American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

Cornelius Mathews

Nationality in Literature

Behold, now, this vast city: a city of refuge, the mansion-house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with God's protection; the shop of war hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates, and instruments of armed justice in defence of beleaguered truth, than there be pens and heads there sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas, wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching reformation; others, as fast reading, trying all things, assenting co the force of reason and convincement. What could a man require more--from a nation so pliant and so prone to seek after knowledge? What wants there to such a towardly and pregnant soil, but wise and faithful laborers, to make a knowing people, a nation of prophets, of sages, and of worthies?

Milton's Areopagitica

We are a nation of readers, thirty millions strong; but what are our books, and who are our writers?

There are many persons who have not yet tasted of death, who were living when Edmund Burke, on the floor of the British Parliament, described America as having been, within the life-time of the then Lord Bathurst, "a little speck, scarce visible in the mass of the national interest; a small seminal principle, rather than a formed body." That infant people, then "but in the gristle, and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood,"--scruggling with the vicissitudes of life in a new country, and subduing the wilderness and the savage tribes who peopled it,--thirteen feeble colonies, "growing by the neglect of their parent state,--have, within the threescore years and ten which have since elapsed, achieved their National Independence, through the fiery ordeal of a long and bloody war,--erected new institutions of government, a new civil polity and social condition,-- become the first political power in the Western hemisphere, and the second commercial power in the world,--and is beginning to exert an influence upon human affairs, which, if wisely directed, seems likely to change the destinies of our race, through all future time, and over the entire surface of the globe. Our Republic occupies a land, suited to the grand part which seems to be alloted to it on the great stage of time. Its shores washed by two oceans,--its interior penetrated by noble rivers, and dotted over with vast lakes and inland seas,--its mountains rich with the most useful and valuable minerals.--its fertile soil teeming with all the productions of the temperate zone, and thickly studded with broad prairies and nobly-timbered forests,--a domain equal in extent co the whole of Southern and Western Europe, adequate to the government of fifty independent states, and the maintenance of the hundreds of millions, who are advancing from the future to occupy it,--present elements of growth, of strength, and of greatness, which give assurance of the most splendid career to be traced in the annals of the human race.

The writer of the article "America," in the ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, (a foreign writer, and a foreign work of high authority,) after stating the then (in 1830) population of the United States, and the ratio of its increase to be such as co double itself every twency-five years; and, after making a proper allowance for the diminished ratio of increase after it has reached a specified limit, makes an estimate of the population of the country at several remote periods of time. In 1880, he computes it at eighty-four millions; in 1905, at one hundred and sixty-eight millions; in 1966, at six hundred and seventy- two millions; in 2002, at one billion three hundred and forty-four millions; and in 2030, at two billions six hundred and eighty-eight millions; thus, in less than two centuries,-- less than the period which has elapsed since the weary feet of the Pilgrims first pressed the

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