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MISREPRESENTATIONS OF AMERICA.
BY J. W. WILLIAMS.
It is doubtless the fate of all countries to be misrepresented. The honest credulity of the old travellers, ignorant of science, led them into a thousand exaggerations concerning the physical characteristics of distant nations, by which a child of our times would scarcely be deceived for a moment. They saw, wondered, believed, (for belief, in rude times, is the child of wonder,) and narrated. Marco Polo, Sir John Mandeville, and others of that category, ran no danger of being dubbed, like poor Lucian, great scoffers at religion, because, like him, they could not see the hole in Syria, through which Deucalion's deluge retired into the earth, in all its original proportions. Their powers of vision were unlimited. But they were more prone to narrate than to enquire, and it is astonishing what an amount of very conscientious absurdity may in that manner be produced. The man who merely glances at the landscape as he skims over the roads or sails along the rivers of a country, ought to beware how he reasons about soil and productions. He would probably very much mislead a settler. Yet is this very traveller the most dogmatical and opinionated person in the universe. He trusts exactly those impressions which, in all the ordinary affairs of life, are sorutinised with jealousy, and seldom acted upon without revision, by men of shrewdness and experience. They form his premises
--false in fact, or so imperfectly apprehended as scarcely to exhibit one quality of truth; his results must of course be essentially false in doctrine. If he ever distrusts himself he is soon over-convinced by his own vehemency of assertion, as great liars are, by dint of repetition, compurgators to their own consciences. Such men, fresh from London and De Lolme, study no strange constitutions. If the institutions of a foreign country diverge from those of their own, by so much they set them down inferior. They pull out their guage and mark the difference. They carry the statutory standard in their pocket, and, like the inspector of weights and measures, will not hear an argument upon its correctness. It has the Tower stamp upon it, and that is enough for them.
America has had her share, and more than her share, of such supercilious visitants. Simple and unsuspecting as youth always is, in nations as well as in individuals, somewhat elated too, perchance, and vain with her recent acquisitions of the emblems of empire, with all the virtues and many of the weaknesses of a young heir just come to his estate, she received and welcomed them with open-hearted confidence and affection. She looked not for a spy upon the sanctity of her household gods in the stranger that sat within her gates. She scarce supposed that the hand of a clumsy servant, like the claws of the harpies, could utterly mar and defile the feast which honest hospitality had provided. She lacked, as she well knew, the diadem and the mitre, the sumptuousness of crown and crosier, and the dim aisle of the lofty cathedral. But she had patriotic hearts, (one above all whose very ashes are holy,)—a history which, though brief, was not altogether ignoble, since it comprised the annals of self-denying virtue and of that courage which knew how to vanquish the intensity of human passion by the loftiness of the human will. She boasted not of her faith, since her faith forbade it; but she sprang from the loins of pilgrims, whose graves are still green in the land, and for whose memories she brings an annual tribute of thanksgiving. Contented with her homely institutions, she determined to preserve them, because they were the firstlings of her heart, and endeared to her by the recollection of anxiety and danger. She valued them, moreover, as much in the light of reason as from the instinct of affection. They were, in her eyes, indispensable for the preservation of those principles on whose truth she had gaged her all. They were the leaden casket which concealed her jewel—the shrine which contained her god.
These were the peculiar possessions which a young nation had, and still has, to offer to the consideration of a stranger, whose desire to study for himself the polity of a distant country may lead him hither. In our own view, they offer something not altogether contemptible to a liberal and investigating spirit, coupled, though they may be, with little of the physical grandeur which feudality and superstition have borrowed from art to deck the bosom of Europe-little of the circumstance which royalty loves to dispense, and which loyalty is prone and proud to boast of-little of the grace and elegance which are the best offspring of privilege and wealth. With a confidence, sometimes, no doubt, almost arrogant, we overpraised (we could not over-value) our own institutions. We could not altogether appreciate our own defects. The tower which we aspired to build had its base on a site so lofty that its proportions were partially concealed—its head was already among the cloudscaput inter nubila condit. We had no eminence from which to overlook it. Yet might the grandeur of the design and the boldness of the execution have a little tempered the ridicule of critics whose taste had been formed on different models. They should not have forgotten that simplicity is the main element of beauty as well as of strength, and that the ornaments with which modern society is overlaid are not coeval with its structure, but superinduced as time or occasion produced or exhibited defects. When a nation is to be created and the fate of a long posterity to be settled, men breathe more freely after they have fixed its corner-stone upon some grand and comprehensive principle--to do this is no child's play at card-houses, as some of us have seen, and our forefathers have told us—it is the work of giants.
With us that principle was sought in the sovereignty of the people, as the source of power—in the empire of enlightened thought, expressed and recorded, as opposed to the fluctuating rule of force or prerogative, and in the dominion of laws emanating from the consent of the governed. Its enforcement and sanction are found in no romantic abstraction—neither in Plato, nor Harrington, nor Sidney-in no real example of ancient or modern democracy (so miscalled); not in the volatile flexibility of Athens; nor in the political stoicism of Rome, great only in the poor security of human virtue; nor in the stern rule of the laws of hate and fear and malignant jealousy which distinguished the Adriatic commonwealth, unnaturally strong in the still poorer security of human infirmity; nor yet in the turbulent liberty of the modern Free Towns—free only in their power to fight for the choice of a master, to part a livery, or espouse a faction, on scarcely more intelligible differences than the green or blue symbols of the champions and charioteers of the Byzantine circus; not in any nor in all these, nor in the polity of other cognate societies, but in the ethics of ex
perience, and the lessons of history, which teach that to reconcile the interest and the duty of men, to make the passions subservient to the reason, to reduce the evil principle to a subordinate instead of an antagonist power to the good-co-working instead of counterworking-is to solve the great problem in the philosophy of politics, and to establish a rule of dominion whose duration can only cease with the structure of our humanity.
It was, after all a great attempt, to which some deference and toleration were due-some research to learn its principles—some patience to await its progress. That petty wall over which Remus leaped in wanton insolence, grew in time to be a lofty rampart, under whose arches kings marched in sad procession. Had the gibe, however, passed unpunished, the very hands that helped to raise it might have leveled it in despair. This is the reason we defend our institutions. We will not have them depreciated in our own eyes. The sensitiveness at which Europeans affect to wonder, is not the result of their disdain, but of our own self-respect. When they record the homeliness of our manners, and ridicule our primitive and straitened homes—when, in a country just redeemed from the wilderness, they are disgusted at our rude fare and sordid pursuits affecting to find in the absence of old association a fruitful source of disorder and disloyalty; and when, speaking in authoritative language, they promulgate, in our own tongue, disparaging sentiments concerning our intellectual and religious condition, want of sensibility would indicate a fatal distrust of ourselves and of the wisdom of our ancestors. If (as they would intimate), for the sake of political institutions, all the social virtues and enjoyments—all the flower and perfume of life-all the dignity and ornament of public function—are to be destroyed: if to preserve the code