I really enjoy reading the books of John Buchan (see my previous article on Buchan). Primarily I speak of the series of thrillers that feature Richard Hannay, including the most popular Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). And I say this notwithstanding the observations of his work as a writer, his career in government service, and his character that I will present in this essay.
In 1921 Buchan’s The Path of the King was published. It consists of 14 chapters, each a vignette from a brilliantly evoked historical period, following chronologically from the death of a Viking king (Chapter 1) to the childhood (Chapter 13) and death (Chapter 14) of Abraham Lincoln. The publisher Simon & Schuster describes the protagonists of the intermediate chapters: “a Norman knight who fought under Duke William and settled in England; a French knight, emissary of Saint Louis to Kubla Khan; a proud demoiselle, friend to Jeanne d’Arc; a French gentleman who went with Columbus on his second voyage; an avenger of Saint Bartholomew’s Day; a friend to Sir Walter Raleigh; a supporter of Cromwell; a soldier of fortune under Marlborough; a mighty hunter in Virginia—all these, says Mr. Buchan, were Lincoln’s forebears. Their blood ran in his veins and made him, in James Russell Lowell’s phrase, “the last of the kings.”” This theme alone, of Lincoln in the bloodline of a king, might make even the most ardent American member of the Lincoln cult blush. But consider this imaginary exchange posed by Buchan between Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward before the war began. The 39 Steps Best Price: $5.39 Buy New $4.95 (as of 04:55 EST - Details)
Seward seemed to pull himself together. He took a turn down the room and then faced Lincoln.
“Mr. President,” he said, “you do not know whether you have a majority behind you even in the North. You have no experience of government and none of war. The ablest men in your party are luke-warm or hostile towards you. You have no army to speak of, and will have to make everything from the beginning. You feel as I do about the horror of war, and above all the horrors of civil war. You do not know whether the people will support you. You grant that there is some justice in the contention of the South, and you claim for your own case only a balance of truth. You admit that to coerce the millions of the South back into the Union is a kind of task which has never been performed in the world before and one which the wise of all ages have pronounced impossible. And yet, for the sake of a narrow point, you are ready, if the need arises, to embark on a war which must be bloody and long, which must stir the deeps of bitterness, and which in all likelihood will achieve nothing. Are you entirely resolved?”
Lincoln’s sad eyes rested on the other. “I am entirely resolved. I have been set here to decide for the people according to the best of my talents, and the Almighty has shown me no other road.”
Based on this conversation Seward should have recognized Lincoln as a megalomaniac with homicidal psychotic tendencies and taken the appropriate medical and legal steps to save the country. But Buchan has Seward due the improbable.
Seward held out his hand.
“Then, by God, you must be right. You are the bravest man in this land, sir, and I will follow you to the other side of perdition.”
The Path of the King closes with an Epilogue of wonderfully written haigraphy (pardon the length of this passage).
Mr. Francis Hamilton, an honorary attache of the British Embassy, stood on the steps of the Capitol watching the procession which bore the President’s body from the White House to lie in state in the great Rotunda. He was a young man of some thirty summers, who after a distinguished Oxford career was preparing himself with a certain solemnity for the House of Commons. He sought to be an authority on Foreign affairs, and with this aim was making a tour among the legations. Two years before he had come to Washington, intending to remain for six months, and somewhat to his own surprise had stayed on, declining to follow his kinsman Lord Lyons to Constantinople. Himself a staunch follower of Mr. Disraeli, and an abhorrer of Whiggery in all its forms, he yet found in America’s struggle that which appealed both to his brain and his heart. He was a believer, he told himself, in the Great State and an opponent of parochialism; so, unlike most of his friends at home, his sympathies were engaged for the Union. Moreover he seemed to detect in the protagonists a Roman simplicity pleasing to a good classic.
Mr. Hamilton was sombrely but fashionably dressed and wore a gold eyeglass on a black ribbon, because he fancied that a monocle adroitly used was a formidable weapon in debate. He had neat small sidewhiskers, and a pleasant observant eye. With him were young Major Endicott from Boston and the eminent Mr. Russell Lowell, who, as Longfellow’s successor in the Smith Professorship and one of the editors of The North American Review, was a great figure in cultivated circles. Both were acquaintances made by Mr. Hamilton on a recent visit to Harvard. He found it agreeable to have a few friends with whom he could have scholarly talk.
The three watched the procession winding through the mourning streets. Every house was draped in funeral black, the passing bell tolled from every church, and the minute-guns boomed at the City Hall and on Capitol Hill. Mr. Hamilton regarded the cortege at first with a critical eye. The events of the past week had wrought in him a great expectation, which he feared would be disappointed. It needed a long tradition to do fitting honour to the man who had gone. Had America such a tradition? he asked himself…. The coloured troops marching at the head of the line pleased him. That was a happy thought. He liked, too, the business-like cavalry and infantry, and the battered field-pieces…. He saw his Chief among the foreign Ministers, bearing a face of portentous solemnity…. But he liked best the Illinois and Kentucky delegates; he thought the dead President would have liked them too.
Major Endicott was pointing out the chief figures. “There’s Grant… and Stanton, looking more cantankerous than ever. They say he’s brokenhearted.” But Mr. Hamilton had no eye for celebrities. He was thinking rather of those plain mourners from the west, and of the poorest house in Washington decked with black. This is a true national sorrow, he thought. He had been brought up as a boy from Eton to see Wellington’s funeral, and the sight had not impressed him like this. For the recent months had awakened odd emotions in his orderly and somewhat cynical soul. He had discovered a hero.
The three bared their heads as the long line filed by. Mr. Lowell said nothing. Now and then he pulled at his moustaches as if to hide some emotion which clamoured for expression. The mourners passed into the Capitol, while the bells still tolled and the guns boomed. The cavalry escort formed up on guard; from below came the sound of sharp commands.
Mr. Hamilton was shaken out of the admirable detachment which he had cultivated. He wanted to sit down and sob like a child. Some brightness had died in the air, some great thing had gone for ever from the world and left it empty. He found himself regarding the brilliant career which he had planned for himself with a sudden disfavour. It was only second-rate after all, that glittering old world of courts and legislatures and embassies. For a moment he had had a glimpse of the firstrate, and it had shivered his pretty palaces. He wanted now something which he did not think he would find again.
The three turned to leave, and at last Mr. Lowell spoke.
“There goes,” he said, “the first American!”
Mr. Hamilton heard the words as he was brushing delicately with his sleeve a slight berufflement of his silk hat.
“I dare say you are right, Professor,” he said. “But I think it is also the last of the Kings.”
Why would this member of the British aristocracy (1st Baron Tweedsmuir) write this paean to the epitome of the common man? A commoner at least in terms of the mythology of the United States, the country who at that moment was surpassing Buchan’s beloved British Empire as the premier world power. [As an aside, a correspondent has corrected me that Buchan was born and raised in Scotland and self-identified as Scottish.]
In his 1940 autobiography Memory Hold the Door [called Pilgrim’s Way in the US] Buchan said,
The desire to recover the sense of continuity, which had brought me to Elsfield, prompted my first serious piece of fiction. It was called The Path of the King, and was based on the notion that no man knows his ancestry, and that kingly blood may lie dormant for centuries until the appointed time. The chapters began with a Viking’s son lost in a raid, and ended audaciously with Abraham Lincoln.
I believe more relevant to understanding the motivation for The Path of the King can be found in his personal history, in particular through his education at Oxford and his sojourn in South Africa (1901-03). As Carroll Quigley has explained in Tragedy and Hope, it was at Oxford under John Ruskin that a new imperialism was conceived, “the chief changes were that it was justified on grounds of moral duty and of social reform and not, as earlier, on grounds of missionary activity and material advantage.” And through his Oxford contacts he was invited to South Africa to serve as a secretary to the High Commissioner, Alfred Milner. In fact he was a member of Milner’s Kindergarten. Buchan’s description of Milner’s project in South Africa and his own role there is starry-eyed to say the least. “My first job was to take over on behalf of the civilian government the concentration camps [during the Boer War] for women and children established by the army. These at the start, in spite of the best intentions, were no better than lazar-houses [leper colonies], for to bring into close contact people accustomed to living far apart was to invite epidemics. When we took charge the worst was over, and in our period of administration we turned them into health resorts, with the assistance of officers seconded from the Indian Medical service and a committee of English ladies under Dame Millicent Fawcett.”
Buchan further explains very well his role in the grand world government project that was later described by Quigley.
I learned a good deal in South Africa, and the chief lesson was that I had still much to learn about the material world and about human nature. I was given a glimpse into many fascinating tracts of experience which I longed to explore. I discovered that there was a fine practical wisdom which owed nothing to books and academies. My taste in letters was winnowed and purged, for the spirit of the veld is an austere thing. I learned to be at home in societies utterly alien to my own kind of upbringing.
Above all I ceased to be an individualist and became a citizen. I acquired a political faith. Those were the days when a vision of what the Empire might be made dawned upon certain minds with almost the force of a revelation. To-day the word is sadly tarnished. Its mislikers have managed to identify it with uglinesses like corrugated-iron roofs and raw townships, or, worse still, with a callous racial arrogance. Its dreams, once so bright, have been so pawed by unctuous hands that their glory has departed. Phrases which held a world of idealism and poetry have been spoilt by their use in bad verse and in after-dinner perorations. Even that which is generally accepted has become a platitude. Something like the sober, merchandising Jacobean colonial policy has replaced the high Elizabethan dreams. But in those days things were different. It was an inspiration for youth to realise the magnitude of its material heritage, and to think how it might be turned to spiritual issues. Milner, like most imperialists of that day, believed in imperial federation. So did I at the start; but before I left South Africa I had come to distrust any large scheme of formal organisation. I had begun to accept the doctrine which Sir Wilfrid Laurier was later to expound; that the Dominions were not ready for such a union and must be allowed full freedom to follow their own destinies. But on the main question I was more than a convert, I was a fanatic.
I dreamed of a world-wide brotherhood with the background of a common race and creed, consecrated to the service of peace; Britain enriching the rest out of her culture and traditions, and the spirit of the Dominions like a strong wind freshening the stuffiness of the old lands. I saw in the Empire a means of giving to the congested masses at home open country instead of a blind alley. I saw hope for a new afflatus in art and literature and thought. Our creed was not based on antagonism to any other people. It was humanitarian and international; we believed that we were laying the basis of a federation of the world. As for the native races under our rule, we had a high conscientiousness; Milner and Rhodes had a far-sighted native policy. The “white man’s burden” is now an almost meaningless phrase; then it involved a new philosophy of politics, and an ethical standard, serious and surely not ignoble.
The result was that my notion of a career was radically changed. I thought no more of being a dignified judge with a taste for letters, or a figure in British politics. I wanted some administrative task, some share in the making of this splendid commonwealth. I hoped to spend most of my life out of Britain. I had no desire to be a pro-consul or any kind of grandee. I would have been content with any job however thankless, in any quarter however remote, if I had a chance of making a corner of the desert blossom and the solitary place glad.
Hidden History: The Se... Best Price: $17.85 Buy New $20.84 (as of 10:05 EST - Details) I have also read Hidden History by Gerry Docherty and Jim MacGregor. In that book they have made a strong case that it was Milner and his clique, called the secret elite by Docherty and MacGregor, who were the true instigators of the great tragedy of WWI. There is much I really admire about Buchan, but I don’t know if he was in the inner circle of the secret elite who were in the know.
In a follow up question session to the WWI Conspiracy documentary by James Corbett that is based largely on Hidden History, it was posed “What did the Rhodes/Milner secret society actually gain from the First World War?” Corbett provides a very nuanced response, one aspect being the entrance of the United States into the war.
I will pose a hypothesis in answer to the question I posed previously on why would Buchan write a book like The Path of the King. As Corbett alludes, making the United States central to an Anglo/American order was always a key goal (e.g., Rhode’s Scholarships to Oxford), so to the highly intelligent secret elite the writing was on the wall for the British Empire after WWI such that the future of their world project lied west with the US. So this preposterous, but artfully produced and entertaining story, makes sense as a piece of propaganda to make the British and American peoples emotionally feel they are involved in a common project. Whether you called The Path of the King art or propaganda, I would say that Buchan was an expert in the art of propaganda.