Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Native Quality Essential to the Greatness of a People
By Horace Bushnell (18021876)
[Born in New Preston, Conn., 1802. Died in Hartford, Conn., 1876. The True Wealth or Weal of Nations.Oration before the Phi Beta Kappa, Yale College, 1837.]
THE PERSONAL value of a people is the only safe measure of their honor and felicity. Economy holds the same place in their polity which it holds in the life of a wise and great mana subordinate place, and when subordinate, honorable. But their highest treasures as a state they behold in capable and manly bodies, just principles, high sentiments, intelligence, and genius. To cherish these in a people, to provide a noble succession of poets, philosophers, law-givers, and commanders, who shall be the directing head, and the nerves of action; to compact all into one energetic and stately body inspirited by public lovethis is the noble study of true philosophic statesmanship. Alas, sir! exclaimed Milton, suddenly grasping this whole subject as with divine force, a commonwealth ought to be but as one huge Christian personage, one mighty growth and stature of an honest man, as big and compact in virtue as in body; for look, what the grounds and causes are of single happiness to one man, the same ye shall find them to a whole state. Here, in a single sentence, he declares the true idea of a state, and of all just administration.
But however correct in theory, such views, it will be suspected, are, after all, remote and impracticable. How, especially, can we hope to bring our intractable democracy upon so high a ground of principle? I cannot entirely sympathize with such impressions. History clearly indicates the fact that republics are more ductile than any other form of government, and more favorable to the admission of high-toned principles, and the severer maxims of government. The confederate republics of Crete and the daughter republic of Sparta were no other than studied and rigorous systems of direct personal discipline upon the people, in which wealth and ease were in nowise sought, but sternly rejected. And in what monarchy, or even despotism, of the world, where but in plain republican Rome, the country of Cato and Brutus, is a censor of manners and morals to be endured, going forth with his note-book, and for any breach of parental or filial duty observed, for seduction of the youth, for dishonor in the field, for a drinking bout, or even for luxurious manners, inflicting a civil degradation upon the highest citizens and magistrates? The beginnings, too, of our own history are of the same stern temperament, and such as perfectly to sympathize with the highest principles of government. Indeed I have felt it to be, in the highest degree, auspicious, that the ground I vindicate before you requires no revolution, being itself the true American ground. May we not also discover even now, in the worst forms of radicalism and political depravation among us, a secret elemental force, a law of republican feeling, which, if appealed to on high and rigid principles, would yield a true response? We fail in our conservative attempts, more because our principles are too low than because they are too high. A course of administration, based on the pursuit of wealth alone, though bad in principle anywhere, is especially bad in a republic. It is more congenial to the splendors and stately distinctions of monarchy. It concentrates the whole attention of the nation upon wealth. It requires measures to be debated only as they bear upon wealth. It produces thus a more egregious notion of its dignity, continually, both in the minds of those who have it and of those who have it not, and thus it exasperates every bad feeling in a republic, till it retaliates destruction upon it. But a system of policy, based on the high and impartial principles of philosophy, one that respects only manly bodies, high talents, great sentiments and actions, one that values excellence of person, whether found in the palaces of the rich or the huts of the poor, holding all gilded idleness and softness in the contempt they deservesuch a system is congenial to a republic. It would have attractions to our people. Its philosophic grounds, too, can be vindicated by a great variety of bold arguments, and the moral absurdity of holding wealth in higher estimation than personal value can be played out in the forms of wit and satire, so as to raise a voice of acclamation and overwhelm the mercenary system with utter and final contempt.
I ought to say that no constitutional change in our system is requisite or contemplated. It is only necessary that we sustain the distinctness and high independence of the state governments. The general government is mainly fiscal and prudential in its sphere of action. The highest and most sacred duties belong to the individual states. It is the exact and appropriate sphere of these to prepare personal wealth in the people. They should be as little absorbed, therefore, as possible, in the spirit and policy of the general government. Each state should have the interest, in itself, of a family, a sense of character to sustain, a love of its ancestors and its children, a just ambition to raise its quota of distinguished men, to be honored for its literature, its good manners, and the philosophic beauty of its disciplinary institutions.
But let us glance at some of the practical operations of our doctrine more particularly. The personal value of the people being the great object of pursuit, the first care of a state will of course be to preserve and ennoble the native quality or stock of its people. It is a well-known principle of physiology that cultivation, bodily and mental, and all refinements of disposition and principle, do gradually work to increase the native volume and elevate the quality of a people. It is by force of this principle, long operating, that states occupying a similar climate have become so different in temperament, talent, and quality of every kind. In this principle, a field of promise truly sublime opens on the statesmen of a country. And yet, I know not that more than two or three law-givers ever made the ennobling of their stock a subject of practical attention. The free mingling and crossing of races in the higher ranges of culture and character would doubtless be a great benefit to the stock. But the constant importation, as now, to this country, of the lowest orders of people from abroad, to dilute the quality of our natural manhood, is a sad and beggarly prostitution of the noblest gift ever conferred on a people. Who shall respect a people who do not respect their own blood? And how shall a national spirit, or any determinate and proportionate character, arise out of so many low-bred associations and coarse-grained temperaments, imported from every clime? It was in keeping, that Pan, who was the son of everybody, was the ugliest of the gods. It is well known, too, that vices and degraded manners have a sad effect in sinking the quality of a people. We hear of one whole people who are in danger of dwindling to absolute extinction by force of this simple cause. And let the day but come to any people when it is true that every man participates in the infected blood of drunkenness, or any corrupt vice, and it will be a people as certainly degenerate, to some degree, in bodily stature and force, in mental quickness and generosity. Do I then speak of enforcing morals by law? Certainly I do. Only a decent respect for the blood of the nation requires it. But the punishments declared against such vices as poison the blood of a nation ought to be suitable; they ought to be such as denote only contempt. If it would be too severe, in the manner of an ancient Roman punishment, to inclose the delinquent in a sack, with some appropriate animals, and throw him into the water, let him somehow be made a mark for mockery and derision. But let there be no appearance of austerity in the laws against vice. Let cheerful and happy amusements be provided, at the public expense. Let the youth be exercised in feats of agility and grace, in rowing and the spirited art of horsemanship. Erect monuments and fountains, adorn public walks and squares, arrange ornamental and scientific gardens, institute festivals and games for the contest of youth and manhood in practical invention, in poetry, philosophy, and bodily prowess. Provide ways and means, go to any expense, to enliven the state and make the people happy, without low and vulgar pleasures. The sums now expended, every year, in a single article of appetite and of dead consumption, would defray every expense of this kind. In the same view, great cities will not be specially desired, and all confined employments will be obviated, as far as possible. For it is not in great cities, nor in the confined shops of trade, but principally in agriculture, that the best stock or staple of men is grown. It is in the open air, in communion with the sky, the earth, and all living things, that the largest inspiration is drunk in, and the vital energies of a real man constructed. The modern improvements in machinery have facilitated production to such a degree that when they become diffused through the world, only a few hands, comparatively, will be requisite in the mechanic arts; and those engaged in agriculture, being proportionally more numerous, will be more in a condition of ease. Here opens a new and sublime hope. If a state can maintain the practice of a pure morality, and can unite with agriculture a taste for learning and science, and the generous exercises I have named, a race of men will ultimately be raised up, having a physical volume, a native majesty and force of mind, such as no age has yet produced. Or if this be not done, if the race are to sink down into idleness and effeminate pleasures, as production is facilitated, the great inventions we prize will certainly result in a dwarfed and degraded staple of manhood.