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"I look toward a land both old and young-old in its Christianity, young in its promise of the
JOHN HENRY NEWMAN.
COUNT JOSEPN DE MAISTRE, in his “Principe Générateur des Constitutions Politiques” (Par. LXI.), says: "All nations mani- . fest a particular and distinctive character, which deserves to be attentively considered.”
This thought of the great Catholic writer requires some development. It is not by a succession of periods of progress and
decay only that nations manifest their life and individuality. Taking any one of them at any period of its existence, and comparing it with others, peculiarities immediately show themselves which give it a particular physiognomy whereby it may be at once distinguished from any other; so that, in those agglomerations of men which we call nations or races, we see the variety everywhere observable in Nature, the variety by which God manifests the infinite activity of his creative power.
When we take two extreme types of the human species—the Ashantee of Guinea, for instance, and any individual of one of the great civilized communities of Europe—the phenomenon of which we speak strikes us at once. But it may be remarked also, in comparing nations which have lived for ages in contiguity, and held constant intercourse one with the other from the time they began their national life, whose only boundaryline has been a mountain-chain or the banks of a broad river. They have each striking peculiarities which individualize and stamp them with a character of their own.
How different are the peoples divided by the Rhine or by the Pyrenees! How unlike those which the Straits of Dover run between! And in Asia, what have the conterminous Chinese and Hindoos in common beyond the general characteristics of the human species which belong to all the children of Adam?
But what we must chiefly insist upon in the investigation we are now undertaking is, that the life of each is manifested by a
special physiognomy deeply imprinted in their whole history, which we here call character. What each of them is their history shows; and there is no better means of judging of them than by reviewing the various events which compose their life.
For the various events which go to form what is called the history of a nation are its individual actions, the spontaneous energy of its life ; and, as a man shows what he is by his acts, so docs a nation or a race by the facts of its history:
When we compare the vast despotisms of Asia, crystallized into forms which have scarcely changed since the first settlement of man in those immense plains, with the active and ever-moving smaller groups of Europeans settled in the west of the old World since the dispersion of mankind, we see at a glance how the characters of both may be read in their respective annals. And, coming down gradually to less extreme cases, we recognize the same phenomenon manifested even in contiguous tribes, springing long ago, perhaps, from the same stock, but which have been formed into distinct nations by distinct ancestors, although they acknowledge a common origin. The antagonism in their character is immediately brought out by what historians or annalists have to say of them.
Are not the cruelty and rapacity of the old Scandinavian race still visible in their descendants? And the spirit of organization displayed by them from the beginning in the seizure, survey, and distribution of land—in the building of cities and castlesin the wise speculations of an extensive commerce—may not all these characteristics be read everywhere in the annals of the nations sprung from that original stock, grouped thousands of years ago around the Baltic and the Northern Seas?
How different appear the pastoral and agricultural tribes which have, for the same length of time, inhabited the Swiss valleys and mountains! With a multitude of usages, differing all, more or less, from each other; with, perhaps, a wretched administration of internal affairs; with frequent complaints of individuals, and partial conflicts among the rulers of those small communities—with all these defects, their simple and ever-uniform chronicles reveal to us at once the simplicity and peaceful disposition of their character; and, looking at them through the long ages of an obscure life, we at once recognize the cause of their general happiness in their constant want of ambition.
And if, in the course of centuries, the character of a nation has changed—an event which seldom takes place, and when it does is due always to radical causes—its history will immediately make known to us the cause of the change, and point out unmistakably its origin and source.
Why is it, for instance, that the French nation, after having lived for near a thousand years under a single dynasty, cannot