The World’s Famous Orations.
Great Britain: II. (1780–1861). 1906.
John, Viscount Morley
His Address at Pittsburg
What Forbes’s stockade at Fort Pitt has grown to be you know better than I. The huge triumphs of Pittsburg in material production—iron, steel, coke, glass, and all the rest of it—can only be told in colossal figures that are almost as hard to realize in our minds as the figures of astronomical distance or geologic time. It is not quite clear that all the founders of the Commonwealth would have surveyed the wonderful scene with the same exultation as their descendants. Some of them would have denied that these great centers of industrial democracy either in the Old World or in the New always stand for progress. Jefferson said, “I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man. I consider the class of artificers,” he went on, “as the panders of vice, and the instrument by which the liberties of a country are generally overthrown.” In England they reckon 70 per cent. of our population as dwellers in towns. With you, I read that only 25 per cent. of the population live in groups so large as 4,000 persons. If Jefferson was right our outlook would be dark. Let us hope that he was wrong, and in fact toward the end of his time qualified his early view. Franklin, at any rate, would, I feel sure, have reveled in it all.
That great man—a name in the forefront among the practical intelligences of human history—once told a friend that when he dwelt upon the rapid progress that mankind was making in politics, morals, and the arts of living, and when he considered that each one improvement always begets another, he felt assured that the future progress of the race was likely to be quicker than it had ever been. He was never wearied of foretelling inventions yet to come, and he wished he could revisit the earth at the end of a century to see how mankind was getting on. With all my heart I share his wish. Of all the men who have built up great States, I do believe there is not one whose alacrity of sound sense and single-eyed beneficence of aim could be more safely trusted than Franklin to draw light from the clouds and pierce the economic and political confusions of our time. We can imagine the amazement and complacency of that shrewd benignant mind if he could watch all the giant marvels of your mills and furnaces, and all the apparatus devised by the wondrous inventive faculties of man; if he could have foreseen that his experiments with the kite in his garden at Philadelphia, his tubes, his Leyden jars would end in the electric appliances of today—the largest electric plant in all the world on the site of Fort Duquesne; if he could have heard of 5,000,000,000 of passengers carried in the United States by electric motor power in a year; if he could have realized all the rest of the magician’s tale of our time.
Still more would he have been astounded and elated could he have foreseen, beyond all advances in material production, the unbroken strength of that political structure which he had so grand a share in rearing. Into this very region where we are this afternoon, swept wave after wave of immigration; English from Virginia flowed over the border, bringing English traits, literature, habits of mind; Scots, or Scoto-Irish, originally from Ulster, flowed in from Central Pennsylvania; Catholics from Southern Ireland; new hosts from Southern and East Central Europe. This is not the Fourth of July. But people of every school would agree that it is no exuberance of rhetoric, it is only sober truth to say that the persevering absorption and incorporation of all this ceaseless torrent of heterogenous elements into one united, stable, industrious, and pacific State is an achievement that neither the Roman Empire nor the Roman Church, neither Byzantine Empire nor Russian, not Charles the Great nor Charles the Fifth nor Napoleon ever rivaled or approached.
We are usually apt to excuse the slower rate of liberal progress in our Old World by contrasting the obstructive barriers of prejudice, survival, solecism, anachronism, convention, institution, all so obstinately rooted, even when the branches seem bare and broken, in an old world, with the open and disengaged ground of the new. Yet in fact your difficulties were at least as formidable as those of the older civilizations into whose fruitful heritage you have entered. Unique was the necessity of this gigantic task of incorporation, the assimilation of people of divers faiths and race. A second difficulty was more formidable still—how to erect and work a powerful and wealthy State on such a system as to combine the centralized concert of a federal system with local independence, and to unite collective energy with the encouragement of individual freedom.
This last difficulty that you have so successfully up to now surmounted, at the present hour confronts the mother country and deeply perplexes her statesmen. Liberty and union have been called the twin ideas of America. So, too, they are the twin ideals of all responsible men in Great Britain; altho responsible men differ among themselves as to the safest path on which to travel toward the common goal, and tho the dividing ocean, in other ways so much our friend, interposes for our case of an island State, or rather for a group of island States, obstacles from which a continental State like yours is happily altogether free.
Nobody believes that no difficulties remain. Some of them are obvious. But the commonsense, the mixture of patience and determination that has conquered risks and mischiefs in the past, may be trusted with the future.
Strange and devious are the paths of history. Broad and shining channels get mysteriously silted up. How many a time what seemed a glorious high road proves no more than a mule track or mere cul-de-sac. Think of Canning’s flashing boast, when he insisted on the recognition of the Spanish republics in South America—that he had called a new world into existence to redress the balance of the old. This is one of the sayings—of which sort many another might be found—that make the fortune of a rhetorician, yet stand ill the wear and tear of time and circumstance. The new world that Canning called into existence has so far turned out a scene of singular disenchantment.
Tho not without glimpses on occasion of that heroism and courage and even wisdom that are the attributes of man almost at the worst, the tale has been too much a tale of anarchy and disaster, still leaving a host of perplexities for statesmen both in America and Europe. It has left also to students of a philosophic turn of mind one of the most interesting of all the problems to be found in the whole field of social, ecclesiastical, religious, and racial movement. Why is it that we do not find in the south as we find in the north of this hemisphere a powerful federation—a great Spanish-American people stretching from the Rio Grande to Cape Horn? To answer that question would be to shed a flood of light upon many deep historic forces in the Old World, of which, after all, these movements of the New are but a prolongation and more manifest extension.
What more imposing phenomenon does history present to us than the rise of Spanish power to the pinnacle of greatness and glory in the sixteenth century? The Mohammedans, after centuries of fierce and stubborn war, driven back; the whole peninsula brought under a single rule with a single creed; enormous acquisitions from the Netherlands of Naples, Sicily, the Canaries; France humbled, England menaced, settlements made in Asia and Northern Africa—Spain in America become possessed of a vast continent and of more than one archipelago of splendid islands. Yet before a century was over the sovereign majesty of Spain underwent a huge declension, the territory under her sway was contracted, the fabulous wealth of the mines of the New World had been wasted, agriculture and industry were ruined, her commerce passed into the hands of her rivals.
Let me digress one further moment. We have a very sensible habit in the island whence I come, when our country misses fire, to say as little as we can, and sink the thing in patriotic oblivion. It is rather startling to recall that less than a century ago England twice sent a military force to seize what is now Argentina. Pride of race and hostile creed vehemently resisting, proved too much for us. The two expeditions ended in failure, and nothing remains for the historian of to-day but to wonder what a difference it might have made to the temperate region of South America if the fortune of war had gone the other way, if the region of the Plata had become British, and a large British immigration had followed. Do not think me guilty of the heinous crime of forgetting the Monroe Doctrine. That momentous declaration was not made for a good many years after our Gen. Whitelocke was repulsed at Buenos Ayres, tho Mr. Sumner and other people have always held that it was Canning who really first started the Monroe Doctrine, when he invited the United States to join him against European intervention in South American affairs.
The day is at hand, we are told, when four-fifths of the human race will trace their pedigree to English forefathers, as four-fifths of the white people in the United States trace their pedigree to-day. By the end of this century, they say, such nations as France and Germany, assuming that they stand apart from fresh consolidations, will only be able to claim the same relative position in the political world as Holland and Switzerland. These musings of the moon do not take us far. The important thing, as we all know, is not the exact fraction of the human race that will speak English. The important thing is that those who speak English, whether in old lands or new, shall strive in lofty, generous and never-ceasing emulation with peoples of other tongues and other stock for the political, social, and intellectual primacy among mankind. In this noble strife for the service of our race we need never fear that claimants for the prize will be too large a multitude.
As an able scholar of your own has said, Jefferson was here using the old vernacular of English aspirations after a free, manly, and well-ordered political life—a vernacular rich in stately tradition and noble phrase, to be found in a score of a thousand of champions in many camps—in Buchanan, Milton, Hooker, Locke, Jeremy Taylor, Roger Williams, and many another humbler but not less strenuous pioneer and confessor of freedom. Ah, do not fail to count up, and count up often, what a different world it would have been but for that island in the distant northern sea! These were the tributary fountains, that, as time went on, swelled into the broad confluence of modern time. What was new in 1776 was the transformation of thought into actual polity.
What is progress? It is best to be slow in the complex arts of politics in their widest sense, and not to hurry to define. If you want a platitude, there is nothing for supplying it like a definition. Or shall we say that most definitions hang between platitude and paradox? There are said, tho I have never counted, to be 10,000 definitions of religion. There must be about as many of poetry. There can hardly be fewer of liberty, or even of happiness.
I am not bold enough to try a definition. I will not try to gauge how far the advance of moral forces has kept pace with that extension of material forces in the world of which this continent, conspicuous before all others, bears such astounding evidence. This, of course, is the question of questions, because as an illustrious English writer—to whom, by the way, I owe my friendship with your founder many long years ago—as Matthew Arnold said in America here, it is moral ideas that at bottom decide the standing or falling of states and nations. Without opening this vast discussion at large, many a sign of progress is beyond mistake. The practise of associated action—one of the master keys of progress—is a new force in a hundred fields, and with immeasurable diversity of forms. There is less acquiescence in triumphant wrong. Toleration in religion has been called the best fruit of the last four centuries, and in spite of a few bigoted survivals, even in our United Kingdom, and some savage outbreaks of hatred, half religious, half racial, on the Continent of Europe, this glorious gain of time may now be taken as secured. Perhaps of all the contributions of America to human civilization this is greatest. The reign of force is not yet over, and at intervals it has its triumphant hours, but reason, justice, humanity fight with success their long and steady battle for a wider sway.
Of all the points of social advance, in my country at least, during the last generation none is more marked than the change in the position of women, in respect of rights of property, of education, of access to new callings. As for the improvement of material well-being, and its diffusion among those whose labor is a prime factor in its creation, we might grow sated with the jubilant monotony of its figures, if we did not take good care to remember, in the excellent words of the President of Harvard, that those gains, like the prosperous working of your institutions and the principles by which they are sustained, are in essence moral contributions, “being principles of reason, enterprise, courage, faith, and justice, over passion, selfishness, inertness, timidity, and distrust.” It is the moral impulses that matter. Where they are safe, all is safe.
When this and the like is said, nobody supposes that the last word has been spoken as to the condition of the people either in America or Europe. Republicanism is not itself a panacea for economic difficulties. Of self it can neither stifle nor appease the accents of social discontent. So long as it has no root in surveyed envy, this discontent itself is a token of progress.
What, cries the skeptic, what has become of all the hopes of the time when France stood upon the top of golden hours? Do not let us fear the challenge. Much has come of them. And over the old hopes time has brought a stratum of new.
Liberalism is sometimes suspected of being cold to these new hopes, and you may often hear it said that Liberalism is already superseded by Socialism. That a change is passing over party names in Europe is plain, but you may be sure that no change in name will extinguish these principles of society which are rooted in the nature of things, and are accredited by their success. Twice America has saved Liberalism in Great Britain. The War for Independence in the eighteenth century was the defeat of usurping power no less in England than here. The War for Union in the nineteenth century gave the decisive impulse to a critical extension of suffrage, and an era of popular reform in the mother country. Any miscarriage of democracy here reacts against progress in Great Britain.
If you seek the real meaning of most modern disparagement of popular or parliamentary government, it is no more than this, that no politics will suffice of themselves to make a nation’s soul. What could be more true? Who says it will? But we may depend upon it that the soul will be best kept alive in a nation where there is the highest proportion of those who, in the phrase of an old worthy of the seventeenth century, think it a part of a man’s religion to see to it that his country be well governed.
Democracy, they tell us, is afflicted by mediocrity and by sterility. But has not democracy in my country, as in yours, shown before now that it well knows how to choose rulers neither mediocre nor sterile; men more than the equals in unselfishness, in rectitude, in clear sight, in force, of any absolutist statesman, that ever in times past bore the scepter? If I live a few months, or it may be even a few weeks longer, I hope to have seen something of three elections—one in Canada, one in the United Kingdom, and the other here. With us, in respect of leadership, and apart from height of social prestige, the personage corresponding to the president is, as you know, the prime minister. Our general election this time, owing to personal accident of the passing hour, may not determine quite exactly who shall be the prime minister, but it will determine the party from which the prime minister shall be taken. On normal occasions our election of a prime minister is as direct and personal as yours, and in choosing a member of Parliament people were really for a whole generation choosing whether Disraeli or Gladstone or Salisbury should be head of the government.
The one central difference between your system and ours is that the American president is in for a fixed time, whereas the British prime minister depends upon the support of the House of Commons. If he loses that; his power may not endure a twelvemonth; if on the other hand, he keeps it, he may hold office for a dozen years. There are not many more interesting or important questions in political discussion than the question whether our cabinet government or your presidential system of government is the better. This is not the place to argue it.
Between 1868 and now—a period of thirty-six years—we have had eight ministries. This would give an average life of four and a half years. Of these eight governments five lasted ever five years. Broadly speaking, then, our executive governments have lasted about the length of your fixed term. As for ministers swept away by a gust of passion, I can only recall the overthrow of Lord Palmerston in 1858 for being thought too subservient to France. For my own part, I have always thought that by its free play, its comparative fluidity, its rapid flexibility of adaptation, our cabinet system has most to say for itself.
Whether democracy will make for peace, we all have yet to see. So far democracy has done little in Europe to protect us against the turbid whirlpools of a military age. When the evils of rival states, antagonistic races, territorial claims, and all the other formulæ of international conflict are felt to be unbearable and the curse becomes too great to be any longer borne, a school of teachers will perhaps arise to pick up again the thread of the best writers and wisest rulers on the eve of the revolution. Movement in this region of human things has not all been progressive. If we survey the European courts from the end of the Seven Years’ War down to the French Revolution, we note the marked growth of a distinctly international and pacific spirit. At no era in the world’s history can we find so many European statesmen after peace and the good government of which peace is the best allay. That sentiment came to violent end when Napoleon arose to scourge the world.