The citizens of the United States, have sometimes been ridiculed, for an alleged propensity to please their imaginations with romantic visions concerning the future glory of their country. They boast, it is said, not of what the nation has been, nor of what it is, but of what it will be. The American faculty, it is affirmed, is anticipation, not memory.
If the truth of this charge were admitted, it might be replied, that the ‘proper motion’ of the youthful imagination—in states as well as in individuals—is towards the future. It springs forward, with buoyant wing, forgetting the past, and disregarding the present, in the eagerness of its desire to reach fairer scenes. It is the instinct of our nature, the irrepressible longing of the immortal soul for something higher and better. It is never extinguished, though frequent disappointments abate its ardor, and long experience confirms the testimony of revelation, that perfect happiness is sought in vain on earth. In mature age, therefore, reason has corrected the errors of the imagination, and the old man looks backward to his early years, as the happiest period of his life, and praises the men and the scenes of his youthful days, as far surpassing those which he now sees around him.
Most nations are impelled, by the same principle, to recur to some past epoch in their history, as the period of their greatest glory. There is little in the prospect of the future to excite their hopes. The adherents to old institutions dread the progress of that spirit of innovation, which has already overthrown many of them, and which threatens speedy ruin to the rest. And the patriot, who is striving to raise his country to the enjoyment of liberty and happiness, foresees too many obstacles, too much fierce strife, suffering and bloodshed, to permit him to contemplate the future without anxiety.
It is the happiness of America, that almost every thing in her condition invites her to look forward with hope. Her perfect freedom, her rapid progress, the elastic energy of her national character, the boundless extent of her territory, her situation, far from the contentions of European nations, and safe from the dangers both of their friendship and of their hostility, all awaken and justify the confident hope, that she is destined to reach a height of prosperity and power, which no other nation, of ancient or modern times, has attained.
But if Americans were so prone to look forward, that they forgot the past, it would certainly be a fault, which would deserve rebuke. Bright as the future may be, the past can present scenes, on which the American may gaze with pleasure, and from which he should draw lessons of wisdom and incitements to patriotism. Passing by the prosperous course of our history, since the adoption of the Constitution; not pausing to contemplate the formation of that Constitution, though it was one of the most glorious achievements of wisdom and national virtue; looking beyond the unparalleled revolution itself; the character and actions of the men who laid the foundations of this country deserve the careful study, and must attract the admiration, of every true-hearted American. The motives, the policy, the personal qualities of the founders; their fervent piety, their courage and patience, their unwavering constancy, their calm wisdom, their love of learning, and their thirst for liberty, entitle those venerable men to the affection and gratitude of every succeeding generation. Their faults we may now see more clearly than their contemporaries; but those faults were, for the most part, the excesses of their virtues, the errors of wise heads and pure hearts, whose piety sometimes became austere, and whose conscientious love of truth occasionally betrayed them into intolerance. There is no stain upon their personal character; and the American may point, with grateful pleasure, to the bright names of Winslow, Winthrop, Hooker, Penn, Baltimore, Oglethorpe, and their associates, as among the choicest treasures of his country.
Among these names, that sense of justice, which eventually triumphs over temporary prejudice and wrong, has already placed that of Roger Williams. Long misunderstood and misrepresented, he was excluded from his appropriate place among the chief founders and benefactors of New-England. The early historians, Morton, Mather, Hubbard, and even Winthrop, spoke harshly of his character. His principles, both political and religious, were offensive to the first generations; and it is not strange, that he was viewed and treated as a fanatical heresiarch in religion, and a factious disturber of the state.