Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. V. English Traits
THE ENGLISH are a nation of humorists.1 Individual right is pushed to the uttermost bound compatible with public order. Property is so perfect that it seems the craft of that race, and not to exist elsewhere. The king cannot step on an acre which the peasant refuses to sell.2 A testator endows a dog or a rookery, and Europe cannot interfere with his absurdity. Every individual has his particular way of living, which he pushes to folly, and the decided sympathy of his compatriots is engaged to back up Mr. Crumps whim by statutes and chancellors and horse-guards. There is no freak so ridiculous but some Englishman has attempted to immortalize by money and law. British citizenship is as omnipotent as Roman was. Mr. Cockayne is very sensible of this. The pursy man means by freedom the right to do as he pleases, and does wrong in order to feel his freedom, and makes a conscience of persisting in it.
He is intensely patriotic, for his country is so small. His confidence in the power and performance of his nation makes him provokingly incurious about other nations. He dislikes foreigners. Swedenborg, who lived much in England, notes the similitude of minds among the English, in consequence of which they contract familiarity with friends who are of that nation, and seldom with others; and they regard foreigners as one looking through a telescope from the top of a palace regards those who dwell or wander about out of the city. A much older traveller, the Venetian who wrote the Relation of England, in 1500, says:The English are great lovers of themselves and of every thing belonging to them. They think that there are no other men than themselves and no other world but England; and whenever they see a handsome foreigner, they say that he looks like an Englishman and it is a great pity he should not be an Englishman; and whenever they partake of any delicacy with a foreigner, they ask him whether such a thing is made in his country. When he adds epithets of praise, his climax is, So English; and when he wishes to pay you the highest compliment, he says, I should not know you from an Englishman. France is, by its natural contrast, a kind of blackboard on which English character draws its own traits in chalk.3 This arrogance habitually exhibits itself in allusions to the French. I suppose that all men of English blood in America, Europe or Asia, have a secret feeling of joy that they are not French natives. Mr. Coleridge is said to have given public thanks to God, at the close of a lecture, that he had defended him from being able to utter a single sentence in the French language. I have found that Englishmen have such a good opinion of England, that the ordinary phrases in all good society, of postponing or disparaging ones own things in talking with a stranger, are seriously mistaken by them for an insuppressible homage to the merits of their nation; and the New Yorker or Pennsylvanian who modestly laments the disadvantage of a new country, log-huts and savages, is surprised by the instant and unfeigned commiseration of the whole company, who plainly account all the world out of England a heap of rubbish.
The same insular limitation pinches his foreign politics. He sticks to his traditions and usages, and, so help him God! he will force his island by-laws down the throat of great countries, like India, China, Canada, Australia,4 and not only so, but impose Wapping on the Congress of Vienna and trample down all nationalities with his taxed boots. Lord Chatham goes for liberty and no taxation without representation;for that is British law; but not a hobnail shall they dare make in America, but buy their nails in England;for that also is British law; and the fact that British commerce was to be re-created by the independence of America, took them all by surprise.
But beyond this nationality, it must be admitted, the island offers a daily worship to the old Norse god Brage, celebrated among our Scandinavian forefathers for his eloquence and majestic air. The English have a steady courage that fits them for great attempts and endurance: they have also a petty courage, through which every man delights in showing himself for what he is and in doing what he can; so that in all companies, each of them has too good an opinion of himself to imitate anybody. He hides no defect of his form, features, dress, connection, or birthplace, for he thinks every circumstance belonging to him comes recommended to you. If one of them have a bald, or a red, or a green head, or bow legs, or a scar, or mark, or a paunch, or a squeaking or a raven voice, he has persuaded himself that there is something modish and becoming in it, and that it sits well on him.
But nature makes nothing in vain, and this little superfluity of self-regard in the English brain is one of the secrets of their power and history. It sets every man on being and doing what he really is and can. It takes away a dodging, skulking, secondary air, and encourages a frank and manly bearing, so that each man makes the most of himself and loses no opportunity for want of pushing. A mans personal defects will commonly have, with the rest of the world, precisely that importance which they have to himself. If he makes light of them, so will other men. We all find in these a convenient metre of character, since a little man would be ruined by the vexation. I remember a shrewd politician, in one of our western cities, told me that he had known several successful statesmen made by their foible. And another, an ex-governor of Illinois, said to me, If the man knew anything, he would sit in a corner and be modest; but he is such an ignorant peacock that he goes bustling up and down and hits on extraordinary discoveries.
There is also this benefit in brag, that the speaker is unconsciously expressing his own ideal. Humor him by all means, draw it all out and hold him to it.5 Their culture generally enables the travelled English to avoid any ridiculous extremes of this self-pleasing, and to give it an agreeable air. Then the natural disposition is fostered by the respect which they find entertained in the world for English ability. It was said of Louis XIV., that his gait and air were becoming enough in so great a monarch, yet would have been ridiculous in another man; so the prestige of the English name warrants a certain confident bearing, which a Frenchman or Belgian could not carry. At all events, they feel themselves at liberty to assume the most extraordinary tone on the subject of English merits.
An English lady on the Rhine hearing a German speaking of her party as foreigners, exclaimed, No, we are not foreigners; we are English; it is you that are foreigners. They tell you daily in London the story of the Frenchman and Englishman who quarrelled. Both were unwilling to fight, but their companions put them up to it; at last it was agreed that they should fight alone, in the dark, and with pistols: the candles were put out, and the Englishman, to make sure not to hit any body, fired up the chimney,and brought down the Frenchman. They have no curiosity about foreigners, and answer any information you may volunteer with Oh, Oh! until the informant makes up his mind that they shall die in their ignorance, for any help he will offer. There are really no limits to this conceit, though brighter men among them make painful efforts to be candid.
The habit of brag runs through all classes, from the Times newspaper through politicians and poets, through Wordsworth, Carlyle, Mill and Sydney Smith, down to the boys of Eton. In the gravest treatise on political economy, in a philosophical essay, in books of science, one is surprised by the most innocent exhibition of unflinching nationality. In a tract on Corn, a most amiable and accomplished gentleman writes thus:Though Britain, according to Bishop Berkeleys idea, were surrounded by a wall of brass ten thousand cubits in height, still she would as far excel the rest of the globe in riches, as she now does both in this secondary quality and in the more important ones of freedom, virtue and science.6
The English dislike the American structure of society, whilst yet trade, mills, public education and Chartism are doing what they can to create in England the same social condition.7 America is the paradise of the economists; is the favorable exception invariably quoted to the rules of ruin; but when he speaks directly of the Americans the islander forgets his philosophy and remembers his disparaging anecdotes.
But this childish patriotism costs something, like all narrowness. The English sway of their colonies has no root of kindness. They govern by their arts and ability; they are more just than kind; and whenever an abatement of their power is felt, they have not conciliated the affection on which to rely.
Coarse local distinctions, as those of nation, province or town, are useful in the absence of real ones; but we must not insist on these accidental lines. Individual traits are always triumphing over national ones. There is no fence in metaphysics discriminating Greek, or English, or Spanish science. Æsop and Montaigne, Cervantes and Saadi are men of the world; and to wave our own flag at the dinner table or in the University is to carry the boisterous dulness of a fire-club into a polite circle. Nature and destiny are always on the watch for our follies. Nature trips us up when we strut; and there are curious examples in history on this very point of national pride.
George of Cappadocia, born at Epiphania in Cilicia, was a low parasite who got a lucrative contract to supply the army with bacon. A rogue and informer, he got rich and was forced to run from justice. He saved his money, embraced Arianism, collected a library, and got promoted by a faction to the episcopal throne of Alexandria. When Julian came, A.D. 361, George was dragged to prison; the prison was burst open by the mob and George was lynched, as he deserved. And this precious knave became, in good time, Saint George of England, patron of chivalry, emblem of victory and civility and the pride of the best blood of the modern world.
Strange, that the solid truth-speaking Briton should derive from an impostor. Strange, that the New World should have no better luck,that broad America must wear the name of a thief. Amerigo Vespucci, the pickle-dealer at Seville, who went out, in 1499, a subaltern with Hojeda, and whose highest naval rank was boatswains mate in an expedition that never sailed, managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name. Thus nobody can throw stones. We are equally badly off in our founders; and the false pickle-dealer is an offset to the false bacon-seller.8
Note 1. Humorist in the Elizabethan sense of indulging his humor or whim. In his notes on England Mr. Emerson quotes from Dr. A. Carlyles Autobiography: The humorist prevails more in England than in any country because liberty has long been universal there and wealth very general, which I hold to be the father and mother of the humorist. [back]
Note 2. In 1844 Mr. R. H. Gurney, a banker of Norwich, said on his cross-examination before a railway committee, I have never travelled by rails. I am an enemy to them. I have opposed the Norwich Railway. I have left a sum of money in my will to oppose railroads. [back]
Note 3. Mr. Emerson in a lecture called France; or, Urbanity, delivered soon after his return from this visit abroad, and often in his allusion to the French, shows something of the same tendency to use France as a blackboard. It should be remembered that his experience of France was only in Paris, and mostly for a few weeks during the Revolution of 1848, a time which brought but the excitability of the French, a trait always disturbing to his serene mind. [back]
Note 4. One brilliant exception to this rough British propagandism has been recently shown by Sir Andrew Clarke, whose wise humanity and consideration for the traditions and feelings of the fierce Malay race, with whom he had to deal, has been so successful in producing peace and prosperity, with almost no military backing, in the Straits Settlement. [back]
Note 5. In some loose sheets of notes written in 1848 this plan is more fully stated. There is also this use to be made of brag, that men show their cards in that. Humor them by all means. Do not check the speaker by so much as a look; he is unconsciously telling you his idea of what he ought to do. Draw it all out, and then hold him to it. Hold the Frenchman to his. He that is the liberator of the universe: he that has the most civilized of civilizations: France it is to which all nations sitting in darkness look with hope and all despots with despair. My best of human beings! I am delighted to hear you. And this is the mission of France. And France will suffer nobody nor any mad neighbour to do the like by Poland, Hungary or Turkey. Least of all to impede the liberty of the press or of speech in France. Take down the words, and give me your signature to this in black and white. Surely you do not hesitate! Well, but here are English, and I remember that the English say that the French are a little giventhe least in the worldto rhodomontadebut that English speak what they think, and their word is as good as their bond. Well, these, then, we can hold to their boast: England is the refuge of freedom, English press is the public opinion of Europe, asylum of the oppressed, bulwark of freedom against the despotism. We will remember all this; and see how well her actions bear it out in the approaching crisis. [back]
Note 6. William Spence, principally known by his work on entomology, written in conjunction with the Rev. William Kirby. He was for a time a member of Parliament. [back]
Note 7. The general distress among the poorer classes in England continuing after the passage of the Reform Bill in 1832 led to agitation and even riots on behalf of The Peoples Charter in 1839. The six points of Chartism were: Universal suffrage, vote by ballot, annual Parliaments, equal electoral districts, no property qualification for members, and payment for their services. Most of these points have been substantially won. Some Chartist demonstrations were broken up by the military arm of the government, and leading agitators imprisoned or transported. The last serious demonstrations were during the time of Mr. Emersons stay in England, and gave rise to the more alarm because of the revolution then going on in France. 9 March, 1848. I attended a Chartist Meeting in National Hall, Holburn. It was called to hear the report of the Deputation who had returned after carrying congratulations to the French Republic. The Marseillaise was sung by a party of men and women on the platform and chorused by the whole assembly: then the Girondins. The leaders appeared to be grave men intent on keeping a character for order and moral tone, but the great body of the meeting liked best the sentiment, Every man a ballot and every man a musket. Mr. Emersons comment is, England a little top-heavy still, though she keeps her feet much better since the Corn-laws were thrown overboard. [back]
Note 8. Mr. Emerson adopted the account of St. George given by Gibbon. The weight of evidence of the various chronicles now seems to show that the real St. George was not George the Arian, of Cappadocia, described in the text, but another who died two generations earlier. It is said that Constantine the Great dedicated a church to the martyred St. George in Constantinople more than forty years before the killing of George the Arian, which occurred in A.D. 361. Eusebius relates that St. George, a man of no mean origin and highly esteemed for his temporal dignities, publicly tore down the edict against the Christians of the Emperor Diocletian, who was then in the city, and after enduring what was likely to follow an act so daring, preserved his mind calm and serene until the moment his spirit fled. Other authors tell of the prolonging of the tortures for ten days, the saint recovering and performing miracles in the intervals. In the opinion of to-day the case of Amerigo Vespucci appears in a better light than that here presented. Although his statement that he was concerned in the voyage to the New World in 1497 is held to be false, he appears to have taken part in one or two expeditions which later reached the South American coast. A writer in the American Encyclopædia says that it does not appear that Vespucci himself had any intention of taking the honor of the discovery from Columbus. [back]