From the Archive — From the January 2017 issue

A Peculiar Virtue

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Only once have we elected a really ignorant man to the Presidency. Andrew Jackson was almost completely innocent of book-learning when he came to the White House. Furthermore, he was the most violent of all the Presidents and the least inclined to submit his prejudices to intellectual analysis.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that it was while this unmistakable nonintellectual reigned in the Executive Mansion that our political life attained and maintained a brilliance it had not reached before, and has not approached since. It was Jackson’s peculiar virtue that he could heat the opposition to such a point that it burst into incandescence.

One has only to call the roll of the names of the men who opposed him to realize something of the brilliance of that period — John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, John Randolph of Roanoke, John Tyler, Rufus Choate, Edward Everett. It would be preposterous to insinuate that Jackson dowered these men with any part of their ability; but it is only sober truth to assert that in the enterprise of saving the country — as they saw it — from Jackson, they attained heights which they might never have reached except under the sting of a sharp and roweling spur.

Even to hold his own, much less to make headway, against such a force as Andrew Jackson a man had to be good. It may be true that Jackson thought little; but in order to stand up against him at all other men had to think furiously; and in the course of their efforts to cope with him they developed every latent power within them. The sudden efflorescence of genius in Congress at this period was not altogether an accident. Under the grueling discipline to which members were subjected, it is entirely reasonable to believe that not a few mediocre men grew strong, and that strong men grew great.

All this, however, affords no answer to the question of what is the matter with our own times. The lack of leadership is apparent enough. The present President knows more economics, in all probability, than TR ever guessed; but he knows less about Americans. Mr. Hoover unquestionably did everything he knew how to do in the terrific days of that terrible autumn, and he knew how to do a great deal. But he didn’t know how to gesticulate.

The world is not ruled by reason and logic. If it were, Mr. Hoover would have saved the situation, for the measures he took were pre-eminently reasonable and logical, as well as energetic. He immediately took counsel with the best business brains in the country. He had a number of sensible, practical suggestions to make and he urged them upon the people who were best able to understand them and carry them out. He labored diligently and intelligently and, doubtless, prevented a number of evils that without his efforts might have befallen the country. But at that, the thing got away from him. Instead of riding the avalanche, he was caught under it and buried deep in popular odium.

Does any man who views objectively the political history of the last thirty years believe that Theodore Roosevelt would have done any more toward reestablishing the economic balance? He might not have done as much as Mr. Hoover, but he would have seemed to be doing ten times more. He knew how to gesticulate. He could dance and yell. The roars emanating from the White House in the closing days of 1929 had Roosevelt been there would have been so loud they would almost have drowned the incessant banging of exploding banks, and so blood-curdling they would have distracted attention from the atrocities being perpetrated on the Stock Market.

No economist doubts that the present depression has been prolonged and intensified by the fathomless pessimism which it has induced in the American people. The energy of the country has suffered a strange paralysis. We are in the doldrums, waiting not even hopefully for the wind which never comes. Roosevelt would have supplied wind. Whatever he did, the country would have been so vastly entertained that it would have forgotten a large part of its pessimism. It would have been amused in part, scandalized in part, infuriated in part; but each emotion would have stimulated it to some sort of action. The psychological part of the depression he could have managed.

This is assuming that we have not become so sophisticated that it is no longer possible for a Roosevelt or an Andrew Jackson to stir us. I think it a reasonable assumption. Of course, none of these men could repeat his former triumphs in precisely the same form. History never repeats itself exactly.

From “Bryan, Thou Shouldst Be Living,” which appeared in the September 1931 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 166-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.

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