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ART. XXIII.-1 Discourse on the Early History of Pennsylvania; being an Annual Oration delivered before the American Philosophical Society, held at Philadelphia, for promoting useful Knowledge, June 6, 1821. By Peter S. Du Ponceau, L.L. D.
THE history of almost every people begins in fable. It is not in the first weak struggles of a barbarous tribe, for ascendancy over its neighbors, that the future conquerors of mankind are to be discerned ; nor is it in the execution of petty schemes of traffic or plunder, that we can foresee an opulent maritime power, which is to cover the sea with her ships, and the land with monuments of her commercial splendor. Great as may be the destinies of the infant nation, there is nothing to arrest attention in the obscure events of her early growth, as she slowly and painfully emerges from insignificance, until her subsequent wealth, power, and refinement have imparted an interest to the minutest incidents of her primitive history. Then it is that the poet seeks to flatter the pride of his countrymen, and to excite his own imagination by swelling the little chieftains of his ancestry into heroes, and peopling the dark void of his country's origin with demigods, whose pretensions, like objects viewed through mist, are magnified by the very darkness in which they are enveloped. To the rhapsodies of the bard succeed the legends of the annalist, or the researches of the antiquary, each supplying the defect of authentic records by fanciful reasonings, by conjectures whose far-fetched ingenuity is not always enough to redeem them from the imputation of folly and falsehood, and by vain attempts to throw light upon that which the unsparing hand of time has long since consigned to perpetual oblivion. Such are the thousand mystical tales, which li. received from the Egyptian priests. Such are the apocryphal expeditions, wars, and conquests of the Greeks, and the deities, whose combats and intrigues have, at least, furnished the subject of many a beautiful fiction to Homer, Hesiod, or Apollonius. Such too, there is reason to believe, is no small part of the history of the kings of Rome, which Livy confesses to rest upon slender proofs, and which Dionysius and Plutarch narrate with a particularity more suspicious than even the silence of older historians. The same cloud of uncertainty hangs over the rise of the modern nations of Europe, whose minstrels will point out to you, in the obscure and broken traditions of their forefathers, some Trojan hero like Brute, or Scandinavian god like Odin, to render their first beginning illustrious.
The only exceptions to this are in the case of colonies planted in a foreign country by populous and flourishing nations, which, being at the time in possession of arts and literature, can transmit to posterity an account of the origin of their colonies, of the causes which led to their establishment, and of the distinguished individuals who communicated dignity and splendor to the enterprise. If such a colony should outlive the perils and hardships to which its commencement was exposed, if it should gradually rise up to the rank of a powerful empire, capable of coping successfully even with the people which gave it birth, and if, having attained the strength and robustness of manhood, it should throw off the dominion of its parent state, and boldly place itself among the independent Hations of the earth, it may then look back with sentiments of honorable pride upon the patriots who founded it in the wilderness, the heroes who defended it from hostile aggression^ and the statesmen by whom it was lifted up to its subsequent elevation and grandeur.
We, therefore, who trace the very beginning of our national being to a period when mankind had already become polished by civilization; who sprang from a land where science was even then fostered and flourishing; whose progenitors brought with them across the ocean a share of the knowledge, refinement and letters of their contemporaries in Europe; and who, from the first morning that an American sun rose upon our fathers to light them on amid the unexplored deserts of the west, down to the day which is now passing over our heads, have never ceased to consult our own glory, and the good of those who are to come after us, by cultivating literature and science,—we have no occasion to call upon the doubtful aid of fiction for the celebration of our ancestry, devoid as it is of the false brilliancy which a series of deified heroes may have thrown upon the lineage of Europeans. The curious and learned, indeed, may contend for the rival claims of Spain or Portugal, of England or France, to the dominion of the new world; they may dispute on the priority of the voyages of Vespucci or Columbus to this continent; they may speculate on the expeditions of Biron from Norway, or of Madoc from JVew Series, JVo. 10. 49
Wales; or they may ascend higher, and amuse themselves with seeking for the Niro, Maxdeaw, the Blessed Isles of Pindar, or the Atlantis of Plato, in the fertile regions of tropical America; but their discussions, strikingly as they tend to show how many of the events which to-day are notorious and important, are forgotten among the vicissitudes of to-morrow, do not shake the credibility of the general facts of our early history, nor cast any doubtfulness upon the characters and . deeds of those, who laid the foundations of our public prosperity. We have been led into this course of reflection by the perusal of Mr Du Ponceau's eloquent discourse on the early history of Pennsylvania, and especially by his remarks on the character of William Penn, in which, if he displays an enthusiastic admiration of this great apostle of peace, it is certainly an enthusiasm equally honorable to his head and to his heart.
“If I had not already trespassed too much upon your patience,’ he observes, ‘I would with delight pass in review before you some more, at least, of the interesting traits with which this history abounds, and which an abler pen than mine will, I hope, at no distant day, fully delineate. Above all, I should love to dwell on the great character of our immortal founder, and to point out, by numerous examples, that astonishing ascendancy over the minds of the mass of mankind, which enabled him to raise a flourishing commonwealth by means of all others the most apparently inadequate. To acquire and secure the possession of an extensive country, inhabited by numerous tribes of warlike savages, without arms, without forts, without the use or even the demonstration of physical force, was an experiment which none but a superior mind would have conceived, which none but a masterspirit could have successfully executed. . Yet this experiment succeeded in a manner that has justly excited the astonishment of the whole world. “Of all the colonies that ever existed,” says Ebeling, “none was ever founded on so philanthropic a plan, none was so deeply impressed with the character of its founder, none practised in a greater degree the principles of toleration, liberty and peace, and none rose and flourished more rapidly than Pennsylvania. She was the youngest of the British colonies established before the eighteenth century, but it was not long before she surpassed most of her elder sisters in population, agriculture, and general prosperity.” This our author justly ascribes to the genius of William Penn, who, disdaining vulgar means, dared to
* “Geschichte von Pennsylvania, in his Erdbeschreibung und Geschichte von America, v. vi.’
found his power and his commonwealth on the nobler feelings of man.' Discourse, pp. 26, 27.
Again, in another part of his discourse, Mr Du Ponceau observes:—
* The character of William Penn alone sheds a never-fading lustre upon our history. No other state in the union can boast of such an illustrious founder; none began their social career under auspices so honorable to humanity. Every trait of the life of that great man, every fact and anecdote of those golden times, will be sought for by our descendants with avidity, and will furnish many an interesting subject for the fancy of the novelist, and the enthusiasm of the poet.' Ibid. p. 13.
If any thing could induce us to qualify the panegyric here bestowed on the great founder of Pennsylvania, it would be the rare combination of propitious circumstances under which his enterprise was conducted; for, although one of the clearest tokens of a powerful mind is an ability to discern and profit by the favorable occasions that chance may throw in our way, still we should do wrong to attribute entirely to a native energy of soul, those consequences, which flowed in part, at least, from birth, fortune, opportunity, or any other accidental advantages. When, therefore, we advert to the early establishment or speedy growth of Pennsylvania, as redounding to the peculiar glory of William Penn, we ought to consider that he was not, like the primitive settlers of Massachusetts, a fugitive from the justice, or more truly speaking, the injustice of his native country, when that country would scarcely grant the poor boon of obtaining a shelter from ecclesiastical oppression in the wilderness of the west. Born of distinguished parentage and the heir of large possessions; admitted to the familiar converse of one king, and honored with the personal friendship of another; rather conferring a favor on his master, than receiving one from him, in consenting to accept a grant of wild and distant lands, in lieu of a debt due his family from the crown; and, although a persecuted sectarian, yet elevated by that very persecution to the rank and influence of a prophet among his enthusiastic associates in religious faith:—uniting, as he did, all these extraneous advantages with a ready eloquence and unbounded zeal, it would have been extraordinary if he had not effected more, than it was possible to do with the scanty resources of those who planted most of the sister colonies in America.
We do not wish, by these remarks, to be understood as calling in question the merits of a legislator, whom Montesquieu has honored with the title of America's Lycurgus. The keenness of foresight, the sagacity and penetration of judgment, the fertility in inventing and clearness of discernment in applying resources, which the events of his life display, are no less remarkable, than the pure spirit of universal benevolence, which seems to have been the governing principle of all his actions, as it was the leading tenet in his particular views of religion. By steadily adhering to the maxims of gospel charity in the establishment of his commonwealth, he secured it against many of those violent shocks, which at that time threatened the dissolution of some of the older and robuster, colonies, especially from the hostility of the savages, over whom, by pacific measures, by kind treatment, probity, and equitable dealing, he gained an ascendancy far more complete than any exhibition of military force could have imparted. It is not strictly true, indeed, which some foreign writers have asserted, that he was the first of the colonists to treat with the savages on an equal footing, and to obtain their lands by honorable purchase; for numerous instances occur, in the history of other colonies, where the same respect was shown to the primeval lords of the soil. Dr Belknap, in his excellent American Biography, observes, that ‘it had been a common thing in New England,’ for fifty years before the time of Penn, “to make fair and regular purchases of land from the Indians.” But although William Penn did not first set the example of this moderation, he and his followers alone persisted in the practice of it, and thus preserved the goodwill of their savage neighbors, while, in other parts of the country, a different course of conduct on the part of the colonists subjected them to a series of wasteful and vindictive wars, which ended only in the extermination of some of the most powerful among the aboriginal tribes. There is little doubt, for instance, that, if all the colonies had entertained the same ardent love of peace which actuated the settlers of Pennsylvania, our ancestors would have avoided the cruel wars waged against first the Pequot, then the Pokanoket, and afterwards the Penobscot indians, which, for more than a hundred years, were the source of constant apprehension, expense, and suffering to the inhabitants of New England. The same enlightened spirit of benevolence, which led