Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. V. English Traits
XIX. Speech at Manchester
A FEW days after my arrival at Manchester, in November, 1847, the Manchester Athenæum gave its annual Banquet in the Free-Trade Hall. With other guests, I was invited to be present and to address the company. In looking over recently a newspaper-report of my remarks, I incline to reprint it, as fitly expressing the feeling with which I entered England, and which agrees well enough with the more deliberate results of better acquaintance recorded in the foregoing pages. Sir Archibald Alison, the historian, presided, and opened the meeting with a speech. He was followed by Mr. Cobden, Lord Brackley and others, among whom was Mr. Cruikshank, one of the contributors to Punch.1 Mr. Dickenss letter of apology for his absence was read. Mr. Jerrold, who had been announced, did not appear. On being introduced to the meeting I said:
Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: It is pleasant to me to meet this great and brilliant company, and doubly pleasant to see the faces of so many distinguished persons on this platform. But I have known all these persons already. When I was at home, they were as near to me as they are to you. The arguments of the League and its leader are known to all the friends of free trade. The gayeties and genius, the political, the social, the parietal wit of Punch go duly every fortnight to every boy and girl in Boston and New York. Sir, when I came to sea, I found the History of Europe, by Sir A. Alison, on the ships cabin table, the property of the captain;a sort of programme or play-bill to tell the seafaring New Englander what he shall find on his landing here. And as for Dombey, sir, there is no land where paper exists to print on, where it is not found; no man who can read, that does not read it, and, if he cannot, he finds some charitable pair of eyes that can, and hears it.
But these things are not for me to say; these compliments, though true, would better come from one who felt and understood these merits more. I am not here to exchange civilities with you, but rather to speak of that which I am sure interests these gentlemen more than their own praises; of that which is good in holidays and working-days, the same in one century and in another century. That which lures a solitary American in the woods with the wish to see England, is the moral peculiarity of the Saxon race,its commanding sense of right and wrong, the love and devotion to that,this is the imperial trait, which arms them with the sceptre of the globe.2 It is this which lies at the foundation of that aristocratic character, which certainly wanders into strange vagaries, so that its origin is often lost sight of, but which, if it should lose this, would find itself paralyzed; and in trade and in the mechanics shop, gives that honesty in performance, that thoroughness and solidity of work which is a national characteristic. This conscience is one element, and the other is that loyal adhesion, that habit of friendship, that homage of man to man, running through all classes,the electing of worthy persons to a certain fraternity, to acts of kindness and warm and stanch support, from year to year, from youth to age,which is alike lovely and honorable to those who render and those who receive it; which stands in strong contrast with the superficial attachments of other races, their excessive courtesy and short-lived connection.
You will think me very pedantic, gentlemen, but holiday though it be, I have not the smallest interest in any holiday except as it celebrates real and not pretended joys;3 and I think it just, in this time of gloom and commercial disaster, of affliction and beggary in these districts, that, on these very accounts I speak of, you should not fail to keep your literary anniversary. I seem to hear you say, that for all that is come and gone yet, we will not reduce by one chaplet or one oak-leaf the braveries of our annual feast. For I must tell you, I was given to understand in my childhood that the British island from which my forefathers came was no lotus-garden, no paradise of serene sky and roses and music and merriment all the year round, no, but a cold, foggy, mournful country, where nothing grew well in the open air but robust men and virtuous women, and these of a wonderful fibre and endurance; that their best parts were slowly revealed; their virtues did not come out until they quarrelled; they did not strike twelve the first time; good lovers, good haters, and you could know little about them till you had seen them long, and little good of them till you had seen them in action; that in prosperity they were moody and dumpish, but in adversity they were grand. Is it not true, sir, that the wise ancients did not praise the ship parting with flying colors from the port, but only that brave sailor which came back with torn sheets and battered sides, stript of her banners, but having ridden out the storm? And so, gentlemen, I feel in regard to this aged England, with the possessions, honors and trophies, and also with the infirmities of a thousand years gathering around her, irretrievably committed as she now is to many old customs which cannot be suddenly changed; pressed upon by the transitions of trade and new and all incalculable modes, fabrics, arts, machines and competing populations. I see her not dispirited, not weak, but well remembering that she has seen dark days before;indeed with a kind of instinct that she sees a little better in a cloudy day, and that in storm of battle and calamity she has a secret vigor and a pulse like a cannon. I see her in her old age, not decrepit, but young and still daring to believe in her power of endurance and expansion. Seeing this, I say, All hail! mother of nations, mother of heroes, with strength still equal to the time; still wise to entertain and swift to execute the policy which the mind and heart of mankind requires in the present hour, and thus only hospitable to the foreigner and truly a home to the thoughtful and generous who are born in the soil. So be it! so let it be! If it be not so, if the courage of England goes with the chances of a commercial crisis, I will go back to the capes of Massachusetts and my own Indian stream, and say to my countrymen, the old race are all gone, and the elasticity and hope of mankind must henceforth remain on the Alleghany ranges, or nowhere.4
Note 1. George Cruikshank, the caricaturist, who used his art not merely to amuse, for he was an eager liberal and reformer. Of his illustrations of Dickenss novels I find this mention in the journal: Alcott told me that, when he saw Cruikshanks drawings, he thought him a fancy caricaturist, but when he went to London, he saw that he drew from nature, without any exaggeration. Selection is his exaggeration. Mr. Alcott, it is certain, would have known nothing of Cruikshank but for his daughters delight in Dickens, and their modelling their make-up on these pictures in acting scenes from Dickens. [back]
Note 2. This was the theme of a lecture, Natural Aristocracy, which the sight of the contrast of feudal privilege and utter misery in England had impelled him to write there and deliver in London. [back]
Note 3. Mr. Emerson, finding life so beautiful that all days were, or should be, holidays, took little interest in these as such. When any one would remember that the day was the anniversary of some occurrence, he would jestingly say, Oh, it is always a hundred years from something. [back]
Note 4. Mr. Emerson breathed freer as he turned towards his own country. He writes: Boundless freedom of America in the North . The American mind is not written in books, but on the land and in the institutions and inventions. Of America he wrote from England to Margaret Fuller Ossoli, then in Italy: The goods of that country are original and incommunicable to thisI see that well. It would give me no pleasure to bring valued persons thence and show them to valued persons here, but lively pleasure to show to these last those friends at home in their own place . I leave England with an increased respect for the Englishman. His stuff or substance seems to be the best of the world. I forgive him all his pride. My respect is the more generous that I have no sympathy with him, only an admiration. From such mentions of English Traits as I have come upon, by their own authors, the book, with its praise and blame, appears to have been taken entirely in good part. Dr. Richard Garnett, in his Life of Emerson, says: In this book he has matched himself with the English people, and both are upon their trial. Could an idealist display true insight in dealing with so practical a nation? Could so material a civilization stand the criticism of an idealist? England and Emerson both came well out of the ordeal. [back]