Billeder på siden

A new path is thus open for female exertion, to alleviate the pressure of misfortune, without any supposed sacrifice of dignity or modesty. Man no longer aspires to an exclusive dominion in authorship. He has rivals or allies in almost every department of knowledge; and they are to be found among those, whose elegance of manners and blamelessness of life command his respect, as much as their talents excite his admiration. Who is there, that does not contemplate with enthusiasm the precious Fragments of Elizabeth Smith, the venerable learning of Elizabeth Carter, the elevated piety of Hannah More, the persuasive sense of Mrs. Barbauld, the elegant Memoirs of her accomplished niece, the bewitching fictions of Madame D'Arblay, the vivid, picturesque, and terrific imagery of Mrs. Radcliffe, the glowing poetry of Mrs. Hemans, the matchless wit, the inexhaustible conversations, the fine character painting, the practical instructions of Miss Edgeworth, THE GREAT KNOWN, standing, in her own department, by the side of the GREAT UNKNOWN ?

Another circumstance, illustrative of the character of our age, is the bold and fearless spirit of its speculations. Nothing is more common, in the history of mankind, than a servile adoption of received opinions, and a timid acquiescence in whatever is established. It matters not, whether a doctrine or institution owes its existence to accident or design, to wisdom, or ignorance, or folly, there is a natural tendency to give it an undue value in proportion to its antiquity. What is obscure in its origin warms and gratifies the imagination. What in its progress has insinuated itself into the general habits and manners of a nation, becomes imbedded in the solid mass of society. It is only at distant intervals, from an aggregation of causes, that some stirring revolution breaks up the old foundations, or some mighty genius storms and overthrows the entrenchments of error. Who would believe, if history did not record the fact, that the metaphysics of Aristotle, or rather the misuse of his metaphysics, held the human mind in bondage for two thousand years ? that Galileo was imprisoned for proclaiming the true theory of the solar system ? that the magnificent discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton encountered strong opposition from philosophers ? that Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding found its way with infinite difficulty into the studies of the English Universities ? that Lord Bacon's method of induction never reached its splendid triumphs until our day? that the doctrine of the divine right of kings, and the absolute allegiance of subjects, constituted nearly the whole theory of government, from the fall of the Roman Republic to the seventeenth century ? that Christianity itself was overlaid, and almost buried, for many centuries, by the dreamy comments of monks, the superstitions of fanatics, and the traditions of the Church? that it was an execrable sin, throughout Christendom, to read and circulate the Holy Scriptures in the vulgar tongue ? Nay, that it is still a crime in some nations, of which the Inquisition would take no very indulgent notice, even if the Head of the Catholic Church should not feel that Bible Societies deserve his denunciation ? Even the great reformers of the Protestant Church left their work but half done, or rather came to it with notions far too limited for its successful accomplishment. They combated errors and abuses, and laid the broad foundations of a more rational faith. But they were themselves insensible to the just rights and obligations of religious inquiry. They thought all error intolerable ; but they forgot, in their zeal, that the question, what was truth, was open to all for discussion. They assumed to themselves the very infallibility, which they rebuked in the Romish Church ; and as unrelentingly persecuted heresies of opinion, as those who had sat for ages in the judgment-seat of St. Peter. They allowed, indeed, that all men had a right to inquire ; but they thought, that all must, , if honest, come to the same conclusion with themselves ; that the full extent of Christian liberty was the liberty of adopting those opinions, which they promulgated as true. The unrestrained right of private judgment, the glorious privilege of a free conscience, as now established in this favored land, was farther from their thoughts even than Popery itself. I would not be unjust to these great men. The fault was less theirs than that of the age in which they lived. They partook only of that spirit of infirmity, which religion itself may not wholly extinguish in its sincere, but over zealous votaries. It is their glory to have laid the deep, and, I trust, the imperishable foundations of Protestantism. May it be ours to finish the work, as they would have done it, if they had been permitted to enjoy the blessed light of these latter times. But let not Protestants boast of their justice, or their charity, while they continue to deny an equality of rights to the Catholics.

The progress of the spirit of free inquiry cannot escape the observation of the most superficial examiner of history. The press, by slow but firm steps, first felt its way, and began its attacks upon the outworks of received opinions. One error after another silently crumbled into the dust, until success seemed to justify the boldest experiments. Opinions in science, in physic, in philosophy, in morals, in religion, in literature have been subjected to the severest scrutiny; and many, which had grown hoary under the authority of ages, have been quietly conveyed to their last home, with scarcely a solitary mourner to grace their obsequies. The contest, indeed, between old and new opinions has been, and continues to be, maintained with great obstinacy and ability on all sides, and has forced even the sluggish into the necessity of thinking for themselves. Scholars have been driven to arm themselves for attack, as well as for defence; and in a literary warfare, nearly universal, have been obliged to make their appeals to the living judgment of the public for protection, as well as for encouragement.

The effects of this animated and free discussion have, in general, been very salutary. There is not a single department of life, which has not been invigorated by its influence, nor a single profession, which has not partaken of its success.

In jurisprudence, which reluctantly admits any new adjunct, and counts in its train a thousand champions ready to rise in defence of its formularies and technical rules, the victory has been brilliant and decisive. The civil and the common law have yielded to the pressure of the times, and have adopted much, which philosophy and experience have recommended, although it stood upon no text of the Pandects, and claimed no support from the feudal polity. Commercial law, at least so far as England and America are concerned, is the creation of the eighteenth century. It started into life with the genius of Lord Mansfield, and gathering in its course whatever was valuable in the earlier institutes of foreign countries, has reflected back upon them its own superior lights, so as to become the guide and oracle of the commercial world. If my own feelings do not mislead me, the profession itself has also acquired a liberality of opinion, a comprehensiveness of argumentation, a sympathy with the other pursuits of life, and a lofty eloquence, which, if ever before, belonged to it only in the best days of the best orators of antiquity. It was the bitter scoff of other times, approaching to the sententiousness of a proverb, that to be a good lawyer was to be an indifferent statesman. The profession has outlived the truth of the sarcasm. At the present moment England may count lawyers among her most gifted statesmen; and in America, I need but appeal to those who hear me for the fact, our most eminent statesmen have been, nay, still are, the brightest ornaments of our bar.

The same improving spirit has infused itself into the body of legislation and political economy. I may not adventure upon this extensive topic. But I would for a moment advert to the more benignant character manifested in the criminal law. Harsh and vindictive punishments have been discountenanced or abolished. The sanguinary codes, over which humanity wept and philosophy shuddered, have felt the potent energy of reform, and substituted for agonizing terror the gentle spirit of mercy. America has taken the lead in this glorious march of philanthropy, under the banners of that meek sect, which does good by stealth, and blushes to find it fame. There are not in the code of the Union, and probably not in that of any single State, more than ten crimes, to which the sober judgment of legislation now affixes the punishment of death. England, indeed, counts in her bloody catalogue more than one hundred and sixty capital offences; but the dawn of a brighter day is opening upon her. After years of doubtful struggle, the meliorations suggested by the lamented Sir Samuel Romilly have forced their way through Parliament to the throne ; and an enlightened ministry is redeeming her from this reproach upon her national character.

In medicine, throughout all its branches, more extraordinary changes have taken place. Here, indeed, inductive philosophy looks for some of its fairest trophies. In anatomy, in physiology, in pharmacy, in therapeutics, instructed skill, patient observation, and accurate deduction have been substituted for vague conjecture, and bold pretension. Instead of mystical compounds, and nostrums, and panaceas, science has introduced its powerful simples, and thus given energy and certainty to practice. We dream no longer over the favorite theories of the art, succeeding each other in endless progression. We are content to adopt a truer course; to read nature in her operations; to compel her to give up her secrets to the expostulations of her ministers; and to answer the persevering interrogatories of her worshippers. Chemistry, by its brilliant discoveries and careful analysis, has unfolded laws, which surprise us by their simplicity, as well as by the extent of their operations. By its magic touch the very elements of things seem decomposed, and to stand in disembodied essences before us.

In theology a new era has commenced. From the days of Grotius almost to our own, a sluggish indifference to critical learning fastened upon most of those who administered the high solemnities of religion. Here and there, indeed, a noble spirit was seen, like Old Mortality, wiping away the ancient dust and retracing the fading lines, and in his zeal for truth undergoing almost a moral martyrdom. But the mass of professed theologians slumbered over the received text in easy security, or poured the distillations of one commentary into another, giving little improvement to the flavor, and none to the substance. They were at length roused by a spirit of another sort, which by ridicule, or argument, or denunciation of abuses, was attempting to sap the very foundations of Christianity. It made its approaches in silence, until it had attained strength enough for an open assault; and at last, in a moment of political revolution, it erected the standard of infidelity in the very centre of Christendom. Fortunately, the critical studies of the scholars of the old world enabled them to meet the difficulties of the occasion. The immense collations of manuscripts and various readings by such men as Mill, and Wetstein, and Kennicott, prepared the way for a more profound investigation of the genuineness and authenticity of the Scriptures. And the sober sense and unwearied diligence of our age have given to the principles of interpretation an accuracy and authority, to biblical researches a dignity and certainty, to practical as well as doctrinal theology a logic and illustration, unparalleled in the annals of the Church. If Christianity has been assailed in our day with uncommon ability, it has never been defended with more various learning. If it has surrendered here and there an interpolated passage, it has placed almost beyond the reach of doubt the general integrity of the text. If it has ceased in some favored lands to claim the civil arm for its protection, it has established itself in the hearts of men, by all, which genius could bring to illumine, or eloquence to grace its sublime truths.

In pure mathematics and physical science there has been a correspondent advancement. The discoveries of Newton have been followed out and demonstrated by new methods and analyses, to an extent, which would surprise that great philosopher himself, if he were now living. I need but name such men as La Grange and La Place. By means of observatories, the heavens have been, if I may so say, circumnavigated, and every irregularity and perturbation of the motions of the heavenly bodies ascertained to depend upon the same eternal law of gravitation, and to result in the harmonious balance of forces. But it is in physical science, and especially in its adaptation to the arts of life, that the present age may claim precedence of all others. I have already alluded

« ForrigeFortsæt »