Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/March 1876/Editor's Table

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
HISTORY AND THE CENTENNIAL.

THERE are symptoms of a revival of the study of history, or of a new impulse to it, as a consequence of the fact that the life of the nation has reached a round hundred years. Histories of the United States are in special order, and histories of the world for common schools are copiously forth-coming. The importance of history is, of course, a foregone conclusion; and the triple importance of the history of one's own country goes for self-evident. This is the wrong year to disturb political superstitions, and we are not going to question the great necessity of reading more about the doings of politicians for the last hundred years than past facilities have made practicable. But we may suggest that it is not an unsuitable time to widen and liberalize somewhat our notions of what history properly is, or should be. That it has hitherto dealt mainly with the superficies of human affairs, with conspicuous surface effects, and with the sayings and doings of men who have been skillful in the art of keeping themselves in the focus of public observation, has come to be a truism. And, when a history of the United States is announced, it is well enough understood that we are to have a new shaking-up of the old materials, with new pictures, but with the usual account of Indians, constitution-making, political administrations, and the wars in which the country has been engaged.

But is not our impending Centennial celebration in Philadelphia calculated to impress upon us the historic interest of quite a different class of things? No doubt there will be collected and placed on show numerous relics and curiosities of purely national import; but these will not constitute the staple attractions of the exhibition. Its supreme interest will consist in the array of products which will be there gathered of the art, science, invention, and skill, of the world. It is these that have been appealed to, to signalize and make memorable the hundredth year of our separate national life. This is the realization of an idea which could hardly have entered into the dreams of the men who figured as "founders of the republic." Their notion of "celebrating" our "Independence" for all time, consisted in making a prodigious noise, by ringing bells, and exploding gunpowder. But now we celebrate this event on a grand scale, by invoking the cooperation of the civilized world in the competitive display of industrial resources, constructions, fabrics, and works of use and beauty, distributed through a hundred departments of classified variety. And, of these multitudinous results of man's inventive and constructive faculty, the great mass will be the products of the past century's experience and progress, of which hardly the germs existed when we set up in politics for ourselves. And they will not be the results of administrative policy or forms of government. In a large sense they will not belong to any nation, but to civilization and humanity. They will be, to no small degree, the achievements of enterprise which politicians of all countries have done their best to hinder and defeat. It is the triumph of our time, that the forces that have brought such vast and benign consequences have overcome all resistance. They represent the growth and power of the pacific and constructive agencies of modern society—the headway that has been made against the political barbarisms of the past. The chief display at the Centennial will symbolize the silent revolutions of ideas—triumphs achieved by individuals through heroic self-sacrifice, and unwearying labor, in the seclusion of the laboratory, the study, and the workshop. And, as regards popular history, it is now pertinent to ask if it might not be wisely extended over this field of human exploit. The records of inventive, scientific, and social progress might lack something of the tragic excitement that belongs to the chronicles of battles and campaigns, and might be read with less avidity than accounts of cabinet intrigues, partisan strife, and gossiping sketches of men who have got themselves voted into the category of the great; but, for the serious purposes of education, would not histories of the former type be better suited for the wants of an enterprising, practical, self-governing people, than those which are now pressed upon our schools? We need popular histories of the arts and sciences, of inventions and discoveries, of industries and commerce, the development of ideas, the order of social changes, and the working of those deeper forces in human affairs which history has hitherto overlooked, and of which, indeed, mankind has only become fully conscious in recent years. We need them, but the need is probably no measure of the demand for them. If they were written, the chances for their "adoption" would, perhaps, not be very encouraging. But we may indulge the hope that the influence of the Centennial Exhibition will, at any rate, be favorable to the growth of this branch of literature.

 

 
RETROSPECTS OF OUR PAST HUNDRED YEARS.

The reviews that have been published of what has been done in this country in the great departments of thought, during the past century, are not without promise that the mind of the time is moving in the direction desiderated in the preceding article. The North American Review, for example, has published a centennial number, devoted entirely to the course of American thought in religion, politics, abstract science, economic science, law, and education, from 1776 to 1870. The papers are able, calm, and philosophic, without a glimpse of the "spread eagle" or trace of the "stump," and their general tone, in fact, is by no means that of jubilation.

Mr. J. L. Diman begins by giving an instructive account of religion in America, and pointing out the leading changes that have taken place, most important of which is the complete separation which has been effected between church and state. He shows how deep was the conviction in our early history that laws for "maintaining public worship, and decently supporting the teachers of religion," are "absolutely necessary for the well-being of society." This view was not the result of ecclesiastical prejudice, but was most strongly advocated by laymen. Chief-Justice Parsons, not a member of a church, in entering upon his official career, expressed his most solemn conviction "of the necessity of a public support of religious institutions;" and, still later, Judge Story maintained the same view. This ground, now generally abandoned by American Protestants, is that still held by the Catholic Church, and gives rise to one of the gravest difficulties of public policy, that in relation to religion and state education.

As regards the growth of sects, it is stated that "a century ago the more important religious bodies (tested by the number of churches) were ranked in the following order: Congregational. Baptist, Church of England, Presbyterian, Lutheran, German Reformed, Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic. By the census of 1870 they stood: Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Christian, Lutheran, Congregational, Protestant Episcopal." The growth of religious organizations has outstripped the growth of population. At the beginning of the Revolution there were less than 1,950 with a population of 3,500,000, showing a church for every 1,700 souls. There are now more than 72,000, which, with a population of 38,000,000, would show a church for every 529. "In other words, while the population has multiplied eleven-fold, the churches have multiplied nearly thirty-seven-fold." The most signal religious fact which the past century presents is stated to be the growth of Methodism. When their first conference met at Baltimore they collected but sixty preachers, and it was reckoned that in the whole country they could muster but twenty more, "By the census of 1870 they were credited with more than 25,000 parish organizations, and a church property of $70,000,000." Notice is taken of the tendency to appreciate a more educated clergy, and of a growing ambition in the matter of church architecture. The general movement, it is said, has led not so much toward the multiplication of sects as toward the formation of compact and powerful religious organizations. But there has been little reciprocal influence among ecclesiastical bodies, and no tendency to theological unity. The general conclusion of the writer is that "a review of our past history should incline US to place a modest estimate on our success;" and "at the close of a century we seem to have made no advance whatever in harmonizing the relations of religious sects among themselves, or in defining their common relation to the civil power. . . . The function of American Christianity has been discharged in a moral and practical, rather than in a scientific, and theological development."

Prof. Sumner's sketch of American politics for a hundred years is highly instructive and readable, but on the whole any thing but flattering to the national vanity. The "Ring" and the "Boss" seem to be its latest outcome, and of the latter character it is said, "he is the last and perfect flower of the long development at which hundreds of skillful and crafty men have labored, and into which the American people have put by far the greatest part of their political energy." Whether in politics the course of the nation has been on the whole upward or downward, the writer considers an open question, but comforts us with his individual opinion that we are not degenerating.

Prof. Newcomb, in reviewing the abstract science of the century, discusses with much ability the conditions on which the cultivation of pure science depends, and finds that they are greatly wanting in this country. There is a lack of intimate intercourse among scientific men; of government appreciation of the aid they require in devoting themselves to original research. There is, besides, a kind of national one-sidedness—not merely an absorption in material interests—a kind of faith in practical sagacity and the sufficiency of plain common-sense for all emergencies, which excludes the need of more exact methods of thought, and is inappreciative of the value of refined and remote inquiries that yield no palpable or directly useful results. It is therefore natural "that the development of the higher branches of science in our country should be marked by the same backwardness which characterizes the higher forms of thought in other directions." Prof. Newcomb. brings out, in an admirable passage, the complete antagonism between the ideas "which animate the so-called 'practical man' of our country and those which animate the investigator in any field which deserves the name of science or philosophy;" from which it appears that the most potent hindrance to science with us is that adverse state of the general mind which prevents our people from taking interest in it, and of encouraging those who devote themselves to it. he says: "It is strikingly illustrative of the absence of every thing like an effective national pride in science that two generations should have passed without America having produced any thing to continue the philosophical researches of Franklin. . . . Until Henry commenced his experiments there was not an electrical investigation published in the country, which the present time has any object in remembering."

"We have described and illustrated the generally low state of American science during the first forty years of the present century—a state which may be described as one of general lethargy broken now and then by the activity of some first-class man, which, however, commonly ceased to be directed into purely scientific channels. Since 1840 there has been a great and general increase of activity in some directions, which, from some points of view, would seem to have inaugurated an entirely new state of things, and to promise well for the future. But there are also many features of the case which strongly suggest the backward state of things from which the present condition sprung."

After reviewing a large mass of facts, Prof. Newcomb says: "We must not conclude, from all this, that no interest in science is taken by the American people, but only that that interest does not manifest itself in such a way as to promote scientific research." And his general conclusion is that, "on the whole, we have not been able to present the first century in roseate colors; and, while we can well contemplate the future with hope, we cannot do so with entire confidence."

Prof. Dunbar's delineation of a century of economic science is clear and cogent, but no more flattering than that of his predecessor. He gives an interesting account of the various writings that have been contributed by prominent men to this question, and, although it would at first seem that the practical genius of our people would here find its legitimate field, and that what they loved dearest and thought of most—money, currency, property, trade—they would be the ones to explore to the utmost depths; yet such is far from having been the case. The tracing out of unknown laws and the original discovery of principles are the same in all spheres of phenomena. Prof. Dunbar concludes: "The general result, then, to which, as we believe, a sober examination of the case must lead any candid inquirer, is that the United States have thus far done nothing toward developing the theory of political economy, notwithstanding their vast and immediate interest in its practical applications." He shows how it is that our politicians are interested in bemuddling economical questions, and spreading the notion that nothing is here settled, because the interests are to be manipulated for selfish ends. "In the case of the currency question, then, it appears that the subject, from the first, came before our public men in a form which seemed to make its political bearings too important to be subordinated to any scientific treatment. The same might be said of the tariff discussion, which, apart from its inevitable complication with individual interests, has never failed also to present itself in such sectional or party relations as to make its settlement turn largely upon far other considerations than those of general principles." It is further shown how the great prosperity of the country has blinded men to the injurious influence of economic blunders. "The idea that the management of our resources is of little account so long as we find ourselves sweeping along with the current of growth has for years been the habitual consolation of our public men, if not an article of their faith. That it easily leads to indifference, as to the monitions of economic law, is sufficiently obvious."

Mr. G. T. Bispham treats of the progress of American jurisprudence during the past century. He first considers those deviations from English law which originated in the contrast of physical features between this country and England. That country is a compact, densely-populated island, with small rivers, forests that are the objects of jealous care, with cheap labor, and high-priced land; contrasting strongly with the extent of this country—its enormous streams, sparse population, cheap lands, imperfect roads, and timber so abundant that it was an impediment to improvement. These differences necessitated marked modifications in American law to adapt it to the physical and geographical peculiarities of the country. Many changes of jurisprudence, of course, grew out of the adoption of a new form of government embodied in a new constitution, which gave a distinctive character, in many features, to the system of American law. It is maintained, also, that general intellectual influences have wrought an advance in American jurisprudence, which is seen in the amelioration of criminal legislation, and in legislation establishing public or state education. It is, moreover, contended that the adoption of written constitutions is an important step of progress which the world owes to the United States; another American step being the codification and simplification of municipal law. The writer finally concludes that "the law in this country has, in the progress of its hundred years of life, become (1) more simple, (2) more humane, and (3) more adaptive; "and he thinks that "the pathway it has pursued is one upon which we can turn our eyes with feelings of no little pride."

Prof. D. C. Gilman sketches the history of American education, regarding it "in the three stages which are commonly known as 'primary,' 'secondary,' and 'superior' instruction." A large amount of historical information is digested, relating to the rise and progress of the primary-school system, the course of legislation upon the subject, the controversies it has involved, and the difficulties that have arisen by the extension of it to the freedmen of the South. The weakest portion of the American system is stated to be that of "secondary" instruction, which is intermediate between the elementary and collegiate schools. The maxim that "our public schools must be cheap enough for the poorest; good enough for the best," indicates an obstacle that has long stood in the way of the organization of higher schools; but within the last twenty years, especially within the cities and large towns, many of these have arisen, and in the West have become the favorite means of securing higher instruction. As regards the "superior" education, it is stated that, at the commencement of the Revolution, there were nine colleges in eight of the thirteen colonies. These establishments have multiplied, until in 1875 the Commissioner of Education reported the names of 374 institutions, mostly called universities and colleges, which are legally entitled to confer academic degrees, besides independent schools of law, medicine, and theology, of which there are 106, and colleges for women, of which there are 65; so that there are known and recorded 545 degree-giving institutions within the United States.

The general scope of our "superior" education is thus indicated:

"The typical American college has been a place where a prescribed course of study, largely devoted to Greek, Latin, and mathematics, with a brief introduction to historical, political, and ethical sciences, has continued during four years and led to a bachelor's degree."

Various questions regarding our collegiate system are ably discussed by Prof. Gilman, but he hardly touches the important topic of scientific education. Perhaps this was from lack of space, but, as he is engaged in the organization of a university to be devoted to the higher studies, this subject must have engaged his very serious consideration, and we hope he will favor the public with his views upon it at some suitable time.