William Jackson Armstrong: The Power Behind the Throne and Other Works

Armstrong's handwritten manuscript "The Power behind the Throne," via Ohio Memory.
Armstrong’s handwritten manuscript “The Power behind the Throne,” via Ohio Memory.

The William Jackson Armstrong Manuscript Collection, new to Ohio Memory, contains the writings of William Jackson Armstrong. These papers were discovered in a box in the back corner of the Rare Book Room at the State Library of Ohio, and had been misidentified as papers of former State Librarian Charles B. Galbreath. Comparing the handwriting with some of Galbreath’s other papers proved this false, and on further investigation, the papers were discovered to have been written by William Jackson Armstrong, an historian and political activist who was friends with Galbreath and lived in Columbus at some point in his life.

"The Masses and the Millions" lecture by Armstrong, 1890. Courtesy of the Hathi Trust Digital Library.
“The Masses and the Millions” lecture by Armstrong, 1890. Courtesy of the Hathi Trust Digital Library.

Not much is known about Armstrong, but he lived from 1841-1913 and his writings show that he traveled across the United States giving speeches, usually at political events. This collection does not contain any of his known political speeches, but several of them are available online. This collection does contain “Power Behind the Throne,” which appears to be some sort of speech but does not focus on any one specific topic. In this speech, Armstrong covers his views on everything from the monarchy, politics, and income inequality to the nature of happiness and old age. He says that “Most men are failures. Ask any man in this audience who has reached the age of forty years what he thinks of himself; and if he tells you what he thinks, he will confess to you that he is a failure” and talks about how to reach “summum bonum,” or “the highest good.”

He also talks about political ideologies, saying, “If here in the United States he is a prohibitionist and drinks water he is in danger of the typhoid bacilli. If he is a Democrat and drinks something else, he is happy only when he drinks. If he is a Republican and imbibes milk from the cow instead of the city pump, he risks tuberculosis and a wasting of the tissues. If he is a socialist, like myself, and takes to the thin beverage of dreams, he is in danger of becoming a premature cherub while waiting for tonic effects.”

Among his papers were also manuscripts to chapters of his book Heroes of Defeat, a series of biographies about great leaders who failed in their ambitions. These manuscript chapters were written mainly on paper with the State Library of Ohio logo. These papers also included a preface to the book, written by Charles B. Galbreath, which can be found as part of this collection. Galbreath also wrote the preface to the book An Artist Historian, which was a biography Armstrong wrote of historian John Lord. The collection also includes letters written by Armstrong to Galbreath, which were found in the same box as the manuscripts, and additional correspondence between Galbreath and Armstrong courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. Although Armstrong is not a well-known figure, his strong personality and opinions have been preserved through his writing.

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Thank you to Elizabeth Allen for this week’s post! Elizabeth is a graduate student in the Kent State School of Library and Information Science who is completing her practicum with the State Library of Ohio.

We invite you to explore the William Jackson Armstrong Manuscript Collection on Ohio Memory! Ohio History Connection note: Our catalog identifies Armstrong as ” a former Inspector-General of U.S. Consulates abroad who was a lecturer on social reforms.”

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