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bright spots on the earth, where the cheering light of liberty shone in peace; where learning unlocked its stores in various profusion; where the arts unfolded themselves in every form of beauty and grandeur ; where literature loved to linger in academic shades, or enjoy the public sunshine; where song lent new inspiration to the temple; where eloquence alternately consecrated the hall of legislation, or astonished the forum with its appeals.
We may not assert, that the present age can lay claim to the production of any one of the mightiest efforts of human genius. Homer and Virgil, and Shakspeare and Milton were of other days, and yet stand unrivalled in song. Time has not inscribed upon the sepulchre of the dead any nobler names in eloquence, than Demosthenes and Cicero. Who has outdone the chisel of Phidias, or the pencil of Michael Angelo, and handle. Where are the monuments o Angelo, and Raffaelle? Where are the monuments of our day, whose architecture dares to contend with the Doric, Ionic or Corinthian of Greece, or even with the Composite or Gothic of later times ? History yet points to the pregnant though brief text of Tacitus, and acknowledges no finer models than those of antiquity. The stream of a century has swept by the works of Locke and Newton; yet they still stand alone in unapproached, in unapproachable majesty.
Nor may we pronounce, that the present age by its collective splendor in arts and arms casts into shade all former epochs. The era of Pericles witnessed a combination of talents and acquirements, of celebrated deeds and celebrated works, which the lapse of twenty-two centuries has left unobscured. Augustus, surveying his mighty empire, could scarcely contemplate with more satisfaction the triumph of his arms, than the triumph of the philosophy and literature of Rome. France yet delights to dwell on the times of Lewis the Fourteenth, as the proudest in her annals; and Eng. land, with far less propriety, looks back upon the reign of Queen Anne for the best models of her literary excellence.
But, though we may not arrogate to ourselves the possession of the first genius, or the first era in human history, let it not be imagined, that we do not live in an extraordinary age. It is impossible to look around us without alternate emotions of exultation and astonishment. What shall we say ofone revolution, which created a nation out of thirteen feeble colonies, and founded the empire of liberty upon the basis of the perfect equality in rights and representation of all its citizens; which commenced in a struggle by enlightened men for principles, and not for places, and in its progress and conclusion exhibited examples of heroism, patriotic sacrifices, and disinterested virtue, which have never been surpassed in the most favored regions ? What shall we say of this nation, which has in fifty years quadrupled its population, and spread itself from the Atlantic to the Rocky mountains, not by the desolations of successful war, but by the triumphant march of industry and enterprize ? What shall we say of another revolution, which shook Europe to its centre, overturned principalities and thrones, demolished oppressions, whose iron had for ages entered into the souls of their subjects, and after various fortunes of victory and defeat, of military despotism and popular commotion, ended at last in the planting of free institutions, free tenures, and representative government in the very soil of absolute monarchy? What shall we say of another revolution, or rather series of revolutions, which has 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 ages. 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 valleys 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 admonition. )
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 from 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 of 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 co-operating 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 en. lightened, 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 66 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, VOL. V.