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It is our happiness to live in an age whose master-pieces of accomplishment, in science, industry and commerce, put to shame the extravagant fictions of Oriental tales and the wonders ascribed to the gods and heroes of ancient mythology. The changes produced by recent investigations and discoveries are so vast and so rapid that it is difficult to follow them or comprehend the power and thoroughness of the transformations that are taking place in the world around us. The applications of steam and electricity astonish us by their wide spread influence on the condition and relations of men; the ease and speed of movement and intercourse, constantly increasing, are ever putting us in new and unfamiliar situations. We have hardly accustomed our thoughts and habits to one before we are hurried on into another. The constantly clearer and more abundant light shed by science and the press does not suffice to keep our minds fully up to the progress that goes on in all departments of life.
It is plain that we have entered on a New Era, the most extraordinary and momentous the world has ever seen. The old and imperfect is being cleared away and everything thoroughly reconstructed. The explanation is that we are now setting up the grand Temple of Civilization, the separate stones and pillars of which each nation and age was commissioned to hew and carve, and, so to speak, left in the quarry to await the time when, all the material being ready, the Master Builder should collect all the scattered parts and raise the whole edifice at once, to the astonishment and joy of mankind.
All the institutions and civilizations of the past may be considered temporary, erected in haste from the materials nearest at hand, not for permanence, but to serve the present turn while the special task of the nation or age was being performed. The races and ages nearer the birth of mankind worked on rougher parts of the edifice, that entered into the foundations; those grand races, the Greek and the Roman, furnished the noble outline which the nations of modern Europe perfected while they supplied what was still lacking for use and adornment.
America was reserved, designedly, for so many ages, to furnish a suitable and unencumbered location for the central halls and mightiest pillars of the completed structure. Our fathers cleared the ground and laid the foundation deep down on the living rock, that is to say, on Human Rights. That they seldom failed to place stone, pillar and column in just position the work, as we find it, proves, and we have little to do but to clear away the rubbish, beautify the grounds, and put the whole to its proper use.
We begin to see that Time, Thought and Experience have not wrought in vain, that Progress is not a phantom of the imagination, that the human race is essentially a Unit, that it has been growing through all the centuries and is now approaching the prime of its manhood, just ready to enter on its special career with its grandest work still to do. The energies of all the races are preparing for unheard of achievements. The world was never so completely and so wisely busy as now, and America stands between modern Europe and ancient Asia, receiving from, and giving to, both. Her institutions are founded on principles so just and so humane that, when administered with due wisdom and skill, they will embarrass and restrain the proper activities of men at no point. America stands a model which other nations will carefully copy, in due time, as they can adapt themselves and change their institutions. It may not be a literal copy, a servile imitation; but there is little doubt that our Declaration of Independence will finally enter, in spirit and potential influence, into the intimate structure of all governments.
It is the Course of Human Progress, and the important elements that were successively added as each leading phase of civilization appeared, that is endeavored to be traced in the Historical Review of the First Part of this book. While following the general march of events chronologically, we have stopped here and there to take a general survey, in order the better to understand the significance of detached facts, or to examine a new influence that enters among the forces moulding the future. Our space did not allow an exhaustive process; nor was it desirable. We have taken note of only the more important landmarks of Progress. Too much detail would confuse the mind by engaging it in an intricate mass of facts. It is the thread of events, that joins the nations and ages together, or the channel by which they sent down to our day—from Asia to Europe, and from Europe to America—each their special contribution to the political wisdom and the free institutions of America, that we have endeavored to find.
We hope we have not underrated any people or any time, and that we have not overrated the value and glory of America. America is yet young. Its founders, the authors of its Constitution, were unaware of the singular excellence and nobility of their work. Like all other people, they built according to their genius and instincts. Time only could show whether they built for immortality. They feared and trembled over their work; but Time has set on it his seal of approval. Our people are busy using their liberties and energies, each for his individual benefit, as is quite right and proper; since the welfare of individuals makes the prosperity of the community. But a government left to take care of itself is prone to do that work only too well. We have done well and wisely in important crises; but a more intelligent and constant watchfulness over the ordinary course of public affairs would have been still better.
It is plain that the general mind among us has grown clearer and more accurate in its judgments as experience has accumulated, for the original direction toward popular freedom has not changed. Various incongruities have been laid aside and oversights corrected, the severe strain of civil war and an unheard of rapidity of growth have not shaken, but more clearly revealed the strength and unity of the nation. Yet, more intelligence and more care would have saved us many shocks and made our success more pronounced and more brilliant. “Knowledge is power,” when wisely applied; and a more accurate acquaintance with their government and its history will enable American Citizens to mould it more wisely still, to correct all defects of administration, and to speedily reach that minimum of governmental interference with the efforts and interests of the citizens which shall give them the fullest liberty consistent with security and surrender the whole round of human life, as completely as possible, to the beneficent action of natural law.