose has been to give, in as few words as possible, a
correct impression of the man and what he did. From the facts as given,
however, he has drawn his own conclusions, with some of which, no doubt,
many people will disagree. But he has tried to paint the men truly, in a
few strokes, as they appeared to him, without seeking to conceal their
weaknesses, but at the same time without magnifying them - remembering
always that they were men, subject to mistakes and errors, to be honored
for such true vision as they possessed; remarkable, many of them, for
heroism and high devotion, and worthy a lasting place in the grateful
memory of their country.

The passage of years has a way of diminishing the stature of men thought
great, and often of increasing that of men thought little. Few American
statesmen, for example, loom as large to-day as they appeared to their
contemporaries. Looking back at them, we perceive that, for the most
part, they wasted their days in fighting wind-mills, or in doing things
which had afterwards to be undone. Only through the vista of the years
do we get a true perspective, just as only from a distance can we see
which peaks of the mountain-range loom highest. But even the mist of
years cannot dim essential heroism and nobility of achievement. Indeed,
it enhances them; the voyage of Columbus seems to us a far greater thing
than his contemporaries thought it; Washington is for us a more
venerable figure than he was for the new-born Union; and Lincoln is just
coming into his own as a leader among men.

Every boy and girl ought to try to gain as true and clear an idea as
possible of their country's history, and of the men who made that
history. It is a pleasant study, and grows more and more fascinating as
one proceeds with it. The great pleasure in reading is to understand
every word, and so to catch the writer's thought completely. Knowledge
always gives pleasure in just that way - by a wider understanding.
Indeed, that is the principal aim of education: to enable the individual
to get the most out of life by broadening his horizon, so that he sees
more and understands more than he could do if he remained ignorant. And
since you are an American, you will need especially to understand your
country. You will be quite unable to grasp the meaning of the references
to her story which are made every day in conversation, in newspapers, in
books and magazines, unless you know that story; and you will also be
unable properly to fulfil your duties as a citizen of this Republic
unless you know it.

For the earliest years, and, more especially, for the story of the
deadly struggle between French and English for the possession of the
continent, the books to read above all others are those of Francis
Parkman. He has clothed history with romantic fascination, and no one
who has not read him can have any adequate idea of the glowing and
life-like way in which those Frenchmen and Spaniards and Englishmen work
out their destinies in his pages. The story of Columbus and of the early
explorers will be found in John Fiske's "Discovery of America," a book
written simply and interestingly, but without Parkman's insight and
wizardry of style - which, indeed, no other American historian can equal.
A little book by Charles F. Lummis, called "The Spanish Pioneers," also
gives a vivid picture of those early explorers. The story of John Smith
and William Bradford and Peter Stuyvesant and William Penn will also be
found in Fiske's histories dealing with Virginia and New England and the
Dutch and Quaker colonies. Almost any boy or girl will find them
interesting, for they are written with care, in simple language, and not
without an engaging humor.

There are so many biographies of Washington that it is difficult to
choose among them. Perhaps the most interesting are those by Woodrow
Wilson, Horace E. Scudder, Paul Leicester Ford, and Henry Cabot
Lodge - all well-written and with an effort to give a true impression of
the man. Of the other Presidents, no better biographies exist than those
in the "American Statesmen" series, where, of course, the lives of the
principal statesmen are also to be found. Not all of them, nor, perhaps,
even most of them are worth reading by the average boy or girl. There is
no especial reason why the life of any man should be studied in detail
after he has ceased to be a factor in history. Of the Presidents,
Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln are still vital to the life
of to-day, and of the statesmen there are a few, like Franklin,
Hamilton, Webster, Calhoun and Clay, whose influence is still felt in
our national life, but the remainder are negligible, except that you
must, of course, be familiar in a broad way with their characters and
achievements to understand your country's story.

History is the best place to learn the stories of the pioneers, soldiers
and sailors. Archer Butler Hulburt has a little book, "Pilots of the
Republic," which tells about some of the pioneers; John Fiske wrote a
short history of "The War of Independence," which will tell you all you
need know about the soldiers of the Revolution, with the exception of
Washington; and you can learn about the battles of the Civil War from
any good history of the United States. There is a series called the
"Great Commanders Series," which tells the story, in detail, of the
lives of American commanders on land and sea, but there is no reason why
you should read any of them, with the exception of Lee, Farragut, and
possibly Grant, though you will find the lives of Taylor and "Stonewall"
Jackson interesting in themselves. For the sailors, with the exception
of Farragut, Barnes's "Yankee Ships and Yankee Sailors" will suffice;
though every boy will enjoy reading Maclay's "History of the American
Navy," where the story of our great sea-fights is told better than it
has ever been told before.

These books may be found in almost any public library, and on the
shelves there, too, you will probably find Elbert Hubbard's "Little
Journeys," which give flashlight portraits of statesmen and soldiers and
many other people, vivid and interesting, but sometimes distorted, as
flashlights have a way of being.

Perhaps the librarian will permit you to look over the shelves where the
biographies and works dealing with American history are kept. Don't be
over-awed by the number of volumes, because there are scores and scores
which are of no importance to you. Theodore Parker had a wrong idea
about reading, for once upon a time he undertook to read all the books
in a library, beginning at the first one and proceeding along shelf
after shelf. He never finished the task, of course, because he found
out, after a while, that there are many books which are not worth
reading, and many more which are of value only to specialists in certain
departments of knowledge. No man can "know it all." But every man should
know one thing well, and have a general knowledge of the rest.

For instance, none but an astronomer need know the mathematics of the
science, but all of us should know the principal facts concerning the
universe and the solar system, and it is a pleasure to us to recognize
the different constellations as we gaze up at the heavens on a cloudless
night. None but a lawyer need spend his time reading law-books, but most
of us want to know the broad principles upon which justice is
administered. No one but an economist need bother with the abstract
theories of political economy, but if we are to be good citizens, we
must have a knowledge of its foundations, so that we may weigh
intelligently the solutions of public problems which different parties
offer.

So if you are permitted to look along the shelves of the public library,
you will have no concern with the great majority of the books you see
there; but here and there one will catch your eye which interests you,
and these are the ones for you to read. You have no idea how the habit
of right reading will grow upon you, and what a delightful and valuable
habit it will prove to be. Like any other good habit, it takes pains at
first to establish, an effort of will and self-control. But that very
effort helps in the forming of character, and the habit of right reading
is perhaps the best and most far-reaching in its effects that any boy or
girl can form. I hope that this little volume, and the other books which
I have mentioned, will help you to form it.


* * * * *




CHAPTER II

THE BEGINNERS


Nearly five hundred years ago, there lived, in the beautiful old Italian
city of Genoa, a poor wool-comber named Dominico Colombo, and about
1446, a son was born to him and to his wife, Susanna, and in due time
christened Christoforo.

The world into which the child was born was very different to the one in
which we live. Europe was known, and northern Africa, and western Asia;
but to the east stretched the fabulous country of the Grand Khan,
Cathay, Cipango, and farthest Ind; while to the west rolled the Sea of
Darkness, peopled with unimaginable terrors.

Of the youth of Christopher Columbus, as we call him, little is known.
No doubt it was much like other boyhoods, and one likes to picture him,
in such hours of leisure as he had, strolling about the streets of
Genoa, listening to the talk, staring in at the shop-windows, or
watching the busy life in the harbor. That the latter had a strong
attraction for him there can be no doubt, for though he followed his
father's trade till early manhood, he finally found his real vocation as
a seaman. It was on the ocean that true romance dwelt, for it led to
strange lands and peoples, and no one knew what wonders and mysteries
lay behind each horizon. It was there, too, high courage was developed
and endurance, for it was there that men did battle hand to hand with
nature's mightiest forces. It was the one career of the age which called
to the bold and adventurous spirit. What training Columbus received or
what voyages he made we know not; but when, at about the age of thirty,
he steps into the light of history, it is as a man with a wide and
thorough knowledge of both the theory and practice of seamanship; a man,
too, of keen mind and indomitable will, and with a mighty purpose
brooding in his heart.

It was natural enough that his eyes should turn to Portugal, for
Portugal was the greatest sea-faring nation of the age. Her sailors had
discovered the Madeira Islands, and crept little by little down the
coast of Africa, rounding this headland and that, searching always for a
passage to India, which they knew lay somewhere to the east, until, at
last, they had sailed triumphantly around the Cape of Good Hope. It is
worth remarking that Columbus's brother, Bartholomew, of whom we hear so
little, but who did so much for his brother's fame, was a member of that
expedition, and Columbus himself must have gathered no little
inspiration from it.

So to Lisbon Columbus went, and his ardent spirit found a great stimulus
in the adventurous atmosphere of that bustling city. He went to work as
a map-maker, marrying the daughter of one of the captains of Prince
Henry the Navigator, from whom he secured a great variety of maps,
charts and memoranda. His business kept him in close touch with both
mariners and astronomers, so that he was acquainted with every
development of both discovery and theory. In more than one mind the
conviction was growing up that the eastern shore of Asia could be
reached by sailing westward from Europe - a conviction springing


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Online LibraryBurton Egbert StevensonAmerican Men of Action → online text (page 1 of 23)