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Some readers may inquire why the life of Ben Hardin should be written. If it be answered, because he was a great man, the question will, doubtless, be retorted, how, and in what? The chapters that follow must, mainly, answer that question. What men have accomplished, is ordinarily accepted as a measure of their genius and power. That success is an evidence of ability is true, but the limitation of a career by casual or trivial causes, by no means proves lack of merit. Hampdens and Cromwells by scores rest in the obscurity of country church-yards. If one, in a long career, evinces integrity in temptation, strength in trial, courage in difficulty and danger, fortitude in adversity and disaster; and if, to the accomplishment of every high duty, he brings indomitable will and great talents, such a one better earns the laurel of the immortals than the graceless adventurer who "rides through slaughter to a throne."
For a considerable period not far from the year 1820, there were four contemporaries from four different American States, whose names were household words throughout the western country. Between them were wide dissimilarities, and yet there were striking points of likeness between the characters of all.
They were strangely alike and
unlike. Almost everything that was odd, grotesque, humorous, witty, or sarcastic in the current thought of their day was attributed to one or other of these four. Their real or supposed utterances were everywhere accepted as the mintage of genius. To their slightest deliverances an admiring and partial public gave attentive ear. Between the backwoods Crockett, of Tennessee, and the polished Randolph, of Virginia, was a long step, but somewhere in the interval stood the exuberant Corwin, of Ohio, and the homely-witted
Hardin, of Kentucky. These four in their respective States were the exponents of certain phases of thought and sentiment, represented by no others. To define exactly what these ideas were would, indeed, be difficult. They were not only all ultra in their republicanism, but they were the antipodes of all that was pharisaical, hypocritical, or pretentious in politics or morals. While anything but partisan leaders, they had easy and constant access to the popular heart. Wrongheaded they might be, but their sincerity no one ever doubted. To this sincerity, a close sympathy with the interests and feelings of the great mass of the people, and an uncalculating devotion to whatever they believed to be right, supplemented by unusual talents, may be attributed the renown enjoyed by these men. Crockett was rude and uncouth, but honest and heroic. To the homely sense of the backwoodsman, he joined a spirit as brave and chivalrous as any that followed the banner of the Black Prince against the Infidel. Randolph was a political Ishmaelite. Erratic in everything save his principles, he defied all opposition and scorned all difficulty. With all his impracticability, he was the High Priest of constitutional liberty, sacrificing on its altar private interest and popular favor. Corwin was a genial man, overflowing in his sympathies-loving and beloved by the people among whom he dwelt. His wit and humor flowed in a perennial stream. Like the sun, it illuminated the National Capitol when statesmen were his auditors, and shone not less brightly for the inmates of the humble cabins of the Buckeye State. Crockett, Randolph, and Corwin have all found biographers. In these pages a like service is attempted for Mr. Hardin, under the belief that his name should be written high in the catalogue of notable Americans.
Various persons, at different times, have entertained the purpose of writing Mr. Hardin's life. Among others, the late Colonel Albert G. Hodges, long and favorably known in the State as editor of the Frankfort Commonwealth, made a collection of materials for a memoir, in which he had the aid of Mr. Hardin, but, unfortunately for the cause of literature, he postponed his work until overtaken by death. His collection has been lost-a loss that has not been and can not be supplied. Occasional writers have found in Mr. Hardin's life a rich
field of reminiscence which has not been exhausted by frequent gleanings, yet all attempts at a formal biography have, thus far, proved abortive. On the Christmas eve of 1884, as the author sat alone by a bright and cheerful coal-fire, in the small town where his youth had been spent, reflection was busy with the "sad vicissitude of things." Among other matters, it was recalled how many men of genius, talent, and virtue had risen, flourished, and passed away in Kentucky leaving no adequate monument or record to perpetuate their memory. Orators, statesmen, and heroes, not second to any that have adorned any age or country, with names worthy the brightest pages of history, were being forgotten in the State that held their dust. Somewhat illogically, a resentful feeling arose against Boston, for no better reason than because that city was continually calling the muster-roll of its great and worthy children in the hearing of the world. Why should these New Englanders, it was soliloquized, be thus perpetuated, while the memory of Kentucky's great sons hastens to that hopeless oblivion submerging the mound-builders? The sober second thought, however, acquitted the city of poets and philosophers, for, indeed, it was no more than faithful to its own offspring-the highest of maternal virtues. Moreover, it would be ungrateful not to acknowledge the debt which all Americans owe to that great fountain of American thought. What earthly reason, indeed, had Kentuckians for complaint? True they were not readywriters, nor adept in the arts of literature, but still they could, at least, take mallet and chisel in hand, like "Old Mortality," and freshen and carve again the fading names on tottering and mosscovered grave-stones.
As a sequel to this cogitation, the author, feeling his humble share of responsibility in the matter, resolved to essay something for the rescue and preservation of the memory of his dead countrymen. So it came that a subject was selected, and a circular letter devised and sent, with some misgivings, to many persons requesting information and material for this work, in which its principal subject was thus referred to: “I have selected Mr. Hardin, of all that galaxy of great men among whom he flourished, not because he was necessarily greatest, but
rather because his genius, more than that of any other, was indigenous to his age and its surroundings. He was the product of his time, imbued with its spirit, and in sympathy with its thought and sentiment. His career was a long and successful one. At its outset he became famous. Until the end-at the bar, on the 'stump,' in State and national councils-he extended, widened, and strengthened his early prestige. Always a mighty, intellectual force, he had the good fortune to impress himself and his characteristics on his day and generation as few have done.'
To this appeal a generous response was made-so generous as greatly to encourage the author in the prosecution of his announced. purpose. Nothing, it may be observed, has been discovered rendering it necessary to qualify this early, brief, and hasty estimate, but, on the other hand, everything learned of Mr. Hardin has tended to illustrate and confirm it.
How far the query of the reader first supposed may have been answered by what has just been said or by the contents of this volume will not be surmised, whatever hopes may be indulged. Not a little of American biography has been ancillary to political purposes, in which all the shaded lines of character have been studiously penciled out, and thereby a sort of moral emasculation effected. Such literature is objectionable, in that it makes its subjects monotonously great and gifted.
The present work will prove a marked contrast in this respect. The purpose has not been to write the life of a saint, or an impossible or improbable ideal, but rather faithfully to depict the manhood and character of one, who, with a full average of human infirmities, possessed great talents, which he faithfully devoted to his State and generation. To do this adequately, a sketch of his contemporaries and the events in which he and they bore part, was deemed necessary. To Mr. Hardin has been assigned the principal place in this portrayal, yet the noted men with whom he came in contact have had such brief justice done them as the exigency of the narrative would allow.
In justification of this plan it must be remembered that many of the events and personages alluded to are not familiar to the general
reader, and are not discussed elsewhere, or if at all but briefly, and in books not usually accessible. So digressions and details became necessary, which would not have been the case if Kentucky, and the South and West, had had more of a literature of their own.
No effort will here be made to avoid or placate criticism. The work is imperfect, and no one can realize it more keenly and regretfully than its author. Perhaps, one so little equipped for the task; one whom the commoner but tyrannical cares of life left such brief intervals for its performance, should not have undertaken it. Confessing all, however, it is only claimed that, with such opportunity, material, and talent as he possessed, he has labored earnestly and faithfully to add to the store of knowledge something that will please, instruct, inspire, and elevate.
The author makes his grateful acknowledgements for kindnesses from many friends in the preparation of this work. While the anticipation is pleasant that these may, to some extent, find realized whatever expectation may have been indulged, there were others whom he hoped to please, who, during its progress, have been summoned to their final account, and this reflection restrains and tempers the satisfaction he would otherwise experience at the end of his task.
OWENSBORO, Ky., May, 1887.
L. P. L.