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Elihu Root Post by :mertallix Category :Essays Author :Clinton W. Gilbert Date :November 2011 Read :762

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Elihu Root

ROOT, Elihu,

Ex-Secretary of State; senator; b. Clinton, N. Y., Feb. 15, 1845; Educ. A.B., Hamilton Coll., 1864, A.M., 1867; taught at Rome Acad., 1865; LL.B., New York U., 1867; (LL.D., Hamilton, 1894, Yale, 1900, Columbia, 1904, New York U., 1904, Williams, 1905, Princeton, 1906, U. of Buenos Aires, 1906, Harvard, 1907, Wesleyan, 1909, McHill, 1913, Union U., 1914, U. of State of N. Y., 1915, U. of Toronto, 1918, and Colgate U., 1919; Dr. Polit. Science, U. of Leyden, 1913; D.C.L., Oxford, 1913; mem. Faculty of Political and Administrative Sciences, University of San Marcos, Lima, 1906); Admitted to bar, 1867; U. S. dist. atty. Southern Dist. of N. Y., 1883-5; Sec. of War in cabinet of President McKinley, Aug. 1, 1899-Feb. 1, 1904; Sec. of State in cabinet of President Roosevelt, July 1, 1905-Jan. 27, 1909; U. S. senator from N. Y., 1909-15; mem. Alaskan Boundary Tribunal, 1903; counsel for U. S. in N. Atlantic Fisheries Arbitration, 1910; mem. Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, 1910-; pres. Carnegie Endowment for Internat. Peace, 1910; president Hague Tribunal of Arbitration between Great Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal, concerning church property, 1913; ambassador extraordinary at the head of special diplomatic mission to Russia, during revolution, 1917. Awarded Nobel Peace Prize for 1912.

 

Elihu Root might have been so much publicly and has been so little that a moral must hang somewhere upon his public career.

He might have been many things. He might have been President of the United States if his party ever could have been persuaded to nominate him. He might have been one of the great Chief Justices of the Supreme Court if a President could have been persuaded to appoint him. He might have given to the United States Senate that weight and influence which have disappeared from it, if he had had a passion for public service. He might have been Secretary of State in the most momentous period of American foreign relations if a certain homely instinct in Mr. Harding had not led him to prefer the less brilliant Mr. Hughes. He might have made history. But he has not. Out of his eight years in the Cabinet and six years in the Senate nothing constructive came that will give his name a larger place in history than that of Rufus Choate, another remarkable advocate who was once Attorney General.

Distrust has always barred his way, distrust of a mind and character to which problems appear as exercises in ingenuity rather than questions of right and justice. His greatest opportunity for constructive statesmanship was offered in the making of the New York State constitution. But when it became known that Mr. Root had dominated the Constitutional Convention, that the proposed constitution was Mr. Root's constitution, that was enough; the voters rejected it in the referendum.

Distrust spoiled the mission to Russia during the war. The Russians distrusted him while he was with them. President Wilson distrusted his report when he returned. And Mr. Wilson's successor equally distrusted him when he chose a man to finish the work which Mr. Wilson had badly done or to correct the work that Mr. Wilson had left undone at Paris.

Light on President Harding's attitude toward Mr. Root is thrown by an incident at Marion during the campaign. The Republican candidate had made his speech of August 28th in which he indicated his views upon the League of Nations. Two days later a newspaper arrived in Marion containing a dispatch from abroad where Mr. Root then was, at work upon the international court.

The correspondent represented Mr. Root as "amazed" at the position Mr. Harding had taken.

The candidate came to the headquarters early that morning. One of the headquarters attaches handed him a copy of the paper. Mr. Harding read the dispatch and was angry.

"That man Root," he exclaimed, "has done more harm to the Republican party than any other man in it! He is always pursuing some end of his own or of some outside interest." He started away; then turned back, still angry, and added: "You remember the Panama Canal tolls incident. That was an example of the kind of trouble he has always been making for the party."

Many reasons have been given why the President passed over the obvious man for Secretary of State. Mr. Root himself, who would have taken the place gladly as an opportunity for his extremely keen intelligence, but who did not seek it, thinks that the Senate, flushed with its recent victory over Mr. Wilson and desiring itself to dominate foreign relations, conspired to prevent his choice. The Senators did oppose Mr. Root, but their lack of influence with the President has been sufficiently exposed by events.

The real obstacle to Mr. Root's appointment was Mr. Harding's distrust of him, the instinctive feeling of a simple direct nature against a mind too quick, too clever, too adroit, too invisible in many of its operations. Mr. Harding, being commonplace himself, likes a more commonplace kind of greatness than Mr. Root's. Those who were close to him said the President feared that Mr. Root would "put something over on him." A certain moral quality in Mr. Hughes outweighed Mr. Root's special experience and wider reputation.

Mr. Roosevelt used to tell a story boastfully of his own practicality which throws much light on Mr. Root and upon the reason for Mr. Root's comparative failure as a public man.

"When I took Panama," he would say, "I found all the members of my Cabinet helpful except one. Mr. Root readily found numerous precedents. Mr. Taft was sympathetic and gave every assistance possible. Mr. Knox alone was silent. At last I turned to him in the Cabinet meeting and I said, 'I should like to hear from the Attorney General on the legality of what we are doing.' Mr. Knox looked up and said, 'Mr. President, if I were you I should not have the slightest taint of legality about the whole affair.'"

Such was Mr. Root. Public questions always were likely to occur to him first as exercises in mental adroitness rather than as moral problems. His extremely agile mind finds its chief pleasure in its own agility. Then he was always the advocate, always instinctively devoting himself to bolstering up another man's cause for him.

"He is a first class second," said Senator Penrose, objecting to him as a candidate for President at the Republican Convention of 1916, "but he is not his own man."

He is always someone else's mouthpiece and publicly he is chiefly remembered as Mr. Roosevelt's mouthpiece. When he came to New York and made the speech that elected Hughes Governor and made possible Hughes as Secretary of State he said, "I speak for the President." He equally spoke for the President when he delivered that other remembered address, warning the States that unless they mended their ways the Federal Government would absorb their vitality.

The law is a parasitic profession and Mr. Root's public career is parasitic. He lacks originality, he lacks passion--there is no place for passion in that clear mind--he lacks force. He elucidates other men's ideas, works out or puts into effect their policies, presents their case, is, by temperament, by reason of gifts amounting almost to genius, of defects that go with those gifts always and everywhere, the lawyer. His public career has been controlled by this circumstance.

I doubt if he ever had a real love of public life. He turned to it late, after he had made his success in the profession of his choice, and he carried over into it the habits of the law. He always seemed to be taking cases for the public. He took a case for Mr. McKinley as Secretary of War because the War Department needed reorganization and the case promised to be interesting. He took a case for Mr. Roosevelt as Secretary of State because Mr. Roosevelt was the most interesting client in the world. He took a case for New York State, to remodel its constitution, a case that ended disastrously. He took a case for Mr. Wilson in Russia and another, the League of Nations, to form its international court for it. He was willing to take a case for Mr. Harding to make a going concern of the world for him following the smash-up of the war, something like the task of counsel of a receivership, the most interesting receivership of all time.

For a few years Mr. Roosevelt made public life interesting to Mr. Root who, it looked then, might devote the rest of his career to national affairs.

It was a sparkling period for America. We have never had an "age" in the history of this country like the age of Elizabeth or the age of Louis XIV, or the age of Lorenzo, the Magnificent; time is too short and democracy too rigid for such splendors; but the nearest equivalent to one was the "age," let us call it that, of Theodore Roosevelt. There was the central figure--an age must have a central figure--a buoyant personality with a Renaissance zest for life, and a Renaissance curiosity about all things known, and unknown, and a boundless capacity for vitalizing everyone and everything with which he came in contact.

Dull moments were unknown. Knighthood was once more in flower, wearing frock coats and high hats and reading all about itself in the daily press. Lances were tilted at malefactors of great wealth, in jousts where few were unhorsed and no blood spilled. Fair maidens of popular rights were rescued; great deeds of valor done. Legends were created, the legend of Leonard Wood, somewhat damaged in the last campaign, the legend of the Tennis Cabinet, with its Garfields and its Pinchots, now to be read about only in the black letter books of the early twentieth century, and the legend of Elihu Root, still supported in a measure by the evidences of his highly acute intelligence, but still like everything else of those bright days, largely a legend.

Roosevelt, the Magnificent, made men great with a word, and his words were many. His great were many likewise, great statesmen, great public servants, great writers, great magazine editors, great cowboys from the West, great saints and great sinners, great combinations of wealth and great laws to curb them; everything in scale and that a great scale. Mr. Root acquired his taste for public life in that "age" just as Mr. Hoover, Mr. Baruch and a dozen others did theirs in the moving period of the Great War. It is easy to understand how.

Like all remarkable ages this age was preceded by discoveries. The United States had just fought a war which had ended in a great victory, over Spain. The American people were elated by their achievement, aware of their greatness, talked much and surely of "destiny," the period in Washington being but a reflection of their own mood. Their mental horizon had been immensely widened by the possession, gained in the war, of some islands in the Pacific whose existence we had never heard of before.

Until that time there had been for us only two nations in the world, the United States and England, the country with which we had fought two wars, and innumerable national campaigns. Historically there had of course been another country as friendly as England had sometimes been inimical, France, but France had ceased to be a nation and became a succession of revolutions.

Manila Bay had been a series of revelations, besides teaching us that Philippines is spelled with two "ps" and only one "l." We had there discovered Germany, a country whose admirals had bad sea manners. We knew at once that our next war would be with Germany, although the day before Dewey said, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley," we would as soon have thought that our next war would be with Patagonia.

There too we had an interesting and surprising experience with England, hitherto known chiefly for her constant designs on the national dinner pail. She behaved in striking and pleasing contrast with Germany. Blood, on that bright day, May 1, 1898, began to be thicker than water. Learning once more had come out of the East. From Manila Bay flowed such a tide of new ideas, such a reassessment of old conceptions as had not visited the world since the discovery of Greek and Latin letters put an end to the Middle Ages.

Perceiving our widened interest, John Hay, as Secretary of State, took our foreign relations on a grand Cook's tour of the world. He showed us Europe and the Orient. In honor of Manila Bay he invented that brilliant fiction, the "open door" in the East. Turning our attention to the world we discovered the General Staff. Hitherto our army had fought mostly with the scattered Indian tribes of the West and you cannot use a General Staff in conducting six separate wars at once, each no bigger than a good-sized riot. But as Admiral Perry had opened the eyes of the Hermit Kingdom of Japan, so Admiral whatever-his-name-was who consented to be sunk by Dewey, the unremembered hero of this great enlightenment, had opened the eyes of this Hermit Republic of the West to the world across the seas.

We had to have a General Staff. Mr. Root, as Secretary of War, gave us one, faithfully copied from the best European models. Roosevelt, the Magnificent, stood by and said "Bully." Everything was of this order; so it was to a tremendously interesting job that Mr. Root succeeded when he took the place of John Hay as Secretary of State. The mood of the hour was expansive and a luminous personality pervaded the national life.

But public service cannot always be so interesting as it is at its fullest moments. The luminous personality went out. And Mr. Root's next experience, in the United States Senate, was disillusioning.

The Senate is a body in which you grow old, ungracefully waiting for dead men's shoes. The infinite capacity for taking pains which Senators have is not genius. If the gods have been good to you, as they were to Henry Cabot Lodge, you enter the upper house young, a scholar and idealist, with the hope of the Presidency as the reward of generous service. Where the race is to the slow you lay aside your winged gifts one by one and your ambition centers finally not on the Presidency but on some committee chairmanship clung to by a pertinacious octogenarian.

Hope deferred makes you avaricious of little favors, until when a British journalist writes of you as one did of Henry Cabot Lodge, making his speech before the last Republican national convention at Chicago, that you "looked like an elderly peer addressing a labor gathering," your cup of happiness, is full to the brim, as Henry Cabot Lodge's was,--whether because you are compared to a lord or because other people, lesser than Senators, are put into their proper inferior place. Mr. Lodge is the perfect flower of the Senate. It is a flower that does not bloom in a night. It is almost a century plant.

Into this Senate came Mr. Root, full stature, as he might walk into the Supreme Court of the United States, preceded by his reputation. On Olympus one may spring full grown like Minerva from the head of Jove. But not in the Senate, where strong prejudice exists against any kind of cerebral generation. A young Senator from Ohio, Mr. Harding, arrived in the upper House early enough to see the portent of Mr. Root there. He keeps to this day a sense of its unbecomingness.

From his desk on the floor Mr. Root talked to the country, but the Senate did not listen. One does not speak in the Senate by the authority of intellect or of personality. One speaks by the authority of dead men's shoes.

Not being a big committee chairman, Mr. Root was not of counsel in the big cases. He tried to associate himself with counsel but the traditions of the Senate and the jealousy of Senators were against him. He had not the passion for public service that makes Reed Smoot and Wesley Jones miraculously patient with the endless details of legislation. After six years he quit.

"I am tired of it," he said to Senator Fall, "the Senate is doing such little things in such a little way." It was different from public life under Roosevelt where one did not notice size of what they did--one has not yet noticed the size of what they did--for the grandeur of the way they did it.

I have said that Mr. Root's mind with its advocate's bent always occupied itself with the justification of other men's views, his chief's or his party's. There was one notable exception, his break with the Republicans while he was in the Senate on the question of discriminating in favor of American shipping through the Panama Canal. A clever lawyer's argument can be made that when the United States said "all nations" in its treaty with Great Britain regarding the Canal it meant all nations except itself. But Mr. Root declined to make it, holding that plain morality and a greater respect for the obligations of a treaty than Bethman Hollweg expressed when he called them scraps of paper required this country to charge just the same tolls for American ships using the canal as for British ships or any other ships using it.

The general Republican argument is that thus interpreted, the Hay-Pauncefote treaty is so foolish and so inconvenient a treaty that Mr. Hay must not have meant what he said when he wrote it, and really did mean something that he wholly failed to say. The reasons for contending that Mr. Hay meant no tolls for the United States and tolls for England, when he wrote the same tolls for everybody are highly ingenious and as it was a Democratic President who was asserting that Mr. Hay used language in its ordinary sense, Mr. Root as a Republican might have been expected to declare that Mr. Hay used it in quite the reverse of its ordinary sense. But he did not. He supported the Democratic President and treated the Republican position as if it had not the slightest taint of legality in it, to the lasting shock of Mr. Harding, on whose side the precedents are, for nations do say "all nations," and are later found to mean all nations but themselves when their virtuous promises to make no exceptions in their own favor turn out to be inconvenient.

When Mr. Root took a high moral stand on the treaty it was said among Republican Senators that he was thinking more of the transcontinental railroads which were fighting competition by water than he was of the sanctity of international engagements. The probability is that he was probably thinking more of John Hay and Elihu Root than he was of either. He was in the Cabinet when John Hay as Secretary of State made the treaty. Senator Lodge, the only other Senator to agree with Mr. Root and disagree with his party about the meaning of all nations, was John Hay's closest friend. Probably both of them, intimately associated with Mr. Hay, had their part in the making of the treaty. They had perhaps the sensitiveness of authors about their capacity to say exactly what they meant. They wanted to recognize their own international piece when it was put on the stage by the commercially minded producers of the Senate.

The history of the Hay-Pauncefote treaty is interesting and unfamiliar. Attaching Pauncefote's name to the treaty was a delicate act of international courtesy since there is Pauncefote's word for it, privately spoken, that he had nothing to do with the writing of it.

Hay draughted the treaty by himself probably with the cognizance of Root and Lodge, the great lawyer who was his associate in the Cabinet and his closest personal friend in the Capitol. Hay then handed it to Pauncefote, the British minister here. Pauncefote transmitted it to the foreign office in London which received it with surprise and probably with satisfaction, for the Clayton-Bulwer treaty which it in a sense revived, had been forgotten for nearly half a century. Delay is the rule of foreign offices.

Perhaps Mr. Hay's treaty was not so generous as it seemed on first reading, a suspicion which seems to have been justified by the interpretation put upon it by the final authority upon international engagements, the Republican National Convention at Chicago. And if it was as generous as it seemed let not America think Great Britain too eager in accepting it, let America pay a little to overcome the reluctance of Great Britain in setting her approval upon the new contract.

At last, after much apparent hesitation, the foreign office agreed to the new treaty in consideration of America's throwing in, with it an arbitration of the Bering Sea dispute. President Roosevelt interpreted Mr. Hay's arbitration contract much as the Republican National Convention interpreted Mr. Hay's treaty, by appointing American arbitrators who promised beforehand, in giving a fair and impartial hearing to the Canadian claims, always to vote for the American position and to resign and be succeeded by others if they found that they could not do so.

Why, then, the prevailing distrust of Mr. Root? His public morals regarding the Hay-Pauncefote treaty were better than those of his party, even if we accept the view that they were dictated by nothing more than a certain mental integrity, a certain consistency with himself. He was as virtuous in the taking of the Panama Canal as the virtuous Mr. Roosevelt. He had the advocate's honesty of being true to his client, whether his client was the public or the great corporations. Mentality was uppermost in him, so that he took primarily a logical rather than a moral view of all questions; but also so much that he could not pretend, could not act, and thus he was more honest than the politicians.

His statesmanship was discontinuous, being an interesting avocation rather than a career. Of it little has been permanent. His General Staff soon lapsed into incompetence; if it had not, it might have been the danger to American national life that the German General Staff was to German national life. Recently it was merged with the high command. As Secretary of State he was not creative, Mr. Harding turning back to the solid ground of American international policy, rested upon John Hay's open door and Knox's dollar diplomacy. Root in foreign relations merely succeeded with the Senate where Hay had failed. Always the advocate, he takes other men's ideas, Hay's or Wilson's and justifies them or makes them practical. His New York constitution failed, being unjustly suspected. His world court has little better hope of acceptance, for Mr. Hughes is not a voluntary sharer of glory.

In spite of it all, some greatness remains, the impression of a powerful though limited intelligence. His career was to give us a moral. It is: if you have an adroit and energetic mind you will find public affairs uninteresting; except in their occasional phases. If you have such a mind and must enter politics, hide it; otherwise democracy will distrust you. Whatever you do, be dull.


(The end)
Clinton W. Gilbert's essay: Elihu Root

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