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ART. V. - The History of the United States of America,
from the Discovery of the Continent to the Organization of Government under the Federal Constitution. By RICHARD HILDRETH. In three volumes. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1849.
At the present day, the United States present one of the most interesting and important political phenomena ever offered in the history of mankind. England has planted her colonies in New Holland, in New Zealand, in the East and the West Indies, at Cape Good Hope, and at Labrador; at Mauritius, Gibraltar, and in the Islands of the Pacific. She has forced an entrance into China; she longs to get firm footing in Borneo and Nicaragua. Wheresoever her children wander, they carry the seed out of which British institutions are sure to grow; institutions, however, which never produce their like, but nobler and better on another soil. Omitting all mention of Ireland, abundantly treated in a previous article, America was the oldest of these colonies; the first to detach itself from the parent stem, and is, perhaps, the prophecy of what most of the others are destined to become.
It must be a vigorous tribe of men which can hold so vast a portion of the Earth, while themselves are so few in numbers. Three hundred years ago, in the reign of Edward the Sixth, England was a third-rate power in Europe. Her population was less than three millions, her exports were trifling, and consisted of the raw materials of her clumsy agriculture, and her mineral treasures, which the Tyrians had traversed the ocean to purchase two thousand years before. Her soil could hardly raise a salad. Scotland was independent; Ireland not wholly subject to English rule ; Wales had but lately been added to her realm. She was remarkable chiefly for the stormy seas which girt the Isle, and the chalky cliffs along her shore ; for the fogs that cover it; for the rudeness of her inhabitants, and the tough valor of her soldiers. Now, in three hundred years, England contains some seventeen millions of inhabitants, Scotland and Ireland, ten millions more. Russia, Austria, and France, are the only nations in Europe that outnumber her in population. Turkey, with nine millions, and Spain, with twelve, are powerless beside her. Her ships are in all the oceans of the world ; the sun never sets on her flay; her subjects capture the whale at Baffin's Bay, and the elephant in India; they sport at hunting lions in South Africa." Her navigators, with scientific hardihood, explore each corner of the northern sea, or, locked in ice, wait the slow hand of death, or the slower sun of an arctic summer. She has climes too cold for the reindeer; climes too hot almost for the sugar-cane and the pine-apple; the lean larch of Scotland, and the banyan-tree of Hindostan, both grow in the same empire. Esquimaux, Gaboon, and Sanscrit, are tongues subject to Britain. At least an eighth part of the men now living in the world owe allegiance to the queen of that little island.
Her children came to America when the nation was in all the vigor of its most rapid growth. The progress of their descendants in population and in wealth has been without parallel. Two hundred and fifty years ago, there was not an English settler in the United States ; now the population is not far from two and twenty millions; two-thirds of the people are of English origin. The increase of property has been more rapid than that of numbers. In fifty years, Boston has multiplied her inhabitants nearly five fold, and her property more than twenty-five fold in the same time. The increase of intelligence is very remarkable, and probably surpasses that of property.
The Americans are now trying a political experiment which has hitherto been looked on with great suspicion and even horror. Here is a Democracy on a large scale; a church without a bishop; a state without a king ; society (in the Free States) without the theoretical distinction of patrician and plebeian. What is more surprising, the experiment succeeds better than its most sanguine friends ever dared to hope. The evils which were apprehended have not yet befallen us. The “Red Republic,” which hostile prophets foretold, has not come to pass; there are “red” monarchies, enough of them, the other side of the world, born red ; doomed, we fear, to die in that sad livery of woe; but in America, the person of the citizen is still respected quite as much as in Austria and England ; and nowhere in the world is property safer or so much honored; the lovers of liberty here are lovers of order as its condition. Even Mr. Carlyle, accustomed to speak of America with bitterness and contempt, and of the ballot-box with loathing and nausea, confesses to the success of the experiment so far as wealth and numbers are concerned. Indeed, it is a matter of rejoicing to warm-hearted men, that we have cotton to cover and corn to feed the thousands of exiles who yearly are driven by hunger from England, to seek a home or a grave on the soil of America. It is interesting to study the growth of the American people ; to observe the progress of the idea on which the government rests, and the attempts to make the idea an institution.
This is one of the few great nations which can trace its history back to certain beginnings; there is no fabulous period in our annals ; no mythical centuries, when
Οι πρώτα μεν βλέποντες έβλεπον μάτην, ,
Μύρμηκες, άντρων έν μυχούς ανηλίοις. To be rightly appreciated, American history requires to be written by a democrat. A theocrat would condemn our institutions for lacking an established church with its privileged priesthood; an aristocrat, for the absence of conventional nobility. Military men might sneer at the smallness of the army and navy; and æsthetic men deplore the want of a splendid court, the lack of operatic and other spectacles in the large towns. The democrat looks for the substantial welfare of the people, and studies America with reference to that point. At present, America is not remarkable for her literature or her art; she has made respectable advances in science, but her industrial works and her political institutions are by far her most remarkable achievements hitherto. We are not sanguine enough to suppose that all the advantages of all the other forms of government are to be secured in this, but yet trust that the most valuable things will be preserved here. In due time, we doubt not the higher results of civilization will appear, and we shall estimate the greatness of the nation not merely by its numbers, its cotton, its cattle, and its corn. But “that is not first which is spiritual.” First of all, the imperious wants of the body must be attended to, - the woods are to be felled, the log-cabins built, the corn got into the ground, the wild beasts destroyed, the savages kept at peace. There must be many generations between the woodsman who erects the first shanty of logs, and the poet who sheds immortal beauty on logs and lumberers. Were there not ages between the wooden hut of Arcadian Pelasgos in Greece, and the Parthenon ? From mythical Cecrops to Aristophanes, the steps are many, each a generation. The genius of Liberty only asks two things — time and space. Space enough she has, all America is before her; time she takes possession of fast enough, only a second at once; and, in the course of ages, we think she will make her mark on the world. Up to this time, the achievements of America are, taken as a whole, such as we need not much blush at. Some things there were and are to be ashamed of — not of the whole. That dreadful blot of slavery remains yet, an Ireland in America; among the whites, on the one hand, causing the most shameful poltroonery which modern times can redden at, and, on the other, calling forth heroism, that seems almost enough to redeem the wickedness which has brought it to light. But, turning to that half of the nation free from direct personal contact with this sin of the state, forgetting for a moment the foolishness of “political sages,” the cowardice of those leaders who never dare enact justice as a statute, but take the responsibility of making iniquity a law, and omitting the defalcation of men who forsake their habitual worship of a calf of gold, to bow down before a face of dough,— there is certainly a gratifying spectacle. Here are some fifteen millions of free men, trying the voluntary system in church and state, richer than any other people of the same numbers in the world, and with the aggregate wealth of the nation more equally distributed; a nation well fed, well clothed, well housed, industrious, temperate, well governed, and respecting one another and themselves; that certainly is something. In all that territory there are probably more muskets in the hands of private men than there are habitations, yet not one is kept for actual defence; and, through the Free States, no soldier walks abroad with loaded gun; only in the large towns is there a visible police. There are not two thousand soldiers of the state in all that territory, and they are as inoffensive to the citizens as the scarecrows in the field, only not so useful, nor so well paying for their keep. Of this population, some three millions are in the public schools, academies, and colleges. Nowhere are churches so numerous, or so well attended ; nowhere such indications of happiness, comfort, intelligence, morality among the mass of men. This, we repeat, is something. We have no very great men; we have never had such. An Alexander, a Cæsar, a Charlemagne, a Napoleon, we have not had. Perhaps we never shall; but it is hardly worth while to go into mourning yet for the absence of such. Great artists, poets, philosophers, men of letters, we have not had, hitherto.
We have shown no great respect for such, to our shame be it spoken; but in due time we may trust that they also will come and shine for ages, with the halo of genius around their brow. However, it does seem a little remarkable that, in America, every thing seems to be done democratically — by the combined force of many men with moderate abilities, and not by one man of Herculean powers. It was so in the early periods of the nation; so in the Revolution, and so now. It has always been so with the Teutonic tribes of men, much more than with the nations from the Shemitic stock. With them there comes a Moses, or a Mohammed, who overrides a nation for one or two thousand years, and its progress seems to be by a series of leaps; while the western nations, with less nationalism, and more individualism, accomplish less in that way, but slope upwards by a more gradual ascent. In the English Revolution, there was no one great man who condensed the age into himself, and created the institutions of coming generations, as Moses and Mohammed have done : spite of the great abilities and great services of Cromwell, no just historian will claim that for him. It was so in the American Revolution; so in the French. Washington led our armies, and Napoleon the legions of France, but neither gave the actors the idea which was slowly or suddenly to be realized in institutions.
It is an interesting work to trace the growth of the American people from their humble beginnings to their present condition; to discover and point out the causes which have helped that growth, and the causes which have hindered it. To a philosophical historian this is no unpromising field; the facts are well known; it is easy to ascertain the ideas out of which the general political institutions of America have grown; it is not difficult to see the historical causes which have modified these institutions, giving them their present character and form. None but a democrat can thoroughly appreciate that history. As the history of Christianity must be written by a Christian who can write from within, and the history of art by a man with an artistic soul, so must the history of America be written by a democrat- we mean one who puts man before the accidents of man, valuing his permanent nature more than the transient results of his history.
American history, up to the adoption of the Federal Constitution, forms a whole, and has a certain unity which is not obvious at first sight. The several colonies were getting established, learning to stand alone; they were quite unlike in their