The Pilgrim, and the American of Today - 1892
by Charles Dudley Warner
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By Charles Dudley Warner

This December evening, the imagination, by a law of contrast, recalls another December night two hundred and seventy years ago. The circle of darkness is drawn about a little group of Pilgrims who have come ashore on a sandy and inhospitable coast. On one side is a vexed and wintry sea, three thousand miles of tossing waves and tempest, beyond which lie the home, the hedgerows and cottages, the church towers, the libraries and universities, the habits and associations of an old civilization, the strongest and dearest ties that can entwine around a human heart, abandoned now definitely and forever by these wanderers; on the other side a wintry forest of unknown extent, without highways, the lair of wild beasts, impenetrable except by trails known only to the savages, whose sudden appearance and disappearance adds mystery and terror to the impression the imagination has conjured up of the wilderness.

This darkness is symbolic. It stands for a vaster obscurity. This is an encampment on the edge of a continent, the proportions of which are unknown, the form of which is only conjectured. Behind this screen of forest are there hills, great streams, with broad valleys, ranges of mountains perhaps, vast plains, lakes, other wildernesses of illimitable extent? The adventurers on the James hoped they could follow the stream to highlands that looked off upon the South Sea, a new route to India and the Spice Islands. This unknown continent is attacked, it is true, in more than one place. The Dutch are at the mouth of the Hudson; there is a London company on the James; the Spaniards have been long in Florida, and have carried religion and civilization into the deserts of New Mexico. Nevertheless, the continent, vaster and more varied than was guessed, is practically undiscovered, untrodden. How inadequate to the subjection of any considerable portion of it seems this little band of ill-equipped adventurers, who cannot without peril of life stray a league from the bay where the "Mayflower" lies.

It is not to be supposed that the Pilgrims had an adequate conception of the continent, or of the magnitude of their mission on it, or of the nation to come of which they were laying the foundations. They did the duty that lay nearest to them; and the duty done today, perhaps without prescience of its consequences, becomes a permanent stone in the edifice of the future. They sought a home in a fresh wilderness, where they might be undisturbed by superior human authority; they had no doctrinarian notions of equality, nor of the inequality which is the only possible condition of liberty; the idea of toleration was not born in their age; they did not project a republic; they established a theocracy, a church which assumed all the functions of a state, recognizing one Supreme Power, whose will in human conduct they were to interpret. Already, however, in the first moment, with a true instinct of self-government, they drew together in the cabin of the "Mayflower" in an association—to carry out the divine will in society. But, behold how speedily their ideas expanded beyond the Jewish conception, necessarily expanded with opportunity and the practical self-dependence of colonies cut off from the aid of tradition, and brought face to face with the problems of communities left to themselves. Only a few years later, on the banks of the Connecticut, Thomas Hooker, the first American Democrat, proclaimed that "the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people," that "the choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people, by God's own allowance," that it is the right of the people not only to choose but to limit the power of their rulers, and he exhorted, "as God has given us liberty to take it." There, at that moment, in Hartford, American democracy was born; and in the republican union of the three towns of the Connecticut colony, Hartford, Windsor, and Wethersfield, was the germ of the American federal system, which was adopted into the federal constitution and known at the time as the "Connecticut Compromise."

It were not worth while for me to come a thousand miles to say this, or to draw over again for the hundredth time the character of the New England Pilgrim, nor to sketch his achievement on this continent. But it is pertinent to recall his spirit, his attitude toward life, and to inquire what he would probably do in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

It is another December night, before the dawn of a new year. And this night still symbolizes the future. You have subdued a continent, and it stands in the daylight radiant with a material splendor of which the Pilgrims never dreamed. Yet a continent as dark, as unknown, exists. It is yourselves, your future, your national life. The other continent was made, you had only to discover it, to uncover it. This you must make yourselves.

We have finished the outline sketch of a magnificent nation. The territory is ample; it includes every variety of climate, in the changing seasons, every variety of physical conformation, every kind of production suited to the wants, almost everything desired in the imagination, of man. It comes nearer than any empire in history to being self-sufficient, physically independent of the rest of the globe. That is to say, if it were shut off from the rest of the world, it has in itself the material for great comfort and civilization. And it has the elements of motion, of agitation, of life, because the vast territory is filling up with a rapidity unexampled in history. I am not saying that isolated it could attain the highest civilization, or that if it did touch a high one it could long hold it in a living growth, cut off from the rest of the world. I do not believe it. For no state, however large, is sufficient unto itself. No state is really alive in the highest sense whose receptivity is not equal to its power to contribute to the world with which its destiny is bound up. It is only at its best when it is a part of the vital current of movement, of sympathy, of hope, of enthusiasm of the world at large. There is no doctrine so belittling, so withering to our national life, as that which conceives our destiny to be a life of exclusion of the affairs and interests of the whole globe, hemmed in to the selfish development of our material wealth and strength, surrounded by a Chinese wall built of strata of prejudice on the outside and of ignorance on the inside. Fortunately it is a conception impossible to be realized.

There is something captivating to the imagination in being a citizen of a great nation, one powerful enough to command respect everywhere, and so just as not to excite fear anywhere. This proud feeling of citizenship is a substantial part of a man's enjoyment of life; and there is a certain compensation for hardships, for privations, for self-sacrifice, in the glory of one's own country. It is not a delusion that one can afford to die for it. But what in the last analysis is the object of a government? What is the essential thing, without which even the glory of a nation passes into shame, and the vastness of empire becomes a mockery? I will not say that it is the well-being of every individual, because the term well-being—the 'bien etre' of the philosophers of the eighteenth century—has mainly a materialistic interpretation, and may be attained by a compromise of the higher life to comfort, and even of patriotism to selfish enjoyment.

That is the best government in which the people, and all the people, get the most out of life; for the object of being in this world is not primarily to build up a government, a monarchy, an aristocracy, a democracy, or a republic, or to make a nation, but to live the best sort of life that can be lived.

We think that our form of government is the one best calculated to attain this end. It is of all others yet tried in this world the one least felt by the people, least felt as an interference in the affairs of private life, in opinion, in conscience, in our freedom to attain position, to make money, to move from place to place, and to follow any career that is open to our ability. In order to maintain this freedom of action, this non-interference, we are bound to resist centralization of power; for a central power in a republic, grasped and administered by bosses, is no more tolerable than central power in a despotism, grasped and administered by a hereditary aristocrat. Let us not be deceived by names. Government by the consent of the people is the best government, but it is not government by the people when it is in the hands of political bosses, who juggle with the theory of majority rule. What republics have most to fear is the rule of the boss, who is a tyrant without responsibility. He makes the nominations, he dickers and trades for the elections, and at the end he divides the spoils. The operation is more uncertain than a horse race, which is not decided by the speed of the horses, but by the state of the wagers and the manipulation of the jockeys. We strike directly at his power for mischief when we organize the entire civil service of the nation and of the States on capacity, integrity, experience, and not on political power.

And if we look further, considering the danger of concentration of power in irresponsible hands, we see a new cause for alarm in undue federal mastery and interference. This we can only resist by the constant assertion of the rights, the power, the dignity of the individual State, all that it has not surrendered in the fundamental constitution of the Republic. This means the full weight of the State, as a State, as a political unit, in the election of President; and the full weight of the State, as a State, as a political unit, without regard to its population, in the senate of the United States. The senate, as it stands, as it was meant to be in the Constitution, is the strongest safeguard which the fundamental law established against centralization, against the tyranny of mere majorities, against the destruction of liberty, in such a diversity of climates and conditions as we have in our vast continent. It is not a mere check upon hasty legislation; like some second chambers in Europe, it is the representative of powers whose preservation in their dignity is essential to the preservation of the form of our government itself.

We pursue the same distribution of power and responsibility when we pass to the States. The federal government is not to interfere in what the State can do and ought to do for itself; the State is not to meddle with what the county can best do for itself; nor the county in the affairs best administered by the town and the municipality. And so we come to the individual citizen. He cannot delegate his responsibility. The government even of the smallest community must be, at least is, run by parties and by party machinery. But if he wants good government, he must pay as careful attention to the machinery,—call it caucus, primary, convention, town-meeting,—as he does to the machinery of his own business. If he hands it over to bosses, who make politics a trade for their own livelihood, he will find himself in the condition of stockholders of a bank whose directors are mere dummies, when some day the cashier packs the assets and goes on a foreign journey for his health. When the citizen simply does his duty in the place where he stands, the boss will be eliminated, in the nation, in the State, in the town, and we shall have, what by courtesy we say we have now, a government by the people. Then all the way down from the capital to the city ward, we shall have vital popular government, free action, discussion, agitation, life. What an anomaly it is, that a free people, reputed shrewd and intelligent, should intrust their most vital interests, the making of their laws, the laying of their taxes, the spending of their money, even their education and the management of their public institutions, into the keeping of political bosses, whom they would not trust to manage the least of their business affairs, nor to arbitrate on what is called a trial of speed at an agricultural fair.

But a good government, the best government, is only an opportunity. However vast the country may become in wealth and population, it cannot rise in quality above the average of the majority of its citizens; and its goodness will be tested in history by its value to the average man, not by its bigness, not by its power, but by its adaptability to the people governed, so as to develop the best that is in them. It is incidental and imperative that the country should be an agreeable one to live in; but it must be more than that, it must be favorable to the growth of the higher life. The Puritan community of Massachusetts Bay, whose spirit we may happily contrast with that of the Pilgrims whose anniversary we celebrate, must have been as disagreeable to live in as any that history records; not only were the physical conditions of life hard, but its inquisitorial intolerance overmatched that which it escaped in England. It was a theocratic despotism, untempered by recreation or amusement, and repressive not only of freedom of expression but of freedom of thought. But it had an unconquerable will, a mighty sense of duty, a faith in God, which not only established its grip upon the continent but carried its influence from one ocean to the other. It did not conquer by its bigotry, by its intolerance, its cruel persecuting spirit, but by its higher mental and spiritual stamina. These lower and baser qualities of the age of the Puritans leave a stain upon a great achievement; it took Massachusetts almost two centuries to cast them off and come into a wholesome freedom, but the vital energy and the recognition of the essential verities inhuman life carried all the institutions of the Puritans that were life-giving over the continent.

Here in the West you are near the centre of a vast empire, you feel its mighty pulse, the throb and heartbeat of its immense and growing strength. Some of you have seen this great civilization actually grow on the vacant prairies, in the unoccupied wilderness, on the sandy shores of the inland seas. You have seen the trails of the Indian and the deer replaced by highways of steel, and upon the spots where the first immigrants corralled their wagons, and the voyagers dragged their canoes upon the reedy shore, you have seen arise great cities, centres of industry, of commerce, of art, attaining in a generation the proportions and the world-wide fame of cities that were already famous before the discovery of America.

Naturally the country is proud of this achievement. Naturally we magnify our material prosperity. But in this age of science and invention this development may be said to be inevitable, and besides it is the necessary outlet of the energy of a free people. There must be growth of cities, extension of railways, improvement of agriculture, development of manufactures, amassing of wealth, concentration of capital, beautifying of homes, splendid public buildings, private palaces, luxury, display. Without reservoirs of wealth there would be no great universities, schools of science, museums, galleries of art, libraries, solid institutions of charity, and perhaps not the wide diffusion of culture which is the avowed aim of modern civilization.

But this in its kind is an old story. It is an experiment that has been repeated over and over. History is the record of the rise of splendid civilizations, many of which have flowered into the most glorious products of learning and of art, and have left monuments of the proudest material achievements. Except in the rapidity with which steam and electricity have enabled us to move to our object, and in the discoveries of science which enable us to relieve suffering and prolong human life, there is nothing new in our experiment. We are pursuing substantially the old ends of material success and display. And the ends are not different because we have more people in a nation, or bigger cities with taller buildings, or more miles of railway, or grow more corn and cotton, or make more plows and threshing-machines, or have a greater variety of products than any nation ever had before. I fancy that a pleased visitor from another planet the other day at Chicago, who was shown an assembly much larger than ever before met under one roof, might have been interested to know that it was also the wisest, the most cultivated, the most weighty in character of any assembly ever gathered under one roof. Our experiment on this continent was intended to be something more than the creation of a nation on the old pattern, that should become big and strong, and rich and luxurious, divided into classes of the very wealthy and the very poor, of the enlightened and the illiterate. It was intended to be a nation in which the welfare of the people is the supreme object, and whatever its show among nations it fails if it does not become this. This welfare is an individual matter, and it means many things. It includes in the first place physical comfort for every person willing and deserving to be physically comfortable, decent lodging, good food, sufficient clothing. It means, in the second place, that this shall be an agreeable country to live in, by reason of its impartial laws, social amenities, and a fair chance to enjoy the gifts of nature and Providence. And it means, again, the opportunity to develop talents, aptitudes for cultivation and enjoyment, in short, freedom to make the most possible out of our lives. This is what Jefferson meant by the "pursuit of happiness"; it was what the Constitution meant by the "general welfare," and what it tried to secure in States, safe-guarded enough to secure independence in the play of local ambition and home rule, and in a federal republic strong enough to protect the whole from foreign interference. We are in no vain chase of an equality which would eliminate all individual initiative, and check all progress, by ignoring differences of capacity and strength, and rating muscles equal to brains. But we are in pursuit of equal laws, and a fairer chance of leading happy lives than humanity in general ever had yet. And this fairer chance would not, for instance, permit any man to become a millionaire by so manipulating railways that the subscribing towns and private stockholders should lose their investments; nor would it assume that any Gentile or Jew has the right to grow rich by the chance of compelling poor women to make shirts for six cents apiece. The public opinion which sustains these deeds is as un-American, and as guilty as their doers. While abuses like these exist, tolerated by the majority that not only make public opinion, but make the laws, this is not a government for the people, any more than a government of bosses is a government by the people.

The Pilgrims of Plymouth could see no way of shaping their lives in accordance with the higher law except by separating themselves from the world. We have their problem, how to make the most of our lives, but the conditions have changed. Ours is an age of scientific aggression, fierce competition, and the widest toleration. The horizon of humanity is enlarged. To live the life now is to be no more isolated or separate, but to throw ourselves into the great movement of thought, and feeling, and achievement. Therefore we are altruists in charity, missionaries of humanity, patriots at home. Therefore we have a justifiable pride in the growth, the wealth, the power of the nation, the state, the city. But the stream cannot rise above its source. The nation is what the majority of its citizens are. It is to be judged by the condition of its humblest members. We shall gain nothing over other experiments in government, although we have money enough to buy peace from the rest of the world, or arms enough to conquer it, although we rear upon our material prosperity a structure of scientific achievement, of art, of literature unparalleled, if the common people are not sharers in this great prosperity, and are not fuller of hope and of the enjoyment of life than common people ever were before.

And we are all common people when it comes to that. Whatever the greatness of the nation, whatever the accumulation of wealth, the worth of the world to us is exactly the worth of our individual lives. The magnificent opportunity in this Republic is that we may make the most possible out of our lives, and it will continue only as we adhere to the original conception of the Republic. Politics without virtue, money-making without conscience, may result in great splendor, but as such an experiment is not new, its end can be predicted. An agreeable home for a vast, and a free, and a happy people is quite another thing. It expects thrift, it expects prosperity, but its foundations are in the moral and spiritual life.

Therefore I say that we are still to make the continent we have discovered and occupied, and that the scope and quality of our national life are still to be determined. If they are determined not by the narrow tenets of the Pilgrims, but by their high sense of duty, and of the value of the human soul, it will be a nation that will call the world up to a higher plane of action than it ever attained before, and it will bring in a new era of humanity. If they are determined by the vulgar successes of a mere material civilization, it is an experiment not worth making. It would have been better to have left the Indians in possession, to see if they could not have evolved out of their barbarism some new line of action.

The Pilgrims were poor, and they built their huts on a shore which gave such niggardly returns for labor that the utmost thrift was required to secure the necessaries of life. Out of this struggle with nature and savage life was no doubt evolved the hardihood, the endurance, that builds states and wins the favors of fortune. But poverty is not commonly a nurse of virtue, long continued, it is a degeneration. It is almost as difficult for the very poor man to be virtuous as for the very rich man; and very good and very rich at the same time, says Socrates, a man cannot be. It is a great people that can withstand great prosperity. The condition of comfort without extremes is that which makes a happy life. I know a village of old-fashioned houses and broad elm-shaded streets in New England, indeed more than one, where no one is inordinately rich, and no one is very poor, where paupers are so scarce that it is difficult to find beneficiaries for the small traditionary contribution for the church poor; where the homes are centres of intelligence, of interest in books, in the news of the world, in the church, in the school, in politics; whence go young men and women to the colleges, teachers to the illiterate parts of the land, missionaries to the city slums. Multiply such villages all over the country, and we have one of the chief requisites for an ideal republic.

This has been the longing of humanity. Poets have sung of it; prophets have had visions of it; statesmen have striven for it; patriots have died for it. There must be somewhere, some time, a fruitage of so much suffering, so much sacrifice, a land of equal laws and equal opportunities, a government of all the people for the benefit of all the people; where the conditions of living will be so adjusted that every one can make the most out of his life, neither waste it in hopeless slavery nor in selfish tyranny, where poverty and crime will not be hereditary generation after generation, where great fortunes will not be for vulgar ostentation, but for the service of humanity and the glory of the State, where the privileges of freemen will be so valued that no one will be mean enough to sell his vote nor corrupt enough to attempt to buy a vote, where the truth will at last be recognized, that the society is not prosperous when half its members are lucky, and half are miserable, and that that nation can only be truly great that takes its orders from the Great Teacher of Humanity.

And, lo! at last here is a great continent, virgin, fertile, a land of sun and shower and bloom, discovered, organized into a great nation, with a government flexible in a distributed home rule, stiff as steel in a central power, already rich, already powerful. It is a land of promise. The materials are all here. Will you repeat the old experiment of a material success and a moral and spiritual failure? Or will you make it what humanity has passionately longed for? Only good individual lives can do that.


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