IT is a habit in these days to scorn popularity, and to measure successful leaders by their product, which may not be always exquisite. But popularity is a large gauge and a lively symbol; the popular leader is nothing less than the vicarious crowd, registering much that is essential and otherwise obscure in social history, hopes and joys and conflicts and aspirations which may be crude and transitory, but none the less are the stuff out of which the foundations of social life are made. At certain times and in certain places popularity becomes a highly dramatic mode of expression. One of the places, surely, is our own country; one of the times that middle period of our history when at last the great experiment in voicing the popular will was fairly launched. As the new century rolled into amplitude a chosen people moved forward; the surge into the wilderness brought strange new hopes companioned by antique memories and despairs; not an easy triumph took place, but an immense conflict of the human spirit. In this era of shattering change, many shrill or stentorian voices were lifted; orators appeared on every platform; with their babel arose an equal babel of print; perhaps there never was such a noisy chorus or so fervid a response. Words--the popular mind was intoxicated by words; speech might have provided liberation; sheer articulation apparently became a boon. A public which was not yet a civilization, which much less composed a society, might have been seeking a common legend or sign manual.
Out of that large and stirring confusion arose a few orphic figures: Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, possibly Hawthorne, and in another arena, Lincoln; but we shall be concerned with these only as they oddly mix with the multitude or clash with it, or cross the paths of our popular characters.