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

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.