The Nation in a Nutshell
by George Makepeace Towle
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[Sidenote: Meteorological Laws.]

Illustrations of this truth may be found in the progress made by such sciences as astronomy and meteorology. No one can doubt the value of the result which accrues to human lore from a more accurate knowledge of astronomy, of the mutual influences of the solar system, and the physical character of its members. Nor can we deny that the rapid strides which have been made within thirty years in the science of meteorology are of the most immediate benefit to the material interests of men. The simple statement that the predictions of "Old Probabilities" as to the weather prove, in a large majority of instances, to be justified by the event,—founded as they are, not upon mere guesswork, but upon ascertained meteorological laws and a proved uniformity in the direction of storms,—is enough to show the importance of the recent discoveries in this field. One has only to reflect upon the changes in the course of little and of great events wrought by the weather, to be convinced of their large and permanent value.

[Sidenote: Improvements in Machines and Methods.]

We can look in no direction, however, without at once in some degree appreciating, and being astonished at, the metamorphosis which has been effected by the activity of scientific invention and discovery of the most palpably practical kind. No practical profession, trade, or industry can be named in which the improvements in machinery and methods have not been such, within the century, as to alter most of its conditions, and very greatly to multiply its efficiency and productiveness. These improvements have descended, too, from general systems to the minutest details. Cloth fabrics are not only manufactured on a very different scale and extent, but every little appliance of the machinery has been made better, and does its appointed work faster and with greater precision.

[Sidenote: Steam and Electricity.]

[Sidenote: Conveyances.]

If one were asked what two inventions made within the century have wrought the greatest changes, the reply would be prompt that they are locomotion by steam and communication by electricity. The steam-engine and the steamship have made it possible to travel around the world, if not in the eighty days required of Jules Verne's hero, at least in a hundred; while the telegraph enables us to talk with our friends at the antipodes—if such we have—within a week. What share America has had in achieving these mighty agencies is signified by the names of Fulton and Morse. Nor have other means of locomotion and communication been neglected. The horse-car has to a large extent taken the place of the omnibus and of the lumbering stage-coach; while vertical travelling, by means of the elevator, has become easy and luxurious in our day. In the making of carriages of every kind, the progress becomes very apparent when we compare the light and elegant vehicles which fill our fashionable avenues on a pleasant day, with the coaches in which Washington and Lafayette deigned to ride on state occasions.

[Sidenote: Iron Manufactures.]

In the great industries, invention has supplied the means of changing the rude ore or the raw material into every manifold form of use and ornament, in an increased production which would have filled the men of '76 with amazement. Machinery has come to do a vast amount of work which manual labor used to do; yet, by a happy compensation in the economic condition of things, human labor, far from being left in the lurch by mechanical introduction and ever increasing efficiency, is in greater demand than before. In the melting and puddling of iron, in its casting, forging, and rolling, and especially in its turning and planing, the inventions have been, perhaps, more striking than in any other operations upon metals; and the importance of the improvements thus effected in the manufacture of iron may be appreciated when we consider to how many more precious uses iron is put than any other metal. The advances made in the working of wood, and in that noble engineering science which employs itself in the construction of canals, dikes, and bridges, are not less notable.

[Sidenote: Machines and Weapons.]

To even mention the devices by which the manufacture of cotton and woollen fabrics, of shoes, of silks, and very many other articles, has been brought from rude processes to the rapid production seen to-day at our great industrial centres, would require a volume. To America is due the sewing-machine, which in the factory and in the household has given a manifold value to labor, has cheapened time, and is assuredly one of the chief triumphs of human ingenuity. We have done our part, too, in devising deadly weapons for contending armies. The revolver, invented by Samuel Colt, made a man armed with it six times as formidable as he was before; and the breech-loader, first attempted by John Hall of Yarmouth, Massachusetts, more than seventy years ago, was generally adopted in Europe. It is said that the greater number of the military arms made in the United States for Europe are on the breech-loading system. The invention of what is called the principle of "assembling," which consists in making the various parts of a machine "in distinct pieces of fixed shape and dimensions, so that the corresponding parts are interchangeable," has brought about a revolution in the manufacture of other articles besides fire-arms. It is applied also to watches, sewing-machines, knitting-machines, and even to agricultural implements and the building of locomotive engines.

[Sidenote: Labor Saving Appliances.]

The kitchen, the farm, and the sitting-room have been invaded by labor-saving appliances so numerous and so deft as to make each of these domestic departments a sort of factory in itself. The spinning-wheel has been abandoned for the sewing and the knitting machine, and the hand-plough for the steam-plough, and the scythe for the mowing-machine, and the rude kitchen knife and spoon for an endless variety of contrivances, from the apple-parer, the egg-beater, and the bean-shelters, to the lemon-squeezers, knife-sharpeners, and coffee-mills.

[Sidenote: Various Inventions.]

It is equally vain to attempt the enumeration of the improvements in the security of movable property, the rapidly changing devices for more effective fire-alarms, the revolution in the system of fire prevention with its steam-engine and its fire-alarm telegraph, the growing efficiency of the science of aerostation, the invention of scales for weighing heavy bodies, the processes for refining the precious metals, the achieved idea of making ice by machinery, the great advance effected in the making of glass, and the vast changes which have been wrought in many respects by the perfection of india-rubber as an article of common use.

[Sidenote: Surgical Progress.]

[Sidenote: Printing and Engraving.]

Nor must we forget to hint at the discoveries which have given new effect to surgical skill—the discovery of anaesthetics, the perfection of artificial limbs, the repair of the body, and the valuable method of lithotrity; while even the match need not be disdained as one of the chief inventions of the century. Paper, too, and engraving, and printing (with all its complications of stereotyping, electrotyping, and heliotyping), photography (with its constant improvements), can only be mentioned to open the mind to a wide vista of marvellous triumphs. We have but to glance along the stalls of a modern book-store, to appreciate that the arts of printing and engraving have made a more rapid progress during the past hundred years than during all the previous centuries since the invention of type; while it may fairly be said that the United States can at last boast that not only is her literature worthy to be compared with that of England, but that it is as well printed, illustrated, and bound, and is presented on home-made paper as elegant and as durable, as are the choicest publications of London and Paris.



[Sidenote: Sources of Government.]

President Woolsey has forcibly remarked that states and forms of government have had mainly two sources of origin. They have either "slowly built themselves up for ages, finding support in historical causes, and in past political habits"; or, they have been "the artificial results of political theory." England presents the most conspicuous modern example of the former class; while France, since the Revolution, may be regarded as the chief modern example of the latter. And as it was with England, our mother-country, so it has been, and is, with us. It is true that the organism of the United States was the immediate result of revolution, and is founded upon a constitution that is written and fixed, or only with great pains and difficulty modified. Yet, if we search further and deeper for the materials of which our national fabric has been constructed, we shall easily recognize that our freedom, like that of England, has really "broadened slowly down from precedent to precedent."

[Sidenote: Gradual Growth of the American System.]

The growth towards American independence did not begin, the seeds of it were not sown, either at Bunker's Hill or at Philadelphia. Indeed the growth had then reached the period of fruitfulness. The progression towards an independent nation, and a free nation, began at Plymouth and at Jamestown. The Constitution only made articulate the spirit which had been growing for more than a century, and it still left an unwritten law set up by custom, habit, and characteristics most aptly nourished to the ends reached in 1776, 1787, and 1789. While our written constitution was made, we still retained the common law of England as the basis of our own, and, like England, proceeded gradually to build upon this broad foundation the superstructure of statute.

[Sidenote: Origin of the Government.]

If, therefore, the origin of our government was in one respect revolutionary, it was not revolutionary as being sudden, accidental, and without preparation. The revolution was, in fact, almost formal in a political sense. The same people, the same traditions remained, and the same growth went on. There was a new bond, binding the colonies together, and holding them the more sturdily to purposes already formed and undertaken. Yet it was certain that a new government, starting forth, as ours did, at a period when political theories of diverse and contradictory import were engaged in a very active struggle in Europe, would meet with unusual difficulties, and be beset with grave dangers from the outset.

[Sidenote: The Contest of Diverse Political Ideas.]

We note, therefore, in the very body which framed the constitution, the rise of the contest out of which have come the most momentous changes which our polity has since undergone. Happily for us, we have had to witness no sudden and startling alterations in the form or spirit of our institutions. What changes have occurred—and some have occurred of very high and grave importance—have come gradually, have been foreseen. The victories of parties in this country have never been by coups d'etat. They have been won by light of day, with banners flying and trumpets sounding. We have not been subject to that dread of sudden calamity, of a bean-stalk growth of anarchy in a night, which haunts the French to this day, and which makes both kings and peoples in continental Europe sensitive to every untoward rumor.

[Sidenote: Political Changes.]

Of all the political changes which the United States have undergone during the ninety-nine years of our national career, the most conspicuous, perhaps, is that which has tended to increase the powers of the central government, and diminish those of the several States. The contest between those who believed in a strong central power and those who jealously defended the largest share of independence for the several States compatible with the bond of federation, began in the Constitutional Convention; and the instrument which was there framed, after long discussion and many perils, was really a compromise between these two principles. On the one hand, the equality and dignity of the States were conceded in the structure of the Senate, in the division of the electoral votes by States, and in the "reserved rights" of the States, which have been so often and so strenuously insisted upon since.

[Sidenote: Early Political Parties.]

On the other, the words of the Constitution throughout imply that the United States constitute more than a league—a nation; and the money power was lodged in the lower house of Congress, elected by the people of the nation, according to their population. The opposing ideas regarding the powers of the States and of the government, respectively, gave rise to the two first political parties, the Federalist and the Republican; and these have had as successors parties which have fought the same battle over and over again. The later Whigs and Republicans, on the one hand, and the Democrats, on the other, have usually been the champions, respectively, of a strong central government, and of State rights. The older Democrats insisted on a strict construction of the Constitution, and opposed the undertaking of internal improvements and the maintenance of a national bank by the general government; and for the first sixty years of this century the State rights principle prevailed in national policy with little interruption.

[Sidenote: Rights of the States.]

[Sidenote: Tendency towards Centralization.]

It happened that the social institution and evil of slavery, which had become confined to the Southern States, needed the defence of the doctrine of State rights for its continuance. Nullification, in 1833, and secession, in 1861, were the ultimate conclusions of that doctrine, practically applied for the purpose of sustaining the system of human bondage. A State had a right, it was said, to break her "compact" with the Union; and the Southern States, following in the line of this doctrine, did attempt to secede in order to maintain slavery. The war which followed was the rock upon which the doctrine of State rights split. The tide at once turned towards a strong central government. Extraordinary powers, civil, military, and financial, were exercised to put down the rebellion; and some of these powers, once assumed by the general government, have been continued to this day. They have been greatly strengthened by the enormous patronage which has accumulated in the hands of the Executive; by the army of office-holders which, scattered through the land, is subject to the influence of the central power.

[Sidenote: Results of Emancipation.]

[Sidenote: The Fifteenth Amendment.]

Connected with this change are some other changes, scarcely less important. One of these is the establishment, throughout the Union, of universal male suffrage. The emancipation of the slaves wrought a social and economic change the final results of which are still problematical. It also introduced a new political element, by endowing millions of ignorant men with electoral rights for their own protection. Gradually yet steadily through our political history, restrictions upon the suffrage have been swept away. At first, not only was there a property qualification in many of the States, but foreigners and negroes were in some of them altogether excluded from the polls. The fifteenth amendment to the Constitution crowned the edifice of universal suffrage in the United States; and the floodgates, once open, can never be shut again. A set of men once armed with the vote cannot be deprived of it: and all the efforts of Know-nothing movements will probably be vain, whether directed against the freedman, the Chinaman, or the European emigrant. The only way to meet the evils which accompany universal suffrage is by paths of education, and the creation of a pure and sincere public spirit.

[Sidenote: The Political Changes Gradual.]

[Sidenote: Changes Effected by the Civil War.]

It may be said, then, of the few great political changes which have come over the spirit of our body politic, that they have been, like the English revolutions, gradual, and, if on one occasion violent, at least long contemplated and foreshadowed. On questions of commercial finance, we are still where we were half a century ago. The antagonistic principles of a protective tariff and of free trade are still struggling for the mastery. The greatest changes—that produced on the government in aggrandizing it at the expense of the States, and that produced on the South by freeing and enfranchising the blacks—were brought about by the civil war. The evil results which have flowed from them, mingled with great good, are evident in many ways. Is it too much to hope that, a generation hence, those of us who survive will look back gratefully upon a survival of the good only wrought by these changes; and upon a completed reform of the civil service, a purified government and Congress, a people no longer eager to grow suddenly rich by wild speculation, but content with the moderate prosperity attained by steady enterprise and wholesome trade; and a South educated and reconciled, with its civil and political freedom assured by its own enforcement of equal law?


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