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The History of the United States from 1492 to 1910, Volume 1
Before Dawn
by Hawthorne, Julian


When, four centuries ago, adventurers from the Old World first landed on the southern shores of the Western Continent, and pushed their way into the depths of the primeval forest, they found growing in its shadowy fastnesses a mighty plant, with vast leaves radiating upward from the mould, and tipped with formidable thorns. Its aspect was unfriendly; it added nothing to the beauty of the wilderness, and it made advance more difficult. But from the midst of some of them uprose a tall stem, rivaling in height the trees themselves, and crowned with a glorious canopy of golden blossoms. The flower of the forbidding plant was the splendor of the forest.

It was the Agave, or American Aloe, sometimes called the Century Plant, because it blooms but once in a lifetime. It is of the family of the lilies; but no other lily rivals its lofty magnificence. From the gloom of the untrodden places it sends its shaft skyward into the sunshine; it is an elemental growth: its simplicity equals its beauty. But until the flower blooms, after its ages of preparation, the plant seems to have no meaning, proportion, or comeliness; only when those golden petals have unfolded upon the summit of their stately eminence do we comprehend the symmetry and significance that had so long waited to avouch themselves.

This Lily of the Ages, native to American soil, may fittingly stand as the symbol of the great Western Republic which, after so many thousand years of spiritual vicissitude and political experiment, rises heavenward out of the wilderness of time, and reveals its golden promise to those who have lost their way in the dark forest of error and oppression. It was long withheld, but it came at last, and about it center the best hopes of mankind. These United States--this America of ours, as we love to call it --is unlike any other nation that has preceded or is contemporary with it. It is the conscious incarnation of a sublime idea--the conception of civil and religious liberty. It is a spirit first, and a body afterward; thus following the true law of immortal growth. It is the visible consummation of human history, and commands the fealty of all noble minds in every corner of the earth, as well as within its own boundaries. There are Americans in all countries; but America is their home.

The seed is hidden in the soil; the germ is shut within the darkness of the womb; the preparation for all birth is obscure. For more than a century after the discovery of Columbus, no one divined the true significance and destiny of the nation-that-was-to-be. Years passed before it was understood even that the coast of the New World was anything more than the western boundaries of the Asiatic continent; Columbus never wavered from this conviction; the Cabots fancied that our Atlantic shores were those of China; and though Balboa, in 1513, waded waist-deep into the Pacific off Darien, and claimed it for Spain, yet the massive immensity of America was not suspected. There was not space for it on the globe as then plotted by geographers; it must be a string of islands, or at best but an attenuated outlying bulwark of the East. News spread slowly in those days; Vasco da Gama had reached India round the Cape of Good Hope before Balboa's exploit; Columbus, on his third voyage, had touched the mainland of South America, and young Sebastian Cabot, sailing from Bristol under the English flag, had driven his prow against Labrador ice in his effort to force a northwest passage; and still the truth was not fully realized. And when, a century later, the English colonies were assigned their boundaries, these were defined north, south and east, but to the west they extended without limit. Panama was but thirty miles across, and no one imagined that three thousand miles of solid land stretched between the Chesapeake and the Bay of San Francisco. Then, as now, orthodoxy fought against the heresy that there could be anything that was not as narrow as itself.

And this physical denial or belittlement of the American continent had its mental complement in the failure to comprehend the destiny of the people which was to inhabit it. Spain thought only of material and theological aggrandizements: of getting gold, and converting heathen, to her own temporal and spiritual glory; and she was as ready to shed innocent blood in the latter cause as in the former. England, without her rival's religious bigotry, was as intent upon winning wealth through territorial and commercial usurpations. Though not a few of the actual discoverers and explorers were generous, magnanimous and kindly men, having in view an honorable renown, based on opening new fields of life and prosperity to future ages, yet the monarchs and the trading Companies that stood behind them exhibited an unvarying selfishness and greed. The new world was to them a field for plunder only. Each aimed to own it all, and to monopolize its produce. The priestly missionaries of the Roman Catholic faith did indeed pursue their ends with a self-sacrifice and courage which deserve all praise; they devoted themselves at the risk and often at the cost of their lives to the enterprise of winning souls, as they believed, to Christ. But the Church dignitaries who sent forth these soldiers of religion sought through them only to increase the credit of their organization; they contemplated but the enlargement of their power. The thought of establishing in the wilderness a place where men might rule themselves in freedom entered not into their calculations. The spirit of the old order survived the birth of the spirit of the new.

But the conflict thus provoked was necessary to the evolution which Providence was preparing. The soul grows strong through hardship; truth conquers by struggling against opposition. It is by resistance, at first instinctive, against restraint that the infant attains self-consciousness. The first settlers who came across the ocean were animated solely by the desire to escape from oppression in their native land; they had as yet no purpose to set up an independent empire. But, as the breath of the forest and the prairie entered into their lungs, and the untrammeled spaciousness of the virgin continent unshackled their minds, they began to resent, though at first timidly, the arrogant pretension to rule them across the waves. Their environment gave them courage, made them hardy and self-dependent, enlightened their intelligence, weaned them from vain traditions, revealed to them the truth that man's birthright is liberty. And gradually, as the reins of tyranny were drawn tighter, these pioneers of the New Day were wrought up to the pitch of throwing off all allegiance, and setting their lives upon the cast. The idea of political freedom is commonplace now; but to conceive it for the first time required a mighty effort, and it could have been accomplished nowhere else than in a vast and untrodden land. The Declaration of Independence, nearly three centuries after Columbus's discovery of America, showed the hitherto blind and sordid world what America was discovered for. Individual men of genius had surmised it many years before; but their hope of forecast had been deemed but an idle vision until in a moment, as it were, the reality was born.

It was essential, however, to the final success of the great revolt, that the men who brought it to pass should be the best of a chosen race. And this requisite also was secured by conflict. It was the inveterate persuasion of many generations that America was the land of gold. Tales told by the Indians stimulated the imagination and the cupidity of the first adventurers; legends of El Dorado kindled the horizons that fled before them as they advanced. Somewhere beyond those savage mountains, amid these pathless forests, was a noble city built and paved with gold. Somewhere flowed a stately river whose waters swept between golden margins, over sands of gold. In some remote region dwelt a barbarian monarch to whom gold and precious stones were as the dross of the wayside. These stories were the offspring of the legends of the alchemists of the Dark Ages, who had professed to make gold in their crucibles; it was as good to pick up gold in armfuls on the earth as to manufacture it in the laboratory. The actual discovery of treasure in Mexico and Peru only whetted the inexhaustible appetite of the adventurers; they toiled through swamps, they cut their way through woods, they scaled precipices, they fought savages, they starved and died; and their eyes, glazing in death, still sought the gleam of the precious metal. Worse than death, to them, would have been the revelation that their belief was baseless. The thirst for wealth is not accounted noble; yet there seems to have been something not ignoble in this romantic quest for illimitable gold. There is a magic in the mere idea of the yellow metal, apart from such practical or luxurious uses as it may subserve; it stood for power and splendor --whatever good the men of that age were prone to appreciate. Howbeit, the strongest and bravest of all lands were drawn together in the search; and inevitably they met and clashed. Foremost among the antagonists were Spain and England. The ambition of Spain was measureless; she desired not only the mastery of America and its riches, but the empire of the world, the leadership in commerce, and the ownership of the very gates of Heaven. England sought land and trade; she was practical and unromantic, but strong and daring; and in her people, unlike the Spanish, were implanted the seeds of human freedom. She had not as yet the prestige of Spain; but men like Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh went far to win it; moreover, the star of Spain had already begun to wane, while that of England was waxing. Whenever, therefore, the strength of the two rivals was fairly pitted, England had the better of the encounter. Spain might dominate, for a while, the southern regions of the continent; and her priests might thread the western wildernesses, and build white-walled missions there; but to England should belong the Atlantic coast from Labrador to Florida: the most readily accessible from Europe, and the best adapted to bring forth that wealth for which gold must be given in exchange. The struggle, as between the Spanish and the English, was temporarily suspended, and it was with France that the latter now found themselves confronted. The French had entered America by way of the St. Lawrence, and down the Mississippi, in expectation, like the others, of finding a passage through to India; they had planted colonies and conciliated the Indians, and were destined to give England much more trouble than her former foe had done. They, like the English, wished to live in the new world; Spain's chief desire was to plunder it and take the booty home with her. In the sequel, England was victorious; and thus approved her right to be the nucleus of the Race of the Future. Finally, it was to be her fate to fight that Race itself, and to be defeated by it; and thus, as the chosen from the chosen, the inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies were to begin their career.

The birth of America must therefore be dated, not from the discovery of the land, but from the culmination in revolt of the English Colonies. All that preceded this was as the early and ambiguous processes of nature in bringing forth the plant from the seed. Nature knows her work, and its result; but the onlooker sees the result only. The Creator of man knew of what a child America was to be the mother: but the world, intent upon its selfish concerns, recognized it only when the consummation had been reached. And even now she eyes us askance, and mutters doubts as to our endurance and our legitimacy. But America is Europe's best and only friend, and her political pattern must sooner or later, and more or less exactly, be followed by all peoples. Democracy, however unwelcome in its first and outward aspect it may appear, is the logical issue of human experiments in government; it is susceptible of much abuse and open to many corruptions; but these cannot penetrate far below the surface; they are external and obvious, not vital and secret; because at heart the voice of democracy is the voice of God. It may be silent for long, so that some will disbelieve or despair, and say in their haste that democracy is a fraud or a failure. But at last its tones will be heard, and its word will be irresistible and immortal: the word of the Lord, uttering itself through the mouth of His creatures.

The preliminary episodes and skirmishings, therefore, which went before the spiritual self-consciousness of America, will be treated here in outline only; only such events and persons as were the sources of subsequent important conditions will be drawn in light and shadow. This period of adventure and exploration is, it is true, rich in picturesque characters and romantic incident, but they have little organic relation to the history of the true America--which is the tracing of the development and embodiment of an abstract idea. They belong to Europe, whose life was present in them, though the men acted and the incidents occurred in a strange environment. They are attractive subjects of study in themselves, but have small pertinence to the present argument. Our aim will be to maintain an organic coherency.

Still less can we linger in that impressive darkness before dawn which prevailed upon the continent before the advent of Columbus. The mystery which shrouds the origin and annals of the races which inhabited America previous to the European invasion has been assiduously investigated, but never dispelled. At first it was taken for granted that the "Indians," as the red men were ignorantly called, were the aboriginal denizens of the country. But the mounds, ruined cities, pottery and other remains since found in all parts of the land, concerning which the Indians could furnish no information, and which showed a state of civilization far in advance of theirs, were proof that a great people had existed here in the remote past, who had flourished and disappeared without leaving any trace whereby they could be accounted for or identified. They are an enigma compared with which the archeological problems of the Old World are an open book. We can form no conception of the conditions under which they lived, of their personal characteristics, of their language, habits, or religion. We cannot determine whether these forerunners of the Indians were one people in several stages of development, or several peoples in simultaneous occupation of the land. We can establish no trustworthy connection between them and any Asiatic races, and yet we are reluctant to believe them isolated from the rest of mankind. If they had dwelt here from their creation, why had they not progressed further in civilization?--and if they emigrated hither from another continent, why do their remains not indicate their source? By what agency did they perish, and when? The more keenly we strive to penetrate their mystery, the more perplexing does it appear; the further we investigate them, the more alien from anything we are or have known do they seem. Elusive as mist, and questionable as night, they form a suggestive background on which the vivid and energetic drama of our novel civilization stands out in sharp relief.

Scarcely less mysterious--though living among us still--are the red men whom we found here. They had no written languages or history; their knowledge of their own past was confined to vague and fanciful traditions. They were few in numbers, barbarous in condition, untamable in nature; they built no cities and practiced no industries: their women planted maize and performed all menial labors; their men hunted and fought. Before we came, they fought one another; our coming did not unite them against a common enemy; it only gave each of them one enemy the more. After an intercourse of four hundred years, we know as little of them as we did at first; we have neither educated, absorbed nor exterminated them. The fashion of their faces, and some other indications, seem to point to a northern Asiatic ancestry; but they cannot tell us even so much as we can guess. There have been among them, now and again, men of commanding abilities in war and negotiation; but their influence upon their people has not lasted beyond their own lives. Amid the roar and fever of these latter ages, they stand silent, useless, and apathetic. They belong to our history only in so far as their savage and treacherous hostility contributed to harden the fortitude of our earlier settlers, and to weld them into a united people.

Posterity may resolve these obscurities; meanwhile they remain in picturesque contrast to the merciless publicity of our own life, and the scientific annihilation of time and distance. They are as the dark and amorphous loam in which has taken root the Flower of the Ages. If extremes must meet, it was fitting that the least and the most highly developed examples of mankind should dwell side by side, at the close of the nineteenth century, in a land to which neither is native: that Europe, the child of Asia, should meet its prehistoric parent here, and work out its destiny before her uncomprehending eyes. The world is an inn of strange meetings; and this encounter is perhaps the strangest of all.

The most dangerous enemy of America has been--not Spain, France, England, or any other nation in arms, but--our own material prosperity. The lessons of adversity we took to heart, and they brought forth wholesome fruit, purifying our blood and toughening our muscles. So long as the Spirit of Liberty was threatened from without, she was safe and triumphant. But when her foes abroad had ceased to harry her, a foe far more insidious began to plot against her in her own house. The tireless energy and ingenuity which are our most salient characteristics, and which had rendered us formidable and successful on sea and land, were turned by peace into productive channels. The enormous natural resources of the continent began to receive development; men who under former conditions would have been admirals and generals, now became leaders in commerce, manufactures and finance; they made great fortunes, and set up standards of emulation other than patriotism and public spirit. Like the old Spanish and English adventurers, they sought for gold, and held all other things secondary to that. An anomalous oligarchy sprang into existence, holding no ostensible political or social sway, yet influential in both directions by virtue of the power of money. Money can be possessed by the evil as well as by the good, and it can be used to tempt the good to condone evil. The exalted maxim of human equality was interpreted to mean that all Americans could be rich; and the spectacle was presented of a mighty and generous nation fighting one another for mere material wealth. Inevitably, the lower and baser elements of the population came to the surface and seemed to rule; the ordinary citizen, on whom the welfare of the State depends, allowed his private business interest to wean him from the conduct of public affairs, which thereby fell into the hands of professional politicians, who handled them for their personal gain instead of for the common weal. We forgot that pregnant saying, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," and suffered ourselves to be persuaded that because our written Constitution was a wise and patriotic document, we were forever safe even from the effects of our own selfishness and infidelity. As some men are more skillful and persistent manipulators of money than others, it happened that the capital of the country became massed in one place and was lacking in another; the numbers of the poor, and of paupers, increased; and the rich were able to control their political action and sap their self-respect by dominating the employment market. "Do my bidding, or starve," is a cogent argument; it should never be in the power of any man to offer it; but it was heard over the length and breadth of free America. The efforts of laboring men, by organization, to check the power of capitalists, was met by the latter with organizations of their own, which, in the form of vast "trusts" and otherwise, deprived small manufacturers and traders of the power of independent self-support. Strikes and lockouts were the natural outcome of such a situation; and the sinister prospect loomed upon us of labor and capital arrayed against each other in avowed hostility.

Danger from this cause, however, is more apparent than actual. The remedy, in the last resort, is always in ourselves. Laws as to land and contracts may be modified, but the true cure for all such injuries and inequalities is to cease to regard the amassing of "fortunes" as the most desirable end in life. The land is capable of supporting in comfort far more than its present population; ignorance or selfish disregard of the true principles of economy have made it seem otherwise. The proper state of every man is that of a producer; the craving of individuals to own what they have not fairly earned and cannot usefully administer, is vain and disorderly. Men will always be born who have the genius of management; and others who require to have their energies directed; some can profitably control resources which to others would be a mischievous burden. But this truth does not involve any extravagant discrepancy in the private means and establishments of one or the other; each should have as much as his needs, intelligence and taste legitimately warrant, and no more. Such matters will gradually adjust themselves, once the broad underlying principle has been accepted. Meanwhile we may remember that national health is not always synonymous with peace. It was the warning of our Lord --"I am not come to bring peace? but a sword." The war which is waged with powder and ball is often less contrary to true peace than the war which exists while all the outward semblances of peace are maintained. We must not be misled by names. America is perhaps too prone to regard herself in a passive light, as the refuge merely of the oppressed and needy; but she has an active mission too. She stands for so much that is contrary to the ideas that have hitherto ruled the world that she can hardly hope to avoid the hostility, and possibly the attacks, of the representatives of the old order. These, she must be able and ready to repel. We have freely shed our blood for our own freedom; and we should not forget that, though charity begins at home, it need not end there. We should not interpret too strictly the maxims which admonish us to mind our own housekeeping, and to avoid entanglements with the quarrels or troubles of our neighbors. We should not say to the tide of our liberties, Thus far shalt thou go, and no further. America is not a geographical expression, and arbitrary geographical boundaries should not be permitted to limit the area which her principles control. We, who seek to bind the other nations to ourselves by ties of commerce, should recognize the obligations of other ties, whose value cannot be expressed in money.

America wears her faults upon her forehead, not in her heart; her history is just beginning; she herself dreams not yet what her ultimate destiny will be. But so far as her brief past may serve as a key wherewith to open the future? a study of it will not be idle.

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