Epilogue: Securing the Republic

CHAPTER 18 | Document 31

Gouverneur Morris, National Greatness

ca. 1800Amerikastudien 21:332--34 1976

Had it been permitted to consult my Wishes on this Day I should have selected a Theme more suited to my Talents or rather have shrouded their Weakness in the Veil of Silence. For I feel but too well that in venturing to discuss the Subject of national Greatness I must fall short of the Ideas in your Minds and disappoint your expectations. Instead of irradiating with the Light of Genius I must take the more humble Course of Investigation and begin by Enquiring what is national Greatness. Does it consist in Numbers Wealth or Extent of Territory? Certainly not. Swollen with the Pride inspired by such Circumstances the Persians addressed their Master as the Great King but Darius felt in repeated Discomfiture the Superiority of a great Nation led by Alexander. We see in our Day a Prince who may boast that the Sun never sets on his Domaine yet his Authority superseded in his Ports and insulted in his Capital, it would seem as if his Territory were extended around the Globe only to display before all the World his ignominious Condition. Such is the State of that proud Monarchy which once menaced the Liberties of Europe. But who trembles now at the Name of Spain? There is none so abject. Nay should there exist a Government in which fear is the incurable Disease no Paroxism would be excited by the Menace of Spain. To the Wise a Word is sufficient and therefore it will be needless before this Audience to prove that a nation small like Greece may rise to the Heights of national Greatness while Littleness shall mark every public Act of a numerous People. And equally needless must it be to express what you cannot but feel: that in Proportion to the high Esteem Respect & Admiration with which we View the Splendor of Greece in the Day of her Glory is our profound Contempt for those who presiding over a powerful People shall tamely submit to the multiplied Repetition of Indignities from all who thro Interest or for Sport may plunder & insult them. These are Feelings so natural that to disguise them would be vain, to suppress them impossible. I could indeed, were I to indulge a licentious Imagination suppose a Number of Men who without national Spirit or Sentiment shall presume to call themselves a Nation--I can suppose a Herd of piddling huchstering Individuals base and insensible except to Blows who in the Stroke of a Cudgel estimate only the Smart and comparing it with the Labor and Expence of Resistance submit Resentment to the Rules of Calculation[;] I can suppose such Wretches streched over a wilde Surface which they call their Country but which they hold as Tenants at Will to the first Invader. Nay I can suppose them to be governed by wretches still more vile who derive their Power from the meanest Propensity who sacrifice on the Alter of Avarice to get the means of indulging Malice and render a beggarly Account of the Saving of Doits while national Honor national Dignity and national Glory are wholly forgotten.

All this I say may be figured by a fancy which should disdain the Confine of Reason and Truth. But from such a Picture the ingenuous Mind must turn loathing away with Contempt and Detestation. We feel that if the disgusting Image could be realized, a Horde so selfish would soon be swept away or reduced to their proper Condition of Slaves. We are consoled therefore by the Reflection that whenever Providence may permit the Existence of such a political Monster it will be only that speedy and compleat Ruin may deter other Nations from a Conduct so mean so base so vile.

Let us pause. Perhaps there never was a Society of Men so compleatly void of virtue. But between them and the brave Band at Thermopylae Gradations are infinite.

Perhaps it may be asked if Genius & Excellence in the Arts constitute national Greatness? To this Question the Answer must be given with Caution and not without some Modification. The Ages of Pericles of Augustus & of Louis the fourteenth were indeed Ages of Splendor. They were unquestionably the Evidence but I must venture to believe they were the Result not the Cause of national Greatness. A Nation truly great cannot but excel in Arts as well as in Arms. And as a Great Mind stamps with its own Impression the most common Arts so national Greatness will show itself alike in the Councils of Policy, in the Works of Genius, in Monuments of Magnificence and Deeds of Glory. All these are the fruits but they are not the Tree.

Here I anticipate the general and the generous Question: Does it not consist in Liberty? That Liberty is a kind and fostering Nurse of Greatness will be cheerfully and cordially admitted but as we have seen National Greatness where there was no Freedom, so we have seen free Nations where Baseness rather than Greatness constituted the national Character. The Intrepidity of the Swiss Troops is generally known and acknowledged. In a Contest for freedom with the Duke of Burgundy the Nation was great and covered itself with Glory but Alas how changed, how fallen when distributing stipendiary Aid to hostile Hosts. Their Valor was arrayed against itself and Brothers fell by the Swords of Brothers. They became at length the proverbial Examples of mercenary Disposition. And then neither Liberty no[r] Discipline nor Courage rescued Helvetian Fame from the Charge of Baseness.

Thus then We have seen that a People may be numerous powerful wealthy free brave and inured to War without being Great, and by reflecting on the Reason why a Combination of those Qualities and Circumstances will not alone suffice. We are close to the true Source and Principle of national Greatness. It is in the national Spirit. It is in that high, haughty, generous and noble Spirit which prizes Glory more than wealth and holds Honor dearer than Life. It is that Spirit, the inspiring Soul of Heroes which raises Men above the Level of Humanity. It is present with us when we read the Story of antient Rome. It [s]wells our Bosoms at the View of her gigantic Deeds and makes us feel that we must ever be irresistible while human Nature shall remain unchanged. I have called it a high haughty generous and noble Spirit. It is high--Elevated above all low and vulgar Considerations. It is haughty--Despising whatever is little and mean whether in Character Council or Conduct. It is generous--granting freely to the weak and to the Indigent Protection and Support. It is noble--Dreading Shame and Dishonor as the greatest Evil, esteeming Fame and Glory beyond all Things human.

When this Spirit prevails the Government, whatever it's Form, will be wise and energetic because such Government alone will be borne by such Men. And such a Government seeking the true Interest of those over whom they preside will find it in the Establishment of a national Character becoming the Spirit by which the Nation is inspired. Foreign Powers will then know that to withhold a due Respect and Deference is dangerous. That Wrongs may be forgiven but that Insults will be avenged. As a necessary Result every Member of the Society bears with him every where full Protection & when he appears his firm and manly Port mark him of a superior Order in the Race of Man. The Dignity of Sentiment which he has inhaled with his native Air gives to his Manner an Ease superior to the Politeness of Courts and a Grace unrivalled by the Majesty of Kings.

These are Blessings which march in the train of national Greatness and come on the Pinions of youthful Hope. I anticipate the Day when to command Respect in the remotest Regions it will be sufficient to say I am an American. Our Flag shall then wave in Glory over the Ocean and our Commerce feel no Restraint but what our own Government may impose. Happy thrice happy Day. Thank God, to reach this envied State we need only to Will. Yes my countrymen. Our Destiny depends on our Will. But if we would stand high on the Record of Time that Will must be inflexible.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 18, Document 31
The University of Chicago Press

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