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The Pilgrim, And The American Of Today–1892
by [?]

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.