« AnteriorContinuar »
Gentlemen of the Athenian Society :
The political excitement which prevails through our country at the present moment, naturally leads us to think of the ground on which our Government stands ; of the source and soul of its strength ; of the influence that we all exert upon it; and of the principles which should guide us in using our influence.
In travelling through these wild hills of yours, what shall prevent the first strong man that meets me from taking all I have ? Your laws? Your Government? If you tell me it is these, I ask wherein is their strength? Not in their external physical power; for we have scarce any police, and no military power. Not in a dead spirit of obedience, which destroys free action; for that is unknown in our land. Is it not, simply, in the character of our people? In their intelligence, public spirit, and virtue? We know that in many lands where a very strict police is supported, robberies are constant; while here, without such external guards, we are comparatively safe; and why? Because we have an internal guard inore mighty than all the legions of Napoleon-honesty in the mass of the people. Destroy that, and where is your security for property or person? Where your bulwark against the American reign of Terror? We live, breathe, do our business, and take our pleasure, with no more massive and firm footing dividing us from utter anarchy and madness, than the invisible and intangible Honesty of our people. This is the ground whereon our institutions rest, and free institutions can rest on no other, as all experience has fully shown. This is the source and soul of whatever strength our laws possess, and once let the honesty of our people oppose a law and it is powerless. Such is the nature of our Democracy: as the character of our people is, such will our Government be.
In order then to influence our Government, we have only to influence the character of our people. We need not be politicians
and statesmen; we may be schoolmasters and farmers, and still influence our Government; influence it more than most politicians, than any save the truly great among State leaders. He who works moral changes among a people, works political changes of the most mighty character. In truth, political change is but a symptom of a moral change in society; and the statesman himself is forced to work by moral means, his peculiarity being his vast power of action through governmental influence. A great writer, a great religious reformer, plays with the mere politicians of his age as puppets; they express the feelings of the people or court; he calls those feelings into being.
These views, my friends, are not theoretical; if true, they teach us that it is an error to suppose we must join the band of political actors in order to act politically. We all act politically; in our talk, writing, and daily life. He who corrupts a young man injures his country, and is a traitor; he who reforms a young man is a patriot, and may save his country. Hampden when young was in bad ways, and those whose influence withdrew him, did England a service that man’s intelligence cannot measure.
Nay, we cannot but act politically, even if we do not wish to. The sensualist, the fop, or the idler acts upon society, somewhat as a decayed apple does upon a heap, diffusing decay about him, and his influence is felt, and felt politically. One such man in a small town, though he never names politics, may prove of immense political, because of immense moral, harm. Thus, by encouraging idleness, he may keep so many from the polls as to decide an election.
It becomes our duty, therefore, as we all act upon the Government, to act knowingly and not ignorantly; to acquaint ourselves with principles of action; to acquire ideas by which to guide ourselves. And these must be, not alone the principles of Constitutional law, but those which lie deeper, and are far more enduring. They must be principles of universal application, arising from man's nature, and not the form of Government under which he lives: such principles as our fathers held no less in 1770 than in 1790; which, indeed, wrought all the mighty changes of those twenty years.
To point out these principles to you, my friends, is not my purpose; nothing but the crown of grey hairs can authorise any one in so bold an act. My wish is to suggest, by example, the process through which our minds are led to such ideas as those I speak of ; to cause you to think for yourselves; to wake your minds into action, even if it be into opposition.
Our purpose, you will remember, is to find such principles of action as will enable us most beneficially to affect the character of our people, and thence the character of our Government. Now, one great determining influence upon the character of a nation is, what may be called the Principle of its Civilization, and my purpose this evening is to enquire into the faults and wants of these United States in respect to the central principle of their civilization.
But, in the first place, a few words with regard to the looking for faults and wants in ourselves. It is a process too little resorted to; while the opposite habit of praising our age, our country, and our Anglo-Saxon race, is far too common. Gross self-flattery is the meanest of all meannesses, and the weakest of all weaknesses.And if it be flattery of the People and not of ourselves, then do we come under the ban which applies to all who delude sovereigns to their ruin. The favorites of despots, whose well-oiled tongues never tired of singing their masters' praises, were hateful enough, but they were guiltless and praiseworthy compared with American demagogues.
And our habits of self-praise are kept in countenance by the indisposition we all have to realize that as great changes lie before us as behind us; in other words, we lack faith in Progress. Even in science and practical art, in which such miraculous advances have been made within our own memory, we lack faith; we feel as if the end had at last been reached; the final step taken, and nothing more could be done; we feel all this, though we may not think it; and yet, in all probability, we are comparatively in the dark ages of practical art even now. Nay, more than one art practised in Egypt three thousand years ago, we are in our day ignorant of.
There are those living among us who can remember the time when James Watt first made steam an available power; many can recollect its first use in navigation; its application to locomotive engines those of us who are young may speak of as an event of our day: while the child of seven years old can recal the commencement of steam navigation on the Atlantic: and is it credible that in a