Page images

sidered it surpassed altogether the rest of the civilized world as a home for the man of independent mind, brave individuality, enterprise, and misfortune. These were, first, an immense territory to be peopled; second, the facility of acquiring landed property; and third, personal freedom. Although Volney found these privileges extant and established, neither his antecedents nor his disposition were auspicious to their realization. In his famous Treatise, he had traced the fall of empires, and speculated on the origin of government and laws; the prejudices and errors of mankind he considers the cause of social evil, and advocates a return to normal principles, recognizing, however, no basis of faith as the foundation of social prosperity. Montesquieu and Montaigne, Rousseau and Godwin, have made the essential truths of social reform patent; the question of their practical organization remains an unsolved problem, except as regards individual fealty. Combe and Spurzheim showed that the violation of the natural laws was the root of human misery. Buckle illustrates the historical influence of superstition upon society; and Emerson throws aphoristic shells at fortified popular errors, or what he considers such, that explode and sparkle, but fail to destroy all and each of these and other kindred theorists expose evil far better than they propose good; repudiate, but do not create; and this vital defect underlies the philosophy of Volney, which is destitute of the conservate elements of more benign and receptive minds. It eloquently depicts wrong, ingeniously accounts for error, but offers no positive conviction or practical ameliorations whereon the social edifice can firmly rise in new and more grand proportions.* His Utopian anticipations of a political millennium in America were disappointed; and per

* "The conclusion to which Volney makes his interlocutor come, is, that nothing can be true, nothing can be a ground of peace and union which is not visible to the senses. Truth is in conformity with sensations. The book is interesting as a work of art; but its analysis of Christianity is so shocking that its absurdity alone prevents its becoming dangerous.”—Critical History of Free Thought, by A. S. FARRar, M. A.

sonal resentment, imprudence, and egotism aggravated this result. His visit was abruptly closed; and the record thereof became, for these reasons, incomplete, and warped by prejudice, yet not without special merit, and a peculiar interest and value.

Volney's difficulties as an emigrant were complicated by political excitement incident to the troubles in France, the arrogant encroachments of Genet, and the partisan strife thus engendered. In the words of his biographer, "the epidemic animosity against the French breaking out, compelled him to withdraw a course rendered more imperative, according to the same authority, "by the attacks of a person who was then all powerful." He was charged with being a secret agent of his Government, conspiring to deliver Louisiana to the Directory; and we are gravely told that "the world would be astonished at the animosity of John Adams," who, Volney declares, "had no motive but the rancor of an author, on account of my opinion of his book on the Constitution of the United States." In these statements, those cognizant of the attempted interference of foreigners, sustained by party zeal, and the just indignation and firm conduct of Washington, at that memorable crisis, can easily understand why Volney found it expedient to relinquish his purpose to settle in America. On returning to France, he was a senator during the consulship of Napoleon; and, in 1814, a member of the Chamber of Peers. He died in Paris in 1820. The following year his works were collected and published in eight handsome volumes. "I am of opinion," he writes, "that Travels belong to history, and not to romance. I have, therefore, not described countries as more beautiful than they appeared to me; I have not represented their inhabitants more virtuous nor more wicked than I have found them.”

[ocr errors]

Volney made the reflections, historic and speculative, induced by the contemplations of "solitary ruins, holy sepulchres, and silent walls," the nucleus and inspiration for the utterance of his theories of life and man. He apostrophizes

them as witnesses of the past, and evokes phantoms of buried empires to attest the causes of their decline, and the means and method of human regeneration. There is a novelty in this manner of treating great questions; and this, combined with rhetorical language, a philosophical tone, and no inconsiderable knowledge, explains the interest his work excited. Stripped of glowing epithets and conventional terms, there is, however, little originality in his deductions, and much sophistry in his reasonings. Like Rousseau, he reverts to the primitive wants and rights of humanity; like Godwin, he advocates a return to the normal principles of political justice as the only legitimate basis of social organization; and, like the enthusiasts of the first French Revolution, he claims liberty and equality for man as the only true conditions of progress; while he ascribes to ignorance and cupidity the evils of his lot and the fall of nations. In common, however, with so many speculative reformers of that and subsequent periods, his practical suggestions are altogether disproportioned to his eloquent protest; and his estimate of Christianity fails to recognize its inherent authority as verified by the highest and most pure moral intuitions, and confirmed by the absolute evidence manifest in the character, influence, and truths made patent and pervasive by its Founder. As a traveller, Volney wrote with remarkable intelligence; as a student of history, his expositions were often comprehensive and original; as a moralist, he grasped the rationale of natural laws and duties; and as a linguist, his attainments were remarkable. There is more pique than candor in his reply to Priestley's letter controverting his atheistical views. His labors as professor in the Normal School of Paris, as administrator in Corsica, as a political representative, and an economical writer, indicate rare assiduity, insight, and progressive zeal. His biographer claims. that from his "earliest youth he devoted himself to the search after truth;" extols "the accuracy of his views and the justness of his observations"-his moral courage, and the originality of his system "of applying to the study of

the idioms of Asia a part of the grammatical notions we possess concerning the languages of Europe "-and of his doctrine "that a state is so much the more powerful as it includes a greater number of proprietors—that is, a greater division of property." Erudite, austere, a lover of freedom, and a seeker for truth, whatever might be the speculative tendencies of Volney, his information and his philosophic aspirations won him friends and honor at home and abroad; but his sceptical generalizations repel as much as his adventurous individuality attracts. His visit to this country is thus alluded to by his biographer: "Disgusted with the scenes he had witnessed in his native land, he felt that passion revive within him, which, in his youth,, had led him to visit Africa and Asia. Then, in the prime of life, he joyfully bade adieu to a land where peace and plenty reigned, to travel among barbarians; now, in mature years, but dismayed at the spectacle of injustice and persecutions, it was with diffidence, as we learn from himself, that he went to implore from a free people an asylum for a sincere friend of that liberty that had been so profaned.”

Although imbittered by personal difficulties and acrimonious controversy, the sojourn of Volney in the United States was not given to superficial observation, but to scientific inquiry. In this respect, his example was worthy of a philosopher; and it is a characteristic evidence of his assidu ity, that he improved his acquaintance with the famous Miami chief, Little Turtle, when the latter visited Philadelphia, in 1797, on treaty business, to make a vocabulary of the language of that aboriginal tribe.


His work on this country, published in England with additions, is less rhetorical, on account of the subjects discussed, than his other writings; singularly devoid of personal anecdote, and, but for the description of Niagara Falls, and the bite of a rattlesnake, comparatively unpicturesque

* Volney's (C. F.) "View of the Climate and Soil of the United States, &c., and Vocabulary of the Miami Language," 8vo, maps and plates, London,

and unadventurous as a narrative. It anticipates somewhat the later labors of savans and economists, and sets forth with acumen many of the physical features, resources, and characteristics of the country. It possesses an extrinsic interest quite unique, from the antecedents and literary reputation of the author; and it is in the latter character that he is remembered, as identified with the progress of infidelitybut original, philosophic, and liberal. Catharine of Russia recognized his merit; Holbach introduced him to Franklin; and he solaced his wounded pride, after leaving this country, by reverting to the consideration manifested for him by Washington. He is the first foreign writer of eminence who made the climate of North America a subject of study and scientific report; and his views and facts have been and are still often referred to as authoritative, notwithstanding their limited application. His description of the action and influence of winds is highly picturesque, and his observations on rain and electricity noteworthy.

When Volney, in his preface, advises Frenchmen not to emigrate to America, because the laws, language, and manners are uncongenial, though better adapted to the English, Scotch, and Dutch, he adds: "I say with regret, my experience did not lead me to find ces dispositions fraternelles I had looked for." The political exigencies at the time of his visit, and personal disappointment, evidently warped the philosopher's candid judgment; and he confesses feeling obliged thereby to give scientific rather than social commentaries on America. His analysis and description of the soil and climate are brief. He begins with the geographical situation, discusses the marine, sandy, calcareous, granite, mountain, and other regions, the Atlantic coast, and the Mississipi basin. Subsequent geological researches, the progress of meteorological and ethnological science since his day, combine to render Volney's tableaux more curious than satisfactory or complete. He has specific remarks on New Hampshire, based on a then current history of that State by Samuel Williams, many facts and speculations in regard to the

« PreviousContinue »