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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

American Liberty Enlightening the World

By George Bancroft (1800–1891)

[Born in Worcester, Mass., 1800. Died in Washington, D.C., 1891. From History of the United States of America, from the Discovery of the Continent. The Author’s Last Revision. 1882–85.]

INSTITUTIONS may crumble and governments fall, but it is only that they may renew a better youth. The petals of the flower wither, that fruit may form. The desire of perfection, springing always from moral power, rules even the sword, and escapes unharmed from the field of carnage; giving to battles all that they can have of lustre, and to warriors their only glory; surviving martyrdoms, and safe amid the wreck of states. On the banks of the stream of time, not a monument has been raised to a hero or a nation but tells the tale and renews the hope of improvement. Each people that has disappeared, every institution that has passed away, has been a step in the ladder by which humanity ascends toward the perfecting of its nature.

And how has it always added to the just judgments of the past the discoveries of successive ages! The generations that hand the torch of truth along the lines of time themselves become dust and ashes; but the light still increases its ever burning flame, and is fed more and more plenteously with consecrated oil. How is progress manifest in religion, from the gross symbols of Egypt and the East to the philosophy of Greece, from the fetichism of the savage to the polytheism of Rome; from the multiplied forms of ancient superstition and the lovely representations of deities in stone, to the clear conception of the unity of divine power and the idea of the presence of God in the soul! How has mind, in its inquisitive freedom, taught man to employ the elements as mechanics do their tools, and already, in part at least, made him the master and possessor of nature! How has knowledge not only been increased, but diffused! How has morality been constantly tending to subdue the supremacy of brute force, to refine passion, to enrich literature with the varied forms of pure thought and delicate feeling! How has social life been improved, and every variety of toil in the field and in the workshop been ennobled by the willing industry of free men! How has humanity been growing conscious of its unity and watchful of its own development, till public opinion, bursting the bonds of nationality, knows itself to be the combined intelligence of the world, in its movement on the tide of thought from generation to generation!

From the intelligence that had been slowly ripening in the mind of cultivated humanity sprung the American revolution, which organized social union through the establishment of personal freedom, and emancipated the nations from all authority not flowing from themselves. In the old civilization of Europe, power moved from a superior to inferiors and subjects; a priesthood transmitted a common faith, from which it would tolerate no dissent; the government esteemed itself, by compact or by divine right, invested with sovereignty, dispensing protection and demanding allegiance. But a new principle, far mightier than the church and state of the middle ages, was forcing itself into activity. Successions of increasing culture had conquered for mankind the idea of the freedom of the individual; the creative, but long latent, energy that resides in the collective reason was next to be revealed. From this the state was to emerge, like the fabled spirit of beauty and love out of the foam of the ever troubled ocean. It was the office of America to substitute for hereditary privilege the natural equality of man; for the irresponsible authority of a sovereign, a government emanating from the concord of opinion; and, as she moved forward in her high career, the multitudes of every clime gazed toward her example with hopes of untold happiness, and all the nations of the earth learned the way to be renewed.

The American revolution, essaying to unfold the principles which organized its events, and bound to keep faith with the ashes of its heroes, was most radical in its character, yet achieved with such benign tranquillity that even conservatism hesitated to censure. A civil war armed men of the same ancestry against each other, yet for the advancement of the principles of everlasting peace and universal brotherhood. A new plebeian democracy took its place by the side of the proudest empires. Religion was disenthralled from civil institutions; thought obtained for itself free utterance by speech and by the press; industry was commissioned to follow the bent of its own genius; the system of commercial restrictions between states was reprobated and shattered; and the oceans were enfranchised for every peaceful keel. International law was humanized and softened; and a new, milder, and more just maritime code was concerted and enforced. The trade in slaves was branded and restrained. The language of Bacon and Milton, of Chatham and Washington, became so diffused that, in every zone, and almost in every longitude, childhood lisps the English as its mother tongue. The equality of all men was declared, personal freedom secured in its complete individuality, and common consent recognised as the only just origin of fundamental laws: so that in thirteen separate states, with ample territory for creating more, the inhabitants of each formed their own political institutions. By the side of the principle of the freedom of the individual and the freedom of the separate states, the noblest work of human intellect was consummated in a federal union; and that union put away every motive to its destruction by insuring to each successive generation the right to amend its constitution according to the increasing intelligence of the living people.

Astonishing deeds, throughout the globe, attended these changes: armies fought in the wilderness for rule over the solitudes which were to be the future dwelling-place of millions; navies hunted each other through every sea, engaging in battle now near the region of icebergs, now within the tropics; inventive art was summoned to make war more destructive, and to signalize sieges by new miracles of ability and daring; Africa was, in part, appropriated by rival nations of white men; and, in Asia, an adventurous company of British traders planted themselves as masters in the empire of the Great Mogul.

For America, the period abounded in new forms of virtue and greatness. Fidelity to principle pervaded the masses; an unorganized people, of their own free will, suspended commerce by universal assent; poverty rejected bribes. Heroism, greater than that of chivalry, burst into action from lowly men; citizens, with their families, fled from their homes and wealth in towns, rather than yield to oppression. Battalions sprung up in a night from spontaneous patriotism; where eminent statesmen hesitated, the instinctive action of the multitude revealed the counsels of magnanimity; youth and genius gave up life freely for the liberties of mankind. A nation without union, without magazines and arsenals, without a treasury, without credit, without government, fought successfully against the whole strength and wealth of Great Britain: an army of veteran soldiers capitulated to insurgent husbandmen.