Maurice G. (Maurice Garland) Fulton.

National ideals and problems; essays for college English online

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sound like an insufferable paradox to assert that nowhere in the
civilized world today is money itself of less weight than here in
the United States; but the broader his opportunity the more
likely is an honest observer to come to this unexpected conclu-
sion. Fortunes are made in a day almost, and they may fade
away in a night; as the Yankee proverb put it pithily, "It's
only three generations from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves."
Wealth is likely to lack something of its glamor in a land where
well-being is widely diffused and where a large proportion of


the population have either had a fortune and lost it or else
expect to gain one in the immediate future.

Probably also there is no country which now contains more
men who do not greatly care for large gains and who have gladly
given up money-making for some other occupation they found
more profitable for themselves. These are the men like Thoreau
in whose W 'olden, now half a century old, we can find an em-
phatic declaration of all the latest doctrines of the simple life.
We have all heard of Agassiz, best of Americans, even though
he was born in another republic, how he repelled the proffer
of large terms for a series of lectures, with the answer that he had
no time to make money. Closely akin was the reply of a famous
machinist in response to an inquiry as to what he had been doing,
to the effect that he had accomplished nothing of late, "we
have just been building engines and making money, and I'm
about tired of it." There are not a few men today in these toil-
ing United States who hold with Ben Jonson that "money never
made any man rich, but his mind."

But while this is true, while there are some men among us
who care little for money, and while there are many who care
chiefly for the making of it, ready to share it when made with
their fellow-citizens, candor compels the admission that there are
also not a few who are greedy and grasping, selfish and shame-
less, and who stand forward, conspicuous and unscrupulous, as
if to justify to the full the aspersions which foreigners cast upon
us. Although these men manage for the most part to keep within
the letter of the law, their morality is that of the wrecker and of
the pirate. It is a symptom of health in the body politic that the
proposal has been made to inflict social ostracism upon the crim-
inal rich. We need to stiffen our conscience and to set up a
loftier standard of social intercourse, refusing to fellowship with
the men who make their money by overriding the law or by
underminmg it just as we should have declined the friendship
of Captain Kidd laden down with stolen treasure.

In the immediate future these men will be made to feel that
they are under the ban of public opinion. One sign of an acuter
sensitiveness is the recent outcry against the acceptance of


"tainted money" for the support of good works. Although it is
wise always to give a good deed the credit of a good motive, yet
it is impossible sometimes not to suspect that certain large
gifts have an aspect of "conscience money." Some of them
seem to be the result of a desire to divert public attention from
the evil way in which the money was made to the nobler
manner in which it is spent. They appear to be the attempt
of a social outlaw to buy his peace with the community. Appar-
ently there are rich men among us, who, having sold their honor
for a price, would now gladly give up the half of their fortunes
to get it back.

Candor compels the admission also that by the side of the
criminal rich there exists the less noxious but more offensive
class of the idle rich, who lead lives of wasteful luxury and of
empty excitement. When the French reporter who talked with
Tolstoi called us Americans "avid of pleasure" it was this little
group he had in mind, as he may have seen the members of it
splurging about in Paris, squandering and self-advertising.
Although these idle rich now exhibit themselves most openly and
to least advantage in Paris and in London, their foolish doings
are recorded superabundantly in our own newspapers ; and their
demoralizing influence is spread abroad. The snobbish report
of their misguided attempts at amusement may even be a source
of danger in that it seems to recognize a false standard of social
success or in that it may excite a miserable ambition to emulate
these pitiful frivolities. But there is no need of delaying longer
over the idle rich; they are only a few, and they have doomed
themselves to destruction,, since it is an inexorable fact that those
who break the laws of nature can have no hope of executive

"Patience a little; learn to wait,
Years are long on the clock of fate."


The second charge which the wandering Parisian journalist
brought against us was that we ignore the arts and that we
despise disinterested beauty. Here again the answer that is


easiest is not altogether satisfactory. There is no difficulty in
declaring that there are American artists, both painters and
sculptors, who have gained the most cordial appreciation in
Paris itself, or in drawing attention to the fact that certain of
the minor arts that of the silversmith, for one, and for another,
that of the glass-blower and the glass-cutter flourish in the
United States at least as freely as they do anywhere else, while
the art of designing in stained glass has had a new birth here,
which has given it a vigorous vitality lacking in Europe since
the Middle Ages. It would not be hard to show that our American
architects are now undertaking to solve new problems wholly
unknown to the builders of Europe, and that they are often
succeeding in this grapple with unprecedented difficulty. Nor
would it take long to draw up a list of the concerted efforts of
certain of our cities to make themselves more worthy and more
sightly with parks well planned and with public buildings well
proportioned and appropriately decorated. We might even
invoke the memory of the evanescent loveliness of the White
City that graced the shores of Lake Michigan a few years ago;
and we might draw attention again to the Library of Congress,
a later effort of the allied arts of the architect, the sculptor, and
the painter.

But however full of high hope for the future we may esteem
these several instances of our reaching out for beauty, we must
admit if we are honest with ourselves that they are all more
or less exceptional, and that to offset this list of artistic achieve-
ments the Devil's Advocate could bring forward a damning
catalogue of crimes against good taste which would go far to prove
that the feeling for beauty is dead here in America and also the
desire for it. The Devil's Advocate would bid us consider the
flaring and often vulgar advertisements that disfigure our
highways, the barbaric ineptness of many of our public buildings,
the squalor of the outskirts of our towns and villages, the
hideousness and horror of the slums in most of our cities, the
negligent toleration of dirt and disorder in our public convey-
ances, and many another pitiable deficiency of our civilization
present in the minds of all of us.


The sole retort possible is a plea of confession and avoidance,
coupled with a promise of reformation. These evils are evident
and they cannot be denied. But they are less evident today
than they were yesterday; and we may honestly hope that they
will be less evident tomorrow. The bare fact that they have been
observed warrants the belief that unceasing effort will be made
to do away with them. Once aroused, public opinion will work
its will in due season. And here occasion serves to deny boldly
the justice of a part of the accusation which the French reporter
brought against us. It may be true that we "ignore the arts"
although this is an obvious overstatement of the case; but it is
not true that we "despise beauty." However ignorant the
American people may be as a whole, they are in no sense hostile
toward art as certain other peoples seem to be. On the con-
trary, they welcome it; with all their ignorance, they are anxious
to understand it; they are pathetically eager for it. They are so
desirous of it that they want it in a hurry, only too often to find
themselves put off with an empty imitation. But the desire itself
is indisputable; and its accomplishment is likely to be helped
along by the constant commingling here of peoples from various
other stocks than the Anglo-Saxon, since the mixture of races
tends always to a swifter artistic development.

It is well to probe deeper into the question and to face the
fact that not only in the arts but also in the sciences we are not
doing all that may fairly be expected of us. Athens was a trad-
ing city as New York is, but New York has had no Sophocles and
no Phidias. Florence and Venice were towns whose merchants
were princes, but no American city has yet brought forth a
Giotto, a Dante, a Titian. It is now nearly threescore years
and ten since Emerson delivered his address on the "American
Scholar," which has well been styled our intellectual Declara-
tion of Independence, and in which he expressed the hope
that "perhaps the time is already come . . . when the sluggard
intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and
fulfil the postponed expectation of the world with something better
than the exertions of a mechanical skill." Nearly seventy years
ago was this prophecy uttered which still echoes unaccomplished.


In the nineteenth century, in which we came to maturity
as a nation, no one of the chief leaders of art, even including
literature in its broadest aspects, and no one of the chief leaders
in science, was native to our country. Perhaps we might claim
that Webster was one of the world's greatest orators and that
Parkman was one of the world's greatest historians; but prob-
ably the experts outside of the United States would be found
unprepared and unwilling to admit either claim, however likely
it may be to win acceptance in the future. Lincoln is indis-
putably one of the world's greatest statesmen; and his fame is
now firmly established throughout the whole of civilization.
But this is all we can assert; and we cannot deny that we have
given birth to very few indeed of the foremost poets, dramatists,
novelists, painters, sculptors, architects or scientific discoverers
of the last hundred years.

Alfred Russell Wallace, whose renown is linked with Darwin's
and whose competence as a critic of scientific advance is beyond
dispute, has declared that the nineteenth century was the most
wonderful of all since the world began. He asserts that the
scientific achievements of the last hundred years, both in the
discovery of general principles and in their practical application,
exceed in number the sum total of the scientific achievements to
be credited to all the centuries that went before. He considers,
first of all, the practical applications, which made the aspect of
civilization in 1900 differ in a thousand ways from what it had
been in 1801. He names a dozen of these practical applications:
railways, steam navigation, the electric telegraph, the telephone,
friction-matches, gas-lighting, electric-lighting, the phonograph,
the Roentgen rays, spectrum analysis, anesthetics, and anti-
septics. It is with pride that an American can check off not a few
of these utilities as being due wholly or in large part to the in-
genuity of one or another of his countrymen.

But his pride has a fall when Wallace draws up a second list,
not of mere inventions but of those fundamental discoveries, of
those fecundating theories underlying all practical applications
and making them possible, of those principles "which have
extended our knowledge or widened our conceptions of the uni-


verse." Of these he catalogues twelve; and we are pained to find
that no American has had an important share in the establish-
ment of any of these broad generalizations. He may have added
a little here and there, but no single one of all the twelve dis-
coveries is mainly to be credited to any American. It seems as
if our French critic was not so far out when he asserted that we
were "terribly practical." In the application of principles, in
the devising of new methods, our share was larger than that of
any other nation. In the working out of the stimulating prin-
ciples themselves, our share was less than "a younger brother's

It is only fair to say, however, that even though we may not
have brought forth a chief leader of art or of science to adorn
the wonderful century, there are other evidences of our practi-
cal sagacity than those set down by Wallace, evidences
more favorable and of better augury for our future. We
derived our language and our laws, our public justice and our
representative government from our English ancestors, as we
derived from the Dutch our religious toleration and perhaps
also our large freedom of educational opportunity. In our time
we have set an example to others and helped along the progress
of the world. President Eliot holds that we have made five
important contributions to the advancement of civilization.
First of all, we have done more than any other people to further
peace-keeping and to substitute legal arbitration for the brute
conflict of war. Second, we have set a splendid example of the
broadest religious toleration even though Holland had first
shown us how. Thirdly, we have made evident the wisdom of
universal manhood suffrage. Fourthly, by our welcoming of
newcomers from all parts of the earth, we have proved that men
belonging to a great variety of races are fit for political freedom.
Finally, we have succeeded in diffusing material well-being
among the whole population to an extent without parallel in
any other country in the world.

These five American contributions to civilization are all of
them the result of the practical side of the American character.
They may even seem commonplace as compared with the con-


quering exploits of some other races. But they are more than
merely practical; they are all essentially moral. As President
Eliot insists, they are "triumphs of reason, enterprise, courage,
faith and justice over passion, selfishness, inertness, timidity,
and distrust. Beneath each of these developments there lies a
strong ethical sentiment, a strenuous moral and social purpose.
It is for such work that multitudinous democracies are fit."


A "strong ethical sentiment," and a "strenuous moral
purpose" cannot flourish unless they are deeply rooted to ideal-
ism. And here we find an adequate answer to the third asser-
tion of Tolstoi's visitor, who maintained that we are "hostile to
all idealism." Our idealism may be of a practical sort, but it is
idealism none the less. Emerson was an idealist, although he
was also a thrifty Yankee. Lincoln was an idealist, even if he
was also a practical politician, an opportunist, knowing where he
wanted to go, but never crossing a bridge before he came to it.
Emerson and Lincoln had ever a firm grip on the facts of life;
each of them kept his gaze fixed on the stars and he also kept
his feet firm on the soil.

There is a sham idealism, boastful and shabby, which stares
at the moon and stumbles in the mud, as Shelley and Poe
stumbled. But the basis of the highest genius is always a broad
common sense. Shakspere and Moliere were held in esteem by
their comrades for their understanding of affairs; and they
each of them had money out at interest. Sophocles was entrusted
with command in battle; and Goethe was the shrewdest of the
Grand Duke's counselors. The idealism of Shakspere and of
Moliere, of Sophocles and of Goethe, is like that of Emerson and
of Lincoln; it is unfailingly practical. And thereby it is sharply
set apart from the aristocratic idealism of Plato and of Renan,
of Ruskin and of Nietzsche, which is founded on obvious self-
esteem and which is sustained by arrogant and inexhaustible
egotism. True idealism is not only practical, it is also liberal
and tolerant.


Perhaps it might seem to be claiming too much to insist on
certain points of similarity between us and the Greeks of old.
The points of dissimilarity are only too evident to most of us;
and yet there is a likeness as well as an unlikeness. Professor
Butcher has recently asserted that "no people was ever less
detached from the practical affairs of life" than the Greeks,
"less insensible to outward utility; yet they regarded prosperity
as a means, never as an end. The unquiet spirit of gain did not
take possession of their souls. Shrewd traders and merchants,
they were yet idealists. They did not lose sight of the higher and
distinctively human amis which give life its significance."
It will be well for us if this can be said of our civilization two
thousand years after its day is done; and it is for us to make sure
that "the unquiet spirit of gain" shall not take possession of our
souls. It is for us also to rise to the attitude of the Greeks,
among whom, as Professor Butcher points out, "money lavished
on personal enjoyment was counted vulgar, oriental, inhuman."

There is comfort in the memory of Lincoln and of those whose
death on the field of Gettysburg he commemorated. The men
who there gave up their lives that the country might live, had
answered to the call of patriotism, which is one of the sublimest
images of idealism. There is comfort also in the recollection of
Emerson, and in the fact that for many of the middle years of
the nineteenth century he was .the most popular of lecturers,
with an unfading attractiveness to the plain people, perhaps,
because, in Lowell's fine phrase, he "kept constantly burning the
beacon of an ideal life above the lower region of turmoil." There
is comfort again in the knowledge that idealism is one manifesta-
tion of imagination, and that imagination itself is but an intenser
form of energy. That we have energy and to spare, no one denies ;
and we may reckon him a nearsighted observer who does not see
also that we have our full share of imagination even though it
has not yet expressed itself in the loftiest regions of art and of
science. The outlook is hopeful, and it is not true that

"We, like sentries are obliged to stand
In starless nights and wait the appointed hour."


The foundations of our commonwealth were kid by the sturdy
Elizabethans who bore across the ocean with them their portion
of that imagination which in England flamed up in rugged prose
and in superb and soaring verse. In two centuries and a half the
sons of these stalwart Englishmen have lost nothing of their
ability to see visions and to dream dreams, and to put solid
foundations under their castles in the air. The flame may seem
to die down for a season, but it springs again from the embers
most unexpectedly, as it broke forth furiously in 1861. There was
imagination at the core of the little war for the freeing of Cuba
the very attack on Spain, which the Parisian journalist cited to
Tolstoi as the proof of our predatory aggressiveness. We said
that we were going to war for the sake of the ill-used people in
the suffering island close to our shores; we said that we would not
annex Cuba; we did the fighting that was needful and we kept
our word. It is hard to see how even the most bitter of critics
can discover in this anything selfish.

There was imagination also in the sudden stopping of all the
steam-craft, of all the railroads, of all the street-cars, of all the
incessant traffic of the whole nation, at the moment when the
body of a murdered chief magistrate was lowered into the grave.
This pause in the work of the world was not only touching, it
had a large significance to anyone seeking to understand the
people of these United States. It was a testimony that the
Greeks would have appreciated; it had the bold simplicity of an
Attic inscription. And we would thrill again in sympathetic
response if it was in the pages of Plutarch that we read the
record of another instance: When the time arrived for Admiral
Sampson to surrender the command of the fleet he had brought
back to Hampton Roads, he came on deck to meet there only
those officers whose prescribed duty required them to take part
in the farewell ceremonies as set forth in the regulations. But
when he went over the side of the flagship he found that the
boat which was to bear him ashore was manned by the rest
of the officers, ready to row him themselves and eager to
render this last personal service; and then from every other
ship of the fleet there put out a boat, also manned by officers,


to escort for the last time the commander whom they loved
and honored.


As another illustration of our regard for the finer and loftier
aspects of life, consider our parks, set apart for the use of the
people by the city, the state, and the nation. In the cities of this
new country the public playgrounds have had to be made, the
most of them, and at high cost whereas the towns of the Old
World have come into possession of theirs for nothing, more often
than not inheriting the private recreation-grounds of their
rulers. And Europe has little or nothing to show similar either
to the reservations of certain states, like the steadily enlarging
preserves in the Catskills and the Adirondacks, or to the ampler
national parks, the Yellowstone, the Yosemite and the Grand
Canyon of the Colorado, some of them far larger in area than one
at least of the original thirteen states. Overcoming the pressure
of private greed, the people have ordained the preservation of
this natural beauty and its protection for all time under the
safe guardianship of the nation and with free access to all who
may claim admission to enjoy it.

In like manner many of the battlefields, whereon the nation
spent its blood that it might be what it is and what it hopes to
be these have been taken over by the nation itself and set apart
and kept as holy places of pilgrimage. They are free from the
despoiling hand of any individual owner. They are adorned with
monuments recording the brave deeds of the men who fought
there. They serve as constant reminders of the duty we owe
to our country and of the debt we owe to those who made
it and who saved it for us. And the loyal veneration with
which these fields of blood have been cherished here in the
United States finds no counterpart in any country in Europe,
no matter how glorious may be its annals of military prowess.
Even Waterloo is in private hands; and its broad acres,
enriched by the bones of thousands, are tilled every year by
the industrious Belgian farmers. Yet it was a Frenchman,
Renan, who told us that what welds men into a nation, is


"the memory of great deeds done in common and the will to
accomplish yet more."

According to the theory of the conservation of energy, there
ought to be about as much virtue in the world at one time as at
another. According to the theory of the survival of the fittest,
there ought to be a little more now than there was a century ago.
We Americans today have our faults, and they are abundant
enough and blatant enough, and foreigners take care that we shall
not overlook them; but our ethical standard however im-
perfectly we may attain to it is higher than that of the Greeks
under Pericles, of the Romans under Caesar, of the English
under Elizabeth. It is higher even than that of our forefathers
who established our freedom, as those know best who have most
carefully inquired into the inner history of the American
Revolution. In nothing was our advance more striking than
in the different treatment meted out to the vanquished
after the Revolution and after the Civil War. When we made
our peace with the British the native Tories were proscribed,
and thousands of loyalists left the United States to carry
into Canada the indurated hatred of the exiled. But after
Lee's surrender at Appomattox, no body of men, no single
man indeed, was driven forth to live an alien for the rest
of his days; even though a few might choose to go, none were

This change of conduct on the part of those who were victors
in the struggle was evidence of an increasing sympathy. Not
only is sectionalism disappearing, but with it is departing the
feeling that really underlies it the distrust of those who dwell
elsewhere than where we do. This distrust is common all over

Online LibraryMaurice G. (Maurice Garland) FultonNational ideals and problems; essays for college English → online text (page 3 of 39)