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restored to South America the independence, torn from her three centuries ago by the force or by the fraud of those nations, whose present visitations bespeak a Providence, which superintends and measures out at awful distances its rewards and its retributions ? She has risen, as it were, from the depths of the ocean, where she had been buried for
Her shores no longer murmur with the hoarse surges of her unnavigated waters, or echo the jealous footsteps of her armed oppressors. Her forests and her table lands, her mountains and her vallies gladden with the voices of the free. She welcomes to her ports the whitening sails of commerce. She feels, that the treasures of her mines, the broad expanse of her rivers, the beauty of her lakes, the grandeur of her scenery, the products of her fertile and inexhaustible soil, are no longer the close domain of a distant sovereign, but the free inheritance of her own children. She sees, that these are to bind her to other nations by ties, which outlive all compacts and all dynasties, by ties of mutual sympathy, mutual equality, and mutual interest.
But such events sink into nothing, compared with the great moral, political, and literary revolutions, by which they have been accompanied. Upon some of these topics, I may not indulge myself even for a moment. They have been discussed here, and in other places, in a manner, which forbids all hope of more comprehensive illustration. They may, indeed, be still followed out; but whoever dares the difficulties of such a task, will falter with unequal footsteps.
What I propose to myself on the present occasion is of a far more limited and humble nature. It is, to trace out some of the circumstances of our age, which connect themselves closely with the cause of science and letters ; to sketch here and there a light and shadow of our days; to look somewhat at our own prospects and attainments; and thus to lay before you something for reflection, for encouragement, and for adınonition.
One of the most striking characteristics of our age, and that, indeed, which has worked deepest in all the changes of its fortunes and pursuits, is the general diffusion of knowledge. This is emphatically the age of reading. In other times this was the privilege of the few; in ours, it is the possession of the many. Learning once constituted the accomplishment of those in the higher orders of society, who had no relish for active employment, and of those, whose monastic lives and religious profession sought to escape
the weariness of their common duties. Its progress may be said to have been gradually downwards from the higher to the middle classes of society. It scarcely reached at all, in its joys or its sorrows, in its instructions or its fantasies, the home of the peasant and artisan. It now radiates in all directions; and exerts its central force more in the middle than in any other class of society. The means of education were formerly within the reach of few. It required wealth to accumulate knowledge. The possession of a library was no ordinary achievement. The learned leisure of a fellowship in some university seemed almost indispensable for any successful studies ; and the patronage of princes and courtiers was the narrow avenue to public favor. I speak of a period at little more than the distance of two centuries ; not of particular instances, but of the general cast and complexion of life.
The principal cause of this change is to be found in the freedom of the press, or rather in this, coöperating with the cheapness of the press. It has been aided also by the system of free schools, wherever it has been established; by that liberal commerce, which connects by golden chains the interests of mankind; by that spirit of inquiry, which Protestantism awakened throughout Christian Europe ; and above all by those necessities, which have compelled even absolute monarchs to appeal to the patriotism and common sentiments of their subjects. Little more than a century has elapsed since the press in England was under the control of a licenser ; and within our own days only has it ceased to be a contempt, punishable by imprisonment, to print the debates of Parliament. We all know how it still is on the continent of Europe. It either speaks in timid under-tones, or echoes back the prescribed formularies of the government. The moment publicity is given to affairs of state, they excite every where an irresistible interest. If discussion be permitted, it will soon be necessary to enlist talents to defend, as well as talents to devise measures. The daily press first instructed men in their wants, and soon found, that the eagerness of curiosity outstripped the power of gratifying it. No man can now doubt the fact, that wherever the press is free, it will emancipate the people ; wherever knowledge circulates unrestrained, it is no longer safe to oppress; wherever public opinion is enlightened, it nourishes an independent, masculine, and healthful spirit. If Faustus were now living, he might exclaim with all the enthusiasm of Archimedes, and with a far nearer approach to the truth, Give me, where I may place a free press, and I will shake the world.
One interesting effect, which owes its origin to this universal love and power of reading, is felt in the altered condition of authors themselves. They no longer depend upon the smiles of a favored few. The patronage of the great is no longer submissively entreated, or exultingly proclaimed. Their patrons are the public; their readers are the civilized world. They address themselves, not to the present generation alone, but aspire to instruct posterity. No blushing dedications seek an easy passport to fame, or flatter the perilous condescension of pride. No illuminated letters flourish on the silky page, asking admission to the courtly drawingroom. Authors are no longer the humble companions or dependents of the nobility : but they constitute the chosen ornaments of society, and are welcomed to the gay circles of fashion and the palaces of princes. Theirs is no longer an unthrifty vocation, closely allied to penury; but an elevated profession, maintaining its thousands in lucrative pursuits. It is not with them, as it was in the days of Milton, whose immortal “ Paradise Lost” drew five sterling pounds, with a contingent of five more, from the reluctant bookseller.
My Lord Coke would hardly find good authority in our day for his provoking commentary on the memorable statute of the fourth Henry, which declares that “none henceforth shall use to multiply gold or silver, or use the craft of multiplication ", in which he gravely enumerates five classes of beggars, ending the catalogue in his own quaint phraseology with “poetasters," and repeating, for the benefit of young apprentices of the law, the sad admonition,
“ Sæpe pater dixit, Studium quid inutile tentas ?
Mæonides nullas ipse reliquit opes.” There are certainly among us those, who are within the penalty of this prohibition, if my Lord Coke's account of the matter is to be believed; for they are in possession of what he defines to be “ certain subtil and spiritual substance extracted out of things,” whereby they transmute many things into gold. I am indeed afraid, that the Magician of Abbotsford is accustomed to “ use the craft of multiplication"; and most of us know, to our cost, that he has changed many strange substances into very gold and very silver. Yet, even if he be an old offender in this way, as is shrewdly suspected, there is little danger of his conviction in this liberal age ; since, though he gains by every thing he parts with, we are never willing to part with any thing we receive from him.
The rewards of authorship are now almost as sure and regular, as those of any other profession. There are, indeed, instances of wonderful success, and sad failure ; of genius pining in neglect; of labor bringing nothing but sickness of the heart; of fruitless enterprise, baffled in every adventure ; of learning, waiting its appointed time to die in patient suffering. But this is the lot of some in all times. Disappointment crowds fast upon human footsteps, in whatever paths they tread. Eminent good fortune is a prize rarely given even to the foremost in the race. And, after all, he, who has read human life most closely, knows, that happiness is not the constant attendant of the highest public favor; and that it rather belongs to those, who, if they seldom soar, seldom fall.
Scarcely is a work of real merit dry from the English press, before it wings its way to both the Indies and Americas. It is found in the most distant climates, and the most sequestered retreats. It charms the traveller, as he sails over rivers and oceans. It visits our lakes and our forests. It kindles the curiosity of the thick-breathing city, and cheers the log hut of the mountaineer. The Lake of the Woods resounds with the minstrelsy of our mother tongue, and the plains of Hindoostan are tributary to its praise. Nay more, what is the peculiar pride of our age, the Bible may now circulate its consolations and instructions among the poor and forlorn of every land, in their native dialect. Such is the triumph of letters ; such is the triumph of Christian benevolence.
With such a demand for books, with such facilities of intercourse, it is no wonder, that reading should cease to be a mere luxury, and should be classed among the necessaries of life. Authors may now, with a steady confidence, boast, that they possess a hold on the human mind, which grapples closer and mightier than all others. They may feel sure, that every just sentiment, every enlightened opinion, every earnest breathing after excellence, will awaken kindred sympathies, from the rising to the setting sun.
Nor should it be overlooked, what a beneficial impulse has been thus communicated to education among the female sex. If Christianity may be said to have given a permanent elevation to woman, as an intellectual and moral being, it is as true, that the present age, above all others, has given play to her genius, and taught us to reverence its influence. It was the fashion of other times to treat the literary acquirements of the sex, as starched pedantry, or vain pretensions; to stigmatize them as inconsistent with those domestic affections and virtues, which constitute the charm of
society. We had abundant homilies read upon their amiable weaknesses and sentimental delicacy, upon their timid gentleness and submissive dependence; as if to taste the fruit of knowledge were a deadly sin, and ignorance were the sole guardian of innocence. Their whole lives were “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;" and concealment of intellectual power was often resorted to, to escape the dangerous imputation of masculine strength. In the higher walks of life, the satirist was not without color for the suggestion, that it was
“A youth of folly, an old age of cards ;” and that elsewhere, “most women had no character at all,” beyond that of purity and devotion to their families. Admirable as are these qualities, it seemed an abuse of the gifts of Providence to deny to mothers the power of instructing their children, to wives the privilege of sharing the intellectual pursuits of their husbands, to sisters and daughters the delight of ministering knowledge in the fireside circle, to youth and beauty the charm of refined sense, to age and infirmity the consolation of studies, which elevate the soul and gladden the listless hours of despondency.
These things have in a great measure passed away. The prejudices, which dishonored the sex, have yielded to the influence of truth. By slow but sure advances education has extended itself through all ranks of female society. There is no longer any dread, lest the culture of science should foster that masculine boldness or restless independence, which alarms by its sallies, or wounds by its inconsistencies. We have seen, that here, as every where else, knowledge is favorable to human virtue and human happiness; that the refinement of literature adds lustre to the devotion of piety ; that true learning, like true taste, is modest and unostentatious; that grace of manners receives a higher polish from the discipline of the schools; that cultivated genius sheds a cheering light over domestic duties, and its very sparkles, like those of the diamond, attest at once its power and its purity. There is not a rank of female society, however high, which does not now pay homage to literature, or that would not blush even at the suspicion of that ignorance, which a half century ago was neither uncommon nor discreditable. There is not a parent, whose pride may not glow at the thought, that his daughter's happiness is in a great measure within her own command, whether she keeps the cool sequestered vale of life, or visits the busy walks of fashion.