Matthews, Brander, ed. (18521929). The Oxford Book of American Essays. 1914.
XXVI. Colonialism in the United States
Henry Cabot Lodge (1850 )
NOTHING1 is more interesting than to trace, through many years and almost endless wanderings and changes, the fortunes of an idea or habit of thought. The subject is a much-neglected one, even in these days of sweeping and minute investigation, because the inherent difficulties are so great, and the necessary data so multifarious, confused, and sometimes contradictory, that absolute proof and smooth presentation seem well-nigh impossible. Yet the ideas, the opinions, even the prejudices of men, impalpable and indefinite as they are, have at times a wonderful vitality and force and are not without meaning and importance when looked at with considerate eyes. The conditions under which they have been developed may change, or pass utterly away, while they, mere shadowy creations of the mind, will endure for generations. Long after the world to which it belonged has vanished, a habit of thought will live on, indelibly imprinted upon a race or nation, like the footprint of some extinct beast or bird upon a piece of stone. The solemn bigotry of the Spaniard is the fossil trace of the fierce struggle of eight hundred years with the Moors. The theory of the Lords day peculiar to the English race all over the world is the deeply branded sign of the brief reign of Puritanism. A certain fashion of thought prevailed half a century ago; another is popular to-day. There is a resemblance between the two, the existence of both is recognized, and both, without much consideration, are set down as sporadic and independent, which is by no means a safe conclusion. We have all heard of those rivers which are suddenly lost to sight in the bowels of the earth, and, coming as suddenly again to the surface, flow onward to the sea as before. Or the wandering stream may turn aside into fresh fields, and, with new shapes and colors, seem to have no connection with the waters of its source or with those which finally mingle with the ocean. Yet, despite the disappearances and the changes, it is always the same river. It is exactly so with some kinds of ideas and modes of thought,those that are wholly distinct from the countless host of opinions which perish utterly, and are forgotten in a few years, or which are still oftener the creatures of a day, or an hour, and die by myriads, like the short-lived insects whose course is run between sunrise and sunset.
The purpose of this essay is to discuss briefly certain opinions which belong to the more enduring class. They are sufficiently well known. When they are mentioned everyone will recognize them, and will admit their existence at the particular period to which they belong. The point which is overlooked is their connection and relationship.
They all have the same pedigree, a marked resemblance to each other, and they derive their descent from a common ancestor. My intention is merely to trace the pedigree and narrate the history of this numerous and interesting family of ideas and habits of thought. I have entitled them collectively Colonialism in the United States, a description which is perhaps more comprehensive than satisfactory or exact.
In the year of grace 1776, we published to the world our Declaration of Independence. Six years later, England assented to the separation. These are tolerably familiar facts. That we have been striving ever since to make that independence real and complete, and that the work is not yet entirely finished, are not, perhaps, equally obvious truisms. The hard fighting by which we severed our connection with the mother-country was in many ways the least difficult part of the work of building up a great and independent nation. The decision of the sword may be rude, but it is pretty sure to be speedy. Armed revolution is quick. A South American, in the exercise of his constitutional privileges, will rush into the street and declare a revolution in five minutes. A Frenchman will pull down one government to-day, and set up another to-morrow, besides giving new names to all the principal streets of Paris during the intervening night. We English-speaking people do not move quite so fast. We come more slowly to the boiling point; we are not fond of violent changes, and when we make them we consume a considerable time in the operation. Still, at the best, a revolution by force of arms is an affair of a few years. We broke with England in 1776, we had won our victory in 1782, and by the year 1789 we had a new national government fairly started.
But if we are slower than other people in the conduct of revolutions, owing largely to our love of dogged fighting and inability to recognize defeat, we are infinitely more deliberate than our neighbors in altering, or even modifying, our ideas and modes of thought. The slow mind and ingrained conservatism of the English race are the chief causes of their marvelous political and material success. After much obstinate fighting in the field, they have carried through the few revolutions which they have seen fit to engage in; but when they have undertaken to extend these revolutions to the domain of thought, there has arisen a spirit of stubborn and elusive resistance, which has seemed to set every effort, and even time itself, at defiance.
By the treaty of Paris our independence was acknowledged, and in name and theory was complete. We then entered upon the second stage in the conflict, that of ideas and opinions. True to our race and to our instincts, and with a wisdom which is one of the glories of our history, we carefully preserved the principles and forms of government and law, which traced an unbroken descent and growth from the days of the Saxon invasion. But while we kept so much that was of inestimable worth, we also retained, inevitably, of course, something which it would have been well for us to have shaken off together with the rule of George III. and the British Parliament. This was the colonial spirit in our modes of thought.
The word colonial is preferable to the more obvious word provincial, because the former is absolute, while the latter, by usage, has become in a great measure relative. We are very apt to call an opinion, a custom, or a neighbor provincial, because we do not like the person or thing in question; and in this way the true value of the word has of late been frittered away. Colonialism, moreover, has in this connection historical point and value, while provincialism is general and meaningless. Colonialism is also susceptible of accurate definition. A colony is an off-shoot from a parent stock, and its chief characteristic is dependence. In exact proportion as dependence lessens, the colony changes its nature and advances toward national existence. For a hundred and fifty years we were English colonies. Just before the revolution, in everything but the affairs of practical government, the precise point at which the break came, we were still colonies in the fullest sense of the term. Except in matters of food and drink, and of the wealth which we won from the soil and the ocean, we were in a state of complete material and intellectual dependence. Every luxury, and almost every manufactured article, came to us across the water. Our politics, except those which were purely local, were the politics of England, and so also were our foreign relations. Our books, our art, our authors, our commerce, were all English; and this was true of our colleges, our professions, our learning, our fashions, and our manners. There is no need here to go into the details which show the absolute supremacy of the colonial spirit and our entire intellectual dependence. When we sought to originate, we simply imitated. The conditions of our life could not be overcome.
The universal prevalence of the colonial spirit at that period is shown most strongly by one great exception, just as the flash of lightning makes us realize the intense darkness of a thunder-storm at night. In the midst of the provincial and barren waste of our intellectual existence in the eighteenth century there stands out in sharp relief the luminous genius of Franklin. It is true that Franklin was cosmopolitan in thought, that his name and fame and achievements in science and literature belonged to mankind; but he was all this because he was genuinely and intensely American. His audacity, his fertility, his adaptability, are all characteristic of America, and not of an English colony. He moved with an easy and assured step, with a poise and balance which nothing could shake, among the great men of the world; he stood before kings and princes and courtiers, unmoved and unawed. He was strongly averse to breaking with England; but when the war came he was the one man who could go forth and represent to Europe the new nationality without a touch of the colonist about him. He met them all, great ministers and great sovereigns, on a common ground, as if the colonies of yesterday had been an independent nation for generations. His autobiography is the corner-stone, the first great work of American literature. The plain, direct style, almost worthy of Swift, the homely, forcible language, the humor, the observation, the knowledge of men, the worldly philosophy of that remarkable book, are familiar to all; but its best and, considering its date, its most extraordinary quality is its perfect originality. It is American in feeling, without any taint of English colonialism. Look at Franklin in the midst of that excellent Pennsylvania community; compare him and his genius with his surroundings, and you get a better idea of what the colonial spirit was in America in those days, and how thoroughly men were saturated with it, than in any other way.
In general terms it may be said that, outside of politics and the still latent democratic tendencies, the entire intellectual life of the colonists was drawn from England, and that to the mother country they looked for everything pertaining to the domain of thought. The colonists in the eighteenth century had, in a word, a thoroughly and deeply rooted habit of mental dependence. The manner in which we have gradually shaken off this dependence, retaining of the past only that which is good, constitutes the history of the decline of the colonial spirit in the United States. As this spirit existed everywhere at the outset, and brooded over the whole realm of intellect, we can in most cases trace its history best in the recurring and successful revolts against it, which, breaking out now here, now there, have at last brought it so near to final extinction.
In 1789, after the seven years of disorder and demoralization which followed the close of the war, the United States government was established. Every visible political tie which bound us to England had been severed, and we were apparently entirely independent. But the shackles of the colonial spirit, which had been forging and welding for a century and a half, were still heavy upon us, and fettered all our mental action. The work of making our independence real and genuine was but half done, and the first struggle of the new national spirit with that of the colonial past was in the field of politics, and consumed twenty-five years before victory was finally obtained. We still felt that our fortunes were inextricably interwoven with those of Europe. We could not realize that what affected us nearly when we were a part of the British Empire no longer touched us as an independent nation. We can best understand how strong this feeling was by the effect which was produced here by the French revolution. That tremendous convulsion, it may be said, was necessarily felt everywhere; but one much greater might take place in Europe to-day without producing here anything at all resembling the excitement of 1790. We had already achieved far more than the French revolution ever accomplished. We had gone much farther on the democratic road than any other nation. Yet worthy men in the United States put on cockades and liberty caps, erected trees of liberty, called each other Citizen Brown and Citizen Smith, drank confusion to tyrants, and sang the wild songs Paris. All this was done in a country where every privilege and artificial distinction had been swept away, and where the government was the creation of the people themselves. These ravings and symshown in the hostility or indifference which was displayed toward his projects. The great cause of opposition to Hamiltons financial policy proceeded, undoubtedly, from state jealousy of the central government; but the resistance to his foreign policy arose from the colonial ignorance which could not understand the real purpose of neutrality, and which thought that Hamilton was simply and stupidly endeavoring to force us toward England as against France.
Washington, Hamilton, and John Adams, notwithstanding his New England prejudices, all did much while they were in power, as the heads of the Federalist party, to cherish and increase national self-respect, and thereby eradicate colonialism from our politics. The lull in Europe, after the fall of the Federalists, led to a truce in the contests over foreign affairs in the United States, but with the renewal of war the old conflict broke out. The years from 1806 to 1812 are among the least creditable in our history. The Federalists ceased to be a national party and the fierce reaction against the French revolution drove them into an unreasoning admiration of England. They looked to England for the salvation of civilized society. Their chief interest centered in English politics, and the resources of England formed the subject of their thoughts and studies, and furnished the theme of conversation at their dinner tables. It was just as bad on the other side. The Republicans still clung to their affection for France, notwithstanding the despotism of the empire. They regarded Napoleon with reverential awe, and shivered at the idea of plunging into hostilities with anyone. The foreign policy of Jefferson was that of a thorough colonist. He shrank with horror from war. He would have had us confine ourselves to agriculture, and to our flocks and herds, because our commerce, the commerce of a nation, was something with which other powers were likely to interfere. He wished us to exist in a state of complete commercial and industrial dependence, and allow England to carry for us and manufacture for us, as she did when we were colonies weighed down by the clauses of the navigation acts. His plans of resistance did not extend beyond the old colonial scheme of non-importation and non-intercourse agreements. Read the bitter debates in Congress of those years and you find them filled with nothing but the politics of other nations. All the talk is saturated with colonial feeling. Even the names of opprobrium which the hostile parties applied to each other were borrowed. The Republicans called the Federalists Tories and a British faction, while the Federalists retorted by stigmatizing their opponents as Jacobins. During those sorry years, however, the last in which our politics bore the colonial character, a new party was growing up, which may be called the national party, not as distinguished from the party of states rights, but as the opposition to colonial ideas. This new movement was headed and rendered illustrious by such men as Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, the brilliant group from South Carolina, comprising Calhoun, Langdon Cheves, and William Lowndes, and at a later period by Daniel Webster. Clay and the South Carolinians were the first to push forward the resistance to colonialism. Their policy was crude and ill-defined. They struck out blindly against the evil influence which, as they felt, was choking the current of national life, for they were convinced that, to be truly independent, the United States must fight somebody. Who that somebody should be was a secondary question. Of all the nations which had been kicking and cuffing us, England was, on the whole, the most arrogant, and offensive; and so the young nationalists dragged the country into the war of 1812. We were wonderfully successful at sea and at New Orleans, but in other respects this war was neither very prosperous nor very creditable, and the treaty of Ghent was absolutely silent as to the objects for which we had expressly declared war. Nevertheless, the real purpose of the war was gained, despite the silent and almost meaningless treaty which concluded it. We had proved to the world and to ourselves that we existed as a nation. We had demonstrated the fact that we had ceased to be colonies. We had torn up colonialism in our public affairs by the roots, and we had crushed out the colonial spirit in our politics. After the war of 1812 our politics might be good, bad, or indifferent, but they were our own politics, and not those of Europe. The wretched colonial spirit which had belittled and warped them for twenty-five years had perished utterly, and with the treaty of Ghent it was buried so deeply that not even its ghost has since then crossed our political pathway.
Besides being the field where the first battle with the colonial spirit was fought out, politics then offered almost the only intellectual interest of the country, outside of commerce, which was still largely dependent in character, and very different in its scope from the great mercantile combinations of to-day. Religious controversy was of the past, and except in New England, where the liberal revolt against Calvinism was in progress, there was no great interest in theological questions. When the Constitution went into operation the professions of law and medicine were in their infancy. There was no literature, no art, no science, none of the multifarious interests which now divide and absorb the intellectual energies of the community. In the quarter of a century which closed with the treaty of Ghent we can trace the development of the legal and medical professions, and their advance towards independence and originality. But in the literary efforts of the time we see the colonial spirit displayed more strongly than anywhere else, and in apparently undiminished vigor.
Our first literature was political, and sprang from the discussions incident to the adoption of the Constitution. It was, however, devoted to our own affairs, and aimed at the foundation of a nation, and was therefore fresh, vigorous, often learned, and thoroughly American in tone. Its masterpiece was the Federalist, which marks an era in the history of constitutional discussion, and which was the conception of the thoroughly national mind of Hamilton. After the new government was established, our political writings, like our politics, drifted back to provincialism of thought, and were absorbed in the affairs of Europe; but the first advance on the road to literary independence was made by the early literature of the Constitution.
It is to this period also, which covers the years from 1789 to 1815, that Washington Irving, the first of our great writers, belongs. This is not the place to enter into an analysis of Irvings genius, but it may be fairly said that while in feeling he was a thorough American, in literature he was a cosmopolitan. His easy style, the tinge of romance, and the mingling of the story-teller and the antiquarian remind us of his great contemporary, Walter Scott. In his quiet humor and gentle satire, we taste the flavor of Addison. In the charming legends with which he has consecrated the beauties of the Hudson River valley, and thrown over that beautiful region the warm light of his imagination, we find the genuine love of country and of home. In like manner we perceive his historical taste and his patriotism in the last work of his life, the biography of his great namesake. But he wrought as well with the romance of Spain and of England. He was too great to be colonial; he did not find enough food for his imagination in the America of that day to be thoroughly American. He stands apart, a notable gift from America to English literature, but not a type of American literature itself. He had imitators and friends, whom it has been the fashion to call a school, but he founded no school, and died as he had lived, alone. He broke through the narrow trammels of colonialism himself, but the colonial spirit hung just as heavily upon the feeble literature about him. In those years also came the first poem of William Cullen Bryant, the first American poem with the quality of life and which was native and not of imported origin.
In that same period too there flourished another literary man, who was far removed in every way from the brilliant editor of Diedrich Knickerbocker, but who illustrated by his struggle with colonialism the strength of that influence far better than Irving, who soared so easily above it. Noah Webster, poor, sturdy, independent, with a rude but surprising knowledge of philology, revolted in every nerve and fiber of his being against the enervating influence of the colonial past. The spirit of nationality had entered into his soul. He felt that the nation which he saw growing up about him was too great to take its orthography or its pronunciation blindly and obediently from the mother land. It was a new country and a new nation, and Webster determined that so far as in him lay it should have linguistic independence. It was an odd idea, but it came from his heart, and his national feeling found natural expression in the study of language, to which he devoted his life. He went into open rebellion against British tradition. He was snubbed, laughed at, and abused. He was regarded as little better than a madman to dare to set himself up against Johnson and his successors. But the hard-headed New Englander pressed on, and finally brought out his dictionary,a great work, which has fitly preserved his name. His knowledge was crude, his general theory mistaken; his system of changes has not stood the test of time, and was in itself contradictory; but the stubborn battle which he fought for literary independence and the hard blows he struck should never be forgotten, while the odds against which he contended and the opposition he aroused are admirable illustrations of the overpowering influence of the colonial spirit in our early literature.
What the state of our literature was, what the feelings of our few literary men apart from these few exceptions, and what the spirit with which Webster did battle, all come out in a few lines written by an English poet. We can see everything as by a sudden flash of light, and we do not need to look farther to understand the condition of American literature in the early years of the century. In the waste of barbarism called the United States, the only oasis discovered by the delicate sensibilities of Mr. Thomas Moore was in the society of Mr. Joseph Dennie, a clever editor and essayist, and his little circle of friends in Philadelphia. The lines commonly quoted in this connection are those in the epistle to Spencer, beginning,
Yet, yet, forgive me, O ye sacred few,
Whom late by Delewares green banks I knew;
which describe the poets feelings toward America, and his delight in the society of Mr. Dennie and his friends. But the feelings and opinions of Moore are of no moment. The really important passage describes not the author, but what Dennie and his companions said and thought, and has in this way historical if not poetic value. The lines occur among those addressed to the Boston frigate when the author was leaving Halifax:
Farewell to the few I have left with regret;
May they sometimes recall, what I cannot forget,
The delight of those evenings,too brief a delight,
When in converse and song we have stoln on the night;
When theyve asked me the manners, the mind, or the mien,
Of some bard I had known or some chief I had seen,
Whose glory, though distant, they long had adored,
Whose name had oft hallowed the wine-cup they poured.
And still, as with sympathy humble but true
I have told of each bright son of fame all I knew,
They have listened, and sighed that the powerful stream
Of Americas empire should pass like a dream,
Without leaving one relic of genius, to say
How sublime was the tide which had vanished away!
The evils apprehended by these excellent gentlemen are much more strongly set forth in the previous epistle, but here we catch sight of the men themselves. There they sit adoring Englishmen, and eagerly inquiring about them of the gracious Mr. Moore, while they are dolefully sighing that the empire of America is to pass away and leave no relic of genius. In their small way they were doing what they could toward such a consummation. It may be said that this frame of mind was perfectly natural under the circumstances; but it is not to the purpose to inquire into causes and motives; it is enough to state the fact. Here was a set of men of more than average talents and education; not men of real talent and quality, like Irving, but clever men, forming one of the two or three small groups of literary persons in the United States. They come before us as true provincials, steeped to the eyes in colonialism, and they fairly represent the condition of American literature at that time. They were slaves to the colonial spirit, which bowed before England and Europe. They have not left a name or a line which is remembered or read, except to serve as a historical illustration, and they will ultimately find their fit resting-place in the foot-notes of the historian.
With the close of the English war the United States entered upon the second stage of their development. The new era, which began in 1815, lasted until 1861. It was a period of growth, not simply in the direction of a vast material prosperity and a rapidly increasing population, but in national sentiment, which made itself felt everywhere. Wherever we turn during those years, we discover a steady decline of the colonial influence. Politics had become wholly national and independent. The law was illustrated by great names, which take high rank in the annals of English jurisprudence. Medicine began to have its schools, and to show practitioners who no longer looked across the sea for inspiration. The Monroe doctrine bore witness to the strong foreign policy of an independent people. The tariff gave evidence of the eager desire for industrial independence, which found practical expression in the fast-growing native manufactures. Internal improvements were a sign of the general faith and interest in the development of the national resources. The rapid multiplication of inventions resulted from the natural genius of America in that important field, where it took almost at once a leading place. Science began to have a home at our seats of learning, and in the land of Franklin found a congenial soil.
But the colonial spirit, cast out from our politics and fast disappearing from business and the professions, still clung closely to literature, which must always be the best and last expression of a national mode of thought. In the admirable Life of Cooper, recently published, by Professor Lounsbury, the condition of our literature in 1820 is described so vividly and so exactly that it cannot be improved. It is as follows:
The intellectual dependence of America upon England at that period is something that it is now hard to understand. Political supremacy had been cast off, but the supremacy of opinion remained absolutely unshaken. Of creative literature there was then very little of any value produced; and to that little a foreign stamp was necessary, to give currency outside of the petty circle in which it originated. There was slight encouragement for the author to write; there was still less for the publisher to print. It was, indeed, a positive injury, ordinarily, to the commercial credit of a bookseller to bring out a volume of poetry or of prose fiction which had been written by an American; for it was almost certain to fail to pay expenses. A sort of critical literature was struggling, or rather gasping, for a life that was hardly worth living; for its most marked characteristic was its servile deference to English judgment and dread of English censure. It requires a painful and penitential examination of the reviews of the period to comprehend the utter abasement of mind with which the men of that day accepted the foreign estimate upon works written here, which had been read by themselves, but which it was clear had not been read by the critics whose opinions they echoed. Even the meekness with which they submitted to the most depreciatory estimate of themselves was outdone by the anxiety with which they hurried to assure the world that they, the most cultivated of the American race, did not presume to have so high an opinion of the writings of some one of their countrymen as had been expressed by enthusiasts, whose patriotism had proved too much for their discernment. Never was any class so eager to free itself from charges that inputed to it the presumption of holding independent views of its own. Out of the intellectual character of many of those who at that day pretended to be the representatives of the highest education in this country, it almost seemed that the element of manliness had been wholly eliminated; and that, along with its sturdy democracy, whom no obstacles thwarted and no dangers daunted, the New World was also to give birth to a race of literary cowards and parasites.
The case is vigorously stated, but is not at all overcharged. Far stronger, indeed, than Professor Lounsburys statement is the commentary furnished by Coopers first book. This novel, now utterly forgotton, was entitled Precaution. Its scene was laid wholly in England; its characters were drawn from English society, chiefly from the aristocracy of that favored land; its conventional phrases were all English; worst and most extraordinary of all, it professed to be by an English author, and was received on that theory without suspicion. In such a guise did the most popular of American novelists and one of the most eminent among modern writers of fiction first appear before his countrymen and the world. If this were not so pitiable, it would be utterly ludicrous and yet the most melancholy feature of the case is that Cooper was not in the least to blame, and no one found fault with him, for his action was regarded by everyone as a matter of course. In other words, the first step of an American entering upon a literary career was to pretend to be an Englishman, in order that he might win the approval, not of Englishmen, but of his own countrymen.
If this preposterous state of public opinion had been a mere passing fashion it would hardly be worth recording. But it represented a fixed and settled habit of mind, and is only one example of a long series of similar phenomena. We look back to the years preceding the revolution, and there we find this mental condition flourishing and strong. At that time it hardly calls for comment, because it was so perfectly natural. It is when we find such opinions existing in the year 1820 that we are conscious of their significance. They belong to colonists, and yet they are uttered by the citizens of a great and independent state. The sorriest part of it is that these views were chiefly held by the best educated portion of the community. The great body of the American people, who had cast out the colonial spirit from their politics and their business, and were fast destroying it in the professions, was sound and true. The parasitic literature of that day makes the boastful and rhetorical patriotism then in the exuberance of youth seem actually noble and fine, because, with all its faults, it was honest, genuine, and inspired by a real love of country.
Yet it was during this period, between the years 1815 and 1861, that we began to have a literature of our own, and one in which any people could take a just pride. Cooper himself was the pioneer. In his second novel, The Spy, he threw off the wretched spirit of the colonist, and the story, which at once gained a popularity that broke down all barriers, was read everywhere with delight and approbation. The chief cause of the difference between the fate of this novel and that of its predecessor lies in the fact that The Spy was of genuine native origin. Cooper knew and loved American scenery and life. He understood certain phases of American character on the prairie and the ocean, and his genius was no longer smothered by the dead colonialism of the past. The Spy, and those of Coopers novels which belong to the same class, have lived and will live, and certain American characters which he drew will likewise endure. He might have struggled all his life in the limbo of intellectual servitude to which Moores friends consigned themselves, and no one would have cared for him then or remembered him now. But, with all his foibles, Cooper was inspired by an intense patriotism, and he had a bold, vigorous, aggressive nature. He freed his talents at a stroke, and giving them full play attained at once a worldwide reputation, which no man of colonial mind could ever have dreamed of reaching. Yet his countrymen, long before his days of strife and unpopularity, seem to have taken singularly little patriotic pride in his achievements, and the well bred and well educated shuddered to hear him called the American Scott; not because they thought this truly colonial description inappropriate and misapplied, but because it was a piece of irreverent audacity toward a great light of English literature.
Cooper was the first, after the close of the war of 1812, to cast off the colonial spirit and take up his position as a representative of genuine American literature; but he soon had companions, who carried still higher the standard which he had raised. To this period, which closed with our civil war, belong many of the names which are to-day among those most cherished by English-speaking people everywhere. We see the national spirit in Longfellow turning from the themes of the Old World to those of the New. In the beautiful creations of the sensitive and delicate imagination of Hawthorne, there was a new tone and a rich originality, and the same influence may be detected in the remarkable poems and the wild fancies of Poe. We find a like native strength in the sparkling verses of Holmes, in the pure and gentle poetry of Whittier, and in the firm, vigorous work of Lowell. A new leader of independent thought arises in Emerson, destined to achieve a worldwide reputation. A new school of historians appears, adorned by the talents of Prescott, Bancroft, and Motley. Many of these distinguished men were far removed in point of time from the beginning of the new era, but they all belonged to and were the result of the national movement, which began its onward march as soon as we had shaken ourselves clear from the influence of the colonial spirit upon our public affairs by the struggle which culminated in Madisons war, as the Federalists loved to call it.
These successes in the various departments of intellectual activity were all due to an instinctive revolt against colonialism. But, nevertheless, the old and time-worn spirit which made Cooper pretend to be an Englishman in 1820 was very strong, and continued to impede our progress toward intellectual independence. We find it clinging to the lesser and weaker forms of literature. We see it in fashion and society and in habits of thought, but we find the best proof of its vitality in our sensitiveness to foreign opinion. This was a universal failing. The body of the people showed it by bitter resentment; the cultivated and highly educated by abject submission and deprecation, or by cries of pain.
As was natural in a very young nation, just awakened to its future destiny, just conscious of its still undeveloped strength, there was at this time a vast amount of exuberant self-satisfaction, of cheap rhetoric, and of noisy self-glorification. There was a corresponding readiness to take offense at the unfavorable opinion of outsiders, and at the same time an eager and insatiable curiosity to hear foreign opinions of any kind. We were, of course, very open to satire and attack. We were young, undeveloped, with a crude, almost raw civilization, and a great inclination to be boastful and conceited. Our English cousins, who had failed to conquer us, bore us no good will, and were quite ready to take all the revenge which books of travel and criticism could afford. It is to these years that Marryat, Trollope, Hamilton, Dickens, and a host of others belong. Most of their productions are quite forgotten now. The only ones which are still read, probably, are the American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit: the former preserved by the fame of the author, the latter by its own merit as a novel. There was abundant truth in what Dickens said, to take the great novelist as the type of this group of foreign critics. It was an age in which Elijah Pogram and Jefferson Brick flourished rankly. It is also true that all that Dickens wrote was poisoned by his utter ingratitude, and that to describe the United States as populated by nothing but Bricks and Pograms was one-sided and malicious, and not true to facts. But the truth or the falsehood, the value or the worthlessness, of these criticisms are not of importance now. The striking fact, and the one we are in search of, is the manner in which we bore these censures when they appeared. We can appreciate contemporary feeling at that time only by delving in much forgotten literature; and even then we can hardly comprehend fully what we find, so completely has our habit of mind altered since those days. We received these strictures with a howl of anguish and a scream of mortified vanity. We winced and writhed, and were almost ready to go to war, because English travelers and writers abused us. It is usual now to refer these ebullitions of feeling to our youth, probably from analogy with the youth of an individual. But the analogy is misleading. Sensitiveness to foreign opinion is not especially characteristic of a youthful nation, or, at least, we have no cases to prove it, and in the absence of proof the theory falls. On the other hand, this excessive and almost morbid sensibility is a characteristic of provincial, colonial, or dependent states, especially in regard to the mother country. We raged and cried out against adverse English criticism, whether it was true or false, just or unjust, and we paid it this unnatural attention because the spirit of the colonist still lurked in our hearts and affected our mode of thought. We were advancing fast on the road to intellectual and moral independence, but we were still far from the goal.
This second period in our history closed, as has been said, with the struggle generated by a great moral question, which finally absorbed all the thoughts and passions of the people, and culminated in a terrible civil war. We fought to preserve the integrity of the Union; we fought for our national life, and nationality prevailed. The magnitude of the conflict, the dreadful suffering which it caused for the sake of principle, the uprising of a great people, elevated and ennobled the whole country. The flood-gates were opened, and the tremendous tide of national feeling swept away every meaner emotion. We came out of the battle, after an experience which brought a sudden maturity with it, stronger than ever, but much graver and soberer than before. We came out self-poised and self-reliant, with a true sense of dignity and of our national greatness, which years of peaceful development could not have given us. The sensitiveness to foreign opinion which had been the marked feature of our mental condition before the war had disappeared. It had vanished in the smoke of battle, as the colonial spirit disappeared from our politics in the war of 1812. Englishmen and Frenchmen have come and gone, and written their impressions of us, and made little splashes in the current of every-day topics, and have been forgotten. Just now it is the fashion for every Englishman who visits this country, particularly if he is a man of any note, to go home and tell the world what he thinks of us. Some of these writers do this without taking the trouble to come here first. Sometimes we read what they have to say out of curiosity. We accept what is true, whether unpalatable or not, philosophically, and smile at what is false. The general feeling is one of wholesome indifference. We no longer see salvation and happiness in favorable foreign opinion, or misery in the reverse. The colonial spirit in this direction also is practically extinct.
But while this is true of the mass of the American people whose mental health is good, and is also true of the great body of sound public opinion in the United States, it has some marked exceptions; and these exceptions constitute the lingering remains of the colonial spirit, which survives, and shows itself here and there even at the present day, with a strange vitality.
In the years which followed the close of the war, it seemed as if colonialism had been utterly extinguished: but, unfortunately, this was not the case. The multiplication of great fortunes, the growth of a class rich by inheritance, and the improvement in methods of travel and communication, all tended to carry large numbers of Americans to Europe. The luxurious fancies which were born of increased wealth, and the intellectual tastes which were developed by the advance of the higher education, and to which an old civilization offers peculiar advantages and attractions, combined to breed in many persons a love of foreign life and foreign manners. These tendencies and opportunities have revived the dying spirit of colonialism. We see it most strongly in the leisure class, which is gradually increasing in this country. During the miserable ascendancy of the Second Empire, a band of these persons formed what was known as the American colony, in Paris. Perhaps they still exist; if so, their existence is now less flagrant and more decent. When they were notorious they presented the melancholy spectacle of Americans admiring and aping the manners, habits, and vices of another nation, when that nation was bent and corrupted by the cheap, meretricious, and rotten system of the third Napoleon. They furnished a very offensive example of peculiarly mean colonialism. This particular phase has departed, but the same sort of Americans are, unfortunately, still common in Europe. I do not mean, of course, those persons who go abroad to buy social consideration, nor the women who trade on their beauty or their wits to gain a brief and dishonoring notoriety. These last are merely adventurers and adventuresses, who are common to all nations. The people referred to here form that large class, comprising many excellent men and women, no doubt, who pass their lives in Europe, mourning over the inferiority of their own country, and who become thoroughly denationalized. They do not change into Frenchmen or Englishmen, but are simply disfigured and deformed Americans.
We find the same wretched habit of thought in certain groups among the rich and idle people of our great eastern cities, especially in New York, because it is the metropolis. These groups are for the most part made up of young men who despise everything American and admire everything English. They talk and dress and walk and ride in certain ways, because they imagine that the English do these things after that fashion. They hold their own country in contempt, and lament the hard fate of their birth. They try to think that they form an aristocracy, and become at once ludicrous and despicable. The virtues which have made the upper classes in England what they are, and which take them into public affairs, into literature and politics, are forgotten, for Anglo-Americans imitate the vices or the follies of their models, and stop there. If all this were merely a fleeting fashion, an attack of Anglo-mania or of Gallo-mania, of which there have been instances enough everywhere, it would be of no consequence. But it is a recurrence of the old and deep-seated malady of colonialism. It is a lineal descendant of the old colonial family. The features are somewhat dim now, and the vitality is low, but there is no mistaking the hereditary traits. The people who thus despise their own land, and ape English manners, flatter themselves with being cosmopolitans, when in truth they are genuine colonists, petty and provincial to the last degree.
We see a like tendency in the same limited but marked way in our literature. Some of our cleverest fiction is largely devoted to studying the character of our countrymen abroad; that is, either denationalized Americans or Americans with a foreign background. At times this species of literature resolves itself into an agonized effort to show how foreigners regard us, and to point out the defects which jar upon foreign susceptibilities even while it satirizes the denationalized American. The endeavor to turn ourselves inside out in order to appreciate the trivialities of life which impress foreigners unpleasantly is very unprofitable exertion, and the Europeanized American is not worth either study or satire. Writings of this kind, again, are intended to be cosmopolitan in tone, and to evince a knowledge of the world, and yet they are in reality steeped in colonialism. We cannot but regret the influence of a spirit which wastes fine powers of mind and keen perceptions in a fruitless striving and a morbid craving to know how we appear to foreigners, and to show what they think of us.
We see, also, men and women of talent going abroad to study art and remaining there. The atmosphere of Europe is more congenial to such pursuits, and the struggle as nothing to what must be encountered here. But when it leads to an abandonment of America, the result is wholly vain. Sometimes these people become tolerably successful French artists, but their nationality and individuality have departed, and with them originality and force. The admirable school of etching which has arisen in New York; the beautiful work of American wood-engraving; the Chelsea tiles of Low, which have won the highest prizes at English exhibitions; the silver of Tiffany, specimens of which were bought by the Japanese commissioners at the Paris Exposition, are all strong, genuine work, and are doing more for American art, and for all art, than a wilderness of over-educated and denationalized Americans who are painting pictures and carving statues and writing music in Europe or in the United States, in the spirit of colonists, and bowed down by a wretched dependence.
There is abundance of splendid material all about us here for the poet, the artist, or the novelist. The conditions are not the same as in Europe, but they are not on that account inferior. They are certainly as good. They may be better. Our business is not to grumble because they are different, for that is colonial. We must adapt ourselves to them, for we alone can use properly our own resources; and no work in art or literature ever has been, or ever will be, of any real or lasting value which is not true, original, and independent.
If these remnants of the colonial spirit and influence were, as they look at first sight, merely trivial accidents, they would not be worth mentioning. But the range of their influence, although limited, affects an important class. It appears almost wholly among the rich or the highly educated in art and literature; that is, to a large extent among men and women of talent and refined sensibilities. The follies of those who imitate English habits belong really to but a small portion of even their own class. But as these follies are contemptible, the wholesome prejudice which they excite is naturally, but thoughtlessly, extended to all who have anything in common with those who are guilty of them. In this busy country of ours, the men of leisure and education, although increasing in number, are still few, and they have heavier duties and responsibilities than anywhere else. Public charities, public affairs, politics, literature, all demand the energies of such men. To the country which has given them wealth and leisure and education they owe the duty of faithful service, because they, and they alone, can afford to do that work which must be done without pay. The few who are imbued with the colonial spirit not only fail in their duty, and become contemptible and absurd, but they injure the influence and thwart the activity of the great majority of those who are similarly situated, and who are also patriotic and public spirited.
In art and literature the vain struggle to be somebody or something other than an American, the senseless admiration of everything foreign, and the morbid anxiety about our appearance before foreigners have the same deadening effect. Such qualities were bad enough in 1820. They are a thousand times meaner and more foolish now. They retard the march of true progress, which here, as elsewhere, must be in the direction of nationality and independence. This does not mean that we are to expect or to seek for something utterly different, something new and strange, in art, literature, or society. Originality is thinking for ones self. Simply to think differently from other people is eccentricity. Some of our English cousins, for instance, have undertaken to hold Walt Whitman up as the herald of the coming literature American democracy, not because he was a genius, not for his merits alone, but largely because he departed from all received forms, and indulged in barbarous eccentricities. They mistake difference for originality. Whitman was a true and a great poet, but it was his power and imagination which made him so, not his eccentricities. When Whitman did best, he was, as a rule, nearest to the old and well-proved forms. We, like our contemporaries everywhere, are the heirs of the ages, and we must study the past, and learn from it, and advance from what has been already tried and found good. That is the only way to success anywhere, or in anything. But we cannot enter upon that or any other road until we are truly national and independent intellectually, and are ready to think for ourselves, and not look to foreigners in order to find out what they think.
To those who grumble and sigh over the inferiority of America we may commend the opinion of a distinguished Englishman, as they prefer such authority. Mr. Herbert Spencer said, recently, I think that whatever difficulties they may have to surmount, and whatever tribulations they may have to pass through, the Americans may reasonably look forward to a time when they will have produced a civilization grander than any the world has known. Even the Englishmen whom our provincials of to-day adore, even those who are most hostile, pay a serious attention to America. That keen respect for success and anxious deference to power so characteristic of Great Britain find expression every day, more and more, in the English interest in the United States, now that we do not care in the least about it; and be it said in passing, no people despises more heartily than the English a man who does not love his country. To be despised abroad, and regarded with contempt and pity at home, is not a very lofty result of so much effort on the part of our lovers of the British. But it is the natural and fit reward of colonialism. Members of a great nation instinctively patronize colonists.
It is interesting to examine the sources of the colonial spirit, and to trace its influence upon our history and its gradual decline. The study of a habit of mind, with its tenacity of life, is an instructive and entertaining branch of history. But if we lay history and philosophy aside, the colonial spirit as it survives to-day, although curious enough, is a mean and noxious thing, which cannot be too quickly or too thoroughly stamped out. It is the dying spirit of dependence, and wherever it still clings it injures, weakens, and degrades. It should be exorcised rapidly and completely, so that it will never return. I cannot close more fitly than with the noble words of Emerson:Let the passion for America cast out the passion for Europe. They who find America insipid, they for whom London and Paris have spoiled their own homes, can be spared to return to those cities. I not only see a career at home for more genius than we have, but for more than there is in the world.
Note 1. This essay appeared originally in the Atlantic Monthly for May, 1883. During the thirty years which have elapsed since it was written the manifestations of the colonial spirit then apparent in the United States have not only altered in character but, I am glad to say, have weakened, diminished, and become less noticeable. Since 1883, also, there has been much achieved by Americans in Art and Literature, in painting, in sculpture, in music, and particularly in architecture. Success in all these fields has, with few exceptions, been won by men working in the spirit which is not colonial, but which it was the purpose of this essay to inculcate as the true one to which alone we could look for fine and enduring achievement. I have called attention to the date at which the essay was written in order that those who read it may remember that it applies in certain points to the conditions of thirty years ago and not to those of the present day. [back]