« PreviousContinue »
smaller made even more prominent than the greater; perhaps because the former are more apt to be popular than the latter. For instance, two pages will be given to Macaulay, or to a writer of still lower grade, where one is given to Jeremy Taylor or Addison or Burke. So, again, some fifth-rate or sixth-rate author, whose name is hardly known out of Boston, comes in for a larger space than is accorded to Daniel Webster. Or, once more, Edgar A. Poe's vapid inanities done into verse, where all is mere jugglery of words, or an exercise in verbal legerdemain, are made quite as much of as the choice workmanship of our best American poets, Bryant, Longfellow, and Whittier. This is an application of the levelling principle so unjust and so inexpedient, that we may well marvel how it should be tolerated in any walks of liberal learning and culture.
No thoughtful person, I take it, will have any difficulty in gathering that this volume is made up, like its predecessor, with a special view to the oldest and ripest pupils in our high-schools and seminaries and academies. These pupils, it may well be supposed, are old enough and ripe enough to unfold at least the beginnings of literary and intellectual taste, so as to be at home and find delight in tasteful and elegant authorship, where the graces may do something towards making the ways of learning ways of pleasantness to them.
Of the three authors here drawn upon, two are, by general suffrage, the very greatest in the prose literature of the English-speaking world, while the third is, I believe, generally and justly held to be, by all odds, the first in the prose literature of our own country. In the case of Burke and Webster, the works from which I had to select are somewhat voluminous, and it is quite likely that my selections are not in all cases the most judicious that might have been made. On this point I can but plead that, after an acquaintance of many years with those authors, I have used my best care and diligence in looking out such portions as seemed to me to combine, in the greatest degree, the two qualities of literary excellence and of fitness to the purposes of this volume. Nor, perhaps, will it be amiss to add, in reference to Burke and Webster, that I often found it not easy to choose between several pieces, and that I was compelled by lack of room to omit a considerable number of pieces which I would have liked to retain: an embarrassment naturally springing from a redundancy of wealth.
As to the principle on which the selections proceed, my aim has been, throughout, to unite the culture of high and pure literary tastes with the attainment of useful and liberal knowledge. I think it will not be questioned that there is something of special reason why our young people of both sexes should be early and carefully instructed in the principles of our federal Constitution, and in the structure and working of our august national State. We pride ourselves on the alleged competency of the American people for self-government. Yet it is but too evident that, in political matters, a large majority of them have not advanced beyond the" little learning" which is proverbially "a dangerous thing.” The degree of intelligence which naturally issues in conceit and presumption is the utmost that can be affirmed of them. Thus it comes about that, for the seats of public trust, shallow, flashy demagogues are very commonly preferred to solid, judicious, honest men. At this day, our average voter certainly has not more judgment of his own than he had fifty years ago, and he has far less respect for the judgment of wiser men. The popular mind is indeed busy enough with the vulgar politics of the hour; but in the true grounds and forces of social and political well-being it is discouragingly ignorant, while it is more and more casting off those habits of modesty and reverence which might do the work of knowledge.
This may explain why so much of the present volume is occupied with discourses relating to government, and to the duties and interests of men as stockholders in the commonwealth. In the common principles of all social and civil order, Burke is unquestionably our best and wisest teacher. In handling the particular questions of his time, he always involves those principles, and brings them
to their practical bearings, where they most “come home to the business and bosoms of men.” And his pages are everywhere bright with the highest and purest political morality, while at the same time he is a consummate master in the intellectual charms and graces of authorship. Webster, also, is abundantly at home in those common principles : his giant grasp wields them with the ease and grace of habitual mastery: therewithal he is by far the ablest and clearest expounder we have of what may be termed the specialties of our American political system. So that you can hardly touch any point of our stupendous National Fabric, but that he will approve himself at once your wisest and your pleasantest teacher. In fact, I hardly know which to commend most, his political wisdom, his ponderous logic, the perfect manliness of his style, or the high-souled enthusiasm which generally animates and tones his discourse; the latter qualities being no less useful to inspire the student with a noble patriotic ardour than the former to arm him with sound and fruitful instruction. And so, between Burke and Webster, if the selections are made with but tolerable judgment, our youth may here learn a good deal of what it highly concerns them to know as citizens of a free republican State.
I am not unmindful that, in thus placing Webster alongside of Burke, I may be inviting upon him a trial something too severe. I do not by any means regard him as the peer of Burke; but it is my deliberate judgment that he comes nearer to Burke, and can better stand a fair comparison with him, than any other English-speaking statesman of modern times. In pure force of intellect, Burke was no doubt something ahead of him, and was far beyond him in strength and richness of imagination; for he was, as Johnson described him, emphatically “a constellation": on the other hand, Burke's tempestuous sensibility sometimes whirled him into exorbitancies, where Webster's cooler temperament and more balanced make-up would probably have held him firm in his propriety. And Webster, though far above imitating any man, abounds in marks of a very
close and diligent study of Burke. It seems specially noteworthy, that he was thoroughly at one with Burke in an intense aversion to political metaphysics, and to those speculative abstractions which, if attempted to be carried into the practical work of government, can never do any thing but mischief.
In regard to ,then selections from Bacon, I there had nothing to dist&act my choice, or cause me any embarrassment. The settled verdict of mankind points at once to his Essays as a book which no liberally-educated person can rightly afford to be unacquainted with. Other of his works may better illustrate the vast height and compass of his genius; but they are, for the most part, little suited, or rather quite unsuited to the ends of this volume. But his Essays everywhere touch the common interests and concerns of human life; they are freighted to the utmost with solid practical sense; and as specimens of moral and civil discourse it is hardly possible to overstate the wisdom and beauty of them. Of the fifty-eight Essays, I here give thirty; and I was nowise at a loss which to select. Nor, had my space been ever so large, should I have greatly cared to include any more of them.
I have a good right to know that Bacon and Burke are among our very best authors for the use to which this volume looks. The Essays, the Letter to the Sheriff's of Bristol, and the Speech to the Electors of Bristol, I have been using several years, with good effect, in some of my own classes.
There are many other portions of Burke equally good, and some still better, for such use; which, however, were not to be had in a practicable shape. And I have long been wishing to make a like use of Webster, but have never been able to do so, because none of his works were at hand in a suitable form. I feel right well assured that he will amply reward the same study, and that, if not 80 good in himself as the other two, he has some obvious points of preference in the education of American youth. Nor can I think it fitting or just to be using only such fragments of him as are commonly served up for mere exercises in declamation and elocution: in fact, I have little faith in such exercises, save in connection with the attainment of something higher and better. For manner, to be really good, must be held subordinate to matter; and the pursuit of manner for its own sake, or even as a paramount aim, can hardly fail to result in a very bad manner. I submit that the art, or the habit, of pronouncing nothing in such a way as to make it pass for something grand, is not so little known among us as to call for special encouragement and aid by books and teachers. At present we seem to be in no little danger of educating people into a good deal more tongue than mind.
In conclusion, it may not be amiss to say that this volume is not designed for any “auction of popularity.” The thought of popular favour has had no part or lot in the preparation of it. For I know right well that, in preparations of this sort, a great many people altogether prefer something which may seem to teach a little of every thing, while really giving no true instruction whatever. So the most I venture to hope for is, that the book may
commend itself to the judicious; the number of whom, I fear, is not large enough to make up any thing like a popularity. And this leads me to remark that our young students, it seems to me, can be better occupied than with the transient, shifting literary fashions and popularities of the day. I am not myself a very aged man, yet I am old enough to have outlived two generations of “immortal” writers who have already sunk into oblivion; and of the popular authors now living probably very few will be heard of thirty years hence. Surely, in forming the mind and taste of the young, it is better to use authors who have already lived long enough to afford some guaranty that they may survive the next twenty years.
BOSTON, January, 1876.