The State of Our Literature
August 26,1806
Source: W&S v. 15 p. 575-582

The laws of nature are confined to no sphere, and bounded by no limits. They are as universal as her works. The world of mind is the theatre of her legislation, not less than the world of matter. In each exists the same fixed relation between cause and effect. The same immutable principle which forbids flowers to blossom on Arabia's sands, or Zembla's rocks, forbids, also, the productions of taste and literature to spring in the soil of uncultivated minds. The smallest atom that floats in air, is resolvable into some one, or more, of the great elements, which compose the universe, and the most transient idea, that passes in the brain, may be traced to some determinate circumstance of intellectual education.

Man, then, in his mental powers, and in his moral sentiments, is the creature of cultivation. He is what this makes him, and this is almost the only position, which in the abstract can be asserted Of him. The picture is portrayed in changeable colors. It exhibits bright or dark sides, lustre or shade, Recording to the quarter from which light is thrown upon it. The original elements of human nature, differently blended and combined, by the chemistry of moral, political, and literary education, exhibit man, under the different aspects which he wears, between barbarism and refinement, the forest, and the forum. This improvable principle in human nature, is the foundation of all literary exertion. The patronage of the arts and sciences flows from this source. It is because talents abound, where there are inducements to draw them forth, that in the most civilized nations, literary exertion hath been solicited by the most flattering enticements. Praise and reward are the merited remunerations of genius; and as these are bestowed sparingly, or generously, so the state of the community is ignorant or learned. Literary patronage, therefore, is not a chimera. No more than the sun is a chimera to the farmer's hopes. Learning is not the spontaneous, self planted, self supported oak of the forest. It is the plant of our gardens; and the vigor of its growth, the extension of its branches, the beauty of its foliage, and the value of its fruit, are proportioned, not less to the skill of the cultivator, than to the strength of native soil.

On this occasion, in the midst of my friends, and in that village of my native State which claims to be the seat of its literature, it is more the wish of my heart, to be useful, as a man, than to be splendid or declamatory as an orator. I appreciate higher that part of my reputation, which is involved in the general reputation of this District of the community, than of that individual portion which appertains only to myself. Indulge me, therefore, in a few brief and desultory remarks on the State of our Literature.

That this Country, or this age, is not distinguished by uncommon literary zeal, I suppose need not be proved, altho' patriotism would suppress the avowal, if the authority of patriotism were greater than that of truth. The Northern section of the Union hath the praise of having disseminated the elements of knowledge more generally than hath been done at any other time or place. With this credit, we seem willing to balance the account, and sit down contented. Literary efforts of the higher order have been unfrequently made, and still more unfrequently successful. Yet, as the broadest foundation will support the loftiest structure, so the widest diffusion of elementary principles would seem to afford the best basis for capital performances. The deficiency is ascribable to nothing but the poverty of literary spirit. Like the barbarian who treads, heedless of their value, on the pearl and the topaz which the ocean washes to his feet, we slumber 011 the best means of scientific improvement, ignorant of their worth. A want of literary spirit is followed by a dearth of literary production. Taste to relish the works of genius, and a disposition to praise and reward it, must in every [case] pre- cede its efforts. Genius will not display itself unpatronized, and unregarded. It is coy, and will be wooed; it is proud, and must be soothed. You will not hear its voice in poetry, nor behold its wonders on canvas, while it cannot command admiring auditors, and applauding spectators. Society must be made susceptible of the powers of genius, before it will display them. Horace and Virgil will never be heard to sing to untuned ears; nor will the statue of Apelles be found in forests, to be gazed at by the rude eye of barbarism.

But not to speak of Poetry, which hath hitherto appeared in this State no where but in the corner of a newsprint; not to speak of painting and sculpture, the terms and language of which are unknown even in our best schools, it is sufficiently characteristic to remark, that there is no depository, where are collecting documents for our own history. Nothing like a historical society exists in this State. The future historian will find no materials to facilitate his labors, other than the garbled, false, senseless columns of putrefied factious news- papers, which shed visible darkness on every topic they mention, and from which the historian can by no possibility elicit truth, unless, like Esop's fowl, he should, by chance, scratch the jewel out of the dirt. A historical society is one of the most easy, and useful associations of literary men. It is [an] object of primary consideration, in every country that is desirous of giving its history to posterity.

Is it still more incredible, that in a community, where agriculture is the great leading interest of all classes, no two minds should combine their powers to facilitate its improve- ment? That there should be no union of effort, no concert, no comparison of experiments? That all should be left to individual enterprise, and the few improvements which are made, should owe their existence to chance, or accident ? The tillers of the soil have certainly a right to expect that men of science will lend them the aids of their knowledge. An agricultural society, formed on principles broad enough to embrace such objects of natural history as are connected with husbandry, is an establishment, which long, long ere this, should have been effected.

This apathy in the pursuit of literary and scientific objects hath undoubtedly its causes. In searching for these, we are to direct our inquiries to the ruling passion of the (Country. This absorbs all other sentiments. We look on Aaron's serpent, and see him swallow up all the rest. It hath, indeed, been said that America is yet too young to imbibe an ardor for letters. That she can hardly expect even works of mediocrity for years yet to come. That seven centuries from the foundation of Rome were hardly sufficient to produce Horace and Virgil, Hortensius and Cicero. That when as many years have rolled by from the landing of our Fathers, as from Romulus to Augustus, we may then expect great poets, orators, and historians. No reasons from analogy can apply among nations so entirely dissimilar. Rome set out in the career of national existence completely barbarous. She got up out of her cradle an infant savage, with all the wolf in her blood. She was profoundly ignorant of first elements. She began at her alphabet. America, on the contrary, commenced her existence, at a time when the sources of knowledge were unfolded, and the human mind was bounding forward, in the path of improvement. Her first colonists were scholars. Raleigh, Smith, Penn, Robinson --are such names found in the first page of Roman story? No nation can trace so certain and so honorable an ancestry as America. It runs not back to clans of ravishers and robbers, nor to the lair of the foster mother of Romulus. Nor is it enveloped in Feudal ignorance, or Druidical mystery. It is the plantation of enlightened men, from the best informed nations of Europe, in a new country, who were anxious to strew the seeds of knowledge at the birth and beginning of their Republic.

An inordinate ambition to accumulate wealth forms a prominent feature in the character of this country. The love of gold is the ruling passion, and of all passions this is the most hostile to literary improvement. There is a liberal pursuit of wealth which well consists with the interests of science; which while it accumulates princely private fortunes, endows colleges, rewards the efforts of genius, and gives spirit to all intellectual exertions--and there is a mean, monkish, idolatrous devotion to it, which when once enthroned in the heart, banishes thence every generous sentiment. Where this grovelling, dust-loving propensity predominates, literature can make little progress. It will not even have a patient hearing, while it addresses this surly inhabitant of the heart. The powers of Midas, whose touch turned every thing to gold, would there command more admiration, and find a better market, than the genius of Homer or Demosthenes. Yet cause and effect here reciprocate. The diffusion of taste and knowledge will unlock the frozen avaricious heart, and when its ices are warmed, it will then be inclined, in its turn, to cherish the causes from which it is made capable of deriving pleasure.

The character of a country is as correctly estimated by the attention which is paid to literary institutions, as by any one criterion. Colleges grow with the taste and science of their country. They form an important item in national character. They are worthy the most solicitous regard of Government. Of all the duties of legislators, no one is more pleasant, or more important than to foster those institutions which disseminate morals and knowledge among mankind. Am I he ard by legislators ? By those, to whom is consigned the highest trusts of society ? I would say, as you value your country's glory or your own fame, rear high the fabric of national knowledge. Reach forth to your university no reluctant, no empty hand. Is social man, refined from the grosser parts of his nature by science, and from its depraved parts, by the influence of the true religion, a more pleasing object, in the contemplation of Deity, than the idolatrous tenant of the wilderness? You are possessed of the means of throwing the lights of science and religion far around you. The duty is a high and responsible one, and posterity will require a faithful discharge of it. It is however, to be hoped, that when legislators endow colleges, they will take the precaution to give what is their own. That they will not wring from the hard hands of peasants their vile trash by any indirection, and claim for it the merits of a liberal donation. Neither the happiness nor the glory of nations is measured by their acres. The legislator, who drains his own purse and that of his country to the last shilling, for the purchase of tractless marshes and illimitable hunting grounds, ought to complete his character, by assuming the bow and arrow and tomahawk.

The passion for wealth is nationally inordinate. Legislators need not cherish it. To every purpose of happiness, nations not unfrequently grow rich too fast. It is the duty, and in a great measure in the power of Government, to enlarge and liberalize this passion, to induce the individual to embrace public, as well as private views, and blend his own interest With the best interests of the community.

Another impediment to the advancement of literature is the pursuit of polities. This is little less deleterious, than unbounded avarice. Let me not be understood to denounce polities, as a science. The theory of Government is one of the first of sciences. I mean the mad strife of temporary parties, the rancor of conflicting interests, and jarring opinions. These are vials of wrath the contents of which scorch and consume all that is desirable and lovely in society. Tile strife of polities never made a great, or a good man. Its unvary ing tendency is to belittle greatness, and corrupt goodness It contracts the mind, and hardens the heart. It hath yet enticements which too easily beguile the youthful mind, ambitious of public notice, into its contentious paths. It flatters, with the view of immediate eminence, and the temptation is too strong for inexperienced hearts. But political fame, as it rests on the passions of men, and not on their understandings, is a baseless fabric. The champion of a political party appears, and struts his little hour upon the stage, and straight is heard no more. A character, destitute of intrinsic merit, of genius, or of learning, and renowned only because his faction is triumphant, is like a small statue on a tall pedestal. Isis elevation only serves to diminish him. To give to such a character permanent greatness, to bestow on him fame, that shall last longer than his own bones, is more absurd than was the scheme of Alexander, to carve Mount Athos to the form of man.

Let ambitious genius beware, how it plants itself on the arid soil of political contention. Let it never, for a moment, forsake the altars of taste and wit, for the clamor of faction. " Polities are transitory; wit is eternal." Let genius pursue those paths to fame, which alone have been successfully trodden. Whether its range be amid the fine arts, or the abstruse sciences; whether it invoke the muses or travel to the stars, fame will accompany it. The elegant of literature is no less imperishable, than the profound. The beauties of the Corinthian will as effectually resist the war of the elements, as the solidity of the Tuscan column. Let the emulous youth who pants for renown, think and act for posterity, and posterity will appreciate the obligation. Disregarding momentary considerations, let him build on a lasting foundation. Thus shall he make to himself an honorable name, when the bloated bubbles, who float only on the surface of political success, shall have dropped out of existence and left no vacuity.

The splendid purple robe of civic power, often leads us to believe that it covers vast learning and ability; when in fact it is merely coiled round much pride and vanity, with some imperceptible mixtures of sense and intellect. Even learned professors and fellows, though accustomed to gaze on the unclouded radiance of the sun, cannot yet look on the brilliant robe of popularity and power, without being so much dazzled as not to be able to peer through it, on to the barrenness within. Hence the ivy crown is sometimes woven around undeserving heads. When the splendor of a little brief authority is withdrawn, the dispensers of literary honors, perhaps, find the object of their regard and civility quite a new being. They then call for their microscopes, and search assiduously for those sparks of understanding and information, the bright blaze of which had before so much dazzled and confounded them. Indeed collegiate honors are in danger of losing some portion of that high estimation, which ought to be attached to them. The profuse manufacture of the article, hath diminished the value. The market is overstocked. About the old universities of Europe, Doctors thicken in their ranks, till distinction consists in not belonging to the corps. In some of these ancient corrupt institutions, degrees are sold for cash; in others, for flattery. As a fool's money is certainly worth more than his praise, so the former practice is less censurable than the latter.

Literary honors ate appropriate to literary men. They are the merited rewards of genius and industry; of genius, that lights up new stars, and new suns in the firmament of science; and of industry, that pale and friendless, consumes o'er the midnight lamp for the benefit of mankind. They are not, ill the name of all that is science I protest--they are not to be nailed on to the head of everyone, who happens to have been a fortunate navigator, in the mare schismaticum of polities ! From this reflection on the folly and profligacy of the ancient seminaries of Europe, the mind turns weary and disquieted, to cheer itself with the abundant consolation, that the conduct of our own colleges hath been, in every instance, vastly more wise and discreet.

The duty of the American scholar grows out of the circumstances of his country. If the causes which have been suggested, have influence in retarding the growth of the sciences, the obstacles to be overpowered are then described. To warm the apathy, to subdue the avarice, to soften the political asperity, of the nation, are the objects for the prosecution of which every man of letters stands pledged to the cause he bath espoused. The undertaking tho' arduous, is not hopeless. Every motive of duty and patriotism conspires to invigorate the mind in the pursuit. Let science assume its proper character, and discharge its incumbent duties. Let it trample on the paltry distinctions with which little men make themselves known. Let it tread party and passion beneath its feet. And let its earliest, and latest acquisitions, the blossom and the fruit, be consecrated to the service of our country and the benefit of mankind.


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