Page images

dinavians discovered America five centuries before Europe was ready to colonise it, or able to keep up a constant communication with it. Who thanks them? The Arabians discussed the motion of the celestial bodies and the doctrine of attraction, but the idea died away

till Newton, without knowledge of the Arabic author, made the discoveries in which he had probably been preceded. The Chinese have been stereotyping their celestial compilations, for anything we know, since the deluge; but Europe acknowledges its only debt in that respect to be to Fust or Coster, who were impelled by the burst of intellectual progress to devise some means for the better diffusing of the knowledge already among men, and greater facilities for spreading, and therefore greater encouragement for producing the new thoughts and the new discoveries of the many labourers who then entered on the long deserted field of intellectual research. This reflection affords a natural explanation of the remarkable and frequently recurring fact of simultaneous discoverers. If Newton and Leibnitz, Berkeley and Collier, Young and Champollion, Romas and Franklyn, Hume and Voltaire, Adams and Leverrier, Goethe and Oken, West and Malthus,-if each of these illustrious pairs, in their far distant studies, removed the same obstacles to knowledge at the same moment, it does not necessarily follow, nay, in many instances it is physically impossible, that one should be the borrower from the other. gress led them to the same point, and each mastered the obstruction.*

Human pro

* I cannot assent to M. Turgot (Sur l'Histoire des Progrès de l'Esprit humain, Euvr. ii. 264) in his opinion that if Columbus and Newton had died at fifteen, America would have been discovered two centuries later, and we should still have been ignorant of the true system of the world. Such notions infer that there was some particular dispensation to Newton and Columbus, in which other mortals could not partake, or that there was some happy organic conformation peculiar to such geniuses, and not to be hit upon for two centuries, at least by any one else. A position singularly unhappy in the instance of Columbus, for America had certainly been discovered before Columbus was born; and not much more happy in the case of Newton, for in some of his discoveries he had contemporary, in others he had antecedent rivals.


With this, too, is connected the curious fact, that one scarcely ever hears of a man of great distinction who was not surrounded by men employing themselves in the same way as himself, many of them deserving to enjoy an illustrious reputation, and who would enjoy it were it not eclipsed by one yet more brilliant. Indeed, we might lay it down that, if we find one very great poet, orator, or metaphysician in a nation at a particular period, we may be sure that that period was fertile in men only less great devoting themselves to similar occupations. It seems hardly possible for one man to excel in any branch unless the way of thinking which he had to follow is habitual to a class of no despicable compeers. If Shakspeare is our greatest dramatist, we find about him a crowd of poets (not his imitators), many of them of no mean abilities, endeavouring to carry English dramatic art to its greatest perfection, and we find Shakspeare excelling them all. If Homer was the greatest epic narrator of early Grecian history, we know that his was the age of rhapsodical compositions, and that Homer (if we retain his individuality) surmounts them all. If Mirabeau stood forth to manifest the revolution, we can recall the memories of a crowd of heroes enlisted in the cause of the human species, who acknowledged him as their chief. If Laplace penetrated the design of the Creator in the movements of the planets, he is only the shrewdest and subtlest of a group which boasts to have among them D'Alembert, Lagrange, and Clairaut. If Burke is our greatest orator, we know that at his period there were mighty men endeavouring in England to surpass in eloquence, more mighty than had appeared before. So with Demosthenes, so with Cicero; and to the end of the chapter. The great man, in whatever his eminence consists, is the impersonation of the advancing spirit of his age; and it is in his power of leading and expressing this spirit, be it in art, or in science, or in literature, that his superiority is displayed. If he goes out of the required track, or goes with his lantern so far ahead of his contemporaries that darkness intervenes between him and them, of what use is his pioneering * — the land which he has discovered must be discovered again, and as the new discoverer alone is useful, so he will gain all the glory.

Adaptation to his age, which is required in every man who would be useful and renowned in science, literature, or art, is doubly needed in the legislator who, unless his views and his works are fully in accordance with the necessities of the people, inflicts on his nation, in giving it an unsuitable code of institutions, a worse injury than a wounded soldier would receive from a surgeon who amputated his arm for a gunshot in the leg.

A state-machine cannot work if it requires to set and keep it in operation institutions, manners, feelings which do not exist. I doubt whether more than a single instance can be adduced of a free constitution transferred peaceably from the closet of the philosopher, and put successfully into action. Constitutions to be healthy must be formed by gradual accretion, and a careful adaptation to the established habits, feelings, and social conditions. Even an absolute monarchy, like that of Napoleon III., the simplest form of government possible, took five years to perfect its system, and yet the great foundation of it, the spirit of thorough centralisation, had been laid since the days of Louis XIV. The constitutions of antiquity do not refute my remark, for in Greece everything was

Except, of course, when, as in the case of Lord Bacon, his discourses and precepts can be recorded for the good of posterity, who may have advanced to the point where the pioneer laboured. Bacon, conscious of his too great advance, had no hopes of fame among his contempories, but committed his name and memory to future ages.


attributed to a god or a man ; and the result of the continued action of several generations of men, working almost unconsciously, and certainly without foreseeing, perhaps without desiring the event, were all given to some one individual whose very existence is open to reasonable doubt. Solon, Minos, and Lycurgus may have been great innovators, and in that case it may be true that men lived under their legislation, just as since 1831 we have been living under the legislation of Lord John Russell ; or perhaps they may have been personifications of persons who formed a declaratory act, like that of 1688. The saying, however, which I have already quoted as Solon's, shows that if he is a myth, those who invented Solon knew how to make a wise man talk. But with or without a legislator, people after a time stumble on the right form, by happy accident as some think, or to speak more reverently, and I believe not less correctly, the laws of national growth are so formed that the government should assume at each period the outward shape most suited to the period of native life, as a man or a plant, each in every particular, adapts its outward form to the inward growth.

The constitution of Washington will perhaps occur to the reader as an instance invalidating my position, that all constitutions to be prosperous must have grown and been evolved on the soil, as those of the Roman Commonwealth and of England. America is an exception only in form, for when the States rose against England, they were living under the British Constitution, and after their separation, they retained all of it that suited them, and pruned it of those parts which were necessary only for a nation with a monarchy and aristocracy. So that considering the Anglo-Saxon race to have split into two branches, we may truly say that their constitutions now - the English and that of Washington - are modifications of the old constitution of Britain in the last century; two different growths from the same stem ; the forms of government deriving their difference from the difference


between the national characters. But the system of the Anglo-Americans suited their Mexican neighbours no better than the British Constitution would have done. M. de Tocqueville says, “Les habitans de Mexique, voulant établir le système fédératif, prirent pour modèle, et copièrent presque entièrement la constitution fédérale des Anglo-Américains, leurs voisins (1824). Mais en transportant chez eux la lettre de la loi, ils ne purent transporter en même temps l'esprit qui la vivifie. On les vit donc s'embarrasser sans cesse parmi les rouages de leur double gouvernement. La souveraineté des états et celle de l’union sortant du cercle que la constitution avait tracé, pénétrèrent chaque jour l'une dans l'autre. Actuellement encore le Mexique est sans cesse entraîné de l'anarchie au despotisme militaire, et du despotisme militaire à l'anarchie."*

Reflections such as these have induced me to hold the opinion that governments vary with the national character and are dependent on it; meaning by the words national character not so much the character of one nation as distinguished from another, as the condition, moral, intellectual, and physical of a nation, at a given period of its existence. As we talk of the character of infancy or of manhood, so we must now talk of the character of a nation in its earliest stage, in its grandeur, in its decline; and it will be part of the object of the following chapters to trace, if pssoible, the mutations of national character, and the consequent mutations of the form of government.

Napoleon said, “ Public morals are the national complement of all laws: they of themselves form an entire code.” If to them you add, or by them you understand, all the intellectual and moral dispositions which men bring into society, the habitual occupations of the people, their wealth, their distinctions of rank, their national importance, their historical recollections, their physical


* Dém. en Amér, i. 269.

« PreviousContinue »