Project Canterbury














Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2007


"Ask now of the days that are past, . . . and ask from the one side of heaven unto the other, . . . did ever people hear the voice of God speaking as thou hast heard? . . . out of heaven he made thee hear his voice, . . . that it may go well with thee and with thy children after thee." DEUTERONOMY 4: 32, 33, 36, 40.

IT is thus that their leader and lawgiver challenges the chosen people, and bids them ask themselves and others whether their past and present did not alike predict the greatness of their future. His question is one which we may well repeat to-day, and the few moments that remain to us in this place this morning may usefully be spent in rehearsing those most dissimilar answers which it would be likely to provoke. Amid all the simple kindliness, the family greetings, the festive mirthfulness which have each their place in our Thanksgiving Day, there must needs be an undertone of more thoughtful retrospection and outlook. Let us make it our business this morning to consider how it would be likely to express itself.

The day is over, let us suppose, and two friends are sitting together and talking over their country and its prospects. We will follow Bunyan's nomenclature, and call one of them Hopeful and the other Timorous. As they sit together thus, the table before them still witnesses to the [3/4] abundance with which it has been spread. Breaking upon their retirement they hear the cheerful voices of guests and kindred who a little while before were gathered with them about it. The laughter of children echoes through the house, and all around are the tokens of contentment and prosperity.

"And yet I cannot say that I feel very cheerful," says Timorous, taking up the thread of the conversation where a moment before it had been dropped; "the minister told us this morning that we should be thankful, and I suppose we ought to be. But I confess I see a great many causes for anxiety and apprehension in the outlook as well of gratitude. Of course one ought to be thankful if he has good health and friends, and a fair chance in the world; but without speaking of the people who, as it seems to me, have not a fair chance, I could not quite go along with the preacher when he bade us rejoice in the prosperity of our country and in those many signs which the times were giving us of the permanence of its institutions and the promise of its future. For one, I do not so read the signs of the times, and instead of feeling so very hopeful I cannot help sometimes feeling profoundly despondent. Look at the situation for one moment, and see if there be not good reasons for such despondency. Of course, I can only speak of one or two particulars as illustrative of what I mean; but look at one thing about which we are wont loudly to felicitate ourselves--I mean the enormous immigration to these shores. There are no statistics which are more eagerly read or more proudly rehearsed than those which tell us of the thousands and tens of thousands who, every month, are seeking a home in this new dominion of the West. There is no European country which is not exporting its representatives to this republic in annually increasing throngs. Nor is this emigration confined to European countries. The teeming millions of Asia have turned their faces westward, [4/5] and the shop and the dress of the Chinaman have become a recognized feature in almost every large town in the land. Now, I am not saying that a great many of these immigrants are not thrifty and industrious people, and I do not need to be told that they are, in not a few instances, converting our unproductive prairies into teeming acres--that agriculture means railroads, and that railroads mean commerce, and that commerce means wealth. But who are these people? Whence do they come? What are their ideas about government, about property, about morals? To whom do we owe it that the madness of the Commune utters itself in our public squares and disseminates itself through the public press? To whom are we indebted for that gradual relaxation in the popular estimate of the Lord's day and of the sanctity of the family which obtain among us? Who are the people who are the most turbulent and intemperate and improvident? Whether the list of criminals whose crime consists of the use of the knife or of the bludgeon is more largely Irish or Italian, may not easily be determined perhaps, but nobody can be ignorant that our criminal classes are largely our foreign classes. What do these people care for our historic traditions and our political principles? They have come here for a piece of bread, and they will get it by the shortest road and in the cheapest way. What now is to prevent their doing so? We talk of excluding the Chinese, but unless we give the lie to all our past policy as a nation we cannot lift a hand to do so. And though we may not be in danger of being overrun and submerged by a mighty flood of Oriental immigrants, I am not sure that I had not as lief be governed by a decent Chinaman as by a filthy and superstitious Italian, or a half-savage Irishman, or a godless and revolutionary German. It is easy enough to say that these are imaginary dangers, but it is not so easy to say what safeguards may effectually be interposed against them."

[6] "It may not be," I think Hopeful could afford to reply, "but meantime it is safe to say that the land is not as defenceless, in view of the dangers of immigration, as your words would seem to imply. In talking about these dangers, it is only fair to remember that they are in no sense novel or unknown. They have existed from the very beginning, and if they are considerable now they were more so when the Government was weak and the country was new. It would seem that it might have been easiest then, if ever, for some foreign influence to invade this land, and destroy its traditions and subvert its institutions. But it was not attempted, and it would not have succeeded if it had been. There have been two forces in this land, each of them singularly potent from the beginning, and each of them is no less powerful to-day. One of these is the assimilating force which takes these crude masses from other shores, and by a sort of digestive process converts them into American citizens. There is nothing more striking in the history of the republic than this. Our own parish missionary tells us that the German children of German parents so rapidly lose all fluency or even intelligent familiarity with their own tongue that he is constrained to minister to them in English rather than in German. Go where you will, nothing is more obvious than the way in which dress, manners, traditions of labor, and everything that goes to make what we call national traits, yield and fade out under the insensible influence of Western ideas and institutions. There is no country in the world where the foreigner so soon or so eagerly seeks to put off his earlier allegiance and to take upon himself the privileges and responsibilities of loyal citizenship. And the foreign element which bore arms in our late civil war shows us how little such foreigners seek to forget or evade the obligations of such citizenship. There may be other features of more conspicuous excellence in our political system, but there can be no truer ground for thanksgiving [6/7] to-day than the capacity which our land and people have shown to receive all sorts and conditions of men from out of every nation under heaven, and assimilate and subordinate them to American ideas and American institutions.

"And what is that other force which, whatever may be the immigration that may swarm hither in the future, promises to preserve and perpetuate those ideas and institutions? It is the exceptional conservatism of the American people which makes it more reluctant to consent to changes in its traditions or its polity than almost any other nation in the modern world. I know how improbable this may sound, but I maintain notwithstanding that it is susceptible of abundant proof. Compare the history of France, of Russia, of Italy, of England, during the past thirty years, with our own. In every one of these countries the changes in its political system have amounted almost to a revolution--in some of them to something more. In Russia serfdom has disappeared. In Italy the papal supremacy is an exploded myth. In France the empire has vanished, and to-day the republic reigns in its stead. In England the Established Church of Ireland has been abolished, and we are told that the Established Church of England will soon follow it--the elective franchise has been snatched from the reluctant grasp of the privileged classes, and given to the common people; the law courts have been remodelled, and old forms and traditions have been swept away with an almost ruthless hand; religious foundations have been despoiled of their funds; charitable institutions have been overhauled and reorganized in what seems, at the first look, to be direct opposition to the mind and purpose of their founders; and venerable institutions of learning and science, like Oxford and Cambridge, are now administered upon principles which would have smitten those who originally created them with equal horror and dismay. It is the simple truth to say that we have nothing answering to this spirit of radicalism in [7/8] America. Vested rights are to-day safer in this land than they are anywhere else in the world, and changes in our judicature, some of them (as men learned in the law tell us) sorely needed, and in the direction of reforms already effected in the administration of justice in England, are more unlikely here than in any part of Great Britain or Europe. It would be not difficult to account for this spirit of conservatism, which comes probably from the popular distrust as to there being any competent and sufficiently cautious tribunal to which to intrust changes, but that such exceptional conservatism exists there can be no manner of doubt. It will never suffer our institutions to be Germanized nor Romanized nor Anglicized, and the attempt of any one of these elements to effect such a thing, if such an attempt were possible, would be resisted with such vigor by the combined forces of all the rest that we who are native Americans of a native American ancestry could safely afford to sit down and leave our foreign brethren to settle the issue among themselves."

2. "Very well, then," replies Timorous; "granting for the moment that you may be right, there remain in this land of ours evils which threaten us from within, whose existence no sane man can dispute, and whose tendencies no thoughtful person can do otherwise than deplore. The growth of wealth in this country has been enormous. If it were wealth equally or widely distributed there might be in such a fact nothing to fear; but there is a marked tendency among us toward the centralization of wealth, and the growth of huge corporations, wielding a power rivalling that of kings, is more and more becoming one of our national and distinctive characteristics. Now, we dwell upon the evils, in England, of the tenure of vast areas of land by a few individuals, and insist that the welfare of a nation demands that its soil should be owned, as in France, by a multitude of small holders. But precisely the same [8/9] condition of things that exists in England is developing itself, in another form, in our own West. There the tendency seems to be to large holdings farmed by great capitalists, and tilled mainly by the aid of machinery, under conditions which make it impossible for the small farmer to compete with them. And whether the drift of all this is as decidedly as I believe it to be in an evil direction, there can be no question when we turn from it to those overgrown moneyed corporations who own the railroads and control the transportation of the country. That these corporations corrupt our legislatures and dominate the policies of state administration has long ago become a proverb. We call some States by the names of the corporations that, as we say, 'own and run' them; and as capital increases in a few hands, it cannot be said that it grows less aggressive or tyrannical. The influence of such a condition of things upon the ballot-box is too obvious for remark, and yet in the purity of the ballot, we say, resides the safety of the nation. What is to arrest the growth of these soulless Caesars, already grown too great? What is to hinder their still more active and mercenary interference with our legislation, whether local or national? That all politicians are venal is by no means an axiom, and there are doubtless as many pure men in some of our legislatures as would be found among a similar number of citizens outside of them. But even the loftiest virtue may yield if it is tempted too long and too sorely, and the evil of great moneyed corporations is that they afford so facile an instrument for tempting the individual by mercenary motives. They are impersonal, they have the command of vast resources, and they can seem to confer benefits when in fact they are only buying selfish privileges. For one, I fail to see where we are to look, under our institutions, for a force strong enough to resist so dangerous and so corrupting a power."

''If that be so," replies Hopeful, "then it is because [9/10] you have no faith in the people nor in the power of their weapons. There are two forces, here as before, equally powerful to resist such aggression as you fear from the power of capital: one of them the force of diffused intelligence, and the other the force of publicity. I say nothing of the moral instinct, because I may need to urge that to meet another consideration which may be pressed by you; but consider the force that there is in the cultivated intelligence of this land. There never was a time when the very dangers to which you refer from the growth and combinations of organized capital were exciting so much attention or developing a spirit of such determined resistance as today. There are wise men and strong men, not a few, who long ago awakened to the peril of huge money combinations. They have not only waked up themselves, they have waked up others. They are helping men to see that our corporations, like our rulers, should be the servants of the people, not their masters. They are educating the farmer and the mechanic and the small tradesman to understand that a wrong to an individual may easily become a chronic injustice to a class; and, above all, they are teaching the individual voter to recognize that if he sells his ballot for a bribe, he himself will be made, in some form or other, to furnish the money with which that bribe shall be paid. I am not an optimist concerning the average American citizen any more than concerning the average American Christian, but nobody who has watched the progress of our national life can fail to perceive the decay of party rancor and the increased prevalence of a certain calm and almost judicial temper in the exercise of the right of suffrage. People are no more swept away by the fierce heats of partisan rancor as in the olden time. 'To hate the members of the opposite party,' says Professor Dwight, in an admirable paper on the Permanency of our American Institutions, 'as men used to do in the time of the old Federalists, is no longer possible. There [10/11] is no good hater left unless he be an office-holder or an office-seeker, and even his hatred is simulated. It is not a fire coming down from heaven, but bought and sold in the market, like lucifer-matches.' [* Dwight's "Address before the Alumni of Hamilton College," p. 16.] And because this is so, because, in other words, there is a more diffused intelligence and a wider culture in at least the elements of a sound political economy, the people think and act upon deliberate and rational conviction. When, the other day, a citizen of New York was all but defeated as a candidate for its chief office, it was not merely because of certain partisan resentments or the trading of votes, though both these elements may have been present, but because the people distrusted a man who was pledged by his religious convictions and by every most sacred tradition of his belief (no matter what protestations he might make beforehand) to determined hostility to the common schools. And the American citizen holds, rightly or wrongly, that the common school is the friend of the people, and that its foes are the foes of the republic no less. For one, I believe they are right, and that upon other issues as well as this neither money, nor ecclesiastical terrorism, nor the tyranny of corporations will be able long or widely to swerve them from the path of justice and uprightness and equity.

"But if it were not so, there is another force to resist such encroachments as you fear, and that is the force of publicity. The press has largely lost the power of guiding and shaping public opinion in this country; and since it has come to aim mainly at echoing that public opinion, this is not surprising. But it still retains a power which is inherent in its very nature, and that is the power of bringing things to the light. And of all things of which corporations are apt to be afraid, this power of exposure has most influence to intimidate and deter them. That [11/12] fiercer light which beats upon a throne searches in these days all high places and large claimants with equal and impartial thoroughness. The life of a public man is a life of the most incessant observation and criticism, and the people who confer power insist in knowing for what it is to be used. We have become so wonted to this that we do not realize its influence in purifying and restraining the executive departments of the Government, and the plans and schemes of those who wield the power of associated capital. But consider the difference between a condition of things when, as in England, two hundred years ago, there was not in the whole realm a single newspaper, and to-day, when the one certain thing about anything that is planned or attempted to touch the rights of the people is, that it will 'get into the papers.' Says an eminent publicist, 'The low whisper of public thieves is, "Division and silence;" the alarmed outcry of patriots is, "Publicity and comment;" and in this we have a safeguard wholly unknown to former generations.' " [* Dwight, "Address," p. 32.]

3. "But what of it," once more and finally objects Timorous, "if that public sentiment which such searching publicity arouses has in it no high moral quality of rebuke and reprobation? What of it, if the august sanctions of religion no longer constrain men to respect the call of duty and to obey the voice of conscience? Surely you will not deny that religion is a decaying power among us--that there is less faith and more rationalism--less devoutness and more impatience of dogmatic authority--less reaching toward the unseen, and more idolatry of the seen and the temporal? What can you hope for a nation that leaves God out of the account? What is its public opinion worth? What will be the fruit of the godless culture of those common schools of which you have been boasting? You have already begun to expel the Bible from those schools, and, the [12/13] other day, there was a convention for the purpose of expunging the name of God from the Constitution, and all Sunday laws from the statute-book, and all oaths from the court-room, and all sacred names and days from the calendar. And you can still be sanguine about a nation which has taken such downward steps as these?"

"Yes," replies Hopeful, "since I have yet to learn that the nation has taken them. I remember the convention to which you refer and which was to legislate God out of the Constitution. Unless I am mistaken, there were just twenty-seven persons present at its sessions. They may have been such eminent personages as to be entitled to count double; but when one remembers that there are fifty millions of people in the land, we will hardly say that these twenty-seven people or these fifty-four people are the nation. Nor shall we be wise to say, even if the Bible had been excluded from the public schools, that the public schools had turned infidel. There are a good many very good reasons why the Bible should not be forced indiscriminately upon the pupils of our public schools, but there are a good many places where it is still to be found, more widely circulated and more intelligently read than ever before. And what is of much more importance than the circulation of a book is the acceptance and practice of its teaching. Its teaching is that God is, that He reigns, and that His will is over all other wills of transcendent authority. Is this a decaying faith? I know of no one more likely to affirm it, if he had any smallest warrant for doing so, than Herbert Spencer; and yet Herbert Spencer has said, speaking of that atheism which calls itself the religion of humanity, 'No such thing as a religion of humanity can ever do more than temporarily shut out the thought of a Power of which humanity is but a small and fugitive product; a Power which was in course of ever-changing manifestations before humanity was, and which will continue [13/14] through other manifestations when humanity has ceased to be.' [* "Study of Sociology," 311, 312.] I do not believe that men were ever more clearly persuaded of this Power than they are to-day, and so far as religion worthily represents it they are willing to listen to it with unquestioning reverence. But thinking men hate shams and despise cant. They decline to accept sentiment for thought, and emotion for virtue. So far as religion makes men more honest, more virtuous, more just, more open-handed, more unselfish, they believe in it, but they do not believe in a ceremony as having virtue apart from the motive that inspires it, and they will not take a pinch of incense in payment of a debt nor an impassioned declamation at a prayer-meeting in lieu of fidelity to an oath. They are increasingly impatient of all religion that does not fit them to live instead of simply undertaking to teach them to die. But when any earnest and manly voice speaks to them about the Father whose children they are and the Christ whose spirit they are to strive to catch and reproduce, I do not observe that they are impatient of such teaching nor indifferent to such calls. This people is not, indeed, always a reverent people, but in its homes, as well as in its churches, God is a reality, and His law a living and authoritative voice."

So much for Hopeful and Timorous, and their talk over the embers of the dining-room fire when their Thanksgiving-Day was over. I will not presume to hold the balance between them, nor to decide the issues which they debate. But surely you will not blame me if, for one, I incline to believe in my country and to be hopeful of her future. To-day, at any rate, let us join hands in that faith and kindle one anothers hearts in hymns of praise and thanksgiving. It is told by Mr. Madison that at the moment when the convention which framed the United [14/15] States Constitution closed its labors, Benjamin Franklin, who was a member, pointing to a rising sun which happened to have been painted upon the wall behind the President's chair, said: "Mr. President, the painters had found it most difficult in their art to distinguish between a rising and a setting sun. Often and often, in the course of our deliberations, I myself have been conscious of this perplexity; but looking on the picture now, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun that I see."

"The light which thus gladdened the sight of the old philosopher," it has felicitously been said, "was but a vision to the eye of faith." Let us rejoice and be thankful that that vision is vouchsafed to our eyes anew to-day; and as we go away from these services, let us resolve that the republic shall be worthier than ever of our trust and love because of the steadfastness with which we take up the tasks and bear the burdens of loyal sons and daughters. For then, toiling with hand and heart, our lips may sing:

O beautiful my country, rich in hope.
* * * * *
"What words divine of lover and of poet
Could tell our love and make thee know it,
Among the nations bright beyond compare?
What were our lives without thee?
What all our lives to save thee?
* * * * *
We will not dare to doubt thee;
But ask whatever else and we will dare!" *

[* James Russell Lowell.]

Project Canterbury