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Reconstruction
by [?]

1865

In the glare of our civil war, certain truths, hitherto unobserved or guessed at merely, have been brought out with extraordinary sharpness of relief; and two of them have been specially impressive, the one for European observers, the other for ourselves. The first, and perhaps the most startling to the Old World watcher of the political skies, upon whose field of vision the flaming sword of our western heavens grew from a misty speck to its full comet-like proportions, perplexing them with fear of change, has been the amazing strength and no less amazing steadiness of democratic institutions. An army twice larger than England, with the help of bounties, drafts, and the purchase of foreign vagabonds, ever set in the field during the direst stress of her struggle with Napoleon has been raised in a single year by voluntary enlistment. A people untrained to bear the burden of heavy taxes not only devotes to the public service sums gathered by private subscription that in any other country would be deemed fabulous, but by sheer force of public opinion compels its legislators to the utmost ingenuity and searchingness of taxation. What was uttered as a sarcasm on the want of public spirit in Florence is here only literally true:–

“Many refuse to bear the common burden;
But thy solicitous people answereth
Unasked, and cries, ‘I bend my back to it.'”

And that the contrast may be felt in its fullest completeness, we must consider that no private soldier is tempted into the ranks by hopes of plunder, or driven into them by want of fair wages for fair work,–that no officer can look forward to the splendid prizes of hereditary wealth and title. Love of their country was the only incentive, its gratitude their only reward. And in the matter of taxation also, a willingness to help bear the common burden has more of generosity in it where the wealth of the people is in great part the daily result of their daily toil, and not a hoard inherited without merit, as without industry.

Nor have the qualities which lead to such striking results been exhibited only by the North. The same public spirit, though misled by wicked men for selfish ends, has shown itself in almost equal strength at the South. And in both cases it has been unmistakably owing to that living and active devotion of the people to institutions in whose excellence they share, and their habit of obedience to laws of their own making. If we have not hitherto had that conscious feeling of nationality, the ideal abstract of history and tradition, which belongs to older countries, compacted, by frequent war and united by memories of common danger and common triumph, it has been simply because our national existence has never been in such peril as to force upon us the conviction that it was both the title-deed of our greatness and its only safeguard. But what splendid possibilities has not our trial revealed even to ourselves! What costly stuff whereof to make a nation! Here at last is a state whose life is not narrowly concentred in a despot or a class, but feels itself in every limb; a government which is not a mere application of force from without, but dwells as a vital principle in the will of every citizen. Our enemies–and wherever a man is to be found bribed by an abuse, or who profits by a political superstition, we have a natural enemy–have striven to laugh and sneer and lie this apparition of royal manhood out of existence. They conspired our murder; but in this vision is the prophecy of a dominion which is to push them from their stools, and whose crown doth sear their eyeballs. America lay asleep, like the princess of the fairy tale, enchanted by prosperity; but at the first fiery kiss of war the spell is broken, the blood tingles along her veins again, and she awakes conscious of her beauty and her sovereignty.