Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. V. English Traits
V. Ability
THE SAXON and the Northman are both Scandinavians. History does not allow us to fix the limits of the application of these names with any accuracy, but from the residence of a portion of these people in France, and from some effect of that powerful soil on their blood and manners, the Norman has come popularly to represent in England the aristocratic, and the Saxon the democratic principle. And though, I doubt not, the nobles are of both tribes, and the workers of both, yet we are forced to use the names a little mythically, one to represent the worker and the other the enjoyer.  1
  The island was a prize for the best race. Each of the dominant races tried its fortune in turn. The Phœnician, the Celt and the Goth had already got in. The Roman came, but in the very day when his fortune culminated. He looked in the eyes of a new people that was to supplant his own. He disembarked his legions, erected his camps and towers,—presently he heard bad news from Italy, and worse and worse, every year; at last, he made a handsome compliment of roads and walls, and departed. But the Saxon seriously settled in the land, builded, tilled, fished and traded, with German truth and adhesiveness. The Dane came and divided with him. Last of all the Norman or French-Dane arrived, and formally conquered, harried and ruled the kingdom. A century later it came out that the Saxon had the most bottom and longevity, had managed to make the victor speak the language and accept the law and usage of the victim; forced the baron to dictate Saxon terms to Norman kings; and, step by step, got all the essential securities of civil liberty invented and confirmed. The genius of the race and the genius of the place conspired to this effect. The island is lucrative to free labor, but not worth possession on other terms. The race was so intellectual that a feudal or military tenure could not last longer than the war. The power of the Saxon-Danes, so thoroughly beaten in the war that the name of English and villein were synonymous, yet so vivacious as to extort charters from the kings, stood on the strong personality of these people. Sense and economy must rule in a world which is made of sense and economy, and the banker, with his seven per cent., drives the earl out of his castle. A nobility of soldiers cannot keep down a commonalty of shrewd scientific persons. What signifies a pedigree of a hundred links, against a cotton-spinner with steam in his mill; or against a company of broad-shouldered Liverpool merchants, for whom Stephenson and Brunel are contriving locomotives and a tubular bridge? 1  2
  These Saxons are the hands of mankind. They have the taste for toil, a distaste for pleasure or repose, and the telescopic appreciation of distant gain. They are the wealth-makers,—and by dint of mental faculty which has its own conditions. The Saxon works after liking, or only for himself; and to set him at work and to begin to draw his monstrous values out of barren Britain, all dishonor, fret and barrier must be removed, and then his energies begin to play.  3
  The Scandinavian fancied himself surrounded by Trolls,—a kind of goblin men with vast power of work and skilful production,—divine stevedores, carpenters, reapers, smiths and masons, swift to reward every kindness done them, with gifts of gold and silver. In all English history this dream comes to pass. Certain Trolls or working brains, under the names of Alfred, Bede, Caxton, Bracton, Camden, Drake, Selden, Dugdale, Newton, Gibbon, Brindley, Watt, Wedgwood, dwell in the troll-mounts of Britain and turn the sweat of their face to power and renown. 2  4
  If the race is good, so is the place. Nobody landed on this spellbound island with impunity. The enchantments of barren shingle and rough weather transformed every adventurer into a laborer. Each vagabond that arrived bent his neck to the yoke of gain, or found the air too tense for him. The strong survived, the weaker went to the ground. Even the pleasure-hunters and sots of England are of a tougher texture. A hard temperament had been formed by Saxon and Saxon-Dane, and such of these French or Normans as could reach it were naturalized in every sense.  5
  All the admirable expedients or means hit upon in England must be looked at as growths or irresistible offshoots of the expanding mind of the race. A man of that brain thinks and acts thus; and his neighbor, being afflicted with the same kind of brain, though he is rich and called a baron or a duke, thinks the same thing, and is ready to allow the justice of the thought and act in his retainer or tenant, though sorely against his baronial or ducal will.  6
  The island was renowned in antiquity for its breed of mastiffs, so fierce that when their teeth were set you must cut their heads off to part them. The man was like his dog. The people have that nervous bilious temperament which is known by medical men to resist every means employed to make its possessor subservient to the will of others. The English game is main force to main force, the planting of foot to foot, fair play and open field,—a rough tug without trick or dodging, till one or both come to pieces. King Ethelwald spoke the language of his race when he planted himself at Wimborne and said he “would do one of two things, or there live, or there lie.” They hate craft and subtlety. They neither poison, nor waylay, nor assassinate; and when they have pounded each other to a poultice, they will shake hands and be friends for the remainder of their lives.  7
  You shall trace these Gothic touches at school, at country fairs, at the hustings and in parliament. No artifice, no breach of truth and plain dealing,—not so much as secret ballot, is suffered in the island. In parliament, the tactics of the opposition is to resist every step of the government by a pitiless attack: and in a bargain, no prospect of advantage is so dear to the merchant as the thought of being tricked is mortifying.  8
  Sir Kenelm Digby, a courtier of Charles and James, who won the sea-fight of Scanderoon, was a model Englishman in his day. “His person was handsome and gigantic, he had so graceful elocution and noble address, that, had he been dropt out of the clouds in any part of the world, he would have made himself respected: he was skilled in six tongues, and master of arts and arms.” 3 Sir Kenelm wrote a book, Of Bodies and of Souls, in which he propounds, that “syllogisms do breed, or rather are all the variety of man’s life. They are the steps by which we walk in all our businesses. Man, as he is man, doth nothing else but weave such chains. Whatsoever he doth, swarving from this work, he doth as deficient from the nature of man: and, if he do aught beyond this, by breaking out into divers sorts of exterior actions, he findeth, nevertheless, in this linked sequel of simple discourses, the art, the cause, the rule, the bounds and the model of it.” 4  9
  There spoke the genius of the English people. There is a necessity on them to be logical. They would hardly greet the good that did not logically fall,—as if it excluded their own merit, or shook their understandings. They are jealous of minds that have much facility of association, from an instinctive fear that the seeing many relations to their thought might impair this serial continuity and lucrative concentration. They are impatient of genius, or of minds addicted to contemplation, and cannot conceal their contempt for sallies of thought, however lawful, whose steps they cannot count by their wonted rule. Neither do they reckon better a syllogism that ends in syllogism. For they have a supreme eye to facts, and theirs is a logic that brings salt to soup, hammer to nail, oar to boat; the logic of cooks, carpenters and chemists, following the sequence of nature, and one on which words make no impression. Their mind is not dazzled by its own means, but locked and bolted to results. They love men who, like Samuel Johnson, a doctor in the schools, would jump out of his syllogism the instant his major proposition was in danger, to save that at all hazards. Their practical vision is spacious, and they can hold many threads without entangling them. All the steps they orderly take; but with the high logic of never confounding the minor and major proposition; keeping their eye on their aim, in all the complicity and delay incident to the several series of means they employ. There is room in their minds for this and that,—a science of degrees. In the courts the independence of the judges and the loyalty of the suitors are equally excellent. In parliament they have hit on that capital invention of freedom, a constitutional opposition. And when courts and parliament are both deaf, the plaintiff is not silenced. Calm, patient, his weapon of defence from year to year is the obstinate reproduction of the grievance, with calculations and estimates. But, meantime, he is drawing numbers and money to his opinion, resolved that if all remedy fails, right of revolution is at the bottom of his charter-box. They are bound to see their measure carried, and stick to it through ages of defeat.  10
  Into this English logic, however, an infusion of justice enters, not so apparent in other races;—a belief in the existence of two sides, and the resolution to see fair play. There is on every question an appeal from the assertion of the parties to the proof of what is asserted. They kiss the dust before a fact. Is it a machine, is it a charter, is it a boxer in the ring, is it a candidate on the hustings,—the universe of Englishmen will suspend their judgment until the trial can be had. They are not to be led by a phrase, they want a working plan, a working machine, a working constitution, and will sit out the trial and abide by the issue and reject all preconceived theories. In politics they put blunt questions, which must be answered; Who is to pay the taxes? What will you do for trade? What for corn? What for the spinner?  11
  This singular fairness and its results strike the French with surprise. Philip de Commines 5 says, “Now, in my opinion, among all the sovereignties I know in the world, that in which the public good is best attended to, and the least violence exercised on the people, is that of England.” Life is safe, and personal rights; and what is freedom without security? whilst, in France, “fraternity,” “equality,” and “indivisible unity” are names for assassination. Montesquieu said, “England is the freest country in the world. If a man in England had as many enemies as hairs on his head, no harm would happen to him.”  12
  Their self-respect, their faith in causation, and their realistic logic or coupling of means to ends, have given them the leadership of the modern world. Montesquieu said, “No people have true common-sense but those who are born in England.” This common-sense is a perception of all the conditions of our earthly existence; of laws that can be stated, and of laws that cannot be stated, or that are learned only by practice, in which allowance for friction is made. They are impious in their skepticism of theory, and in high departments they are cramped and sterile. But the unconditional surrender to facts, and the choice of means to reach their ends, are as admirable as with ants and bees.  13
  The bias of the nation is a passion for utility. They love the lever, the screw and pulley, the Flanders draught-horse, the waterfall, wind-mills, tide-mills; the sea and the wind to bear their freight ships. More than the diamond Koh-i-noor, which glitters among their crown jewels, they prize that dull pebble which is wiser than a man, whose poles turn themselves to the poles of the world, and whose axis is parallel to the axis of the world. 6 Now, their toys are steam and galvanism. They are heavy at the fine arts, but adroit at the coarse; not good in jewelry or mosaics, but the best iron-masters, colliers, wool-combers and tanners in Europe. They apply themselves to agriculture, to draining, to resisting encroachments of sea, wind, travelling sands, cold and wet sub-soil; to fishery, to manufacture of indispensable staples,—salt, plumbago, leather, wool, glass, pottery and brick,—to bees and silkworms;—and by their steady combinations they succeed. A manufacturer sits down to dinner in a suit of clothes which was wool on a sheep’s back at sunrise. You dine with a gentleman on venison, pheasant, quail, pigeons, poultry, mushrooms and pine-apples, all the growth of his estate. They are neat husbands for ordering all their tools pertaining to house and field. All are well kept. There is no want and no waste. They study use and fitness in their building, in the order of their dwellings and in their dress. The Frenchman invented the ruffle; the Englishman added the shirt. The Englishman wears a sensible coat buttoned to the chin, of rough but solid and lasting texture. If he is a lord, he dresses a little worse than a commoner. They have diffused the taste for plain substantial hats, shoes and coats through Europe. They think him the best dressed man whose dress is so fit for his use that you cannot notice or remember to describe it.  14
  They secure the essentials in their diet, in their arts and manufactures. Every article of cutlery shows, in its shape, thought and long experience of workmen. They put the expense in the right place, as, in their sea-steamers, in the solidity of the machinery and the strength of the boat. 7 The admirable equipment of their arctic ships carries London to the pole. They build roads, aqueducts; warm and ventilate houses. And they have impressed their directness and practical habit on modern civilization.  15
  In trade, the Englishman believes that nobody breaks who ought not to break; and that if he do not make trade everything, it will make him nothing; and acts on this belief. The spirit of system, attention to details, and the subordination of details, or the not driving things too finely (which is charged on the Germans), constitute that dispatch of business which makes the mercantile power of England.  16
  In war, the Englishman looks to his means. He is of the opinion of Civilis, his German ancestor, whom Tacitus reports as holding that “the gods are on the side of the strongest;”—a sentence which Bonaparte unconsciously translated, when he said that “he had noticed that Providence always favored the heaviest battalion.” Their military science propounds that if the weight of the advancing column is greater than that of the resisting, the latter is destroyed. Therefore Wellington, when he came to the army in Spain, had every man weighed, first with accoutrements, and then without; believing that the force of an army depended on the weight and power of the individual soldiers, in spite of cannon. Lord Palmerston told the House of Commons that more care is taken of the health and comfort of English troops than of any other troops in the world; and that hence the English can put more men into the rank, on the day of action, on the field of battle, than any other army. Before the bombardment of the Danish forts in the Baltic, Nelson spent day after day, himself, in the boats, on the exhausting service of sounding the channel. Clerk of Eldin’s 8 celebrated manœuvre of breaking the line of sea-battle, and Nelson’s feat of doubling, or stationing his ships one on the outer bow, and another on the outer quarter of each of the enemy’s, were only translations into naval tactics of Bonaparte’s rule of concentration. Lord Collingwood was accustomed to tell his men that if they could fire three well-directed broadsides in five minutes, no vessel could resist them; and from constant practice they came to do it in three minutes and a half.  17
  But conscious that no race of better men exists, they rely most on the simplest means, and do not like ponderous and difficult tactics, but delight to bring the affair hand to hand; 9 where the victory lies with the strength, courage and endurance of the individual combatants. They adopt every improvement in rig, in motor, in weapons, but they fundamentally believe that the best stratagem in naval war is to lay your ship close alongside of the enemy’s ship and bring all your guns to bear on him, until you or he go to the bottom. This is the old fashion, which never goes out of fashion, neither in nor out of England.  18
  It is not usually a point of honor, nor a religious sentiment, and never any whim, that they will shed their blood for; but usually property, and right measured by property, that breeds revolution. 10 They have no Indian taste for a tomahawk-dance, no French taste for a badge or a proclamation. The Englishman is peaceably minding his business and earning his day’s wages. But if you offer to lay hand on his day’s wages, on his cow, or his right in common, or his shop, he will fight to the Judgment. Magna-charta, jury-trial, habeas-corpus, star-chamber, ship-money, Popery, Plymouth colony, American Revolution, are all questions involving a yeoman’s right to his dinner, and except as touching that, would not have lashed the British nation to rage and revolt.  19
  Whilst they are thus instinct with a spirit of order and of calculation, it must be owned they are capable of larger views; but the indulgence is expensive to them, costs great crises, or accumulations of mental power. In common, the horse works best with blinders. Nothing is more in the line of English thought than our unvarnished Connecticut question, “Pray, sir, how do you get your living when you are at home?” The questions of freedom, of taxation, of privilege, are money questions. Heavy fellows, steeped in beer and fleshpots, they are hard of hearing and dim of sight. Their drowsy minds need to be flagellated by war and trade and politics and persecution. They cannot well read a principle, except by the light of fagots and of burning towns.  20
  Tacitus says of the Germans, “Powerful only in sudden efforts, they are impatient of toil and labor.” This highly destined race, if it had not somewhere added the chamber of patience to its brain, would not have built London. I know not from which of the tribes and temperaments that went to the composition of the people this tenacity was supplied, but they clinch every nail they drive. They have no running for luck, and no immoderate speed. They spend largely on their fabric, and await the slow return. Their leather lies tanning seven years in the vat. At Rogers’s mills, in Sheffield, where I was shown the process of making a razor and a penknife, I was told there is no luck in making good steel; that they make no mistakes, every blade in the hundred and in the thousand is good. And that is characteristic of all their work,—no more is attempted than is done.  21
  When Thor and his companions arrive at Utgard, he is told that “nobody is permitted to remain here, unless he understand some art, and excel in it all other men.” 11 The same question is still put to the posterity of Thor. A nation of laborers, every man is trained to some one art or detail and aims at perfection in that; not content unless he has something in which he thinks he surpasses all other men. He would rather not do anything at all than not do it well. I suppose no people have such thoroughness;—from the highest to the lowest, every man meaning to be master of his art.  22
  “To show capacity,” a Frenchman described as the end of a speech in debate: “No,” said an Englishman, “but to set your shoulder at the wheel,—to advance the business.” Sir Samuel Romilly refused to speak in popular assemblies, confining himself to the House of Commons, where a measure can be carried by a speech. The business of the House of Commons is conducted by a few persons, but these are hard-worked. Sir Robert Peel “knew the Blue Books by heart.” His colleagues and rivals carry Hansard 12 in their heads. The high civil and legal offices are not beds of ease, but posts which exact frightful amounts of mental labor. Many of the great leaders, like Pitt, Canning, Castlereagh, Romilly, are soon worked to death. They are excellent judges in England of a good worker, and when they find one, like Clarendon, Sir Philip Warwick, Sir William Coventry, Ashley, Burke, Thurlow, Mansfield, Pitt, Eldon, Peel, or Russell, there is nothing too good or too high for him.  23
  They have a wonderful heat in the pursuit of a public aim. Private persons exhibit, in scientific and antiquarian researches, the same pertinacity as the nation showed in the coalitions in which it yoked Europe against the empire of Bonaparte, one after the other defeated, and still renewed, until the sixth hurled him from his seat.  24
  Sir John Herschel, in completion of the work of his father, who had made the catalogue of the stars of the northern hemisphere, expatriated himself for years at the Cape of Good Hope, finished his inventory of the southern heaven, came home, and redacted it in eight years more;—a work whose value does not begin until thirty years have elapsed, and thenceforward a record to all ages of the highest import. The Admiralty sent out the Arctic expeditions year after year, in search of Sir John Franklin, until at last they have threaded their way through polar pack and Behring’s Straits and solved the geographical problem. Lord Elgin, at Athens, saw the imminent ruin of the Greek remains, set up his scaffoldings, in spite of epigrams, and, after five years’ labor to collect them, got his marbles on ship-board. The ship struck a rock and went to the bottom. He had them all fished up by divers, at a vast expense, and brought to London; not knowing that Haydon, Fuseli and Canova, and all good heads in all the world, were to be his applauders. In the same spirit, were the excavation and research by Sir Charles Fellowes for the Xanthian monument, and of Layard for his Nineveh sculptures. 13  25
  The nation sits in the immense city they have builded, a London extended into every man’s mind, though he live in Van Dieman’s Land or Capetown. Faithful performance of what is undertaken to be performed, they honor in themselves, and exact in others, as certificate of equality with themselves. The modern world is theirs. They have made and make it day by day. The commercial relations of the world are so intimately drawn to London, that every dollar on earth contributes to the strength of the English government. And if all the wealth in the planet should perish by war or deluge, they know themselves competent to replace it.  26
  They have approved their Saxon blood, by their sea-going qualities; their descent from Odin’s smiths, by their hereditary skill in working in iron; their British birth, by husbandry and immense wheat harvests; and justified their occupancy of the centre of habitable land, by their supreme ability and cosmopolitan spirit. 14 They have tilled, builded, forged, spun and woven. They have made the island a thorough-fare, and London a shop, a law-court, a record-office and scientific bureau, inviting to strangers; a sanctuary to refugees of every political and religious opinion; and such a city that almost every active man, in any nation, finds himself at one time or other forced to visit it.  27
  In every path of practical activity they have gone even with the best. There is no secret of war in which they have not shown mastery. The steam-chamber of Watt, the locomotive of Stephenson, the cotton-mule of Roberts, perform the labor of the world. There is no department of literature, of science, or of useful art, in which they have not produced a first-rate book. It is England whose opinion is waited for on the merit of a new invention, an improved science. And in the complications of the trade and politics of their vast empire, they have been equal to every exigency, with counsel and with conduct. Is it their luck, or is it in the chambers of their brain,—it is their commercial advantage that whatever light appears in better method or happy invention, breaks out in their race. They are a family to which a destiny attaches, and the Banshee 15 has sworn that a male heir shall never be wanting. They have a wealth of men to fill important posts, and the vigilance of party criticism insures the selection of a competent person.  28
  A proof of the energy of the British people is the highly artificial construction of the whole fabric. The climate and geography, I said, were factitious, as if the hands of man had arranged the conditions. The same character pervades the whole kingdom. Bacon said, “Rome was a state not subject to paradoxes;” but England subsists by antagonisms and contradictions. The foundations of its greatness are the rolling waves; and from first to last it is a museum of anomalies. This foggy and rainy country furnishes the world with astronomical observations. Its short rivers do not afford water-power, but the land shakes under the thunder of the mills. There is no gold-mine of any importance, but there is more gold in England than in all other countries. It is too far north for the culture of the vine, but the wines of all countries are in its docks. The French Comte de Lauraguais said, “No fruit ripens in England but a baked apple;” but oranges and pine-apples are as cheap in London as in the Mediterranean. The Mark-Lane Express, or the Custom House Returns, bear out to the letter the vaunt of Pope,—
  “Let India boast her palms, nor envy we
The weeping amber, nor the spicy tree,
While, by our oaks, those precious loads are borne,
And realms commanded which those trees adorn.” 16
The native cattle are extinct, but the island is full of artificial breeds. The agriculturist Bake-well created sheep and cows and horses to order, and breeds in which every thing was omitted but what is economical. The cow is sacrificed to her bag, the ox to his sirloin. Stall-feeding makes sperm-mills of the cattle, and converts the stable to a chemical factory. The rivers, lakes and ponds, too much fished, or obstructed by factories, are artificially filled with the eggs of salmon, turbot and herring.
  Chat Moss and the fens of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire are unhealthy and too barren to pay rent. By cylindrical tiles and gutta-percha tubes, five millions of acres of bad land have been drained and put on equality with the best, for rape-culture and grass. The climate too, which was already believed to have become milder and drier by the enormous consumption of coal, is so far reached by this new action, that fogs and storms are said to disappear. In due course, all England will be drained and rise a second time out of the waters. The latest step was to call in the aid of steam to agriculture. Steam is almost an Englishman. I do not know but they will send him to Parliament next, to make laws. He weaves, forges, saws, pounds, fans, and now he must pump, grind, dig and plough for the farmer. The markets created by the manufacturing population have erected agriculture into a great thriving and spending industry. The value of the houses in Britain is equal to the value of the soil. Artificial aids of all kinds are cheaper than the natural resources. No man can afford to walk, when the parliamentary-train carries him for a penny a mile. Gas-burners are cheaper than daylight in numberless floors in the cities. All the houses in London buy their water. The English trade does not exist for the exportation of native products, but on its manufactures, or the making well every thing which is ill-made elsewhere. They make ponchos for the Mexican, bandannas for the Hindoo, ginseng for the Chinese, beads for the Indian, laces for the Flemings, telescopes for astronomers, cannons for kings.  30
  The Board of Trade caused the best models of Greece and Italy to be placed within the reach of every manufacturing population. They caused to be translated from foreign languages and illustrated by elaborate drawings, the most approved works of Munich, Berlin and Paris. They have ransacked Italy to find new forms, to add a grace to the products of their looms, their potteries and their foundries. 17  31
  The nearer we look, the more artificial is their social system. Their law is a network of fictions. Their property, a scrip or certificate of right to interest on money that no man ever saw. Their social classes are made by statute. Their ratios of power and representation are historical and legal. The last Reform-bill took away political power from a mound, a ruin and a stone wall, whilst Birmingham and Manchester, whose mills paid for the wars of Europe, had no representative. 18 Purity in the elective Parliament is secured by the purchase of seats. 19 Foreign power is kept by armed colonies; power at home, by a standing army of police. The pauper lives better than the free laborer, the thief better than the pauper, and the transported felon better than the one under imprisonment. The crimes are factitious; as smuggling, poaching, nonconformity, heresy and treason. The sovereignty of the seas is maintained by the impressment of seamen. “The impressment of seamen,” said Lord Eldon, 20 “is the life of our navy.” Solvency is maintained by means of a national debt, on the principle, “If you will not lend me the money, how can I pay you?” For the administration of justice, Sir Samuel Romilly’s expedient for clearing the arrears of business in Chancery was, the Chancellor’s staying away entirely from his court. Their system of education is factitious. The Universities galvanize dead languages into a semblance of life. Their church is artificial. The manners and customs of society are artificial;—made-up men with made-up manners;—and thus the whole is Birminghamized, and we have a nation whose existence is a work of art;—a cold, barren, almost arctic isle being made the most fruitful, luxurious and imperial land in the whole earth.  32
  Man in England submits to be a product of political economy. On a bleak moor a mill is built, a banking-house is opened, and men come in as water in a sluice-way, and towns and cities rise. Man is made as a Birmingham button. The rapid doubling of the population dates from Watt’s steam-engine. A landlord who owns a province says, “The tenantry are unprofitable; let me have sheep.” He unroofs the houses and ships the population to America. 21 The nation is accustomed to the instantaneous creation of wealth. It is the maxim of their economists, “that the greater part in value of the wealth now existing in England has been produced by human hands within the last twelve months.” Meantime, three or four days’ rain will reduce hundreds to starving in London.  33
  One secret of their power is their mutual good understanding. Not only good minds are born among them, but all the people have good minds. Every nation has yielded some good wit, if, as has chanced to many tribes, only one. But the intellectual organization of the English admits a communicableness of knowledge and ideas among them all. An electric touch by any of their national ideas, melts them into one family and brings the hoards of power which their individuality is always hiving, into use and play for all. Is it the smallness of the country, or is it the pride and affection of race,—they have solidarity, or responsibleness, and trust in each other.  34
  Their minds, like wool, admit of a dye which is more lasting than the cloth. They embrace their cause with more tenacity than their life. Though not military, yet every common subject by the poll is fit to make a soldier of. These private, reserved, mute family-men can adopt a public end with all their heat, and this strength of affection makes the romance of their heroes. The difference of rank does not divide the national heart. The Danish poet Oehlenschläger complains that who writes in Danish writes to two hundred readers. 22 In Germany there is one speech for the learned, and another for the masses, to that extent that, it is said, no sentiment or phrase from the works of any great German writer is ever heard among the lower classes. But in England, the language of the noble is the language of the poor. In Parliament, in pulpits, in theatres, when the speakers rise to thought and passion, the language becomes idiomatic; the people in the street best understand the best words. And their language seems drawn from the Bible, the Common Law and the works of Shakspeare, Bacon, Milton, Pope, Young, Cowper, Burns and Scott. The island has produced two or three of the greatest men that ever existed, but they were not solitary in their own time. Men quickly embodied what Newton found out, in Greenwich observatories and practical navigation. The boys know all that Hutton 23 knew of strata, or Dalton of atoms, or Harvey of blood-vessels; and these studies, once dangerous, are in fashion. So what is invented or known in agriculture, or in trade, or in war, or in art, or in literature and antiquities. A great ability, not amassed on a few giants, but poured into the general mind, so that each of them could at a pinch stand in the shoes of the other; and they are more bound in character than differenced in ability or in rank. The laborer is a possible lord. The lord is a possible basket-maker. Every man carries the English system in his brain, knows what is confided to him and does therein the best he can. The chancellor carries England on his mace, the midshipman at the point of his dirk, the smith on his hammer, the cook in the bowl of his spoon; the postilion cracks his whip for England, and the sailor times his oars to “God save the King!” The very felons have their pride in each other’s English stanchness. In politics and in war they hold together as by hooks of steel. The charm in Nelson’s history is the unselfish greatness, the assurance of being supported to the uttermost by those whom he supports to the uttermost. Whilst they are some ages ahead of the rest of the world in the art of living; whilst in some directions they do not represent the modern spirit but constitute it;—this vanguard of civility and power they coldly hold, marching in phalanx, lockstep, foot after foot, file after file of heroes, ten thousand deep.  35
Note 1. Of George Stephenson, the introducer of the locomotive engine for railway use, and Chief Engineer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, Mr. Emerson writes in his journal: “At Chesterfield I dined in company with Stephenson, the old engineer, who built the first locomotive, and who is, in every way, one of the most remarkable men I have seen in England. I do not know but that I shall accept some day his reiterated invitation to ‘go to his house and stay a few days and see Chatsworth and other things.’” His son, Robert Stephenson, was exactly Mr. Emerson’s age. The tubular bridge over the Menai Straits was among his great engineering works.
  Isambard Brunel, son of the constructor of the Thames tunnel, took part in floating and raising the Conway and Britannia tubular bridges. [back]
Note 2. Henry de Bratton, or Bracton, in the thirteenth century, an ecclesiastic and jurist, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliæ, which is said to be “the first attempt to treat the whole extent of the English Law in a manner at once systematic and practical.”
  William Camden (1551–1623), the historian and antiquary, author of Britannia and of the Annals of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. The Camden Society, for publication of valuable literary and antiquarian matter, takes its name from him.
  Sir William Dugdale (1605–86), antiquarian and historian of extraordinary industry, to whom credit is due for his preservation of a vast amount of valuable and interesting records of the past legal, ecclesiastic, genealogical, artistic and heraldic.
  John Selden (1584–1654), jurist, antiquarian, orientalist and author.
  James Brindley (1716–72), a remarkable engineer who united the rivers of England—Mersey, Trent, Humber, Thames and Severn—by canals, and tunnelled Harecastle Hill.
  Josiah Wedgwood (1730–95), whose studies of the antique “raised British pottery to the level of a fine art.” [back]
Note 3. Antony à Wood’s Athenæ Oxoniensis. Carlyle presented these two fine folio volumes to Emerson in 1848. [back]
Note 4. Man’s Soule, p. 29. [back]
Note 5. Philip de Comines (1445–1509), whose abilities, and residence near Burgundy, necessarily deeply involved him in the political struggles between its duke and the king of France, each of whom he served in turn. His Memoirs are an important authority on the period, and to them is due much of the knowledge of the character of Louis XI. (portrayed by Sir Walter Scott in Quentin Durward). [back]
Note 6. Mr. Emerson’s friend, Professor Charles Eliot Norton, tells the story of an occurrence during their homeward voyage together from England in 1873. They were in the middle of the Atlantic, and in their talk the daring of Columbus was spoken of in his sailing on westward, week after week, without sight of land. Mr. Emerson said, “But Columbus had the compass. That was enough for a man of his quality.” Then, producing from his pocket a small compass, he said, “I always carry this with me. I like to hold the god in my hand.” [back]
Note 7. In a lecture on the Anglo-American, contrasting the hurry and daring shiftiness of the Western pioneer with the cautious thoroughness of the Briton, Mr. Emerson said, “The engine is built in the boat, which does not commend it to the Englishman. The knees, instead of grand old oak, are sawed out of refuse sapling.” [back]
Note 8. John Clerk, a merchant of Eldin, near Edinburgh, wrote “An Essay on Naval Tactics” in 1790 (2d and 3d parts in 1797), which gave rise to a controversy due to the claim of Clerk, supported by others, that his plans, which had been circulated in manuscript before publication, had been adopted by Admiral Rodney at Dominica in April, 1782. [back]
Note 9. In his History of the War in the Peninsula Napier says that “in the beginning of each war England has to seek in blood the knowledge necessary to insure success; and, like the fiend’s progress towards Eden, her conquering course is through chaos followed by death.” [back]
Note 10. In his indignation at the cold and threatening attitude of aristocratic and official England towards our country in the first years of the Civil War, Mr. Emerson wrote thus: “England has no higher worship than Fate…. Never a lofty sentiment, never a Duty to Civilization, never a generosity, a moral self-restraint. In sight of a commodity, her religion, her morals are forgotten. Why need we be religious? Have I not bishops and clergy at home punctually praying, and sanctimonious from head to foot? Have they not been paid their last year’s salary?”
  Of course, in thus saying, he would have fully admitted what he said in his journal of 1849: “There are two or three Englands, and it is difficult to speak emphatically of England without finding that we are saying that which is true of only one of these—false of the others.” [back]
Note 11. In the Norse mythology of the Edda. [back]
Note 12. Luke Hansard’s Journal of the House of Commons from 1774. [back]
Note 13. Sir Charles Fellowes on his travels discovered Xanthos, the capital of ancient Lycia, in 1838. His description of the remarkable architectural and sculptured remains there induced the British government to obtain permission for their excavation and removal to the British Museum. Mr. Emerson there saw with delight these treasures, under the guidance of Sir Charles Fellowes; especially the triumphal temple with the statues in honor of the twelve cities which sent aid to Harpagus in his reduction of Ionian cities. Mr. Emerson son calls the Greek sculpture in the Museum the “Illustration of Homer and Herodotus,” and adds, “England holds these things for mankind, and holds them well. Conservative, she is Conservator.” [back]
Note 14. Of the race, sifted by conscience and endurance, building their New Commonwealth in New England, he said:—
  The men of yore were stout and poor,
And sailed for bread to every shore.
And where they went on trade intent
  They did what freemen can,
Their dauntless ways did all men praise,
  The merchant was a man.
The world was made for honest trade,—
To plant and eat be none afraid.
“Boston,” Poems.    
Note 15. The Banshee in Irish legend was a familiar spirit of a household, whose cries prophesied their weal or woe. [back]
Note 16. Pope’s “Windsor Forest,” quoted by Mr. Emerson from memory and differing slightly from the original lines. [back]
Note 17. Mr. Emerson in a note to the earlier editions refers on this subject to the Memorial of Horatio Greenough (p. 66), published in New York in 1853. [back]
Note 18. In the chapter on “Aristocracy” in this volume it is stated that the possessions of the Earl of Lonsdale gave him eight seats in Parliament and that “before the Reform of 1832 one hundred and fifty-four persons sent three hundred and seven members to Parliament. The borough-mongers governed England.”
  The Reform Bill, passed in June of that year (which by its defeat the year before had occasioned terrible agitation throughout England, accompanied by riots), took away the right of representation from fifty-six “rotten boroughs,” and gave the one hundred and forty-three members it gained to counties or large towns which as yet sent no members to Parliament. [back]
Note 19. Mr. Emerson here noted that “Sir Samuel Romilly, purest of English patriots, decided that the only independent mode of entering Parliament was to buy a seat, and he bought Horsham.” See a passage with regard to this action in the end of the chapter “Results” in this volume. [back]
Note 20. John Scott, Earl of Eldon (1751–1838), the distinguished jurist, and Lord Chancellor of England for twenty-eight years. He was a stanch Tory and earnestly opposed Catholic emancipation and Parliamentary reform and all liberal measures. [back]
Note 21. Mr. Emerson used to read to his children for its pathetic eloquence a passage in which Coleridge related the words of an old shepherd on the recent cruel depopulation of the Highlands of Scotland by absentee chiefs and lairds. The old man, after describing the brave and self-respecting population of the strath in his youth, cries out, “And what is here now but a shepherd and an underling or two, and, it may be, a pair of small lads,—and a many, many sheep!” He tells of the laird who “raised a company to go to the battles overseas for the love that was borne to his name, and gained high preferment in consequence. And what were the thanks that the folks had for those that came back, some blind and more in danger of blindness, and for those that perished in the hospitals or fell in battle fighting before or beside him? Why, that their fathers were all turned out of their farms before the year was over, or sent to wander like so many gypsies, unless they would consent to shed their gray hairs at ten-pence a day over the new canals! Had there been a price set on his head, he needed but have whistled and a hundred brave lads would have made a wall of flame around him with the flash of their broad-swords. Now, if the French should come among us, let him whistle to his sheep and see if they will fight for him!” [back]
Note 22. Adam Gottlieb Oehlenschläger, for the reason given in the text, went to Germany and there became eminent as a writer of tragedies. He later went to Paris. Hakon Jarl, Correggio, and Land Lost and Found are among his pieces, the last based on the Norsemen’s discovery of America. [back]
Note 23. James Hutton, a man of wide education and of versatile gifts, turned his attention to geology, and wrote a Theory of the Earth, assuming that heat was the main agent in its changes. [back]

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.