Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

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structure adorns the ground, and takes to itself its favor-
ite robe. We have outgrown the charming fancy of the
Greeks that every tree has its Dryad that lives in it,
animates it, and dies when the tree withers. But we
ought, for the truth's sake, to believe that a life-spirit
inhabits every flower and shrub, and protects it against
the prowling forces of destruction. Look at a full-sized
oak, the rooted Leviathan of the fields. Judging by your
senses and by the scales, you would say that the substance
of the noble tree was its bulk of bark and bough and
branch and leaves and sap, the cords of woody and moist
matter that compose it and make it heavy. But really
its substance is that which makes it an oak, that which
weaves its bark and glues it to the stem, and wraps its
rings of fresh wood around the trunk every year, and
pushes out its boughs and clothes its twigs with digestive
leaves and sucks up nutriment from the soil continually,
and makes the roots clench the ground with their fibrous
fingers as a purchase against the storm wind, and at last
holds aloft its tons of matter against the constant tug and
wrath of gravitation, and swings its Briarean arms in
triumph over the globe and in defiance of the gale. Were
it not for this energetic essence that crouches in the


acorn and stretches its limbs every year, there would be
no oak; the matter that clothes it would enjoy its stupid
slumber; and when the forest monarch stands up in his
sinewy lordliest pride, let the pervading life power, and
its vassal forces that weigh nothing at all, be annihilated,
and the whole structure would wither in a second to
inorganic dust. So every gigantic fact in nature is the
index and vesture of a gigantic force. Everything which
we call organization that spots the landscape of nature
is a revelation of secret force that has been wedded to
matter, and if the spiritual powers that have thus domes-
ticated themselves around us should be cancelled, the
whole planet would be a huge desert of Sahara, a black
sand-ball without a shrub, a grass-blade, or a moss.

As we rise in the scale of forces towards greater sub-
tility the forces become more important and efficient.
Water is more intimately concerned with life than rock,
air higher in the rank of service than water, electric and
magnetic agencies more powerful than air, and light, the
most delicate, is the supreme magician of all. Just think
how much expenditure of mechanical strength is neces-
sary to water a city in the hot summer months. What
pumping and tugging and wearisome trudging of horses
with the great sprinklers over the tedious pavement !
But see with what beautiful and noiseless force nature
waters the cities ! The sun looks steadily on the ocean,
and its beams lift lakes of water into the air, tossing it up
thousands of feet with their delicate fingers, and carefully
picking every grain of salt from it before they let it go.
No granite reservoirs are needed to hold in the Cochi-
tuates and Crotons of the atmosphere, but the soft out-
lines of the clouds hem in the vast weight of the upper
tides that are to cool the globe, and the winds harness
themselves as steeds to these silken caldrons and hurry
them along through space, while they disburse their
rivers of moisture from their great height so lightly that
seldom a violet is crushed by the rudeness with which
the stream descends.

Our conceptions of strength and endurance are so asso-
ciated with visible implements and mechanical arrange-
ments that it is hard to divorce them, and yet the stream


of electric fire that splits an ash is not a ponderable thing,
and the way in which the loadstone reaches the ten-pound
weight and makes it jump is not perceptible. You would
think the man had pretty good molars that should gnaw
a spike like a stick of candy, but a bottle of innocent-
looking hydrogen gas will chew up a piece of bar-iron as
though it were some favorite Cavendish; and Mr. Fara-
day, the great chemist, claims to have demonstrated that
each drop of water is the sheath of electric force sufficient
to charge eight hundred thousand Leyden jars. In spite
of Maine liquor laws, therefore, the most temperate man
is a pretty hard drinker, for he is compelled to slake his
thirst with a condensed thunder-storm. The difference
in power between a woman's scolding and a woman's
tears is explained now. Chemistry has put it into for-
mulas. When a lady scolds a man has to face only a few
puffs of articulate carbonic acid, but her weeping is liquid

The prominent lesson of science to men, therefore, is
faith in the intangible and invisible. Shall we talk of
matter as the great reality of the world, the prominent
substance? It is nothing but the battle-ground of terrific
forces. Every particle of matter, the chemists tell us, is
strained up to its last degree of endurance. The glisten-
ing bead of dew from which the daisy gently nurses its
strength, and which a sunbeam may dissipate, is the
globular compromise of antagonistic powers that would
shake this building in their unchained rage. And so
every atom of matter is the slave of imperious masters
that never let it alone. It is nursed and caressed, next
bandied about, and soon cuffed and kicked by its invisible
overseers. Poor atoms ! no abolition societies will ever
free them from their bondage, no colonization movement
waft them to any physical Liberia. For every particle of
matter is bound by eternal fealty to some spiritual lords,
to be pinched by one and squeezed by another and torn
asunder by a third; now to be painted by this and now
blistered by that; now tormented with heat and soon
chilled with cold ; hurried from the Arctic Circle to sweat
at the Equator, and then sent on an errand to the South-
ern Pole ; forced through transmigrations of fish, fowl,
and flesh; and, if in some corner of creation the poor


thing finds leisure to die, searched out and whipped to
life again and kept in its constant round.

Thus the stuff that we weigh, handle, and tread upon
is only the show of invisible substances, the facts over
which subtle and mighty forces rule.

Next, let us look at ideas as substantial things. If the
true definition of substance is causal and sustaining force,
then ideas take the first rank as substances, for the whole
universe was thought into order and beauty. The word
was, " Let there be light, and there was light." Nature
is the language and imagery of Divine ideas. A Persian
poet said: "The world is a bud from the bower of his
beauty ; the sun is a spark from the light of his wisdom ;
the sky is a bubble on the sea of his power." A row of
types, as arranged by a compositor, not only present to
the eye certain shapes, colors, and other sensible qualities,
but also intimate to the mind some thought that once
arose in a human intellect, and which they have been
selected to represent to others. So all the objects of
nature constitute a hieroglyphic alphabet, which states
great truths and sentiments that dwell in the Infinite in-
tellect ; with this difference, that the objects of nature are
created and upheld by the idea or sentiment which pos-
sesses them. They would fall away and dissolve if the
eternal truth they represent should vanish, just as the
body would crumble if the soul should leave it. Not a
planet that wheels its circle around its controlling flame,
not a sun that pours its blaze upon the black ether, not
one of all the constellated chandeliers that burn in the
dome of heaven, not a firmament that spots the robe of
space with a fringe of light, but is a visible statement of a
conception, wish, or purpose in the mind of God, from
which it was born, and to which alone it owes its continu-
ance and form. Jonathan Edwards imagined that the
Almighty creates and upholds the universe, as a reflection
on a mirror is caused and sustained by the person or
object that stands before it. The rays fall from the ob-
ject upon the mirror every moment, and the reflection
would cease as soon as the object should remove ; so, he
conceived, the universe is the continuous image of the
Creator's constant thought, and would change instantly
if the expression of his purpose varied, and would fade


from space if his ideas should be dismissed. The mind
cannot entertain a more sublime thought than this, and
we learn from it that the man who does not delight in the
beauty of the universe, and does not receive into his soul
some impressions of the meaning of nature, has no con-
tact with the world of Divine Substance, but lives in a
vast baby-house of Show.

Let us see, next, how applicable the principle we are
considering is to the world of man and history. All the
shows of social life are manifestations of a secret and
impalpable substance. Every house, workshop, church,
school-room, athenaeum, theatre, is the representative of
an opinion. What the eye sees of them is built of bricks,
iron, wood, and mortar by carpenters, smiths, and masons ;
but the seed from which they grew and the forces by
which they are upheld are ideas, affections, conceptions
of utility, sentiments of worship. Strike these out of a
people's mind and heart, and its homes, temples, colleges,
and art-rooms fall away, like the trunk of the oak when
its life-power is smitten, and only the bald, sandy surface
of savage life remains.

What a difference it would make in the physical and
moral landscape of a new country, whether a race of
Saxons or of Turks were dropped upon it ! In the latter
case the timber and stone are slowly conjured into the
form of mosques and minarets, Sultan's palaces and
harems, and the various features of a lazy Moslem civili-
zation ; while the coming of the Saxon genius bids the
forests prepare to be hewn for homes and factories,
humble shrines of learning, and thickly strewn domes for
Sabbath praise and prayer. The iron can no longer sleep
in its hiding-places ; the coal the only black slave whose
labor the white man may rightfully impress must bring
its hot temperament to human service; the streams are
compelled to pour their strength upon muscular and busy
wheels, that weave fabrics of comfort and luxury ; valleys
are exalted, and mountains bend their necks; steam
hurries with monstrous burdens; magnetism shoots
thoughts along its slender veins ; mighty piles that stand
for justice, law, and equal government overlook a thou-
sand cities; and the white wings of commerce, vying in
number and in speed with the pinions of the sea-birds,


flap in every breeze that stirs the polar, the moderate, or
the tropic waves. There may be as many men, as much
bodily strength, among the Turks as with the Saxons;
but there is not the spirit, there are not the ideas, to make
the fingers so cunning and the muscles so strong. It is
the hidden spiritual substance in the Saxon frames that
makes their bones and blood its purchase and pulleys,
to lift up the myriad structures that bear witness to Saxon
civilization. All that we see in England and America, so
different from what Calcutta and Canton exhibit to the
eye, is the clothing and show of different ideas, principles,
and sentiments that pervade our vigorous blood.

Thus, each nation of the globe is a huge battery of
spiritual forces to which each individual contributes
something. The oneness of the nation is the unity of the
galvanic current that is generated from the many layers
of metal and acid. And the question of the superior
power of one nation over another is not at all to be de-
cided by the relative numbers of population and armies,
nor by the forts, guns, and magazines, but rather by the
relative mental and moral energies of the lands. France,
for instance, is a magnificent incarnation of a certain
temperament, and the generations that rise up in her
borders continually supply the same mental and social
forces, thus giving her one character through centuries.
England, moreover, is the hive of very different passions
and powers, and the point whether, in a long war, giving
each side money enough, England or France would
triumph, is reduced to the question whether the efferves-
cent impulses and military enthusiasm of the Celtic blood
are superior, as spiritual qualities, to the more slow and
sullen force, the cautious but persistent resolution, and
the tough obstinacy of resistance that make up the power
of an Anglo-Saxon army. In the great campaigns of
Wellington in Spain, and in the conduct of the struggle at
Waterloo, this was the real strife, a wrestle of certain
spiritual qualities with each other. The charge of the
French under Ney or Murat, and beneath the eye of
Napoleon, was the gathering roll and swing of the storm-
waves ; whatever was movable must fall before it ; but the
mind and the resources of Wellington and the temper of
the men who served him were the Saxon rock on which



those magnificent Celtic surges swung their white wrath
in vain. Every charge of Ney's cavalry against Welling-
ton's central position at Waterloo was the beat of a fiery
sensibility against a stony patience. The whole scene
was less a contest of military science than a visible conflict
of different passions and a thorough testing of their
strength. It was the old hypothesis, in dramatic play, of
an irresistible in contact with an immovable. The irre-
sistible was spent ; the immovable stood fast.

All fighting illustrates the same law. In the old Greek
days Darius could oppose a hundred spears to each one
of Alexander's, and we wonder that the Persians were so
easily beaten. The reason is that the fighting in the
young Greek general's army was done by spears plus
brains, courage, enthusiasm. Discipline in a battalion is
of more consequence than numbers, because it adds a
spiritual force to that of muscles ; fervor is often found
superior to the most thorough discipline, for fervor is a
higher spiritual force and outweighs the weaker. Bayo-
nets are never so sharp and terrible in the hands of an
advancing line, as when they are bayonets that think, as
was the case in our own Revolution; and there are no
regiments so mighty and dangerous as those which Crom-
well headed, where the highest spiritual qualities were
drilled into the ranks, and the bayonets could not only
think, but pray.

Thus, in all cases, a nation or an army, so far as its per-
sons all that we can see of it are concerned, is only a
show; the substance of it is the ideas, passions, genius,
enthusiasm, that pervade it, and are not seen.

Our doctrine is illustrated, also, by the fact that the
power of a nation is made up, in part, by the generations
of past years, whose bodily forms long ago moldered to
dust. There is no more beautiful or impressive law of
history than that by which the past genius, heroism, and
patriotic devotedness are woven into the structure of a
people, giving it character. The acts and spirit of a per-
son's former years are not lost, but are represented in
the face, the habits, the weakness, or the power of the
person's mind and heart to-day. In the same way a state
has a personality that endures through centuries: all its
great men and bad men, its good laws and vile laws, its


faithfulness and its crimes, contribute to its character;
nothing dies ; but what was fact and show in a living gen-
eration becomes force and substance when the actors
have departed. Look at England, for instance. Is that
which we call England composed simply of twenty mil-
lions of men and women that inhabit that island now?
How truly do the statesmen, patriots, orators, poets,
kings, cabinets, and parties of several hundred years, be-
long to our conception of what England is ! The wit-
ness ctf their activity is not only prominent in the litera-
ture and art, the castles and cathedrals, the palaces and
towers, the liberties and laws, that are visible on the Eng-
lish land and in their society, but an incalculable force
has been shed from this background of greatness and
genius into the generation of to-day, and through the
present will be transmitted into the future. Let a hostile
cabinet declare war against England, and try to tread out
her spirit and influence, and they would find that a force
is needed competent to crush twenty generations. For,
though the merchants, traders, and laborers little think
of it in time of peace, and perhaps care not half a fig for
the men that walked through the streets they tread, two
centuries ago, Sidney, Russell, Pym, and Hampden, New-
ton, and Shakespeare, and Chatham, the great dead of
Westminster Abbey, and the honored names of Oxford
and Cambridge, still stand in the background, and in an
emergency would start forward and give the immense
momentum of their spirit to an onset against an invading
foe. As the ghost of the hero Theseus appeared, accord-
ing to the Athenians, on the field of Marathon, and in-
spirited their ranks against the Persians, the greatness
which a nation has enshrined in its traditions is part of its
deepest present life ; and it often happens that the shades
of the fathers are a more substantial rampart for a land
than the swords of the children.

See, too, how our revolutionary experience, genius,
and fidelity are involved in the character of America.
They are not dead facts written in mute annals ; they are
vital memories of the nation, as though the same men
that are now on the stage had once performed them.
We take the credit of that wisdom, persistence, and sacri-
fice partly to ourselves ; we are proud of them ; and in any


crisis our arms would be the stronger, our wit the
quicker, our fortitude the more heroic, because of the
impulses that would thrill our veins from the beatings of
that revolutionary heart. Strike out the idea of America
and the hope of America from our people, and a great
portion of the force and enthusiasm of our people would
be annihilated. That period of our national fortunes is
far more than a show in our history ; it is part of our
present substance. It was not a fact of the past merely ;
it is a force of our national character.

The most mournful sight in the case of any nation is
the evident destitution of any great political sentiments
and principles that have grown for centuries, and are
rooted in its heads, habits, and hearts. What a sad
thing that, on the intellectual and moral soil of France,
beautiful, enthusiastic France, whose genius has been re-
fining for ages like the wine its own vineyards distil, no
ideas of rights and constitutional freedom have grown,
that could not be pulled up in a night by a dissolute
ruffian, wearing and polluting a splendid name! Think
you that in England or here any cowardly conspirator
could weave the noose that in one night should drag
down the form and the sentiment of Liberty from its
sacred niche in the popular affections, and the next day
make the people themselves applaud that it was done so
well? A Bedouin robber might as well try to lasso and
uproot a hickory-tree that had toughened its roots in
the ground for a century. Poor France was overgrown
with the merest weedy sentiments of liberty ; for it is only
weeds that bayonets can scratch up.

If we reflect on the sources of national power and
prosperity, we shall soon see how its strength rests on an
invisible and ideal base, and is developed out of mental
and moral resources. Little Greece resisted the flood of
Persian arms, and at last conquered the East, because
there was more vitality more courage, genius, enthusi-
asm in her people than in the swarming myriads which
the bulk of the Persian Empire enclosed. Rome, too,
rose to supreme sway by the despotic influence of char-
acter, not of legions. When Rome fell she had more
troops and fortifications than in the height of her republi-
can supremacy, but she had lost her real and invisible


strength, that of temperance, hardihood, valor, moral
soundness ; internal dissension, luxury, and bad govern-
ment had unnerved her hands; and therefore her visible
defences of battalions and armaments were nothing but
empty shell and show. The British dominion is sup-
ported now by the strong fibres of Saxon wisdom and
pride that run through the whole extent of it. It is those
that knit Calcutta and Australia, Gibraltar and Cape
Town, to London and Liverpool and the Parliament

The most effectual way to paralyze the prosperity of
our country at this moment would be to smite an ideal
element that interpenetrates the land. The soil over half
our area might be blighted, pestilence might decimate our
laborers, tornadoes might scatter a great portion of our
tonnage in ruins upon the sea, droughts might shrivel the
rivers into thin and feeble rills ; but all this would be less
disastrous than to annihilate the system of credit that
pervades the mercantile world. Destroy that impalpable
thing, break down the confidence between city and coun-
try, the reliance which State feels upon State and East
upon West, the trust which man reposes in his neighbor,
and it is the same as if you arrest the pitch of waterfalls,
and smother the breezes that ruffle the deep, and wilt the
fierce energy of steam, and unstring the laborer's arm,
and quench the furnace fires, and stop the hum of wheels,
and forbid emigrants to seek the West and cities to rise
amid the silence of its woods. Our prosperity and our
hopes lean back on that moral bond more than they do
on nature or on capital ; shake it, and there is an earth-
quake of society; restore it, and order, activity, happi-
ness and wealth return.

As a bond of union for our States, moreover, there is
one element more substantial than even the wisdom of
our Constitution, the interlocked geographical unity of
our territory, and the power of our central government.
It is our common memories of a great history, and the
one language that is spoken in all our zones and over all
the breadth of the lines of longitude, that mark the
leagues from the Atlantic to the Pacific shores. It is
hardly possible that any wisdom of political structure or
administration could hold so many States together


against such diversities of social customs, intelligence,
and interest, if the different districts of our empire spoke
different languages. But our unity of speech, the com-
mon way in which we articulate our breath and write our
thoughts, enabling the farthest backwoodsman to feel
kindred with the culture of the East, making all commer-
cial correspondence simple and easy, allowing us to read
the same books, to read the same speeches with common
delight in a common eloquence, this is like a soul
breathed through all the limbs of our confederacy, giving
it a stronger unity than its geological skeleton or its
political muscles can. Destroy this community of lan-
guage, give a distinct tongue to each great division of
our land, introduce confusion of dialects into our capital,
and we could have no more permanent unity than the
mechanical one which Nebuchadnezzar's image had, with
its head of gold, its breast of silver, its thighs of brass, its
legs of iron, and its feet of clay. Its parts might be dis-
lodged from each other. There would not be invisible
unity to mold into vital permanence its unity of show.

The politicians every now and then get up their
schemes of division, but the common mother tongue
drowns them before they swim far. As long as the free
soil and the Hunker speeches in Congress are made in
the same dialect the danger of their antagonism is greatly
abated. Only the old mother tongue does try to tell us,
through the dictionaries, that the word " slave " is not
Saxon. It came into our speech by foreign immigration ;
it cannot show any naturalization papers, the Constitu-
tion rejected it, and so certainly, according to the present
tendencies of party, it ought not to be allowed to gain
power and office over the good native American noun
" freedom."

I have several times used the word " civilization " in
connection with the subject we are considering. Let us
see now what light the meaning of that wofd sheds upon
our theme. There are a vast number of things that make
up civilization. They are invisible, but they are among
the most substantial and potent realities connected with
our globe.

Besides the men and women, the houses and wealth,
that exist in Christendom, there is such a thing as civili-


Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 25 of 38)