« AnteriorContinuar »
The war of the American Revolution, which established the Independence of the United States, was, beyond question, the most momentous era in the political history of the world. Other periods have, indeed, produced instances of the highest public virtue, -of elevated, fervent and incorruptible patriotism, -of fidelity, fortitude and heroism, which cannot be surpassed, and have been rarely approached. Oppressions more galling than any of which the British Colonies of '76 could complain, have been bravely and successfully resisted; and gallant achievements for liberty and country, have been won, from time to time, by those magnanimous spirits who rise occasionally in the darkest periods, to vindicate, by their actions and virtues, the essential dignity of human nature. But theirs were solitary and partial efforts in advance of the intelligence of the age. The institutions, which sprung from their success, designed to secure the rights wrested by force from the hands of tyrants, lacked the self-sustaining vigor of an enlightened public opinion. Resistance to oppression, glorious in its triumph, unfortunately produced no fruits beyond temporary relief. The securities for good government arising from constitutional limitations upon power, and the supremacy of law, were beyond their capacity; and their victories were accordingly, transient anarchies, in the intervals of a perpetually renewed despotism. Hence the noblest conquests over tyranny failed to affect permanently the general course of events, or to impress upon the mass of opinions'a popular direction. That fleeting liberty which was gained in one country, touched not the sympa. thies nor kindled the emulation of another. The very next generation, corrupted by power and indulgence, or wearied by turbulence and anarchy, and unconscious of those defects in themselves, by which stability and peace were frustrated, forfeited those dearly won privileges, and relapsed into that state of passive debasement, from which, under the guidance of one or two master minds, they had for a while emerged.
The American Revolution was, however, of a different character. It was the natural offspring of a state of society, rapidly advancing, under circumstances, moral and physical, peculiarly favourable to general improvement. The sagacity, virtue, and heroism, by which it was distinguished, were not alone the traits of illustrious men, but the characteristics of a nation, educated and disciplined in the knowledge of their rights. The conflict was waged on principles clearly defined, and for specific objects. Success therefore only consolidated liberties which were understood before they were fought for, into a system adapted to the matured intelli gence of the people, and sustained as well by their approving judgments, as by their affections. With them to retrograde into slavery was impossible, because their intellectual cultivation and moral qualities, harmonized with the institutions they established; and these being in their nature progressive, all must advance together. The effect upon other nations, has not been less dissimilar. Astonishment and admiration and sympathy soon ripened into zeal to imitate, as the success of American example in self-government tested the doctrines of the American Revolution, and proved their soundness. A new impulse communicated itself to the nations nearest in political condition, and most closely connected by facilities of intercourse, and habits of thought. Vast changes in the principles and framework of governments have already been silently or violently effected; still more extensive and important are plainly at hand. In all the theories of human rights --in the policy of administrations and cabinets; in the innermost form and texture of that intricate combination of interests and relations by which men are connected together in society,--substantial reforms are in progress every where throughout the civilized globe ; and all are parts of a stupendous series of organic changes, of which the American Revolution marks the first era.
Momentous as was that era in its consequences, it was scarcely less remarkable in the combination and succession of events, by which it was preceded. The discovery of America at the close of the 15th century concurred most
propitiously with the condition of Europe at the time, to strengthen the infant spirit of liberty that had been struggling in vain against hostile institutions, and to prepare a new unlimited field for its nurture and growth. Just when the wants of civilized man most seemed to need it.-when the pressure of antiquated misrule was most heavily felt, and no practicable scheme of relief on the spot of its predominance seemed possible - an unoccupied hemisphere was thrown open to him. There, ardent spirits, who found the sphere of action at home limited to too narrow a circle by the tyrannical customs and prescriptions of centuries, and the oppressed and destitute, made so by artificial restraints upon industry, and the extortions and abuses of legalized despotism, joyfully sought a new country. The impatient energies, that at home had exhausted themselves vainly in combating against barriers that were yet too strong to be broken through, here overflowed without restraint, and spread themselves over a vast continent, taming the savage, reclaiming the forests, battling fearlessly against all the terrors of solitude and the wilderness, ferocious wild beasts, and fiercer men, to build up institutions fresh from the hands of nature, and suited to their new position, and improved understanding of their rights. Thus was a peculiar people trained up to habits of independence, and experience of the benefits and usages of liberty, under circumstances more favorable than had ever been enjoyed by any people before ; developing by the severest discipline the physical powers of the human frame, and giving the fullest scope to the natural motions of the intellect. This rare combination of moral and social phenomena, tended harmoniously to the same end--the establishment of a common principle of repugnance to arbitrary power, and the assertion for the first time, of the doctrines of popular sovereignty, by the final erection of the American republics.
A slight glance at the comparative rate of progress in social improvements, in both hemispheres, before and since the impetus given at the era of the discovering of America, will signally illustrate its importance in political history. The seeds of liberty, which took such instant root, and flourished with such luxuriance here, and have grown with such rapidity elsewhere, -existed long before in Europe. But they had been sown in barren and stony ground, and though nurtured by the toils, and oftentimes
watered by the blood of early martyrs, they sustained them. selves feebly against a superincumbent mass of ancient abuses. While the revival of learning, after the darkness of the middle ages, gave a new impulse to the human mind, and the discoveries and inventions by which it was subsequently signalized, perpetuated its new achievements, and have carried it progressively onwards, the natural influence of increased knowledge, upon public liberty, was tardy in manifesting itself in the improvement of governments, or in the elevation of the condition of the people. To partial observation, looking at immediate effects, that influence would seem to have been hostile to freedom. The student of history finds despotism temporarily strengthened as knowledge increased. The resources of learning, applied by the most active intellects, evidently sharpened, for a season, the weapons of arbitrary power, and ministered sedulously to the ruling temper of the times, devising artful defences for its excesses, and new instruments for securing its unresisted ascendency. The alliance between tyranny, which is the natural form of all unlimited power, and knowledge, which is its natural enemy, is, in the early stages of the latter, as seen in the history of foreign governments, apparently complete. In later times, it has been also found that men of the highest range of intellect, have employed their superiority to uphold the most odious systems of government, and to extinguish those desires for political rights, which have sprung chiefly from the enlarged knowledge, to which themselves have so much contributed. Striving earnestly against popular movements, they, at the same time, spent their lives in pursuits which have prepared the world for the very changes they deplored. The explanation of this apparent anomaly, instead of disproving the inherent sympathy between knowledge and freedom, gives an eminent proof of their affinity, under all circumstances, and in despite of all personal passions, individual influences, and temporary delusions. The selfish principle peculiar to the age, and the selfish principle of our common nature, were both to be encountered and overthrown, before the beneficent influences of civilization could be made to reach the mass of the community, and elevate them. The thirst for power and booty was the ruling passion of the privileged classes, and learning and mental acquirements were only valued as ministers to that appetite. They were additional weapons for foiling enemies, conquering and enslaving the weak, and strengthening the strong, -and were so estimated only in comparison with other instruments. They were rather contemned in the comparison with bodily strength, because their influences were less obvious. Even when they became more highly considered, they were employed, with few exceptions, in advancing selfish objects, and for personal aggrandizement. Thus for a long series of years, and through various fortunes, knowledge as the great agent of human improvement, struggled not only against the errors and institutions of antiquity, but against the dominant temper of the times, and the selfish principles of its possessor and followers.
The condition of society during the progress of this struggle, while it bears testimony to the arduous conflict which the growing spirit of liberty was waging with its antagonists, furnishes other arguments for the opponents of popular license, much more honourable to human nature, than the baser passions of pride and ambition, with which they were mingled.
It is not to be denied, that in those days, the multitude were incapable of government, or of any proper use of their faculties, in judging of affairs of state. Ignorant and brutal,-taught from infancy to know nothing but the law of force, and the will of a master scarcely less brutal and ignorant,-they were, without question, a stolid and insensate mass, whom power alone could restrain, and to whom free. dom was a word as unintelligible as it now is to the bodyguard of an African chief. So the first dawning of civilization found them, and so the first master spirits saw them, the more clearly as themselves were more highly elevated. Knowledge of civil rights, which is the growth of a general increase of intelligence, spread but slowly, even when the most rapid advance was made by individuals in science and the arts: what wonder is it, then, that direct fear of the savage excesses of an ignorant multitude should have prevailed over vague and unformed notions of a human perfectibility, of which there was no present token nor promise? Having no means of safety for all the growing interests of society, save in the strength of those classes which held the power to protect, and which, by their position and their limited numbers, were within the reach of improvement, it ought not to surprise us, that men of the best intentions and widest range of intellect and acquirement should have been the advocates of monarchy, the defenders of established institu: