Men of Mark in America/Volume 1/American Ideals

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AMERICAN IDEALS


After the first settlements of the American colonies it was natural that the fathers should look to Europe, and especially to England, for their examples and inspirations. The illustrations in physical matters are curious, sometimes amusing. When the comfortably rich gentlemen of Boston wanted to plant trees on their Common which they had reserved to feed their cows upon and for a training field, they sent for English elms to England and planted them. Since that day Michaux has pronounced the American elm to be the monarch of the vegetable world, as it is. But as Mr. Everett says, "Our fathers were Englishmen," and it never occurred to them that they could make a perfect avenue, like the nave of a cathedral, of the trees which they could bring from Muddy Brook, within two miles of their Common.

Here was the same notion which had tempted poor Winthrop to ask that men with halberds might go before him when he went to the General Court. In that case the people showed that they were already breathing American air, by refusing to vote him the halberds. It is in just the same way that for the older public buildings of the United States, marbles were imported from Europe; and it was only in the last half of the nineteenth century that we found we had for most purposes better marbles at home.

In precisely the same spirit every other novelty here had to begin with European patrons. And that is a distinct step forward and upward which is observed when we begin to do things in our own way. A good instance is the advertisement of a Connecticut pin maker who used to put up his pins with the inscription that described him as "pin maker to the universe" where his English rival called himself "pin maker to the Prince Regent." In government the distinction between the feudal system asserts itself in some curious detail as well as in the largest administration. For instance, to a very recent period the English government forbade the people of certain districts in Ireland to have fire-arms in their houses without a license from headquarters.

On the other hand, in the democratic government of most of the English colonies, every citizen was required by law from the first to have a gun, flints and bullets, or in the earlier days, match for matchlocks. In the old theory of government the ruling class supposed that it could forbid the teaching of reading and writing to such and such persons. In a democratic government, on the other hand, education in all elementary branches is compulsory.

I shall not travel far from my subject if I remind the reader that it was well-nigh a hundred years after the first emigration from Europe before the new Americans found out how essentially different is the American climate from that of England or from that of western Europe. The first adventures after Columbus's discovery were in regions nearly tropical. And when Virginia was settled, even when the Pilgrims arrived in New England, the settlers had the impression that they had come into a region much warmer than they had left behind. Its summers were warmer. They took the natural impression that the climate of the world virtually follows the lines of the tropics and the parallels of latitude. What we now know of climate and of meteorology has been the slow discovery of two hundred years.

The ignorance in America of the climate in which men and women were living appears in various ways. Years of habits and customs of the new people had to modify themselves in changes from those of England. Food changed, dress changed, and even language changed. New words were added to the English language as the new requisitions suggested. They were borrowed from the Spanish, the French, or Indian languages, as might happen. There are many instances in the diaries and letters of the first generation in New England which show the surprise of the writers that they found themselves drinking the water of the brooks while their brothers in England were drinking beer. Ultimately the use of beer as a familiar beverage died out in New England and its use there now comes not from English habits, but from those of Germany.

It is to be observed again that the Thirteen Colonies which made the United States of America were practically republics from the very beginning. There were certain English formalities in legislation or in the appointment of officers. But these were independent republics before the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, that Declaration declares what was already existing, and virtually speaks of the existing condition of affairs as resting upon rights which they had always asserted.

In 1675 the New England colonists were at war with King Philip and the Indians, actually for their existence. The real question was whether the Indians should sweep them into the sea or not. The forces were about equal. After it was over some of their friends in England asked them why they did not appeal to England for assistance. The reply showed very distinctly that they regarded themselves as an independent state. The colony of Massachusetts would not have applied to England for powder or bullets, far less for troops, any more than it would have applied to France or to Spain. It was with the greatest reluctance, indeed, that they received a governor from England at the end of that century. They took care to show him that he was their servant, and not their master. When Lord Bellomont was attending on a sermon preached before the General Court of Massachusetts, he said to Lady Bellomont, "You must remember, my dear, that these gentlemen give us our bread." This was seventy-five years before the Revolution; and that was, indeed, the position of the royal governor—that he must consider first his dependence upon the people and make his dependence upon the king fall in with it if he could.

Such are a few of the conditions, perhaps the most important, which made in two hundred years an absolute distinction between Americans and Europeans, between American habits and European habits, between American government and European government, between the commercial customs and methods of one continent and those of the other.

Under the feudal system which obtained in Europe, the king, or emperor, or other sovereign, had certain relations with the nobility which were definitely understood. They constituted the basis of legislation, of ceremony, and of domestic life. Similar conditions existed in the intercourse between these noblemen and the next class, which in England was the class of land holders who held under their noblemen and as superior to vassals, not to say serfs. The distinction between four and five and six classes was as much established at law as is the distinction between the captain of a ship and a seaman before the mast. It was no mere matter of title—duke, marquis, baron, baronet, sir, Mr., goodman—the people in one of those classes had certain rights, so-called, which the people in "lower classes" did not have.

All this fell off and went to the winds as soon as the duties and necessities of the new settlement called upon all the settlers. If they were attacked by Indians in a frontier village, everybody had to join in the defense. Everybody must have a gun; he must have so much powder and so many yards of match and everybody must turn out at a moment's notice. This condition still exists virtually. Each State may and does call upon every man now to serve in the militia and when occasionally the national government chooses, it calls upon every man between the ages of eighteen and forty-five to go into service under a conscription. The reader of these lines does not perhaps know it, but if he shall be in the street when a house is on fire, the officer in charge of extinguishing the fire may order the reader to take a leading hose into an attic or to carry up the ladder to the roof tree—to do any duty connected with it, and the reader will have to obey. The writers bred in feudal countries furnish about half of our daily literature. Such men and women do not know the real basis of half our institutions. But more than half of those institutions are based upon these necessities of early times. The people who settled Virginia or Massachusetts or New Hampshire, from the very nature of the case, had to work together. If they built a meeting house, all of them had to join in framing it, in raising the frame, in shingling it, and in making the highway which led to it. All of them joined in. When there came a herd or school of whales, all the neighbors had to turn out for their store of oil, and did. So it came of course, one does not say it happened—it came of course—that when the people who had built that meeting house had to name the minister who should conduct its services, they all of them voted in that matter; and though it were not of course, it did fall out that when fifty or sixty of them built a ship and went to sea to hunt whales "in both oceans," all of the people who assisted in this enterprise were considered, whether in its profits or in its failures—each man had his "lay"—the captain more, the cook least, but they acted together. What followed was that the boy who served as scullion when he was ten years old, might be the captain in a ship when he was thirty. Scullion or captain, he was part of the concern, a differential, the mathematicians would say, but a differential from which you could calculate an infinite orbit.

Many other things followed which were utterly un-European. There had to be a lighthouse built, perhaps at the opening of Boston Harbor, perhaps on the highlands of Staten Island, perhaps at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, or at the top finger nail of the arm of Cape Cod. In England, in Denmark, or on the Rhine, such a lighthouse would have been built by the feudal lord who owned the headland. He would have exacted toll from everybody who passed and what was worse, he would have collected it. In America, on the other hand, from the very beginning, the People built the lighthouse, provided the lamps, took care of the lighthouse from hour to hour. The poorest lad of eighteen who paid his tax into the town treasury had his share in maintaining the commerce of the state and of the nation, and to this day it is so. In Europe, almost to our day, the profits of the Post Office were paid to whatever favorite of power had received the Post Office Patent, Heaven knows when, which permitted him to carry the mails and collect the postage—Thurn and Taxes, for instance. A similar monopoly of salt was one of the plums which Charles Second or James Second could drop into the mouth of a sweetheart or other flatterer. In America, on the other hand, from the beginning, the people had understood that the benefits of the mail accrue to the People and that the People must pay the charges of the mail though this charge be more or less, whether the receipts for the mail are greater than the charges or no.

This all means universal suffrage. It would be hard to find who first introduced universal suffrage into the written constitutions of America. But it does not appear in direct statement very early. It may be doubted if a tenth part of the members of the Continental Congress, for instance, had looked squarely in the face the question whether the ballot should be given to every man who paid a tax, as it is given now.

But the theory of universal suffrage was in the air. You could not make every man serve in your train bands and die by a bullet from King Philip, and then say that if he escaped he should not share in the government which ordered him hither and thither. In the New England States, in the Revolution, there was no universal suffrage, but every man in the valley of the Connecticut River had to carry his gun in the levy which went out against Burgoyne, unless he were more than fifty-five years old. When these men came home you could not long tell them that they had no right to the ballot. And from those early days down the disposition has appeared everywhere to give the ballot to everyone who could carry arms.

The monarchical writers and, indeed, the theorists of whatever kind, are very bitter about this. Such people as Mr. Matthew Arnold and Mr. Thomas Carlyle ridicule it. The old Dutch Governor in Irving's Knickerbocker said he would not give his watch to be mended by a shoemaker; and asked why he should give the much more intricate machinery of the state into the same hands. In an insidious way, the Middle Age writers, who may be numbered by the thousands to-day, talk about the government of the best being better than the government of the people. But universal suffrage among the People who trust to it does not pretend to a knowledge of the last sweet patents in the science of administration.

What universal suffrage proposes is, first, Peace among the people; and this it secures. At the end of an election, be it in the City of New York, or be it anywhere among the forty-five States, the defeated party knows that it is defeated by a majority of the strength of the country. There is therefore no temptation to rebellion, there is no rising of the minority in arms. On the other hand, the beaten party may begin as soon as the votes are counted, on its canvass for the next year, and it probably does. When in the autumn of 1903 the existing government of the City of New York was badly defeated by the party which is called Tammany, its leaders all began to consider what they should do and what they should say two years afterward. This is what happens, and happens always, if you give the election into the hands of all the men who can bear arms. If any party is outnumbered it knows it is.

Second, If you intrust to universal suffrage the ultimate direction in an ultimate appeal, as all civilized America has done, you intrust yourself, of course, to the impression at the moment of the average man. You have no right to expect the best men in a nation to be at the head of its administration. The chances are undoubtedly that for the high offices of this administration, you will get men who are largely known and well esteemed. It is impossible to elect to high office men absolutely profligate—a bandit, or a thief, or a drunkard. It is to be observed that among very illiterate people the moral sentiment has the sway which is promised to it in the religious Scripture of all nations. The drunkards and villains in the highest gallery in a cheap theater, men who are going to live tomorrow by thieving, in profligacy, will all the same applaud the sentiments of virtue which they hear upon the stage. Strangely enough they want other people to be good though they do not care to be good themselves. The angel who presides over such tests of the most obnoxious people does his very best to secure the triumphs of universal suffrage.

The celebrated epigram of President Lincoln, that you can fool all the people part of the time and a part of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time, is one of the axioms of government upon which rests the successes of universal suffrage.

Lincoln said in his first Message, "There are many single regiments (in the army) whose members, one and another possess full practical knowledge of all the arts, sciences, professions, and whatever else, whether useful or elegant, is known in the world; and there is scarcely one from which there could not be selected a President, a Cabinet, a Congress, and perhaps a Court, competent to administer the government itself. Nor do I say this is not true also in the army of our late friends, now adversaries in this contest."

The statement was received by the Middle Ages and the men who represent them as absurd—as a piece of American bluster. It was absolutely true and those of us who lived through 1861 know that it was true. Take the matter of money. A New York regiment on the Potomac had not been paid for two or three months. A private called on the colonel, touched his hat and offered his personal check that the men might be paid, saying that he could well wait till the convenience of the Government should refund the money to him. Such stories are not often told today, simply because there were so many of them to tell.

In the classification of men today, the dainty Feudal critics are in the habit of speaking of the masses, as they call them, as if they were people who know nothing and follow like a Roman rabble on the heels of any Cæsar. The truth is that in all those states which are advancing the civilization of the world, the proportion of drudges to workmen is as four to ninety-six. We use “workman” in the proper sense, in which a workman is one who uses spirit to control matter, and a laborer is one who has nothing but his muscle and his weight to use in his daily duty. Ninety-six per cent of the American people who are doing the work of the world are people who are working with their hearts and souls and brains. The little handful who are left is but the merest fraction of that community which provides the intelligence, the wisdom, the foresight needed in an election.

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The Americanism of the new century has to recognize the special features which have made America America.

First, Freedom. That a man may do what he chooses without the permission of anybody so long as he violates no similar right of another.

If I choose to make a carriage today, tomorrow and the next day, I may make the carriage. In England which is still a feudal country, I cannot make it unless I belong to the Honorable Company of Wheelwrights. If in America I choose to change my home tonight and go to live in Cattaraugus or Opelousas or Seattle, I may do so. I may stay in one of those places till I die if I do not violate law. If, on the other hand, I went to the City of Göttingen to reside, I should receive a visit from the police officer within the first twenty-four hours. I should have to give bonds of some sort to justify him in giving me permission to stay there; and the authorities of the town could turn me out at any moment when they chose without giving me any trial. If I choose to lecture, whether to prove the ignorance of Isaac Newton or to justify the religious faith of the Zulus, while I am in America, I can do so. In all feudal countries I must take my chances of being “permitted” by the authorities. Such instances may be carried on indefinitely. True, I may not beat a bass drum on the sidewalk in front of my house on Sunday, nor on the steps of a church, but this is because I thus interfere with other people. Any violation of such freedom is not American. When you see that the boys in an industrial school are not permitted by the Bricklayers' Trades Union to build a certain wall, you know that that prohibition does not come from people who have been educated as Americans.

Second, This means universal education. The feudal nations instruct people in the Three R's, reading, writing and arithmetic. The American states educate all the people, boys and girls, in the thought and language of the time. That is, they offer to do so, and if a boy or girl will accept the offer he or she is educated. If he is "diligent in his business, he will stand before kings," and the chances are good that he will know more of what they ought to be talking about than the kings do.

Third, True Americanism means a very close walk with God, nearer and nearer. This was what the American People began very early when they gave entire freedom of religion to every citizen.

Fourth, True Americanism means of necessity a certain universality, sometimes called Catholicity, as a man assumes duties or privileges. The planter George Washington or the blacksmith Nathanael Greene takes the command of armies. Abraham Lincoln becomes the President, the portrait painter Robert Fulton sends the Clermont up the North River.

Fifth, Because there is no favored class no one has greater rights because no one has less. The American School of manners, therefore, is a more perfect school of manners than can exist under feudal systems. Indeed, if one may take a fine definition from one of the older writers, a gentleman is one who on necessity abates something from his rights. In a true republic a gentleman is not afraid to do so. Some things follow which the feudal writers do not think of.

Sixth, The history of the country from Jamestown down, means mutual life or common life. As the Bible says, "The carpenter encourageth the goldsmith, and he that smootheth with the hammer him that smiteth the anvil." As D'Artagnan and the motto of the Swiss Republic say, all Americans say, "Each for all and all for each." As far back as the older Earls of Southampton their crest was "Ung par tout, tout par ung." But alas! a statement so democratic has died out in the country of its birth. Every obtrusive color distinctly fades out in presence of the union of states, the union of the people, and the communion of religions. There is no aristocracy of wealth, of education, or birth. All the same, the leaders lead; all the same, every man and every woman is encouraged by the "mutual faith of you and me."

It is hardly necessary to add to these general considerations references to the individual men who in what are now nearly three centuries have illustrated what may be called the American Ideal. To say that George Washington at the age of twenty-one could "give points," as modern slang would say, as to American warfare to martinets twice his age trained in Europe—this is sufficient illustration of the worth of American biography. Even in the letters of the Winthrops of the first two generations, in the letters and other publications of Roger Williams, Jonathan Edwards, Ezra Stiles, before the Revolution, the reader sees how much wider was the view of life which they took than was possible to Englishmen who knew no more of life than their own island could show them. So soon as the Revolutionary literature opens upon us we find that the papers on statesmanship or government written by such men as John Dickinson, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Morris, Thomas Jefferson, and a little later, Gouverneur Morris, Timothy Pickering, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Tom Paine show characteristics not to be found till their time in American literature. It is said that when the word independence was first uttered in an American town meeting, the children who were present did not know the meaning of the word. Its earliest use in the English language was the limited use which the "Independents" gave to it who were pleading for freedom of individual churches from any supposed superior direction. But so soon as the Revolutionary literature took form, it is clear enough that the writers had got well beyond any European frontier. This is to be noticed even in the writings of Paine, who enlarged his horizon when he changed the heaven which was over his head.

We are to study the lives of those who belong to a new era in history. From their time to this time, the same thing is to be said. A certain breadth of view in matters of politics, of sociology, or of religion, characterizes the writings of the leading American authors which cannot be expected of writers trained in dissimilar schools. William Henry Furness, whose published work ranges between 1835 and 1895, says squarely that he has never known any man who was brought up under monarchical and hierarchical institutions who knew what Jesus Christ meant when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven.

In that epigram is revealed the necessity of our studying the lives of our authors as well as their work. There can be no true criticism of a great American which is not founded upon the knowledge of his work in daily life, whether it be in the diary of the frontiersman or in the elegant studies of the university.

Edward E. Hale.

 
 
 
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