Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Thoughts on the Nation

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

Thoughts on the Nation

By James Kent (1763–1847)

[Born in Philippi, Putnam Co., N. Y., 1763. Died in New York, N. Y., 1847. From a Discourse delivered before the N. Y. Hist. Soc., 6 December, 1828.]

IT was observed at the beginning of this discourse that we had in this State illustrious annals to appeal to, and I humbly hope that I have made good the assertion. The noble monument erecting on Bunker’s Hill to the memory of her early patriots does honor to the pride and zeal of the sons of New England; but the records of this State, in the hands of some future historian, are capable of elevating a loftier monument, and one of less perishable materials, on which, not the rays of the setting sun, but the rays of a nation’s glory, as long as letters shall endure, will continue “to play and linger on its summit.” I do not wish, however, to cherish or inculcate that patriotism which is purely local or exclusive. My object is more disinterested and liberal. It is to enkindle that generous zeal and ardent public virtue, with which Scipio and other citizens of Rome are said to have been inspired, as often as they beheld the domestic images of their ancestors.

The glory of each State is the common property of the nation, and our freedom was established by the united will and consolidated efforts of every part of the Union. Our responsibility for the wise and temperate use of civil liberty is of general obligation; and it is our example as a nation that has sensibly affected the civilized world. The image of personal freedom, of order, of security, of happiness, and of national prosperity, which our country presents, has had its influence wherever learning and commerce have penetrated. When our revolution began, despotism prevailed everywhere, except in Great Britain and her colonies; or if civil liberty existed at all on the continent of Europe, it dwelt in timid retirement, in the romantic valleys of Switzerland, within the shade of the loftiest Alps. But we have lived to witness a visible improvement in the institutions and policy of nations, after the tempest of the French revolution had subsided, and its ravages were repaired. It left the nations upon which it had spent its fury in a better and healthier condition than it found them. This was some compensation for the injustice and the miseries which it had produced. Limited monarchies, resting on a recognition of popular rights, and constitutional restrictions upon power, and invigorated by the admission of the principle of representation, are now established in the kingdoms of France and the Netherlands. The energy of the press and of popular instruction, and the free and liberal spirit of the age, control or mitigate the evils of a bad administration, or chastise its abuses in every department of government, and they carry their influence to the highest ranks and summits of society. Those mighty causes will gradually enlarge the sphere of their action, and produce freer institutions, and a better administration of justice, in every part of Europe. At any rate, we are assured that in our own hemisphere, from the head of the Gulf of Mexico, through all the good and bad forms of government in Spanish and Portuguese America, down to “the farthest verge of the green earth,” the force of our great example is strongly felt, and the eye is turned, with respect and reverence, to the character of our power and the splendor of our rising greatness.