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Pilgrim and American by Charles Dudley Warner

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This etext was produced by David Widger


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

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

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

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

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

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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