« PreviousContinue »
disquisitions of those happier periods, when men address themselves to minds all whose powers of apprehension and of taste are in their best condition, and when every thought which is salutary and well prepared, can expect to meet with a favourable reception. As the reverse of all this, the literature of the times when popular excitement has been awakened and generally diffused-partakes of the restless---the agitated--and extravagant character of all the interests that then agitate the country, and are in special favour with it--and, accordingly, it is either adapted to the very lowest apprehensions of the people, and exhibited in forms below the proper dignity of its functions
-or it assumes a character of unseemly violence and agitation--and helps only to foster and give virulence to a state of the public mind, which, in the proper exercise of its vocation, and in its more dignified exertions, it was intended and fitted to have softened and refined.
And what next, as the consequence state of popular feeling and popular excitement, is the acknowledged and universal condition of social life, in such times?- Not assuredly, the cheerful and kindly interchange of civility and of offices of mutual hospitality and good will--but a fierce and unseemly contention, disordering all the ameni
of the same
ties of private intercourse--and setting every one in opposition to the tastes or the opinions of all others whom he happens to meet in society. Hence all social parties either become little fields of keen debate and of consequent bad humour and disagreement—or the taste for universal speechmaking breaks up all the free and unconstrained interchange of sentiments or, if neither of these things happen, then men sit sullenly and suspiciously eyeing each others motions—and afraid lest any hint should be given which they must either defend with all their powers of argument—or against which they must pour out the floods of their contempt. This also, however, is an unnatural state of the social system—and either some change for the better must speedily take place-or what is more likely, the agitation of all private parties is but aiding in the final production of that universal disruption which is to dissolve all the bonds of public and private enjoyment.
In such a condition of the social and political state, what can be expected but that the morals of the community shall partake of the same extravagant or loose character which pervades all the other sentiments, and tastes, and opinions of the time ? The boldness, accordingly, with which men have been accustomed to assail merely theo
retical opinions or political institutions is speedily communicated to their notions in regard to all moral duty-and while the most fearful crimes are occasionally perpetrated by the more abandoned portions of the community-crimes which, in ordinary times, men had not conceived it possible to have been committed—but which are the natural result of the excited and unprincipled condition of the public mind-even private life, in its more decorous portions, becomes overrun with vicesand is characterized by an audacity of thought and of practice, which could only have been generated in times when all authority, divine and human, is presumptuously questioned—but which have ever been unfailing prognostics of the speedy and exemplary degradation and ruin of the people that have yielded to them.
But if the preceding observations contain a true account of the tendencies and necessary results of the errors into which men are prone to fall in all times of excitement--and especially of the great speculative and practical error of calling any considerable proportion of the body of the people into the actual management of affairs—then how comes it that, with such fearful and obvious con
sequences in prospect-and exemplified by all past history and living experience—so may persons of acknowledged good sense, and just principle, still adhere to their errors—and refuse to relinquish their connection with a state of opinions and of practices so undeniably leading to the ruin of the community? It is not thus that men act in other concerns—nor do they thus obstinately persist in opinions and modes of conduct—when their private affairs are concerned—which should only be the more readily reprobated and abandoned, when the vast interests of their common country are at hazard.
Of the fact that a vast multitude of persons do continue, in such times, still to cling to their errors there can be no question—and as a general solution of this striking fact, it might be stated, simply, that the times of which we have been speaking are times of general excitement, and that the conduct of men is not, in such times, to be estimated by exactly the same rules which they would feel to be binding on them in seasons when no such morbid condition of the public mind had been generated,—that further, no individual feels himself so responsible for the issue of great public transactions, as he necessarily does for the management of his private concerns—and
that each member of the community thus shifts the responsibility from himself to the general body to which he belongs—and lastly, that there is at all times a delusive belief, on the part of most men, of the essential wisdom of all public movements, as being, they apprehend, the results of a joint communication of views, of which they have not been entirely participant, but to the issue of which, even when appearances are most ominous, they may yet trust themselves and all their interests, as members of the whole, with safety.
But, without insisting on these general apologies, the following more particular topics ought to be considered, in accounting for the fact in question.
In the first place, that in all such times as those of which we have been discoursing, the evil has proceeded from less to more—and that multitudes who at first only attached themselves to the idea of a removal of acknowledged and obvious evils-but who would have started from any participation in the measures that are adopted in a more matured state of the public diseaseyet are unwilling to acknowledge that they have formed any original error of calculation, and continue, from this obstinacy or pride of judgment,