Changes in American Society
September 10, 1880 — American Social Science Association, Saratoga Springs NY
I have been invited to speak to you to-day concerning changes in American society. In preparing to consider this subject, I cannot but remember that the very question of social change is to some people an open one. The supposition of any real onward movement in society is as unwelcome and as untrue to these persons as was Galileo’s theory concerning the revolution of the earth around the sun. They will assert, as indeed they may, that the same crimes are committed in all ages, with the same good deeds to counterbalance them and that the capital tendencies of human nature are always substantially the same. This also must be allowed. The error of these friends consists in overlooking the most characteristic and human of these tendencies, which is that of progressive desire. This trait, deeper and stronger than the mere love of change, pushes the whole heterogeneous mass of humanity onward in a way from which there is no return.
The laws of human motive and action, meanwhile, remain as steadfast and immovable as the laws by whose application Galileo made his discovery. To discern at once the steadfast truth and its metamorphic developments will be the task of the greatest wisdom.
When Theodore Parker invited the religious world to consider the transient and the permanent elements of Christianity, he made a popular application of a truth long known to philosophy. This truth is that life in all of its aspects exhibits these two opposite qualities or conditions. Much is transient in the individual, more is permanent in the race.
The study of anthropology, so greatly enriched to-day by discovery and investigation, would give us much to say under both of these heads, but most, I think, under the last.
I remember that in reading Livy’s history of the second Punic war, in our own war time, I was struck by certain resemblances between the time in which he wrote and that in which I read him. When I learned from his pages that the merchants and ship-owners of ancient Rome managed to impose the most worthless of their vessels upon the government for the transport of troops and provisions, I exclaimed, “What Yankees these Romans were!”
In reading some well-known satires of Horace I have been struck with the resemblance of the ancient to the modern bore. Boileau’s famous take-off of the dinner given by a parvenu is scarcely more than a French adaptation of the feast of Nasidienus, as described by the Roman bard who was Boileau’s model.
In Virgil’s account of the good housewife, who rises early in order to measure out the work of the household, and in Solomon’s description of the thrifty woman of his time, one sees the value set upon feminine industry and economy in times far removed from our own, yet resembling it in this appreciation.
On the other hand, the dissimilarity of ancient and modern society is equally seen in the same mirror of literature. The mention of matters which, by common consent, are banished from decent speech to-day, the position of Woman, from the vestal virgin buried alive for breach of trust to the devium scortum, whom Horace frankly invites to his feast, the gross superstition which saw in religion little save portents and propitiation, — these mark on the dial of history an hour as distant from our own in sympathy as in time.
You will wish to hear from me some account of changes which have come within the sphere of my own observation, both as I have been able to see for myself, and to compare what I have seen with what I have received from the generation immediately preceding my own. Let me remind you that, with all the advantages of personal observation, it may be more difficult for us to give a true account of the age to which we belong than of more distant times, upon which thought and reflection have already done their critical and explanatory work. Familiarity so dulls the edge of perception, as to make us least acquainted with things and persons making part of our daily life. Mindful of these difficulties, I will do my best to characterize the threescore years which have carried me into and out of the heart of the nineteenth century.
I have seen in this time a great growth in the direction of liberal thought, of popular government, of just laws and useful institutions. I have seen human powers so multiplied by mechanical appliances as to destroy the old measures of time and distance, and almost to justify the veto once laid by the great Napoleon upon the use of the word “impossible”: “Ne me dîtes jamais ce bête de mot,” said he; and it has now become more bête than ever.
What feature of society has not changed in the phantasmagoria of these wonderful lustres? Each decade has made a fool of the one which went before it. Whether in the region of extended observation and experiment, or in that of subtle and profound investigation, human effort has seemed in this time to put itself at compound interest, working at once with matters infinitely little and with matters infinitely great, and surely introducing mankind to a higher plane of comfort and co-operation than has been reached in anterior ages.
While the mechanism of life has thus been brought much nearer to perfection by the labor of our age, the principles of life remain such as they have always been.
Pile luxury as high as you will, health is better, and the body of a well-fed and not over-worked ploughman is, nine times out of ten, a better possession than the body of a man of fortune, especially if he be at the same time a man of pleasure. Marshal and gild the pomp of circumstance, and do it homage with bated breath, character remains the true majesty, honor and intelligence its prime ministers. Money can help people to education, by paying for the support of those who can give it. But money cannot excuse its possessor from the smallest of the mental operations through which, if at all, a man comes to know what, as a man, he should know.
The great desiderata of humanity still remain these: to preserve the integrity of nature, the purity of sentiment, and the coherence of thought. The great extension of educational opportunities which we see to-day should make the attainment of these objects easier than in ages of less instruction. But while the pursuit of them is ever normal to the human race, the inherent difficulties of their attainment remain undiminished. Without self-discipline and self-sacrifice, no man to-day attains true education, or the dignity of true manhood. For here comes in the terrible fact of man’s freedom as a moral agent.
Could our age possess and administer the powers of the universe to its heart’s content, in that heart would yet rest the issues of its life and of its death.
The period of which I have to speak has certainly witnessed great improvements in the theory of hygiene. The old heroic treatment of diseases has nearly disappeared. The nauseous draughts, the blood-letting and blisters, have given place to moderate medication, the choice of climate and the regulation of diet. Women have been admitted as copartners with men in the guardianship of the public health. Athletic sports help the student to fresh blood and efficient muscle, without which the brain sickens and perishes.
But even in this department how much is left to desire and to do! Our greatest and richest city is still festering with the corruption that breeds disease. No board of health seems to have power to sweep its side streets and dark alleys. Fashion keeps her avenues clean, and neglects the rest of the vast domain, for which she has her reward in many a ghastly epidemic. The late Edward Clarke, of Boston, — heaven rest his soul! — could alarm the whole continent with his threats of the physical evils which the more perfect education of one sex would entail on both. But he has left no public protest against the monstrosities of toilet which deform and mutilate the bodies of women to-day, nor against the selfish frivolity of life in both sexes, which is equally inimical to true motherhood and to true fatherhood.
I have seen in fashions of dress and furniture the curious cycle which my elders foretold, and which it takes, I should think, half a century to fulfil. My earliest childish remembrance is of the slim dresses which display as much as is possible of the outlines of the figure. I remember the élégantes of Gotham walking the one fashionable street of fifty-five years ago, attired in pelisses of pink or blue satin. A white satin cloak trimmed with dark fur seemed, even to my childish observation, a chill costume for a pedestrian in the heart of winter. My mother’s last Paris bonnet, bought probably in 1825, appeared to her children, twenty years later, such a caricature, that pious hands destroyed it, in order that we might have no ludicrous association with the sweet young creature whose death had left us babes in the nursery.
After many fluctuations and oscillations, I have seen modern head-gear near of kin to the subject of this holocaust. I have seen the old forms and colors return to popular favor. I have even heard that the very white satin cloak, which seemed outré to the critic of six years, has been worn and greatly admired in the recent gay world of Paris. The return in these cases, it must be said, is not to the identical point of departure. Progress, according to some thinkers, follows a spiral, and is neither shut in a circle nor extended in a straight line. The hoops of our great-grandmothers are not the hoops which we remember to have seen or worn. Their eelskin dresses are not the model of ours. Still, the recurrence of the same vein of fancy marks a periodical approximation to the region or belt of influence in which certain forgotten possibilities suggest themselves to the seeker of novelty, and in which the capricious, antithetical fancy delights to crown with honor all that it found most devoid of beauty a few lustres ago.
Does this encyclical tendency in the familiar æsthetics of life imply a corresponding tendency in the moral and intellectual movement of mankind? I fear that it does. I fear that seriousness and frivolity, greed and disinterest, extravagance and economy, in so far as these are social and sympathetic phenomena, do succeed each other in the movement of the ages. But here the device of the spiral can save us. We must make the round, but we may make it with an upward inclination. “Let there be light!” is sometimes said in accents so emphatic, that the universe remembers and cannot forget it. We carry our problem slowly forward. With all the ups and downs of every age, humanity constantly rises. Individuals may preserve all its early delusions, commit all its primitive crimes; but to the body of civilized mankind, the return to barbarism is impossible.
The æsthetic elaboration of ethical ideas, always a feature of civilization, becomes in our day a task of such prominence as to engage the zeal and labor of those even who have little natural facility for any of its processes.
The ignoring of this department of culture by our Puritan ancestors, had much to do with the bareness of surrounding and poverty of amusement which almost affright us in the record of their society. With all their insufficiency, these periods of severe simplicity are of great importance in the history of a people. The temporary withdrawal from the sensible and pleasurable to the severe verities of ethical study accumulates a reserve force which is sure to be very precious in the emergencies to which all nations are exposed. The reaction against the extreme of this is as likely to be excessive as was the action itself.
If we tend to any extreme, nowadays, it is to that of making art take the place of thought, as may somewhat appear in the general rage for illustration and decoration.
The ministrations of art to ethics are indeed unspeakably grand and helpful. The cathedrals of the Old World, and its rich and varied galleries, preserve for us the fresh and naïve spirit of mediæval piety. Religious art, indeed, becomes almost secularized by its repetitions; yet each of its great works has the isolation of its own atmosphere, and speaks its own language, which we reverently learn while we look upon it.
Of all arts, music is the one most intimately interwoven with the ethical consciousness of our own time. The oratorios of Handel and of Mendelssohn so blend the sacred text and the divine music, that we think of the two together, and almost as of things so wedded by God, that man must not seek to put them asunder. When I have sat to sing in the chorus of the Messiah, and have heard the tenor take up the sweet burden of “Comfort ye my people!” I have felt the whole chain of divine consolation which those historic words express, and which link the prophet of pre-Christian times to the saints and sinners of to-day. In far-off Palestine I have been shown the plain on which it is supposed that the shepherds were tending their flocks when the birth of the Messiah was announced to them. But as I turned my eyes to view it, my memory was full of that pastoral symphony of Handel’s, in which the divine glory seems just muffled enough to be intelligible to our abrupt and hasty sense. Nay, I lately heard a beloved voice which read the chapter of Elijah’s wonderful experiences in the wilderness. While I listened, bar after bar of Mendelssohn’s music struck itself off in the resonant chamber of memory, and I thanked the Hebrew of our own time for giving the intensity of life to that mystical drama of insight and heroism.
The transcendentalists of our own country made great account of the relation of art to ethics, and perhaps avenged the Puritan partiality by giving art the leading, and ethics the subordinate place in their statements and endeavors. But the masters of the transcendental philosophy in Europe did not so. Spinoza, Kant, and Fichte were idealists of the severest type. Standing for the moment between the two, I will only say that the danger of forgetting the high labors and rewards of thought in the pleasure of beautiful sights and sounds is one to which the highest civilization stands most exposed. To think aright, to resolve and pray aright, we must retire from those delights to the contemplation of that whose sublimity they can but faintly image, as we pass with joy from the likeness of our friend into his presence.
Love of ornament is by no means synonymous with love of the beautiful. The taste which overloads dress and architecture with superfluous irrelevancies, is often quite in opposition to that true sense of beauty which is indispensable to the artist and precious to the philosopher. “Το καλον,” the Greeks said. Was it a naïve utterance on their part? Was it through their poverty of expression, or their want of experience, that the same word with them signified the good and the beautiful? No. It was through the depth of their insight, and the power of their mental appreciation, that they so stamped this golden word as that it should show the supreme of form on one of its faces, and the supreme of spirit on the other.
The social domain of religion has also undergone a change. In my early life I remember that all earnest and religious people were supposed to live out of the great world, and to keep company only with one another and with the subjects of their charitable beneficence. The disadvantages of this course are easily seen. Free intercourse with the average of mankind is one of the most important agencies in enlarging and correcting the action of the human mind. The exigencies of ordinary intercourse develop a sense of the dependence of human beings upon each other, and a power corresponding to the needs involved in this interdependence. The religious susceptibilities of individuals, which are at once very strong in their character and very uncertain in their action, are liable to become either exaggerated or exhausted by a course of life which should rely wholly upon them for guidance and for interest.
Let us, therefore, by all means have saints in the world, keeping to their pure standard, and recommending it more by their actions than by their professions. But these saints must be brave as well as pure. Unworthy doctrine must not escape their reprobation. When a just cause is contemned, they must stand by it. If the world shall cast them out in consequence, it will not be their fault. The social leagues which group themselves around the various churches of to-day, seem to me a feature of happy augury. It is the office of the church to inspire and direct the tone of social intercourse, and these associations should greatly help it to that end. I lately heard Wendell Phillips complain that church exercises nowadays largely consist of picnics and other merry-makings. Only a little before, Mr. Phillips, in his reply to Mr. Parkman’s article against Woman Suffrage, had spoken of the growth of social influence as a good.
It does, to be sure, look a little whimsical to read on the bulletin of a Methodist church such announcements as this, — “Private theatricals for the benefit of the Sunday school.” But Wesley introduced the use of secular tunes in his church on the ground that the devil should not have all the good music. Neither should he monopolize the innocent amusements with which, if they are left to him, he does indeed play the devil.
Although the great ocean will always hold Europe at arm’s length from us, yet the currents of belief and sympathy bring its various peoples near to us in various ways. I remember to have taken note of this long before the ocean steamships brought the eastern hemisphere within a few days’ journey from our own seaboard, and very long before the time-annihilating cables were dreamed of. The French have always had with us the prestige of their social tact and sumptuary elegance. The English manners are affected by those among us who mistake the aristocracy of position for the aristocracy of character. The Italians rule us by their great artists in the past, and by their subtle policy in the present. The Germans have, as they deserve, the pre-eminence in music, in metaphysics, and in many departments of high culture.
I have not long since been taken to task by a writer in a prominent New York paper for some strictures regarding the quasi-omnipotence of money in the society of to-day. The writer in question enlarged somewhat upon the greatly increased expenditure of money in our own country, as if this must be considered as a good in itself. He concludes his statement by remarking that Mrs. Howe has never studied the proper significance of the money question. I desire to say here only that I have not neglected the study of this question, which so regards the very life of society. One of its problems I have ventured to decide for myself, viz., whether the luxury of the rich really supports the industry of the poor.
The æsthetic of luxury is a mean and superficial one. The critique of luxury is compliant and cowardly; and, despite its glittering promise to pay any price for what it desires, luxury orders poorly, pays poorly, and in the end undermines the credit of the State, the very citadel of its solvency. I regret and deplore its prevalence to-day, and consider it not as the safeguard, but as the most dangerous enemy of republican institutions.
In our America, ay, even in our Puritan New England, the day has come in which economy is a discredit and poverty a disgrace. With the common school ever at work to lift the social level, unfolding to the child of the day-laborer the page which instructs the son of the peer, the cry is still that money is God, and that there is none other. One may ask, in the business streets, whether rich people have any faults, or poor people any virtues. A woman who sells her beauty for a rich dower is honored in church and in State. Both alike bow to the money in her hand. One proverb says that Time is money, as if it were
“Only that, and nothing more.”
Another proverb says that Money is power. And in this form, no doubt, it receives the most fervent worship, for luxury palls sooner or later, while ambition is never satisfied. But we constantly meet, on the other hand, with instances in which money is not power. Money does not give talent or intelligence. You cannot buy good government, good manners, or good taste: You cannot buy health or life. Do some of you remember the shipwreck, some twenty years ago, of a steamer homeward-bound from California? The few survivors told how the desperate passengers brought their belts and bags of gold to the cabin, and threw them about with a bitter contempt of their worthlessness. States have such shipwrecks, in which avenging Fate seems to say to those who have sacrificed all for wealth, “Thy money perish with thee.”
The heroics of history are full of the story of great ends, accomplished by very small means. Now a handful of resolute men hold the forces of a great empire in check, and beat back the ocean surge of barbarism from the marble of their strong will. Now a single martyr turns the scale of the world’s affection by throwing into the balance the weight of one small life. Now a State with every disadvantage of territory, cursed with sterility, or exposed to the murderous overflow of the salt sea, takes its stand upon the simple determination to conquer for itself a free and worthy existence. Frederick of Prussia and his small army, Washington, with his handful of men, in these and so many other instances, we admire the attainment of mighty ends through means which seem infinitesimal in proportion to them. How shall it be in our country, to which Nature has given the widest variety of climate, soil, and production? Shall we become a lesson to the world in the opposite direction? Shall we show how little a people may accomplish with every circumstance in its favor, and with nothing wanting to its success but the careful mind and resolute spirit? God forbid!
The belief in pacific methods of settling international differences has made a noticeable progress in my time.
In my school-days I remember a grave Presbyterian household at whose fireside I one day saw an elderly man seat himself, with little notice from the members of the family. I inquired who he might be, and was told, with some good-natured laughter, that this old gentleman was the American Peace Society, i.e., the last surviving member of that association. This was a humorous exaggeration of the truth. Judge Jay, of New York, was living at that time, and all the enthusiasm of the peace cause lived in him, and no doubt in many others. I have remembered the incident, nevertheless; and when I have seen the stately Peace Congresses held in Europe and elsewhere, when I have seen rapacious England submitting to arbitration, when I have seen the flag of military prestige go down before the white banner of Peace, as in the late change of the ministry in that country, I have remembered that day of small things, and have learned that the faith of individuals is the small seed from which spring the mighty growths of popular conviction and sympathy.
The extensive wars which have taken place within the last forty years, as extensive and as deadly as any the world ever saw, are sometimes quoted in derision of those who believe, as I do, in the sober, steady growth of the pacific spirit among people of intelligence. The reasons for this advance lie deeper than the vision of the careless observer may reach. Within the period of our own century the value of human life to the individual has been greatly increased by the wide diffusion of the advantages of civilization. The value of the individual to the State has become greatly increased by the multiplication of industrial resources, and by the immense emigration which at times threatens to drain the older society of its working population. The spread of education has at once undermined the blind belief of the multitude in military leaders, and toned down the blind ferocity of instinct to which those leaders are forced to appeal. Wars of mere spoliation are scarcely permitted to-day. Wars of pure offence are deeply disapproved of.
The military and diplomatic injustice of past times has left unsettled many questions of territory and boundary which will not rest until they shall be set right. The populations which war has plundered and subjugated, lay their cause before the world’s tribunal. In aid of this, the friends of the true law and order are ever busy in forming a nucleus of moral power, which governments will be forced to respect. Thus, though the war-demon dies hard, he is doomed, and we shall yet see the battlements of his grim cathedrals places for lovers to woo and for babes to play in.
In religion I have seen the dark ministrations of terror give way before the radiant gospel of hope. I remember when Doctrine sat beside the bed of death, and offered its flimsy synonym to the eyes upon which the awful, eternal truth was about to dawn. I remember when a man with a poor diploma and a human commission assumed to hold the keys of heaven and hell in his hands, and to dispense to those who would listen to him such immortality as he thought fit. I remember when it went hard with those who, in forming their religious opinions, persisted in daring to use the critical power of their own judgment. They were lonely saints; they wandered in highways and byways, unrecognized, excommunicated of men. No one had power to burn their bodies, but it was hoped that their souls would not escape the torment of eternal flame. I have seen this time, and I have lived to see a time in which these rejected stones, hewn and polished by God’s hand, have come to be recognized as corner-stones in the practical religious building of the age. What a discredit was it once to hear Theodore Parker! How happy are they now esteemed who have heard him! Let not Mr. Emerson’s urbanity lead him to forget the days in which polite Boston laughed him to scorn. Brook Farm was once looked upon as a most amusing caricature. But when the world learned something about Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Ripley, William Henry Channing, John Dwight, and George William Curtis, the public heart bowed itself with remorseful homage before the ruined threshold of what was, with all its shortcomings, a blameless temple to ideal humanity.
It is quite true that every change which I have seen in the society of my time cannot be said to be, in itself, for the better. The price of progress, like that of liberty, is eternal vigilance.
A time of religious enfranchisement may induce a period of religious indifference. Cosmopolitan enlargement may weaken the force of patriotism. The charity of society may degenerate into an indifference concerning private morals, which, if it could prevail, would go far towards destroying public ones. Humanity ever needs the watchman on the tower. It needs the warning against danger, the guidance out of it. I can imagine a set of prophets less absolute than the Hebrew seers, whose denunciation of evils, near or present, should always couple itself with profound and sober suggestions of help. And this will be the work of faith in our day, to believe in the good which can overcome the evil, and to seek it with earnest and brave persistence.
Let me return for a moment, very briefly, to what I touched upon just now, the great changes in religious thought which this century has witnessed. What manifold contrasts have we observed in this domain! What a wild and wide chase in the fields of conjecture! What impatience with the idols of the past, historical and metaphysical! There have been moments in the last twenty years in which one might have said to the religious ideals of past ages that the time had come in which every one who raised his hand against them thought that he was doing God service. This iconoclasm had its time, and, one supposes, its office.
But the religious necessities of mankind are permanent, and will outlast any and all systems of pure criticism. The question arises, in all this havoc of illusory impressions, Who is to provide for the culture and direction of those instincts of reverence which are so precious to, so ineradicable in the race? We must ask this service of those who believe that religion is, on the whole, wiser than its critics. Those who have been able to hold fast this persuasion will be the religious trainers of our youth. Those who have relinquished it will have no more skill to teach religion than a sculptor will have to feed an army.
The greatest trouble with human society is, that its natural tendency leads it, not to learn right measure through one excess, but, on becoming convinced of this, to rush into an opposite excess with equal zeal and equal error. The mechanism of society requires constant correction in order to keep up the succession of order and progress through and despite this proneness to extravagance and loss of power. This rectification of direction without interruption of movement is the office of critical and constructive thought. Precious are the men, and rare as precious, who carry this balance in their minds, and, while the ship lurches now on this side and now on that, strain after the compass with masterful courage and patience. We have all known such men, but we have known, too, that their type is not a common one.
Among all who are out of work to-day, so far as the market is concerned, those men of careful and critical judgment are the least called for, and the least wished for by the majority of men. Headlong enthusiasm, headlong activity, headlong doubt and cynicism, the prevalence of these shows the force with which the present whirl of the spindle was cast. Fair and softly, my quick-flying Century. To find out whether you are going right or wrong, whether you are faithful or faithless, solvent or bankrupt, you must have recourse to these same slow, patient men and women, who try such questions by a more accurate and difficult method than that of the popular inclination.
I find that the philosopher Kant, writing more than a hundred years ago, remarks that in so sociable an age as his own Culture must naturally be expected to assume an encyclopedic character. It will, he says, necessarily desire to present a manifold number of agreeable and instructive acquisitions, easy of apprehension, for entertainment in friendly intercourse.
These words seem prophetic of the efforts after general information, with a view to conversation as an accomplishment, which have constituted a marked feature of American and English society within forty years. In the dissolving view of the public predilection, this object has lost much of its prominence. The ornate and well-rounded periods of the conversationist are not more in request, nowadays, than were the high-sounding sentiments of Joseph Surface to Sir Peter Teazle, when experience had shown him their emptiness.
Blunt speech and curt expression rather are in favor. The heroines of novels are supposed to fall in love with men of a somewhat brutal type. Adonis is out of fashion. Hercules pleases, and even Vulcan is preferred. One thinks that the influence of the mercantile spirit may be recognized in this change. Long speeches and roundabout statements are found not to pay. The man who listens to them with one ear, hearkens with the other for the ocean telegrams, news of the stock market, considers the maturing of a note, the success or failure of a scheme. When there is no one to listen, loquacity itself will grow economical of breath.
The world is quite right in its tacit protest against over talk. A great deal of empty, irrelevant speech is liable to be imposed upon the good-nature of society in the garb of instructive conversation. It is weary to listen by the hour to men or women who principally teach you their own opinion of their own erudition. But woe to the world if its haste and greed should ever be such that the true teacher should want an audience, the long lessons of philosophy find interpreters, but no pupils.
The present is, on the whole, an encyclopedic, cosmopolitan era. I suppose that it succeeds as a reaction to one of more special and isolated endeavor. The example and influence of Goethe have had much to do with the formation of the ideas of culture which have been prevalent in our time. This wonderful man went, with such a happy tact, from one thing to another. In poetry he did so much, in high criticism so much, in science so much, and in world-wisdom so much! How naturally were the lovers of study, who made him their model, led to undertake, as he did, to render the most eminent service, to attain the highest honors in a dozen different departments!
But the man Goethe was more wonderful even than his writings. His individuality was too powerful to suffer loss through the variety of his pursuits. He could be at once a courtier and a philosopher, a poet and a scientist, a critic of morals and a man of the world, and in all things remain himself.
I sometimes wonder why we Americans are so apt to show, in our conduct and remarks, an undue preponderance of what the phrenologists term love of approbation. This is an amiable and useful trait in human nature, which may degenerate into a weak and cowardly vanity, or even into a malignant selfishness. To desire the approbation which can enlighten us as to the merits of what we have done or attempted, is wise as well as graceful. To make constant laudation a prominent object in any life is a capital mistake in its ordering. To prefer the praise of men to the justification of conscience, is at once cowardly and criminal. I observe these three phases in American life. I value the first, compassionate the second, and reprobate the third. Surely, if there is any virtue which a republican people is bound to show, it is that self-respect which is the only true majesty, and which can afford to be as generous and gracious as majesty should be.
It is, perhaps, natural that many of us should, through a want of experience, mistake the standpoint of people conspicuous in the older European society as greatly superior to our own. We can learn much, indeed, from the observation of such a standpoint; but, in order to do so, we must hold fast our own plain, honest judgment, as we derive it from education, inheritance, and natural ability.
It must, I should think, be very tedious and very surprising to Europeans to hear Americans complain of being so young, so crude, so immature. This is not according to nature. Imagine a nursery full of babies who should bewail the fact of their infancy. Any one who should hear such a complaint would cry out, “Why, that’s the best thing about you. You have the newness, the promise, the unwasted vigor of childhood, — gifts so great that Christ enjoined it upon holy men to recover, if they had lost them.”
If our society is young, its motto should be the saying of Saint Paul to Timothy, “Let no man despise thy youth.” The great men of our early history deserve to rank with the ripest products of civilization. Was Washington crude? Was Franklin raw? Were Jay, Jefferson, and Hamilton immature? The authorities of the older world bowed down to them, and did them homage. The Republicans of France laid the key of the Bastille at the feet of Washington. Franklin was honored and admired in the court circle of Louis XVI. There was a twofold reason for this. These men represented the power and vigor of our youth; but our youth itself represented the eternal principles of truth and justice, for whose application the world had waited long. And thinking people saw in us the dignity of that right upon which we had founded our hope and belief as a nation.
I will instance a single event of which I heard much during my last visit in Rome. A German, naturalized in America, and who had made a large fortune by a railroad contract in South America, had purchased from some European government the title of “Count.” He was betrothed to the sister-in-law of a well-known California millionnaire, whose wife has been for some years a resident of Paris, where her silver, her diamonds, and her costly entertainments are matters of general remark. All of these parties are Roman Catholics. The wedding took place in Rome, and was signalized by a festival, at which twelve horses, belong to the bridegroom, were ridden in a race, whose prizes were bestowed by the hand of the bride. The invitations for this occasion were largely distributed by a monsignor of the Romish Church, and the king of Italy honored the newly married pair by his presence.
Not long after this, I read in the Italian papers that this very count had become a candidate for a seat in the Italian Parliament. I suppose that money will assist an election as much in Italy as elsewhere. The monsignor who interested himself so efficiently about the invitations for the wedding party, was none other than the master of ceremonies of Pope Leo XIII. He would, no doubt, have taken even greater interest in the return of his friend to the Parliament. I do not know whether this gentleman has ever succeeded in usurping the place of a representative of the Italian people; but the chance of his being able to do so lay in the American gold of which he had become possessed. Here is one instance of the direct relations between Rome and America which Americans so placidly overlook.
In this day of the world hope is so strong, and the desire for an improved condition so prevalent, that much may be looked for in Europe as the result of the legitimate action and influence of America. But if American capital busies itself with upholding the shams of the old world, if American taste and talent are led and pledged to work with the reactionary agents everywhere against the enfranchisement of the human race, where shall the hope of the world find refuge?
Goldsmith has a touching picture of the emigrants who, in his time, were compelled to leave the country which would not feed them, for a distant bourne, which could, by no means, be to them a home. But let us assist at the embarkation of another group of exiles. These people have been living abroad, and are about to return home. The rich, beautiful land whose discovery has changed the fortunes of the human race, invites them on the other side of the Atlantic. The flag which represents the noblest chapter of modern history waves over them.
From dynastic, aristocratic Europe they go to inherit the work of an ancestry heroic in thought and action. They go to the land which still boasts a Longfellow, a Whittier, an Emerson, a Harriet Beecher Stowe. Are they glad? Are they happy? No. They have learned the follies of the old world, not its wisdom. They are not going home,—they are going into exile.
Let us look a little at their record in the Europe which they regret so passionately. They went abroad with money, and the education which it commands, with leisure and health. What good deeds may they not have done! What gratifying remembrance may they have left behind them! Shall we not find them recorded as donors to many a noble charity, as students in many a lofty school? We shalt indeed, sometimes. But in many cases we shall hear only of their fine clothes and expensive entertainments, with possible mortifying anecdotes of their fast behavior.
If the mother leaves a daughter behind her, it ]is likely to be as the wife of some needy European nobleman, who despises all that she is bound to hold dear, and is proud not to know that which it should be her glory to understand.
I said at Concord, and I say it to-day, that the press is much affected by the money debauch of the period. Let us examine the way in which this result is likely to be brought about.
A newspaper or periodical is almost always an investment in which the idea of gain is very prominent. This expectation may either regard what the proposed paper shall earn as a medium of information, or the profit of certain enterprises which its statements may actively promote.
Special organs are founded for special emergencies, as is a campaign sheet, or for the advocate of special reforms, like the antislavery “Standard” of old, and the “Woman’s Journal” of to-day. These papers rarely repay either the money advanced for them, or the literary labor bestowed upon them.
Under the head of its earnings the newspaper depends upon two classes of persons, viz., its advertisers and its subscribers. Either or both of these may be displeased by the emphatic mention of some certain fact, the expression of some certain opinion. “If we tell this unwelcome truth,” say the managers, “we shall lose such and such subscribers. If we take this stand, some of our wealthiest advertising firms will choose another medium of communicating with the public.” The other set of considerations just spoken of, the enterprises which are to be favored and promoted, may still more seriously affect the tone and action of the paper, which will thus be drawn in a twofold way to lend itself to the publication only of what it will pay to say.
The annals of journalism in this country will, no doubt, show a fair average of courageous and conscientious men among its chiefs. I am willing to believe all things and to hope all things in this direction. But I must confess that I fear all things, too, in view of a great power, whose position makes it almost an irresponsible one. And I should regard with great favor the formation of an unofficial censorship of public organs, in view not so much of what may be published, as of what is unfairly left out of the statements and counterstatements of conflicting interests.
Of all the changes which I can chronicle as of my own time, the change in the position of women is perhaps the most marked and the least anticipated by the world at large. Whatever opinions heroic men and women may have held concerning this from Plato’s time to our own, the most enlightened periods of history have hardly given room to hope that the sex in general would ever reach the enfranchisement which it enjoys to-day. I date the assurance of its freedom from the hour in which the first university received women graduates upon the terms accorded to pupils of the opposite sex. For education keeps the key of life, and a liberal education insures the first conditions of freedom, viz., adequate knowledge and accustomed thought. This first and greatest step gained, the gate of professional knowledge and experience quickly opened, and that of political enfranchisement stands already ajar. The battle can have but one result, and it has been fought, with chivalrous temper and determination, not by one sex against the other, but by the very gospel of fairness and justice against the intrenched might of selfish passion, inertia, and prejudice. Equal conditions of life will lift the whole level of society, which is so entirely one body that the lifting or lowering of one half lifts or lowers the other half. This change, which in the end appeared to come suddenly, has been prepared by such gradual tentatives, by such long and sound labor, that we need not fear to lose sight of it in any sudden collapse. There are women of my age, and women of earlier generations, who have borne it in their hearts all their lives through, who have prayed and worked for it, without rest and without discouragement. Horace Mann was its apostle, Theodore Parker was its prophet, Margaret Fuller, Lucy Stone, and a host of wise and true-hearted women, whom the time would fail me to name, have been its female saints. It was in nature; they have brought it into life; even as Christ said, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” The slender thread which crossed the dark abyss of difficulty was not the silken spinning of vanity, nor the cobweb fibre of madness. From the faith of pure hearts the steadfast links were wrought, and the great chasm is spanned, and is ready to become the strong and sure highway of hope, for this nation and for the nations of the earth.
The customs of society prescribe the mental garb and gait proper to those who desire the favorable notice of their peers in their own time. As these are partly matters of tradition and inheritance, we can learn something of the merits and demerits of a generation by studying the habits of familiar judgment which it hands down to its successor. A narrow, ill-educated generation leaves behind it corresponding garments of rule and prescription, to which the next generation must for a time accommodate itself, because a custom or a fashion is not made in a day. The rulers of society seem often more occupied in dwarfing the mind to suit the custom than in enlarging the custom so as to fit it to the growth of mind. The most dangerous rebellions, individual and social, are natural revolts against the small tyranny which perpetuates the insufficiency of the past.
The copper shoes which so cramp the foot of a female infant in China as to destroy its power of growth, are not more cruel or deleterious than are the habits of unreflecting prejudice which compress the growth of human minds until they, too, lose their native power of expansion, and the idol Prejudice is enthroned and worshipped by those on whom it has imposed its own deformity as the standard of truth and beauty.
The heavy tasks which nature imposes upon women leave them less at leisure than men to reform and readjust these inherited garments. The necessity for prompt and early action obliges them to follow the intuitive faculties, as all must do who have not time to work out the problems of the reasoning ones. The instinct of possession is a ruling one in human nature, and a woman inheriting a superstition or a prejudice holds fast to it because it is something, and she has got it. It seems to her a possession. It may be a mischievous and unfortunate one, but it will take a good deal of time and thought to find that out. Those who have the training of women’s minds often train them away from such a use of time and from such a labor of thought. Hence the fatal persistence of large classes of women in superstitions which the thinking world has outgrown, and the equally fatal zeal with which they impose the same insufficient modes of judgment upon their children.
I pray this generation of women, which has seen such enlargements of the old narrow order regarding the sex, I pray it to deserve its high post as guardian of the future. Let it bequeath to its posterity a noble standard of womanhood, free, pure, and, above all, laborious.
The standard of manhood really derives from that of womanhood, and not vice versa, as many imagine. However we may receive from tradition the order of their material creation, in that of training and education, the woman’s influence comes before that of the man, and outlasts it.
The figure of the infant Christ dwells always in our mind, accompanied by that of the gracious mother who gave Him to the world. Let the fact of this great gift prefigure to us the august office of Woman. Hers be it also to preserve and transmit from age to age the Christian doctrine and the Christlike faith. And, in order that she may fully realize the glory and blessedness of giving, let her remember that what is worthily given to one time is given to all time.
Source: Modern Society, by Julia Ward Howe (Boston: Roberts Brothers), 1881, pp. 49-88.
Also: Journal of Social Science, containing the Transactions of the American Association, Number XIII., March 1881; Saratoga Papers of 1880, Part Second, Papers of the Jurisprudence and Health Departments, (New York: GP Putnam’s Sons), 1881, pp. 170-188.