The most obvious & universal division of time is into the Past, Present, & Future. The Present through but a span, yet as it is occupied with our actual existence, with what we feel & do, chiefly absorbs us, & absorbs us the more as our animal predominates over our intellectual nature. The inferior order of creatures, indeed seem to have no care for any time but the present, if we extend its limits to that immediate past, from which they have derived warning, & the immediate future for which instinct teaches them to provide. As men by their ignorance or vices approach the lower animals, they approach them also in the narrow regard they have for time. As their natures become elevated & their minds enlightened so do their views of duration stretch into its illimitable extension before & behind us. Then does the narrow but vivid & fruitful present appear in its just relation to the infinites between which it is forever flashing, the Future whence it springs & the Past to which it goes. Then do we reflect that when the event arrives it is unalterable & inexorable, & such as it is handed to us by the Future, it must join the Past & remain unchanged in her shadowy
realm forever & ever. Then do we become impressed with the necessity of striving while yet there is opportunity to shape so far as is committed to human hands, events while they are yet answer? or in embryo. Then do we perceive the benefits of a large forecast, & what great calamities might be spared mankind, could they distinguish the seeds of evil, & prevent their being planted or crush them in the bud. And how can this large forecast be obtained except by as large retrospection? How can we judge so surely of the future as by the past? What knowledge can we rely on so safely as that derived from actual experiment? It is by reflections of this sort that the Past presents itself in its true importance. Not as a subject for idle curiosity but as the vast storehouse of the most useful knowledge. Not as a shadowy spectacle of amusement, but as a Sybil uttering momentous oracles.
Confirmatory of this view of the Past are some of the passions, or instincts (if you will) of mankind, whose universality is a proof of their utility. Why was the love of posthumous fame of endless renown implanted so strongly in the breasts of so many of the best & greatest of mankind? It is not assigning a sufficient cause to say that it is given as an incentive to good & great actions; for present praise & substantial reward & love of virtue & de-
sire to do good might furnish adequate motive for that. But there are aspiration in the highest human thoughts to rewards beyond those which perish with the subject of them, & which though confined to earth point to an immortality.
“Exegi monumentum aere perennius” exclaimed Horace triumphantly as he turned his ear for praise to the ages which were then to come, & now are. And a far greater than he – nay one than whose “no mortal, mixture of earth’s mould” was ever crowned with more heavenly glory, has in those laments of his which clothed earthly calamity with something of celestial brightness, glanced at his longings for immortal renown & seemed soothed with the prospect of that bright revision which his name should enjoy when kings & bigots could plague no more.
“Nor sometimes forget
Those other two equalled with me in fate,
So were I equalled with them in renown,
Blind Thamyris & blind Theonides,
And Tyresias & Phaneus, phophets old.
Then muse on thoughts that voluntary move
Harmonious numbers, as the wakeful bird
Sings darkling, & in shadiest covert his
Tunes her nocturnal note.”
Nay, why confine ourselves to the songs of the poets for illustrations of this truth? Look at the Past with all her monuments. From those perishing on the plain of the Theboid to those springing up in our own
land. what do they tell, but of that passion so common to men & to races, for extending their fame to men & to races to come? The mighty masses of the pyramids, the elegant structures of Greece, the colossal architecture of kosne?, the gorgeous monuments of oriental grandieur, all inculcate that same truth of the strong desire of man to eke out his brief existence by a life in the breath of others. It was that which made Alexander when towering o’er the prostrate would envy the dead Achilles his poet; & it was that which made the great conqueror of modern Europe, when chained to a remote rock in the ocean, & securing to & recording the exploits of his armies, exclaim in anxious agony, “Quellques parcelles de tante gloire, perviondosnt ils aux siecles a venir! Ou meusinge calomni pervandunt ils? Some little parcels of such great glory will they ever reach the ages which are to come, or deception, calumny & lies will they prevent & bring all? And what is the object of this passion so universal, & which flourishes most in the loftiest bosoms? Is it nothing more than it has been called.
The last infirmity of noble minds?” Or is it like all the great passions of men, & instincts of animals & habits of plants, of every thing else which we can trace to the ordinances of Providence, given for
some great good? To answer this question rightly we have but to remember how important to the future is a knowledge of the past, & how absolutely important to a perpetuation of that knowledge, is the passionate desire of the great & gifted & the powerful to perform deeds worthy of remembrance & record them in characters least liable to perish.
But it is not less necessary that these records should be enduring than that they should be accurate. To render an experiment truly instructive all its details must be accurately given. The omission or addition of even a minute ingredient by altering the combination effects the whole result. This is well understood in physical science & is equally true of historical science. It is our ignorance of the minute details of the past & of the true characters of those involved in them, which makes us so ignorant of the future. Experiments in historical science, in the affairs of life, would not be less instructive than experiments in chemistry, if we could know with the same accuracy the ingredients which entered into each, & the influences to which they were subjected.
The great reproach of history is its inaccuracy. In the beautiful narratives of antiquity so much fable is
mixed with fact that as we hardly know what to believe, we can scarce tell when we are misled or when we are instructed. Half the value of the pictured pages is lost. Incentives to great actions, lessons in heroism indeed they are images of might spectacles of glory they vividly exhibit; but their instructiveness is sacrificed to other qualities, & truth neglected in anxiety to charm.
As modern historians had better means of arriving at truth, we look for it more confidently in their pages, yet national partialities in animosities, bigotry on the one hand, or skepticism on the other, party ties or antipathies, & even that ambition of fine writing, which sacrifices accuracy to epigram, all combine to present to us the past in a distorted confused, & even impossible attitude. In the present day this reproach of history is felt to be so intolerable, & that it should be removed is deemed so desirable that men of education, reflection, patriotism, & thought enlarged benevolence which prompted Mr. Smithson to devote his whole fortune to the increase of knowledge among men, have of late in all the most enlightened countries of the earth formed themselves into societies for the purpose of contributing to the means of preserving & diffusing an accurate knowledge of the past. The Historical Societies have flourished for many years in many
our sister States, very much to the honor of the gentlemen who conduct & of the commonwealths which cherish them. Massachusetts, so apt to be foremost, or pressing on the foremost, in all good works, is distinguished in this, much to the benefit of herself & those five sisters clustered around her, sprung from the same parentage, & nursed in their infancy from the bosom of the same bay. The question has been asked & discussed, as to what makes a nation. The Greeks occupied many states & were yet regarded as one people. It has been answered that Homer’s Iliad contributed greatly to their nationality. That their common glory derived from the ancestry celebrated in that immortal work bound them with ties which could never be severed; & that to this day, & through all the oppressions of an Ottoman domination they never forgot their descent from those who had regarded Agamemnon as the kings of kings, & Achilles as their hero & Ulysses as their sage.
And what is it that establishes so strong the nationality of the sons of New England? What is it that makes them cling so to each other & to the fair group of states from which they spring – those daughters of the Atlantic, bright as the Atlantidae, those other daughters of Atlas, their type amid the constellations of the sky, save that among them.
lo, were these not circumstances, was there not occasion to call forth all that was great in the character & heroic in the spirit of the invaded nation? Remember they were the children of old, romantic Spain, & held the conquests of Cortez, & were invaded by a handful of men they hated for their race & their religion. Think too of what mountains they had for ramparts, what passes for ambuscades, what fortresses for defence. What then did they want? They wanted even one of those great men who though they require great occasions to develop their grandieur, are not the growth of a moment, nor of every day nor every generation. Had they possessed a Cid or a Cortez, not even the bold spirit of Taylor, nor the accomplished chivalry of Scott, seconded as they were by bands of heroes, could have repassed in safety the mountains & the deserts of Mexico but must have found graves, covered with laurels indeed, but far in the borders of a foreign land.
If the view I am contending for be correct how can nations too diligently study to discover the means which best tend to form men to be truly good & great. Virginia has been happily likened to Cornelia, who when asked for her jewels pointed to her sons. Is not it worth inquiring how she became possessed of them, by what discipline their characters became
against those which were past. The historical societies of these people are preserving every record of this period, & of the adventures of their early settlements, - of their colonial wars, & their revolutionary struggles, as well as diffusing a knowledge of them by their annual publications. Is not-this meritorious? Is not it nationalizing their people, - that is, strengthening great ties & combining scattered energies for great ends? Why should not we do the same? Is not the history of Virginia even from the first settlement at Jamestown to the recent election of the sixth of her sons to the Presidency of the U. States worth preserving & worth diffusing? Was there no romance in the adventures of her early settlers? No triumphs over difficulty – no escapes from danger? No victories of fortitude, of prudence of courage worth recording for the instruction of mankind? On the contrary was not the whole progress of his settlement throughout all his borders marked with these, from the adventures of Smith upon this river, to those of Washington in the Ohio & those of Boone in his county of Kentucky? And the social refinements of her colonial period, its cordial hospitality, its attachment to literature, its devotion to liberty the whole career of its struggles with the crown & its resistance of the protectorate are they not worthy of being transmitted
there is no lost Pleiad[es], but that the whole sisterhood are shining with their love, their steady & increasing light? What contributes to strengthen these delightful & useful ties of kindred & of country more than their common heritage in the glories of their past? And I might recur to a more striking illustration – one that is as wide as the world in its renown, & remote in its origin as “the first syllable of recorded time.” But I dare not return to pitch my voice to the songs of the prophets. I must not touch the harp of David. I cannot trust myself in Paradise; but return at once to the people whose ancestors learned from those sacred records not to put their trust in princes, but in Him, who carried his chosen safe through the sea, & fed them in the wilderness. These too, let them be scattered as they may are continually recurring to their escape from bondage, & their advent in the new world, their land of promise. Painting & poetry & historic lore have conspired to keep fresh in their memory the Mayflower & the Plymouth Rock, & the Pilgrims kneeling on the sand, the little line between the boundless ocean & the boundless wild, escaped from the dangers of the one & thrown upon the terrors of the other & sustained against those which were approaching by a devout trust in the same Omnipotence which had protected them
of nations will always find men adequate to meet them, men prepared & competent to “hide in the whirlwind & direct the storm.” But it does not seem to me that a careful recurrence to history is calculated to confirm this opinion. On the contrary it will corroborate the view which Sallust, in his history of Cataline’s conspiracy takes of the causes of the grandieur of Rome, which he attributes to the long succession of great men which adorned that commonwealth & controlled its destiny. No more important crises ever marked the history of Europe than that in which she is now involved, but we yet see no symptoms of the mighty minds sustained by those exalted virtues, which can turn her troubles into blessings & crown her struggle with glory. They may be there & philanthropy hopes they will appear but is as yet straining her longing eyes for them in vain. Our sister republics of this continent, as we once delighted to call them, have passed through phases analogous to our own, but what names have they presented to rival those which adorn our revolutionary history? Except that of Bolivar I know of none which even our republican partialities can venture to enroll in the list of glorious patriots. And in the war we have just waged with the
as accurately as possible to those who are to succeed us? Yet of this interesting & instructive period how few memorials remain compared with what ought to have been preserved. For though our colonial ancestors were not very much addicted to the labours of the pen, they by no means entertained in that subject the sentiments of the Scotch baron who exclaimed,
“Thanks to St. Gotham, son of mine [illegible] never write a line!” On the contrary the sons of the wealthy families were commonly sent to England to be educated, & those who remained at home received the benefit of instruction from accomplished teachers from the mother country. That the epistolary correspondence of the time was neither meager nor uninstructive is proved by that which remains to us; & while it makes us regret the large portion of it which is lost, should animate us to preserve that which remains. For the minutest information with regard to that period is valuable as assisting us to ascertain by what course of education, by what habits of study, by what mode of life the great men were moulded who met the crisis of the revolution, & have left reputations which their descendants can never hope to surpass & scarcely to rival. I know it is a common opinion that men are made by circumstances, & that great crises in the career formed, their virtues fixed, their spring so pure & exalted? For this purpose we must investigate the private as well as public life, we must examine their intimate correspondence & their domestic habits of amusement as well as of labor. Even a knowledge of the scenery which surrounded them & the kind of region in which they dwelt is not unimportant, as affecting their imaginations & directing, their early sports. One of Napoleon’s earliest playthings was a miniature piece of artillery, & it is thought by those curious in such speculations that it may have had its effect on his subsequent career. How much more influential must the larger playthings of youth be upon the character. Morgan & his riflemen came from the mountains, our light horse from the plains. These gross effects of localities upon character & career are obvious. There may be others as important & not so easily traced. “I envy not the man says Dr. Johnson, whose patriotism would not be warmer on the plain of Marathon, nor his piety more fervid amid the ruins of Iona.” The grandieurs presented by nature un-associated with human recollections may have a kindred effect, & the more powerful by being more habitual. To minds enlightened & formed to appreciate
such things, the grandieur of our rivers rolling though forests as grand may have their effect in enobling the characters of those who found them in their virgin beauty. I have often thought how those banks of the Potomac & its sea-like expanse the one garnished with eagles & ospreys & the others musical with swans, may have influenced the characters of the great men born there. For the County of Westmoreland gave etc.
“I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze.”