Edited by Theodore Morrison
Philip E. Burnham
Carvel E. Collins
C. P. Lee
Richard P. Scowcroft
Carvel E. Collins
C. P. Lee
Richard P. Scowcroft
Harper & Brothers, Hardback, .
8vo. ix+390 pp. Preface by the editor [vii-ix].
I. Observation of
Walden / E.B. White [One Man’s Meat, 1942]
The National Capitol: 1835 / Harriet Martineau [Retrospect of Western Travel, 1837]
A Revival / Frances Trollope [Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832]
The Newspaper "Game" / Robert Benchley [
as Americans See It, 1932] America
To Sleep, Perchance to Steam / S.J. Perelman [The Dream Department, 1943]
Inertrum, Neutronium, Chromaloy, P-P-P-Proot! / Angelica Gibbs [The New Yorker, 13 Feb 1943]
The American Political Parties / D. W. Brogan [
, 1941] U.S.A.
II. American Documents and Problems
Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One / Benjamin Franklin 
Common Sense / Thomas Paine [Common Sense, 1776, abridged]
On Agrarian Economy / Thomas Jefferson [Notes on Virginia, 1782]
A Plan for Education / Thomas Jefferson [Notes on Virginia, 1782]
Opinion for the Supreme Court / John Marshall [abridged from the original, 7
Mar 1819] Maryland
Instructions to the Panama Mission / Henry Clay [abridged]
Civil Disobedience / Henry David Thoreau [1849, abridged]
On Equal Rights / Abraham Lincoln [speech in Springfield, Illinois, 26 Jun 1857, abridged]
First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861 / Abraham Lincoln [abridged]
I Would Save the
/ Abraham Lincoln [letter
to Horace Greeley, 22 Aug 1862]
We Cannot Escape History / Abraham Lincoln [Annual Message to Congress, 1 Dec 1862]
Democracy / Abraham Lincoln [attributed to
in the Federal
Edition of his Works] Lincoln
The Fortune of the Republic / Ralph Waldo Emerson [1879, abridged]
Letters on the "Open Door" / John Hay
Exposition of 1893 / Henry Adams [The
Education of Henry Adams, 1918] Chicago
Exposition of 1904 / Henry Adams [The
Education of Henry Adams, 1918] St.
Two Early American Political Thinkers: Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson /
Louis Parrington [Main Currents in American Thought, 1930] Vernon
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism / R.H. Tawney [eponymous book, 1926]
Plymouth Rock and
/ Louis Adamic [From Many Lands, 1940, abridged]
The Indispensable Opposition / by Walter Lippmann [Atlantic Monthly, Aug 1939]
The Vials of Wrath / Winston Churchill [The World Crisis, 1923]
War Message / Woodrow Wilson [message to the Congress, 2 Apr 1917, abridged]
Memorandum of March 25, 1919 / Lloyd George [The Aftermath, 1929, by Winston Churchill]
Wilsonism / Harold Nicolson [Peacemaking, 1933]
The Four Freedoms / Franklin D. Roosevelt [President’s message to the 77th Congress, 6 Jan 1941]
The Four Freedoms / Office of War Information [released 9 Aug 1942]
How Short Wave Works / Charles J. Rolo [Radio Goes to War, 1942]
Why the Sky Looks Blue / James Jeans [The Stars in Their Courses, 1933]
The Hurricane / Richard Hughes [In Hazard, 1938]
Seasickness / W.H. Michael [Harper’s Magazine, Nov 1940]
Running the Grand Canyon / John Wesley Powell [Exploration of the
Colorado River of the West, 1875,
Pecking at a Sandstone Cliff / Wallace Stegner [Mormon Country, 1942]
The Origins of Modern Science / Alfred North Whitehead [Science and the Modern World, 1926, abridged]
On Indifference to Scientific Truth / James Harvey Robinson [The Humanizing of Knowledge, 1926]
Habits of Thought / Robert H. Thouless [How To Think Straight, 1939]
The Breakdown of Modern Philosophy / Etienne Gilson [The Unity of Philosophical Experience, 1937]
Fashions in Ideas / Irwin Edman [Philosopher’s Holiday, 1938]
Climates of Opinion / Carl Becker [The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers, 1933]
V. The Future
The Price of Free World Victory / Henry A. Wallace [an address, 8 May 1942]
International Utopias / Zechariah Chafee, Jr. [American Scholar, summer 1942]
Wanted: American Radicals / James B. Conant [Atlantic Monthly, May 1943]
The General Educational Stream of the Liberal Arts / Howard Mumford Jones [an address, 20 May 1938]
The Uniqueness of Man / Julian Huxley [Man Stands Alone,1941]
*Sources as given in the book’s footnotes.
I was misled by the title into thinking that this book is a sort of propaganda to raise the morale during the Second World War. As such, I wanted to read it as a companion volume to The English Spirit (1942), ed. Anthony Weymouth, a British collection of talks delivered on the BBC and later collected in book form with the same purpose. It’s always interesting to compare the British and the American way, be it national propaganda or detective fiction or, if you like,
Wimbledon and the US Open. As soon as I glanced at the
table of contents, however, I realised this book is something different. And
when I read the preface by Mr Morrison, the editor in chief, I realised it is
something completely different.
As it turned out, this is a book for “students in uniform – prospective officers of the armed forces.” The editors consulted the list of writers and works suggested by the Army and the Navy for the general education of their soldiers, and they offer this comprehensive selection that should stimulate “reading the virtue of which would be to make a well-informed and thoughtful citizen of America in the world Americans will face during and after the war.” If I understand correctly Mr Morrison, Director of English A, Harvard University, the title of the book refers to the danger of modern war, which “requires prolonged specialized training”, dehumanizing soldiers, turning them into mindless machines. The editors thought, and so far as I am concerned were correct, that this book is “suitable for any contemporary American student, military or civilian” because it fosters the “qualities that can turn the civilian into a fighter without destroying his capacity for membership in a society at peace.” In other words, a soldier must be a citizen first, preferably a well-educated one.
To begin with, a couple of caveats. First, many of the essays included here are heavily abridged; I am going to mention this several times in the following paragraphs, but it’s good to keep it in mind from the beginning. Second, many of these pieces, particularly in the first two parts, require for their full appreciation a solid knowledge of American history which I don’t possess. I have read them as a human being interested in human nature, a citizen of the world if you like, rather than for whatever national significance they may have. If I seem to neglect certain essays, this is because I found them dated, dull or both; two or three I admit I couldn’t finish. As a general rule, I have tried to put all pieces in their right historical context – by the way, only one piece, “Running the Grand Canyon”, has a prefatory note about that; for the rest, the modern citizen who reads must navigate the Web – but I have also tried to emphasise their intrinsic, timeless value.
I was curious to meet for the first time two distinguished American men of letters from the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I must say their names are more impressive than their writing. Both have little to offer but promising beginnings:
[Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”:]
I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
[Emerson, “The Fortune of the Republic”:]
It is a rule that holds in economy as well as in hydraulics that you must have a source higher than your tap. The mills, the shops, the theatre and the caucus, the college and the church, have all found out this secret.
I understand Mr Thoreau objects to government and, within certain limits, approves of civil disobedience. What I don’t understand is why and what alternatives he suggests. To abolish government? To improve it? How? Perhaps he answered these questions in the full version, quite a bit longer than this one, of his essay. The most interesting part of this excerpt is the description of Mr Thoreau’s experience in prison, where he spent a single night for unpaid taxes. But this is an end in itself. It’s not used to build a thought-provoking argument. It merely is described, albeit with touching humour and tenderness.
Somerset Maugham once memorably described Emerson as “a nimble skater who cuts elegant and complicated figures on a surface of frozen platitudes.” He referred to the celebrated Essays, but the remark fully applies to “The Fortune of the Republic”. Mr Emerson’s style is picturesque but neither especially lucid nor terribly compelling. He does have flashes of brilliance now and then. Unfortunately, these are dissolved soon enough into empty rhetoric or irrelevant digressions. In the end I was left completely at sea what the fortune of the republic according to Mr Emerson was. Perhaps the full version of essay may rectify my ignorance, but somehow I don’t really believe that.
I like the presidents better. I should think
to have men like Jefferson and Lincoln, and not like Thoreau and Emerson, for
presidents. We have only two short pieces by Mr Jefferson here, but they are
enough to recognise that he was not exactly an ordinary man. They certainly
make it clear why Mr Parrington subtitled his essay “Agrarian Democrat” (see
ToC above). Mr Jefferson’s “Plan for Education” bluntly bypasses all practical
difficulties – “These must be the business of the visitors entrusted with its
execution.” – but it is basically the same that is used today all around the
world, the only slight difference being his insistence on learning Latin and
Greek. Mr Jefferson’s “On Agrarian Economy”, coming from the dawn of the
Industrial Revolution and reading it in our times of extreme urbanization, is
both ironical and heart-breaking. What would the writer of these lines think of
the world today? America
Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.
While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our work-shops remain in
It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring
them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and
principles. The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of
government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure
government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners
and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour. A degeneracy in
these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.
Abraham Lincoln must have been a man of formidable intelligence and rare nobility. What impress me most in his words here are the intellectual power and the candour. He is a master rhetorician and he can employ deadly sarcasm, but these are exceptions. For the most part in his speeches, he appeals to reason and advances rational arguments. His superb polemical skills are on fine display in the
speech (26 June, 1857), the greater part of which is dedicated to the
demolition of one Judge Douglas who expressed the rather absurd opinion that
the Declaration of Independence did not include coloured people. Mr Lincoln’s
response is at once entertaining and devastating: Springfield
There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races; and Judge Douglas evidently is basing his chief hope, upon the chances of being able to appropriate the benefit of this disgust to himself. If he can, by much drumming and repeating, fasten the odium of that idea upon his adversaries, he thinks he can struggle through the storm. He therefore clings to this hope, as a drowning man to the last plank. He makes an occasion for lugging it in from the opposition to the Dred Scott decision. He finds the Republicans insisting that the Declaration of Independence includes all men, black as well as white; and forthwith he boldly denies that it includes negroes at all, and proceeds to argue gravely that all who contend it does, do so only because they want to vote, and eat, and sleep, and marry with negroes. He will have it that they cannot be consistent else. Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.
Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge Douglas argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once, actually place them on an equality with the whites. Now this grave argument comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one or another. And this is the staple argument of both the Chief Justice and the Senator, for doing this obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration. I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men crated equal – equal in 'certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' This they said, and this meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that 'all men are created equal' was of no practical use in effecting our separation from
and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its
authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block
to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the
hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed
tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and
commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to
crack. Great Britain
Note Mr Lincoln’s provocative opinions in the first paragraph, namely that there is a “natural disgust” in all white people towards the coloured and that a black woman is in “some respects” (which?) not his equal. One mustn’t make too much of such opinions. In the proper context they lose much of their sting. Mr Lincoln evidently was a man of inflexible integrity. He knew very well his mind and he made a sharp distinction between his private beliefs and his professional obligations. I understand his letter to Horace Greeley, then editor of the
is one of his most famous. I should hope it is. New
I would save the
I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the
national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not
save the Union, unless they could at the same
time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not
save the Union unless they could at the same
time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this
struggle is to save the Union, and is not
either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing
any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I
would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I
would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because
I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I
do not believe it would help to save the Union.
I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I
shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall
try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so
fast as they shall appear to be true views.
I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.
This is admirably honest. Mr Lincoln makes it as clear as it could be that his major official duty is not to abolish slavery. Note how carefully worded is his statement. He doesn’t say he supports or approves slavery. He says he wouldn’t let it interfere with his saving the
Union. On the
other hand, he explicitly states that if he could both preserve the Union and abolish slavery, he would do that. He does say that
he would save the Union even if this means that no slave shall be freed, but
his personal wish suggests that, once
he has managed to preserve the Union, he would work to secure freedom for all. In
his First Inaugural Address, Mr Lincoln is even more emphatic about his
position on slavery:
Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States, that by the accession of a Republican Administration, their property, and their peace, and personal security, are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed, and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this, and many similar declarations, and had never recanted them.
In this impressive address, as beautifully written as it doubtless sounded at the time, Mr Lincoln addresses the status quo with customary objectivity and precision. This is what one would expect from a lawyer but seldom finds in a politician. He is perfectly aware that slavery is the only “substantial dispute” between the North and the South, and though he appeals for a peaceful solution, he must have known that civil war was imminent. I found especially fascinating the long discourse of the Union, by which I take it Mr Lincoln means the whole of the
, its past and its
future, its essential “perpetuity” and its constitution. Since the clarity of
Mr Lincoln’s prose cannot be bettered, I will leave him to explain in his own
words: United States
It is seventy-two years since the first inauguration of a President under our National Constitution. During that period fifteen different and greatly distinguished citizens have, in succession, administered the executive branch of the government. They have conducted it through many perils, and generally with great success. Yet, with all this scope of precedent, I now enter upon the same task for the brief constitutional term of four years under great and peculiar difficulty. A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted.
I hold that, in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution, the
these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the
fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no
government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own
termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National
Constitution, and the Union will endure
forever – it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided
for in the instrument itself.
Again, if the
be not a government
proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it,
as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it?
One party to a contract may violate it – break it, so to speak; but does it not
require all to lawfully rescind it? United States
Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition that, in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the
The Union is much older than the Constitution.
It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured
and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further
matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and
engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778.
And, finally, in 1787 one of the declared objects for ordaining and
establishing the Constitution was "to form a more perfect Union."
But if the destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the
is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of
It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void; and that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the
, are insurrectionary
or revolutionary, according to circumstances. United States
I therefore consider that, in view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is unbroken; and to the extent of my ability I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the
Union be faithfully
executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my
part; and I shall perform it so far as practicable, unless my rightful masters,
the American people, shall withhold the requisite means, or in some
authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as
a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union
that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.
It’s a pity that we don’t have anything here from Mr Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865). He sums up the causes of the Civil War with epigrammatic brilliance that Oscar Wilde might have envied:
Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
I can only recommend you to read both addresses complete (if you haven’t already). I have no doubt that people well-versed into American history (presumably but not necessarily all Americans) will grasp many subtle meanings which I missed. But even if you are a perfect newcomer to the American Civil War and have to educate yourself on the way, as it were, these speeches remain, quite apart from what historical value they may have, moving human documents.
Bertrand Russell once gave Mr Lincoln as an example (together with Spinoza) of those great men who “become greater the more they are studied”. I am beginning to understand why. Many nineteenth-century writers with far greater pretensions never managed to achieve one tenth of Mr Lincoln’s eloquence, common sense, wit and wisdom.
The only trouble with Mr Lincoln’s writings here is the inept abridgement. The
speech, for instance, is considerably shortened. The beginning is rightly cut,
for it has little to do with “equal rights”, but then follows a wonderful
passage which argues that, contrary to what one Justice Taney had implied, “it
is grossly incorrect to say or assume, that the public estimate of the negro is
more favorable now than it was at the origin of the government.” The first
passage from the same speech I have quoted above is also cut, and I cannot help
wondering if this wasn’t done with the sole purpose to eliminate some of Mr
Lincoln’s, at least from a modern point of view, rather controversial remarks. Some
omitted paragraphs from the First Inaugural Address dealing with the so called
“fugitive slaves” ought to have been retained. The letter to Mr Greeley, though
quite short, is also abridged; its first two paragraphs are missing. This is a
pity for they contain important information about the background of the letter: Springfield
I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.
As to the policy I "seem to be pursuing" as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
Ben Franklin is almost as exciting as the presidents, Tom Paine even more so. “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One” is obviously, perhaps a little too obviously, aimed at the British crown and her presumably disgraceful management of the American colonies. Though Ben Franklin doesn’t have the flair for writing and the biting wit of Jonathan Swift, the piece is an amusing satire. Mr Franklin, “a modern simpleton” as he describes himself, separates his “Rules” into 24 numbered points. Here are several favourites:
IV. However peaceably your Colonies have submitted to your Government, shewn their Affection to your Interest, and patiently borne their Grievances, you are to suppose them always inclined to revolt, and treat them accordingly. Quarter Troops among them, who by their Insolence may provoke the rising of Mobs, and by their Bullets and Bayonets suppress them. By this Means, like the Husband who uses his Wife ill from Suspicion, you may in Time convert your Suspicions into Realities.
VI. To confirm these Impressions, and strike them deeper, whenever the Injured come to the Capital with Complaints of Mal-administration, Oppression, or Injustice, punish such Suitors with long Delay, enormous Expence, and a final Judgment in Favour of the Oppressor. This will have an admirable Effect every Way. The Trouble of future Complaints will be prevented, and Governors and Judges will be encouraged to farther Acts of Oppression and Injustice; and thence the People may become more disaffected, and at length desperate.
XI. To make your Taxes more odious, and more likely to procure Resistance, send from the Capital a Board of Officers to superintend the Collection, composed of the most indiscreet, ill-bred and insolent you can find. Let these have large Salaries out of the extorted Revenue, and live in open grating Luxury upon the Sweat and Blood of the Industrious, whom they are to worry continually with groundless and expensive Prosecutions before the above-mentioned arbitrary Revenue-Judges, all at the Cost of the Party prosecuted tho' acquitted, because the King is to pay no Costs.
Common Sense is a work of much greater accomplishment and substance. It is justly famous, though mostly for its historical significance, I think, which is indeed unjust. Many of the ideas in this pamphlet are timeless, and the style is admirable; the very first paragraph is a masterpiece of provocative clarity:
Some Writers have so confounded Society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Tom Paine is a tremendous writer. He wields a versatile pen that ranges from cool and scientific precision to purple patch that can leave indifferent but the most callous reader. Unlike Mr Thoreau, Mr Paine doesn’t fade off into rambling insignificance after the beginning. Unfortunately, his famous pamphlet is extremely abridged. Little more than the beginning and the ending are given here. This was enough, however, to induce me to read the complete work, something I had wanted to do for quite some time. It is a great work that deserves a detailed review. Here I want to give some fascinating quotes from Mr Parrington’s abovementioned biographical essay. He calls Mr Paine “Republican Pamphleteer” and continues:
No more striking figure emerges from the times than the figure of the Thetford Quaker. English in birth and rearing, in middle life Paine came to embody the republican spirit of the American revolution; and that spirit he made it his after business to carry overseas and spread among the discontented of all lands. He was the first modern internationalist, at home wherever rights were to be won or wrongs corrected. “My country is the world,” he asserted proudly, “to do good, my religion.” Throughout his later life he was a fearless skirmisher on the outposts of democracy – another “Free-born John” Lilburn, seeking to complete the great work begun and thwarted in an earlier century; and his career remains a stirring record of a time when revolution threatened to sweep away the power and privilege of all kings and aristocracies. Naturally his zeal cost him dear in reputation. The passions of all who feared the loss of sinecures gathered about his head, and he became the victim of an odium theologicum et politicum, without parallel in our history. The Tories hunted him in packs, and their execration and vituperation outran all decency. In
clubs it became the fashion for
gentlemen to wear TP nails in their boot-heels to witness how they trampled on
his base principles. He was proscribed and banished, and his books burnt by the
hangman. He was regarded as worse that a common felon and outlaw, because more
dangerous. In London
gentlemen echoed the common detestation – to be a Paine-hater was a badge of
respectability. “The filthy Tom Paine,” John Adams called him, and the phrase
stuck like a burr to his reputation. But “reason, like time,” as Paine remarked,
“will make its own way,” and the years are bringing a larger measure of justice
to him. America
When he landed in
in the second week in December,
1774, he was in his thirty-seventh year, and had seemingly made shipwreck of
his life. He had been schooled in misfortune and was marked as a social
inefficient. A broken staymaker and tobacconist, he had twice been removed from
the office of petty exciseman for what today would be called unionizing
activity. He had separated from his wife, and his mean and petty environment
seemed to offer no hope for decent living. One stroke of good fortune had come
to him, when as a delegate from his union on some business with Parliament, he
made the acquaintance of Franklin, who was taken with “those wonderful eyes of
his,” and advised Philadelphia
as a likely place for getting on. So provided with little more than America Franklin’s letter of introduction, he set sail for new
worlds, cherishing the unmilitant plan of setting up in a seminary of polite learning for
young ladies. But the times proved unpropitious for such a venture. He found
himself in a world hesitating fearfully on the brink of revolution, the
electric atmosphere of which he found strangely congenial. He at once threw
himself whole-heartedly into the colonial dispute, quickly seized the main
points, mastered the arguments, and thirteen months after his arrival published
Common Sense, a pamphlet that was to spread his name and fame throughout Philadelphia . America
The amazing influence of Common Sense on a public opinion long befogged by legal quibble flowed from its direct and skillful appeal to material interests. For a first time in a tedious inconsequential debate, it was openly asserted that governmental policies rest on economic foundations; that the question of American independence was only a question of expediency, and must be determined in the light of economic advantage. Government is no more than a utility, and that policy which was most likely to secure freedom and security “with the least expense and greatest benefit” must be preferred. The point of issue before the American people, therefore, whether a more useful arrangement would result from continuing the old connection with England, or for setting up for themselves; and it must be decided, not in the court room or council chambers, but in the counting-house and market place, in the field and shop, wherever plain Americans were making a living. Let the common people consult their own needs, and determine the case without regard to legal or constitutional precedents. It was a simple matter to be judged in the light of common sense and their particular interests.
This was but the beginning of a long assault on the British constitution which was to engage him much in after life. Common Sense was a pronouncement of the new philosophy of republicanism that was taking firm hold of the American mind, and which the French Revolution was to spread so widely. It was a notable contribution, of which Paine to the end of his life was justly proud.
A thoroughgoing idealist in aim, generous and unsparing in service to humanity, he was a confirmed realist in the handling of facts. He refused to be duped by imposing appearances or great reputations, but spoke out unpleasant truths which gentlemen wished to keep hidden. Clear and direct in expression, he seasoned his writings with homely figures and a frequent audacity of phrase that made wide appeal. He was probably the greatest pamphleteer that the English race has produced and one of its great idealists.
During his residence abroad Paine habitually thought and spoke of himself as an American. He conceived it to be his mission to disseminate throughout Europe the beneficent principles of the American Revolution; yet nowhere was he hated more virulently than in
. To the
animosity which his political principles excited among Federalists was added
the detestation of the orthodox for the deism of the Age of Reason. The
ministers outdid the politicians in virulent attack upon his reputation, until
the generous Quaker, the friend of humanity and citizen of the world, was
shrunk and distorted into “the infidel Tom Paine.” It was a strange reward for
a life spent in the service of mankind. Like all idealists he made the mistake
of underestimating the defensive strength of vested interests, and their skill
in arousing the mob prejudice. His thousands of followers among the
disfranchised poor could not protect his reputation against the attacks of the
rich and powerful. Although reason may “make its own way,” it makes its way
with wearisome slowness and at unreasonable cost. How tremendous were the
obstacles that liberalism confronted in post-revolutionary America is revealed
with sufficient clearness in the odium visited upon our great republican
Mr Thoreau is the only other writer who enjoys the dubious honour to have among the contents something written about him. I say the “dubious” honour because Mr White’s “Walden” is a tedious account of one-day trip to Concord and Walden Pond during which he spent just about the same amount of money as Thoreau did for a whole year just about a century ago. The rest of the first part isn’t terribly stimulating, either. The pieces are mostly of historical interest: there is little in them that has withstood the test of time. If you are peculiarly interested in Washington politics and Cincinnati religious hysteria during the 1830s as perceived by two English ladies (Harriet Martineau and Frances Trollope, respectively), or in the condition of American newspapers (Robert Benchley) and the birth of science fiction (Angelica Gibbs) in the early twentieth century, you might find these essays more engrossing than I did.
The final of the second part is remarkable, though. It begins with a short excerpt from the President Roosevelt’s speech to the congress given on 6 January, 1941. He defines the four kinds of freedom thus:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
These are noble sentiments. They were developed with a fine rhetorical flourish by the Office of War Information a year and a half later. They make a chilling read today. In 1942, though very well aware of the practical difficulties, people seriously considered making the world a fundamentally better place. However, they couldn’t have predicted (or could they?) the impact of nuclear weapons and the outcome of WWII, much less the shrinking of the world to a global village. So the results were things like the Cold War and the Berlin Wall, which we have managed to survive, and treats like terrorism, overpopulation, globalisation and environmental destruction, which is not yet clear if we will survive.
The other essays from the second part didn’t leave much of an impression. Exceptions were Louis Adamic’s “Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island”, an interesting study of the
as “a teeming nation of nations”
(Walt Whitman) which I suppose is even more relevant today (and worldwide) than
it was in 1940, and Walter Lippmann’s thought-provoking “The Indispensable
Opposition”. It was Mr Lippmann, reportedly, who once said “Where all people
think alike, no one thinks much.” This is not a quote from his essay, but the
latter may well be described as an elaboration on it. Mr Lippmann makes a
strong, compelling case that freedom of speech means nothing if it is regarded
merely with tolerance, which is just another name for indifference. What’s the
point of everyone speaking freely their own minds if nobody listens, he asks? This
may seem obvious, but how often is the obvious overlooked, I ask? It’s free
debate, not just free speech, that really matters. We can still profit from Mr
Lippmann’s repetitious prose (no doubt deliberately repetitious, for some
things are worth repeating): US
Thus the essence of freedom of opinion is not in mere tolerance as such, but in the debate which toleration provides: it is not in the venting of opinion, but in the confrontation of opinion. That this is the practical substance can readily be understood when we remember how differently we feel and act about the censorship and regulation of opinion purveyed by different media of communication. We find then that, in so far as the medium makes difficult the confrontation of opinion in debate, we are driven towards censorship and regulation.
We must insist that free oratory is only the beginning of free speech; it is not the end, but a means to an end. The end is to find the truth. The practical justification of civil liberty is not that self-expression is one of the rights of man. It is that the examination of opinion is one of the necessities of man. For experience tells us that only when freedom of opinion becomes the compulsion to debate that the seed which our fathers planted has produced its fruit. When that is understood, freedom will be cherished not because it is a vent for our opinions but because it is the surest method of correcting them.
Though Mr Lippmann speaks of politics, I would extend his argument to human communication in general. But with one proviso of utmost importance! It must be recognised that in nearly all cases debates stem from difference of personal opinions, not absolute truths. There is no excuse for the conceited fellow who treats his opponent in such a debate with contempt and lack of elementary civility. Only in strictly scientific matters can there be a search for objective truth; even then, of course, disagreements must never lead to animosity. In the vast majority of everyday debates between ordinary people, it is crucial to realise that there are at least two equally valid sides. There is no excuse, either, for the prig who disapproves of other people’s aesthetic opinions or lifestyle or anything else that’s nobody’s business but their own.
The science section is the only distinctly disappointing one in the book. It is much too short and superficial. Perhaps in 1943, when the radio was still something of a novelty, the fact that the ionosphere reflects short waves might have been interesting, but today it is merely a quaint footnote in the history of science. If you are one of the last persons on earth who doesn’t know why the sky is blue, Mr Jeans’ waves-and-piers analogy is a pleasant way to learn. The essays on hurricanes and seasickness are slightly mores substantial, but nowadays you can learn all this – and much more – from the Web. I think more mind-stretching matters, like astronomy or evolutionary biology for instance, would have afforded the future officers a better scientific education. Also, philosophical works on the essence of science, for instance by Bertrand Russell or Karl Popper, would have been welcome. The final essay by Mr Whitehead is an attempt to provide something like that, but it’s more like a brief historical overview. Very brief indeed!
One of the greatest pleasures of this kind of book is the discovery of new authors, people whom you’ve never heard about, yet who write beautifully and have something fascinating to say. James Harvey Robinson (1863–1936), an obscure American historian and prolific writer unread today, was one such discovery. He won me completely with the very first paragraph of “Four Kinds of Thinking”:
The truest and most profound observations on Intelligence have in the past been made by the poets and, in recent times, by story-writers. They have been keen observers and recorders and reckoned freely with the emotions and sentiments. Most philosophers, on the other hand, have exhibited a grotesque ignorance of man's life and have built up systems that are elaborate and imposing, but quite unrelated to actual human affairs. They have almost consistently neglected the actual process of thought and have set the mind off as something apart to be studied by itself. But no such mind, exempt from bodily processes, animal impulses, savage traditions, infantile impressions, conventional reactions, and traditional knowledge, ever existed, even in the case of the most abstract of metaphysicians. Kant entitled his great work A Critique of Pure Reason. But to the modern student of mind pure reason seems as mythical as the pure gold, transparent as glass, with which the celestial city is paved.
The essay is one of the absolute highlights of the book. The end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth seem to have been heady times for psychology, heady enough, at any rate, for historians to write whole books about it. “We do not think enough about thinking”, Mr Robinson says, and continues to analyse our thinking with engaging candour. I think he is doing a very fine job for an amateur. Consider his masterful dissection our “favourite kind of thinking”. Who can fail to identify, at least to some extent, with this passage?
When uninterrupted by some practical issue we are engaged in what is now known as a reverie. This is our spontaneous and favorite kind of thinking. We allow our ideas to take their own course and this course is determined by our hopes and fears, our spontaneous desires, their fulfillment or frustration; by our likes and dislikes, our loves and hates and resentments. There is nothing else anything like so interesting to ourselves as ourselves. All thought that is not more or less laboriously controlled and directed will inevitably circle about the beloved Ego. It is amusing and pathetic to observe this tendency in ourselves and in others. We learn politely and generously to overlook this truth, but if we dare to think of it, it blazes forth like the noontide sun.
The three other kinds of thinking Mr Robinson further speaks of are making practical decisions (i.e. making up our minds), rationalizing (i.e. finding “good” reasons, as opposed to the “real” ones, to justify our inborn beliefs and prejudices) and creative thought (changing our minds in a highly productive direction). The second and the third kind are obviously far more interesting, and with potentially momentous consequences. Here it becomes obvious why Mr Robinson was deeply interested in the matter as a historian. He suggests the highly controversial, but hardly to be rejected lightly, idea that “perhaps almost all that had passed for social science, political economy, politics, and ethics in the past may be brushed aside by future generations as mainly rationalizing”. It is a staggering thought to contemplate! Mr Robinson advocates an intellectual freedom and honesty, an appeal to reason and a refusal to subject to any authority, however ancient, much like the widespread sceptical outlook proposed by Bertrand Russell a few years later. Alas, today, nearly a century later, it remains yet another unattainable ideal.
As to the last kind of thinking, it is not always, of course, that a change of mind leads to creative thought. Mr Robinson is well aware of that. He gives as examples two great scientists, Galilei and Faraday, who from “idle curiosity (to borrow a phrase from Verblen but without the ironic context) changed the world. People like these, very few in all conscience, who can be stimulated to create a worthy final product, for instance a scientific theory or a work of art out of what to others is merely “idle curiosity”, have made the human race what it is today.
I can only advise you to read this tremendously stirring essay complete (see ToC above), but to whet your appetite, here are some selections from Mr Robinson’s exquisite prose; his emphasis is carefully preserved:
Few of us take the pains to study the origin of our cherished convictions; indeed, we have a natural repugnance to so doing. We like to continue to believe what we have been accustomed to accept as true, and the resentment aroused when doubt is cast upon any of our assumptions leads us to seek every manner of excuse for clinging to them. The result is that most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do.
This spontaneous and loyal support of our preconceptions – this process of finding "good" reasons to justify our routine beliefs – is known to modern psychologists as "rationalizing" – clearly only a new name for a very ancient thing. Our "good" reasons ordinarily have no value in promoting honest enlightenment, because, no matter how solemnly they may be marshaled, they are at bottom the result of personal preference or prejudice, and not of an honest desire to seek or accept new knowledge.
In our reveries we are frequently engaged in self-justification, for we cannot bear to think ourselves wrong, and yet have constant illustrations of our weaknesses and mistakes. So we spend much time finding fault with circumstances and the conduct of others, and shifting on to them with great ingenuity the on us of our own failures and disappointments. Rationalizing is the self-exculpation which occurs when we feel ourselves, or our group, accused of misapprehension or error.
And now the astonishing and perturbing suspicion emerges that perhaps almost all that had passed for social science, political economy, politics, and ethics in the past may be brushed aside by future generations as mainly rationalizing. […] This conclusion may be ranked by students of a hundred years hence as one of the several great discoveries of our age. It is by no means fully worked out, and it is so opposed to nature that it will be very slowly accepted by the great mass of those who consider themselves thoughtful. As a historical student I am personally fully reconciled to this newer view. Indeed, it seems to me inevitable that just as the various sciences of nature were, before the opening of the seventeenth century, largely masses of rationalizations to suit the religious sentiments of the period, so the social sciences have continued even to our own day to be rationalizations of uncritically accepted beliefs and customs.
It will become apparent as we proceed that the fact that an idea is ancient and that it has been widely received is no argument in its favor, but should immediately suggest the necessity of carefully testing it as a probable instance of rationalization.
This brings us to another kind of thought which can fairly easily be distinguished from the three kinds described above. It has not the usual qualities of the reverie, for it does not hover about our personal complacencies and humiliations. It is not made up of the homely decisions forced upon us by everyday needs, when we review our little stock of existing information, consult our conventional preferences and obligations, and make a choice of action. It is not the defense of our own cherished beliefs and prejudices just because they are our own – mere plausible excuses for remaining of the same mind. On the contrary, it is that peculiar species of thought which leads us to change our mind.
It is this kind of thought that has raised man from his pristine, subsavage ignorance and squalor to the degree of knowledge and comfort which he now possesses. On his capacity to continue and greatly extend this kind of thinking depends his chance of groping his way out of the plight in which the most highly civilized peoples of the world now find themselves. In the past this type of thinking has been called Reason. But so many misapprehensions have grown up around the word that some of us have become very suspicious of it. I suggest, therefore, that we substitute a recent name and speak of "creative thought" rather than of Reason. For this kind of meditation begets knowledge, and knowledge is really creative inasmuch as it makes things look different from what they seemed before and may indeed work for their reconstruction.
The examples of creative intelligence given above belong to the realm of modern scientific achievement, which furnishes the most striking instances of the effects of scrupulous, objective thinking. But there are, of course, other great realms in which the recording and embodiment of acute observation and insight have wrought themselves into the higher life of man. The great poets and dramatists and our modern story-tellers have found themselves engaged in productive reveries, noting and artistically presenting their discoveries for the delight and instruction of those who have the ability to appreciate them.
The process by which a fresh and original poem or drama comes into being is doubtless analogous to that which originates and elaborates so-called scientific discoveries; but there is clearly a temperamental difference. The genesis and advance of painting, sculpture, and music offer still other problems. We really as yet know shockingly little about these matters, and indeed very few people have the least curiosity about them. Nevertheless, creative intelligence in its various forms and activities is what makes man. Were it not for its slow, painful, and constantly discouraged operations through the ages man would be no more than a species of primate living on seeds, fruit, roots, and uncooked flesh, and wandering naked through the woods and over the plains like a chimpanzee.
The origin and progress and future promotion of civilization are ill understood and misconceived. These should be made the chief theme of education, but much hard work is necessary before we can reconstruct our ideas of man and his capacities and free ourselves from innumerable persistent misapprehensions. There have been obstructionists in all times, not merely the lethargic masses, but the moralists, the rationalizing theologians, and most of the philosophers, all busily if unconsciously engaged in ratifying existing ignorance and mistakes and discouraging creative thought. Naturally, those who reassure us seem worthy of honor and respect. Equally naturally those who puzzle us with disturbing criticisms and invite us to change our ways are objects of suspicion and readily discredited. Our personal discontent does not ordinarily extend to any critical questioning of the general situation in which we find ourselves. In every age the prevailing conditions of civilization have appeared quite natural and inevitable to those who grew up in them.
Mr Robinson’s second essay, “On Indifference to Scientific Truth”, is much shorter but scarcely less compelling. He speculates what determines the success of new ideas and reaches the disconcerting conclusion that their truth “plays an altogether secondary role”. Much more important, it seems, are an idea’s congeniality to man’s prejudices and its practical utility for society. The most stunning proof of this in human history is, of course, religion. I wish Mr Robinson had elaborated further on this topic, but the little he does say explains as well as anything the ancient origins and the remarkable popularity of religion ever since, no matter how obviously untrue or frankly ridiculous its doctrines may seem to the rational mind. Bertrand Russell might have been proud to pen these lines:
Religion shares with poetry and romance the appeal to man’s natural and deep longings and spontaneous inclinations. Indeed, among the many definitions of religion none is better perhaps than that of Santayana, to whom it seems to be poetry sometimes mistaking itself for science. Religion has concerned itself, at least during historic times, with those terrors, awes, obligations and aspirations which rest on a belief in supernatural beings, good and bad. It has to do with our vivid fears in a world of sad mischance; with the hopes, restraints and sacred duties which promise in some way to offset life’s incalculable tragedies.
The poetic elements in religion are supplemented by more or less definitely formulated beliefs about man’s origin and nature and the workings of the things about him. These convictions are commonly of ancient and untraceable genesis, although they may finally be very logically and precisely stated by a Thomas Aquinas or a Calvin and form a part of a closely woven philosophical system.
One may not, however, take the same liberties with religious beliefs that he may with the fancies of the poet. The adherents of a particular religious creed are not free to pick and choose, and to reject what comes to seem improbable. The “truth” once delivered stands, for it depends largely on the form of its original delivery. It is the word of the Most High or of some prophet inspired by him. At least this has seemed inevitable to a great majority of Christians and their leaders since the founding of their faith.
Religion therefore makes a double appeal, that of poetry and of divinely certified truth about all the great concerns of life. It meets questions about our origin, duty and possible fates, without any call for painful critical thinking, suspension of judgment and dubious, ever-to-be-revised, theories and hypotheses.
The rest of the fourth part was, not unexpectedly, something of a letdown. All other essays are actually variations on the general themes outlined by Mr Robinson. Mr Gilson rashly and superficially declares that science has killed philosophy, never for a moment considering the possibility of philosophy having died of old age. Mr Erdman’s “Fashions in Ideas” is an amusing trifle, “not a chapter of history but of reminiscence”, but rather badly limited to
gossip from first two decades of the last centuries. Though he raises some
serious issues about the transient nature of ideas, Mr Edrman fails to pursue
his subject with any marked degree of originality or power. “Climate of Opinion”
is a brief account how history and science came to replace philosophy and
theology. Like most essays that paint with sweeping brush-strokes, but unlike
Mr Robinson’s, it is rather unconvincing. New York
Only “Habits of Thought” by Mr Thouless, which is in fact a study of the background forces that mould rationalizing, can stand comparison with Mr Robinson’s essays. It argues that our minds are conditioned by instinctive thought habits, call them prejudices if you like, very much the product of our environment. For the most part, these thought habits are just as useful, and just as harmless, as bodily habits. Problems arise when they are challenged. Then they may prevent us from viewing dispassionately important issues, especially international affairs, and even from attaining new truths. Mr Thouless is smart enough to recognise that the other way round is equally dangerous, namely holding iconoclast opinions not because you are convinced they are true but because they are different and likely to provoke scandal (i.e. they question the accepted thought habits of society). Nor should this go unrewarded with suitable feedback. Mr Thouless gives an interesting literary example:
We have taken Bernard Shaw as an example of a writer who questions orthodox and conventional thought habits. Similarly we might take G. K. Chesterton as a writer whose function it is to question the thought habits of those who are unorthodox and unconventional.
A little later, he concludes thus:
Clearly it is neither desirable nor possible to get rid of all thought habits. Such an aim would be absurd. The formation of thought habits is as inevitable as the formation of bodily habits and just as useful. But we must be ready continually to revise them. Thought habits once serviceable may prevent us from attaining to new truths. We differ from the lower animals in the possession of a rich and complicated brain. This is an instrument to give flexibility and adaptability to our behavior. If we allow ourselves merely to become creatures of habit, we become automatic and mechanical like the lower animals. We are allowing our brains to degenerate into mere mechanisms when they were meant for plasticity and change. It is like using a razor for digging the ground.
Maugham, Books and You, Doubleday, Doran
& Co., 1940, p. 90.
 Mr Jefferson calls the chapters of his book “queries”. “A Plan for Education” is excerpt from Query 14, “Laws: The administration of justice and description of the laws?” “On Agrarian Economy” comes from Query 19, “Manufactures: The present state of manufactures, commerce, interior and exterior trade?”. The full title is Notes on the State of Virginia, written in 1781 and revised in 1782, first published anonymously in
1785. The first English edition was brought out in 1787 by John Stockdale in Paris . London
 “How to Read and Understand History”, reprinted in Understanding History and Other Essays, Philosophical Library, , p. 22. In his essay “Knowledge and Wisdom”, having given his definition of wisdom, Russell even stated that “Abraham Lincoln conducted a great war without ever departing from I have been calling wisdom.” See Portraits from Memory and Other Essays, Spokesman, 1995 , p. 163.
 Cf. “The Fate of Thomas Paine” by Bertrand Russell. First published in Great Democrats, ed. A. Barratt Brown, 1934. Reprinted in Why I Am Not a Christian, and other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, ed. Paul Edwards, 1957.
 In the book this excerpt appears as chapters 3 to 5 under the more suitable titles “Various Kinds of Thinking”, “Rationalizing” and “How Creative Thought Transforms the World”. They are slightly, and silently, abridged. Mr Robinson’s footnotes are omitted, too.
 Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays, 1928.