Starting this fall, Cumberland House will begin republishing the venerable American Statesmen Series--a library of biographies first published on the threshold of the twentieth century in an effort to restore the ideals the American Founders stood for and fought for all their lives. I have already written introductions to the first coouple of volumes--the one on Thomas Jefferson by John Morse and the one on George Washington by Henry Cabot Lodge.
John Torrey Morse (1840-1937) was not only the author of the volume on Jefferson, he also served as the editor of the series. He was born into a prominent family of Boston Brahmins and graduated from Harvard in 1860. Two years later he was admitted to the Massachusetts bar and began to practice law. But like Jefferson, Morse had wide ranging interests. He was a lecturer in history at his alma mater. He served in the state legislature. He wrote widely on public policy, economics, and social theory. With Henry Cabot Lodge he served as editor of the International Review.
While at Harvard, he had become enthralled with the idea of recovering the old ideals of American freedom. That passion had been largely instilled in him through the lectures of Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918). Adams had long been an influential voice at Harvard, serving as an adjunct lecturer in history off and on since 1858. But it was when he was appointed Professor of Mediaeval History in 1870 that he gained an especially ardent following among students, alumni, and faculty alike--among them men such as Morse and Lodge as well as Theodore Roosevelt, W.G. Sumner, Edward Shepard, A.B. Magruder, John Stevens, and Moses Tyler. Over the course of the next few years Adams and his enthusiastic followers bucked the trend of the scholastic and scientific modernists, emphasizing instead a much more classical approach to Moral Philosophy. In the process he revolutionized both Harvard and the discipline of history.
Adams himself had been born into one of the nation’s most prominent families--both his great-grandfather and his grandfather had been presidents of the United States and his father had been ambassador to England during the tumult of the Civil War. Adams saw himself as a conservative traditionalist championing the old Democratic and Republican ideals of the 17th and 18th century Founders. He was appalled by the corruption and bureaucratization of modern American politics and believed that freedom’s only hope lay in retelling the story of liberty in a vibrant and fresh fashion for a whole new generation.
Thus, Adams sought to teach history as a means of preserving the practical lessons and profound legacies of the American experience without the petty prejudice of Humanistic fashions or the parsimonious preference of Enlightenment innovations. He wanted to avoid the trap of noticing everything that went unnoticed in the past while failing to notice all that the past deemed notable. He shunned the kind of modern epic that today is shaped primarily by the banalities of sterile mechanical scientism or the fancies of empty theater scenes rather than the realities of historical profundity.
He believed that the best sort of history is always a series of lively adventure stories—and thus should be told without the cumbersome intrusion of arcane academic rhetoric or truckloads of extraneous footnotes. History from that perspective, he thought, is a romantic moral drama in a world gone impersonally scientific—and thus should be told with a measure of passion, unction, and verve. For him therefore, the record of the ages is actually philosophy teaching by example—and because however social conditions may change, the great underlying qualities which make and save men and nations do not alter, it is the most important example of all.
Morse enlisted the help of Lodge and the other Harvard intellectuals who had been influenced by Adams and his classical view of Moral Philosophy to put together a whole series of new biographies of the American Founders and the succeeding generations of likeminded American Patriots. Every major figure in the first century of American independence would be covered: from presidents like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson to statesmen like Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, Henry Clay, Gouverneur Morris, and Thomas Hart Benton. The series was immediately lauded by the critics and embraced by the reading public. Several of the volumes became blockbuster bestsellers and have in the intervening years been repeatedly reprinted. But perhaps more importantly, the books helped to usher in a new era of political and social reform, which enabled the still gangly young American nation to become an undisputed world power and a beacon light of freedom to oppressed peoples everywhere.
The republication of these volumes just over a century later is a welcome opportunity to remind yet another new generation of leaders of the great story of liberty. At a time when our freedoms are both taken for granted and threatened as never before, I trust we will be able to recover the passion for truth that so animated Morse, Lodge, Adams and the others lest all they worked for be ignominiously lost.