Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. V. English Traits
ENGLAND is the best of actual nations. It is no ideal framework, it is an old pile built in different ages, with repairs, additions and makeshifts; but you see the poor best you have got. London is the epitome of our times, and the Rome of to-day. Broad-fronted, broad-bottomed Teutons, they stand in solid phalanx foursquare to the points of compass; they constitute the modern world, they have earned their vantage ground and held it through ages of adverse possession. They are well marked and differing from other leading races. England is tender-hearted. Rome was not. England is not so public in its bias; private life is its place of honor. Truth in private life, untruth in public, marks these home-loving men. Their political conduct is not decided by general views, but by internal intrigues and personal and family interest. They cannot readily see beyond England. The history of Rome and Greece, when written by their scholars, degenerates into English party pamphlets. They cannot see beyond England, nor in England can they transcend the interests of the governing classes. English principles mean a primary regard to the interests of property.1 England, Scotland and Ireland combine to check the colonies. England and Scotland combine to check Irish manufactures and trade. England rallies at home to check Scotland. In England, the strong classes check the weaker. In the home population of near thirty millions, there are but one million voters. The Church punishes dissent, punishes education. Down to a late day, marriages performed by dissenters were illegal. A bitter class-legislation gives power to those who are rich enough to buy a law. The game-laws are a proverb of oppression. Pauperism incrusts and clogs the state, and in hard times becomes hideous. In bad seasons, the porridge was diluted. Multitudes lived miserably by shell-fish and sea-ware. In cities, the children are trained to beg, until they shall be old enough to rob. Men and women were convicted of poisoning scores of children for burial-fees. In Irish districts, men deteriorated in size and shape, the nose sunk, the gums were exposed, with diminished brain and brutal form. During the Australian emigration, multitudes were rejected by the commissioners as being too emaciated for useful colonists. During the Russian war, few of those that offered as recruits were found up to the medical standard, though it had been reduced.
The foreign policy of England, though ambitious and lavish of money, has not often been generous or just. It has a principal regard to the interest of trade, checked however by the aristocratic bias of the ambassador, which usually puts him in sympathy with the continental Courts. It sanctioned the partition of Poland, it betrayed Genoa, Sicily, Parma, Greece, Turkey, Rome and Hungary.2
Some public regards they have. They have abolished slavery in the West Indies and put an end to human sacrifices in the East. At home they have a certain statute hospitality. England keeps open doors, as a trading country must, to all nations. It is one of their fixed ideas, and wrathfully supported by their laws in unbroken sequence for a thousand years. In Magna Charta it was ordained that all merchants shall have safe and secure conduct to go out and come into England, and to stay there, and to pass as well by land as by water, to buy and sell by the ancient allowed customs, without any evil toll, except in time of war, or when they shall be of any nation at war with us. It is a statute and obliged hospitality and peremptorily maintained. But this shop-rule had one magnificent effect. It extends its cold unalterable courtesy to political exiles of every opinion, and is a fact which might give additional light to that portion of the planet seen from the farthest star. But this perfunctory hospitality puts no sweetness into their unaccommodating manners, no check on that puissant nationality which makes their existence incompatible with all that is not English.
What we must say about a nation is a superficial dealing with symptoms. We cannot go deep enough into the biography of the spirit who never throws himself entire into one hero, but delegates his energy in parts or spasms to vicious and defective individuals. But the wealth of the source is seen in the plenitude of English nature. What variety of power and talent; what facility and plenteousness of knighthood, lordship, ladyship, royalty, loyalty; what a proud chivalry is indicated in Collinss Peerage, through eight hundred years! What dignity resting on what reality and stoutness! What courage in war, what sinew in labor, what cunning workmen, what inventors and engineers, what seamen and pilots, what clerks and scholars! No one man and no few men can represent them. It is a people of myriad personalities. Their many-headedness is owing to the advantageous position of the middle class, who are always the source of letters and science. Hence the vast plenty of their æsthetic production. As they are many-headed, so they are many-nationed: their colonization annexes archipelagoes and continents, and their speech seems destined to be the universal language of men. I have noted the reserve of power in the English temperament. In the island, they never let out all the length of all the reins, there is no Berserker rage, no abandonment or ecstasy of will or intellect, like that of the Arabs in the time of Mahomet, or like that which intoxicated France in 1789. But who would see the uncoiling of that tremendous spring, the explosion of their well-husbanded forces, must follow the swarms which pouring now for two hundred years from the British islands, have sailed and rode and traded and planted through all climates, mainly following the belt of empire, the temperate zones, carrying the Saxon seed, with its instinct for liberty and law, for arts and for thought,acquiring under some skies a more electric energy than the native air allows,to the conquest of the globe. Their colonial policy, obeying the necessities of a vast empire, has become liberal. Canada and Australia have been contented with substantial independence. They are expiating the wrongs of India by benefits; first, in works for the irrigation of the peninsula, and roads, and telegraphs; and secondly, in the instruction of the people, to qualify them for self-government, when the British power shall be finally called home.
Their mind is in a state of arrested development,3a divine cripple like Vulcan; a blind savant like Huber4 and Sanderson. They do not occupy themselves on matters of general and lasting import, but on a corporeal civilization, on goods that perish in the using. But they read with good intent, and what they learn they incarnate. The English mind turns every abstraction it can receive into a portable utensil, or a working institution. Such is their tenacity and such their practical turn, that they hold all they gain. Hence we say that only the English race can be trusted with freedom,freedom which is double-edged and dangerous to any but the wise and robust. The English designate the kingdoms emulous of free institutions, as the sentimental nations. Their culture is not an outside varnish, but is thorough and secular in families and the race. They are oppressive with their temperament, and all the more that they are refined. I have sometimes seen them walk with my countrymen when I was forced to allow them every advantage, and their companions seemed bags of bones.
There is cramp limitation in their habit of thought, sleepy routine, and a tortoises instinct to hold hard to the ground with his claws, lest he should be thrown on his back. There is a drag of inertia which resists reform in every shape;law-reform, army-reform, extension of suffrage, Jewish franchise, Catholic emancipation,the abolition of slavery, of impressment, penal code and entails. They praise this drag, under the formula that it is the excellence of the British constitution that no law can anticipate the public opinion. These poor tortoises must hold hard, for they feel no wings sprouting at their shoulders. Yet somewhat divine warms at their heart and waits a happier hour. It hides in their sturdy will. Will, said the old philosophy, is the measure of power, and personality is the token of this race. Quid vult valde vult. What they do they do with a will. You cannot account for their success by their Christianity, commerce, charter, common law, Parliament, or letters, but by the contumacious sharp-tongued energy of English naturel, with a poise impossible to disturb, which makes all these its instruments. They are slow and reticent, and are like a dull good horse which lets every nag pass him, but with whip and spur will run down every racer in the field. They are right in their feeling, though wrong in their speculation.
The feudal system survives in the steep inequality of property and privilege, in the limited franchise, in the social barriers which confine patronage and promotion to a caste, and still more in the submissive ideas pervading these people. The fagging of the schools is repeated in the social classes. An Englishman shows no mercy to those below him in the social scale, as he looks for none from those above him; any forbearance from his superiors surprises him, and they suffer in his good opinion. But the feudal system can be seen with less pain on large historical grounds. It was pleaded in mitigation of the rotten borough, that it worked well, that substantial justice was done. Fox, Burke, Pitt, Erskine, Wilberforce, Sheridan, Romilly, or whatever national man, were by this means sent to Parliament, when their return by large constituencies would have been doubtful. So now we say that the right measures of England are the men it bred; that it has yielded more able men in five hundred years than any other nation; and, though we must not play Providence and balance the chances of producing ten great men against the comfort of ten thousand mean men, yet retrospectively, we may strike the balance and prefer one Alfred, one Shakspeare, one Milton, one Sidney, one Raleigh, one Wellington, to a million foolish democrats.
The American system is more democratic, more humane; yet the American people do not yield better or more able men, or more inventions or books or benefits than the English. Congress is not wiser or better than Parliament. France has abolished its suffocating old régime, but is not recently marked by any more wisdom or virtue.
The power of performance has not been exceeded,the creation of value. The English have given importance to individuals, a principal end and fruit of every society. Every man is allowed and encouraged to be what he is, and is guarded in the indulgence of his whim. Magna Charta, said Rushworth, is such a fellow that he will have no sovereign. By this general activity and by this sacredness of individuals, they have in seven hundred years evolved the principles of freedom. It is the land of patriots, martyrs, sages and bards, and if the ocean out of which it emerged should wash it away, it will be remembered as an island famous for immortal laws, for the announcements of original right which make the stone tables of liberty.
Note 1. In some sheets on English Civilization, evidently from a lecture given on his return, he writes: Very intellectual people and very silent people, inaccessible on every other topic, grew garrulous on politics. Festus Bailey I found only entertained by politics. Every man gives the same attention to public affairs as the Prime Minister. The whole British public read the Times newspaper with the punctuality with which they eat. And again: English principles mean monopoly of all kinds, forcing the Colonies, forcing Ireland to buy of England only; suppressing manufactures in Ireland and the Colonies; allowing freedom of conscience, but you must take the oaths to the English Church and State, if you will enter Parliament, the University, the Army, the professions, or the governmentfreedom of conscience certainly, build what chapel you like, but you must pay your tithe to the Anglican. Lord Eldon resists abolition of Slavery; resists Catholic Emancipation; resists Reform of Parliament; resists Reform in Chancery; resists Jewish franchise; resists abolishing impressment of seamen, which is the life of our navy; resists abolishing capital punishment for small offences; too speculative to be safe; resists strikes or any attempt on the part of operatives to obtain increase of wages; resists West Indian EmancipationEnglish principles mean with a primary view to the interests of property. [back]
Note 2. From the notebook: English Politics. Sir James Graham opened the letters of Mazzini. In 1837 Lord John Russell usurped the Constitutional functions of the Colonial Assemblies in Canada. In 1831 Lord Palmerston pronounced the rights of the Czar over Poland incontestable; in 1849, refused to allow the Roman patriots to land in Malta. As an instance of the spirit of British trade in dealing with the outside world, he mentions the inscription on the statue of Lord Chatham in the Guildhall in London, which records that, under his administration, Commerce had been united with and made to flourish by War. Remembering the brutal element in the Anglo-Saxon stock on both sides of the Atlantic, he writes: In that country as in this, they want great men, and the cause of right can only succeed against this gravitation or materialism by means of immense personalities. But Webster, Calhoun, Clay, Benton, are not found to be philanthropists but attorneys of gross interests. But Mr. Emerson recognizes their hopeful advance among the other nations. They have exceeded the humanity of other governments. Cheap postage they have adopted. Free Trade they have adopted. Reform Bill passed. Emancipation of Negroes, Abolition of Slave Trade. Impeachment of HastingsDissenters Bill. Exploring ExpeditionsElgin Marbles; Nineveh excavations: British Museum; the government is gentlemanlike. If any national benefit has been rendered, if arts have been advanced, science served, the government may be relied on to be just and generous to the man who has served them,Paxton, Fellowes, Stephenson, Franklin, Rowland Hill. The power of England goes to show that domesticity is the tap-root which enables a nation to branch wide and high. They are the most humane of nations. Their rules and usages in War are distinguished by humanity. They spare the conquered. They will not fire on an enemy when they might hit their own men: the French will. They respect towns and private property. [back]
Note 3. Here is an instance of the immediate use on another plane of a scientific generalization of John Hunter, which Mr. Emerson had probably heard from Richard Owen,the electric word, as he calls it in the essay on Poetry and Imagination in Letters and Social Aims. [back]
Note 4. François Huber of Geneva, having become blind, devoted himself with his wife to the study of bees and wrote Nouvelles Observations sur les Abeilles. Mr. Emerson felt that the Englishmen, even more than the Americans of his generation, were, for the time, in the bonds of materialism, but that, as he had written in his Self-Reliance, it was true of them, as of all: If they are honest and do well, presently their neat new pinfold will be too strait and low, will crack, will lean, will rot and vanish, and the immortal light, all young and joyful, million-orbed, million-colored, will beam over the universe as on the first morning. [back]