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An essay by George William Curtis

Herbert Spencer On The Yankee

Title:     Herbert Spencer On The Yankee
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

It was a very distinguished and agreeable company that greeted Mr. Herbert Spencer at dinner, and the speaking was capital. His own address was an interesting paper, in which he preached "the gospel of relaxation." In an interview published some time before, he had made some incisive criticisms upon American life and character, and in his dinner address he said that he was going to find fault.

"The Redcoats all talk to us like uncles or pedagogues," exclaimed Americus, impatiently. "What business have they to lecture us in this style? We are quite old enough to take care of ourselves, and quite able to run this continent without any instruction from Englishmen. Suppose that some American guest in England should say to his hosts that he wanted to give them some good advice, and point out to them a few of their defects, and then proceed to pat them on the head with patronizing praise, don't you think there would be a storm? If strangers like us, very well; if they don't like us, very well. It is a matter of supreme indifference to us."

Why, then, Americus, do we ask them how they like us? And why should the people of one country scornfully decline to hear the comments of sensible people of other countries? Every man is, or ought to be, glad to receive intelligent counsel, and to see his life from other points of view than his own. Why should not the citizen be equally sensible? We did not ask De Tocqueville to come and see us and analyze our political institutions and their operations. We did not ask Von Holst to write our constitutional history. But De Tocqueville and Von Holst have laid us and all other lovers of popular constitutional liberty under great obligations. Both of them have written better books of their kind about us than any American has written.

It is absurd to snarl that we don't care what they say, and that they had better stay at home and not lecture us. When Dickens stung us with the satire of Martin Chuzzlewit, he was not only accused of ingratitude--as if a man were bound to find no fault with any abuse, and not to criticise any tendency, in a country where he had been kindly welcomed--but he was told to look at home, and assured that if he wanted to depict outrageous evils and ridiculous people he had only to portray his beloved England. That was said with a fine air of indignation. But what else was Dickens doing all his life? What are his books, in this point of view, but a prolonged arraignment of the abuses and of the absurd social types of his native England? But when Henry James, Jun., draws a good-natured and shrewd sketch of the American girl abroad in Daisy Miller, although it is plainly intended to show to conventional Europe that the American girl is misjudged, we petulantly wonder why he could not choose another type to illustrate.

The observations of intelligent foreign critics are no more hostile than the American criticisms which they confirm. When, for instance, after a very intelligent recognition of the material advantages of this country, Mr. Spencer says that if there had been another and higher progress commensurate with the material advance there would be nothing to wish, he says nothing which very many Americans have not felt and said, and he adds an improvement from history which had occurred to many Americans, and had been strongly stated by them, that while the republics of the Middle Ages surrounded themselves with material splendor, their liberty decayed. And what is this but a contemporary statement of the old truth which Goldsmith put into memorable verse a hundred years ago,

"Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay."

Mr. Spencer's further remarks that under the forms of freedom we may lose its substance, and that in some ways, which he points out, we are losing it, is the burden of the warning of many an intelligent American, which does not need the old illustration of Cæsar's introduction of the empire under republican forms, nor the warning of Burke, that "ambition, though it has ever the same general views, has not at all times the same means nor the same particular objects." So when Mr. Spencer says that paper constitutions will not work as they are intended to work, and that the real basis and bulwark of national greatness and of progressive liberty is character and not education, he says what every thoughtful American perceives and believes. He does not say, indeed, what many Americans know, and what explains the emphasis with which we insist upon education, that the perception of the desirability of general education is in itself an evidence of character. Education alone may not save a people from political trouble, but constitutional liberty will not be maintained by an ignorant people.

That our good-nature is a kind of moral indifference which is really a defect of character is another of Mr. Spencer's observations which is a corroboration of much American comment upon American life. It has an explanation in the conditions of that life for which Mr. Spencer does not make allowance. But his remark is only that of the railroad traveller last summer which this Easy Chair recorded. In a new country--if an American without incurring the penalty of high-treason may call this a new country--everybody must good-humoredly help everybody else, and make the best of everything.

Perhaps Mr. Spencer has not heard the story of the American gentleman travelling in a certain part of the country, who was quartered in a hotel, in a room of which the window opened upon the piazza where his fellow-citizens sat tilted back in chairs, talking, reading the newspapers, and expectorating. There was no shade or shutter to the window. The traveller, desiring to change his dress, for want of any other curtain hung a shirt over the window to secure his seclusion. But a watchful fellow-citizen chanced to see the unwonted attempt to escape the public eye, and the traveller was surprised in the most intimate stage of his change of raiment to see the improvised curtain suddenly torn away, and a face thrust inquiringly into the window with the remark, "I jess wanted to see what you're so---- private about." The case was an extreme one, and a laugh was certainly a better recourse than a revolver.

In everything that involves a principle, as Mr. Spencer truly says, there is profound wisdom in Hamlet's phrase, "Greatly to find quarrel in a straw." But this again is only a new face of the old wisdom obsta principiis. For a straw shows which way the wind blows. How can a sensible American quarrel with the shrewd and kindly insight of a quiet Englishman who, when he is asked his opinion, shows that he agrees with the asker? At the dinner Mr. Spencer did not speak as an Englishman, or a critic, or a cynic, but as a philosopher. The end of all our study and endeavor, he said, should be complete living. We do not learn for learning's sake, we are not self-denying for the sake of self-denial, but all is for fuller and richer living. Intemperate devotion to work of any kind, like all intemperance, weakens the power of right living. In America, as in England, there is this absorbing passion for work. Therefore, in the interest of a better and more truly efficient life, let us heed the gospel of relaxation and recreation.

It was, as he said, an unconventional after-dinner speech, and Carl Schurz very happily cited the speaker himself as a striking illustration--as striking as any Yankee--of the consequences of disregarding his own doctrine of the desirability of recreation for a completer life. But it was not an English uncle "tipping" his bumptious American nephew with good advice, nor a pedagogue lecturing us upon our follies and defects, nor a supercilious foreigner condescending. It was a thoughtful guest of our own kindred, of the same high and generous purpose that we attribute to the best of our countrymen, comparing notes in the most friendly way, and speaking to us not distinctively as Americans so much as men living in America. If any American of corresponding standing with Mr. Spencer should go to England and speak to Englishmen after dinner in the same simple and friendly way, they would be very foolish fellows if they listened with any less courtesy and heed than we have listened to Mr. Spencer.

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George William Curtis's essay: Herbert Spencer On The Yankee