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The Progress of the Nation

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We have already stated our views of the true nature of human history. We do not believe it to consist merely or chiefly in the records of the wars and butcheries which have disgraced the earth. These may have built up some nations and pulled down others, but, in the aggregate, they have retarded the progress of the race, they have distorted the intellectual vision of mankind, lowered and vitiated the standard of morals, and, by engrossing the energies of the ablest men in the pursuit of mutual destruction, have necessarily diverted them from the pursuit of all those arts which grace and that knowledge which elevates society. We believe that historians, by devoting nearly all their faculties, their passions, and their lives, their eloquence, their learning, and their logic, to the martial rather than the social history of their respective countries, have done more than all other men put together to perpetuate the false taste for sanguinary fame, and, consequently, to curse their fellow - men with a growth of warriors rather than of the true heroes of our race - those who combat errors, and who establish in our midst the triumphs of mind. Had historians placed these in the foremost ranks, and spoken of the mere physical warriors in more moderate and just terms, the world would have presented to-day a very different aspect; and, instead of Europe armed to the teeth, not so much to defend as to offend the respective peoples, and with its myriads groaning under a leaden despotism which is oppressing not only its limbs but its brain, we should have already advanced far beyond the railway and the electric telegraph, into the regions of beneficent science, and seen nations exchanging all the blessings of mutual discoveries and mutual goodwill, instead of the deadly point of the bayonet and the muzzle of the gun. We now, therefore, pause in the narrative of that heritage of national contentions which our predecessors have left us, to glean up as we may a few traces of the real history of England; that is, of its religious, moral, and artistic progress during the interval between the Norman period and the present. And, first, let us say a word of the nation whose history we are tracing, as it may help the imagination of the reader to comprehend the greatness of the subject. We may suspect, when we ourselves pronounce our own people the first and foremost in the world, that national vanity may influence the judgment. But we will quote the opinion of a distinguished writer of our rival, France, recently given, who cannot be supposed guilty of such bias. M. Gouraud, in his "Histoire des Causes de la Grandeur de l'Angleterre," says: -

"What a nation! Foremost in intelligence, and in the application of the useful arts, she disputes the palm in other regions of activity, and carries it in some. Is this all? No. Add that this great people is free! Free! when the rest of mankind, while pretending to rival them, can only move with anarchy, or rest in servitude. Free! that is, equally capable of discussing and respecting their laws. Free! that is, wise enough to govern themselves for the direction of their own affairs. Other mercantile nations before England have been, or believed themselves to be free. But what was the liberty of Carthage, of Venice, or even Amsterdam, beside that of London? A word beside a reality. And then England, to the imposing material and intellectual spectacle which she offers to the world, may add a third still more striking, and undoubtedly the fairest that can be seen under the heavens - namely, the moral spectacle of a nation that depends upon herself alone. To have a complete idea, however, of the unprecedented grandeur of this nation, we must also take into consideration that, unlike her predecessors in commerce, who never held more than the most limited moral influence over the nations with which they came in contact, she acts more than any other on the destinies, the mind, and the manners of the rest of the world. Already she is the model school for the agriculturists, the manufacturers, the navigators, and the merchants of the universe.

"Then, inasmuch as by reason of her immense territorial possessions, there is no language so widely spread as hers, she exercises an incalculable influence over the human mind. There are only a few cultivated spirits who, beyond the frontiers of their respective countries, read Dante or Moliere, while Shakespeare has readers in every latitude of the globe. And then, too, when the free press or the free tribune of London expresses a sentiment, an idea, or a vow, this sentiment, this vow, this idea, makes the tour of the world. When Junius writes, or Pitt I speaks, the universe reads and listens. Thanks, in short, may be given to the justice of Providence, that the people to whom this immense and redoubtable empire has been accorded, can use it only to elevate human intelligence and human dignity: for their language, even in the greatest excess of passion, is always the manly and vivifying utterance of free men. Such is the fine spectacle which the British empire offers to our generation."

Thus nothing can tend so much to invigorate us as the contemplation of the national history, in which the labours and sufferings of our forefathers to build up this grand palladium of our liberties are recorded.

In reviewing the constitutional progress during the period we have passed through in the late reigns, we cannot do better than commence with an inquiry into the origin and composition of the English people, which, according to our French neighbour, has grown to such greatness, and to the exercise of so transcendent an influence on human destiny. And here we may again avail ourselves of the striking description of that origin given by the same writer: -

"About a century after the invasion of William, when the violence of the first years after the Conquest had begun to give way before a milder regime, it may be said that the great work of the formation of the English nation was accomplished. It was then that the distinct type of a people appeared, which has never had its like in any age of history, and the powerful originality of which eight centuries have only served to deepen, Then appeared a race of men whose appearance, manners, and mind have remained so marvellously distinct from the rest of the human family, that at the present time an individual of it, met under any latitude, is recognised before he has spoken; in short, then appeared the English people.

"How admirable are the care, the energy, and the perseverance with which Nature works, through centuries, a the formation of the nations which she has destined to civilise certain territories! We have here an example with which it is impossible not to be struck. In the designs of God, in the progress of the human race, it is written that England shall play a great part in the development of Western civilisation. For this purpose people must be formed - I was going to say, must be wrought - whose powerful constitution shall be capable of fulfilling the great task. What takes place? The tribes who were indigenous to these islands being too feeble for such a destiny, are conquered, driven away, or destroyed. Saxons replace them. These Saxons being found insufficient, in their turn are invaded by the Danes. They fight with each other at first, and then melt into a common race. But even this fusion not giving a perfectly satisfactory result, the Normans arrive, whose accession realises at last the type of the people so long sought after and expected.

"All this takes up an immense length of time, brings about terrible calamities, and necessitates gigantic efforts; but nothing stops, nothing moves, nothing casts down the indomitable and pitiless energy of Nature's work. She labours in the moral as in the physical world. See, in the depths of the earth, or in the caves of the ocean, how rich substances - gold, the diamond, the pearl - are elaborated! The forces here at work, in analyses, transformations, and experiments, and the time expended, are incalculable. And so in the moral world, when Nature has something rare to produce, she exhibits the like perseverance and insensibility, the like exclusive determination to her end. She acted in this way in the formation of the English nation. She counted neither sacrifices, revolutions, nor centuries; because, in this instance - and succeeding ages were destined to prove it - she was making a diamond."

In this statement the author has made one grand omission - the Roman element. After the British natives - no despicable race, as their resistance to Caesar demonstrated - there came 500 years of Roman life in England. Thus, the splendid organisation of four great races - the aboriginal, the Roman, the Scandinavian, and the Norman - were combined for the production of the English race; and in that race all the prominent characteristics are blended, and yet distinctly marked. In the native British there prevailed at least bravery and love of freedom; in the Roman, a sublime firmness and fortitude of character, with a large spirit of conquest and of agricultural colonisation. In the Scandinavian - that is, the mixture of Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and old Saxon; the latter not a German, but a Gothic people, living in the modern Sleswick, and part of the great maritime race which stretches along Europe's western shores from Norway to Belgium - we received a spirit of wonderful hardihood, a spirit of conquest, a spirit of naval adventure and domination, a spirit of settlement in vast and varied countries, and a lofty love of the sublime and wonderful in literature. In the Norman, which was but the Norwegian engrafted on the Celtic blood, we derived a mixture of! bravery and polish, and a race of rulers who, spite of all our love of independence, sway us and coerce us to the present hour.

Through all this the Scandinavian - or, to use a more familiar term, the Anglo-Saxon - maintained its predominance. The Norman conquest gave us rulers, but not a people. The Saxon nobles gave way or amalgamated with the Norman blood, but the people were and remained an Anglo-Roman-and-Saxon people. Nothing is a more complete proof of this than the language, which in the days of the most regnant Norman dynasty remained Anglo-Saxon, and remains so still. Archbishop Trench, in his analysis of our modern English, shows that, if we divided it into 100 parts, sixty would be Saxon, thirty Latin, five Greek, and only five a combination of other languages, including Norman-French and French. This view of the question is, again, supported by Sir Henry Ellis's analysis of Domesday Book, which shows that at a time when the whole male population of the kingdom included in the survey was only 283,000, the "mesne tenants," or possessors of land, consisted of only 1,400 tenants in capite, of whom the majority were Normans, while 7,871 lesser proprietors were principally Saxons.

Thus, then, the English nation may be said to be thoroughly amalgamated and completed within a hundred years of the Conquest. The upper classes spoke and read Norman-French, but the people still continued to speak Anglo-Saxon; and. notwithstanding the cruel and contemptuous manner in which they were treated by their Norman lords, they never at any period failed to display the sturdiness of their character. They rose again and again in resistance to the Norman yoke. From the death of the Conqueror to the era of Magna Charta was only 128 years: a plain proof of the rapid growth of the English spirit in the nation.

These facts are of so much importance for the right understanding all that comes after of English history, that we shall save ourselves much trouble by briefly reviewing the realities of the case.

The charter of John was not the first English charter by any means; and Lingard has very justly observed that, had not John taken arms to get rid of it, we should have heard as little of it as of former ones. Henry I., Stephen, and Henry II. all granted charters, to say nothing of those of Canute and Edward the Confessor; and so far was Magna Charta from extending the liberty secured by those charters, that Lyttleton, the great commentator on our laws, declares the charter of Henry I. was, in some respects, more favourable to liberty than Magna Charta itself. Be that as it may, Magna Charta notoriously originated, not with the barons, but with Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury. By him it was drawn up in terse and excellent Latin, and bears all the marks, not of the rude composition of feudal barons, but of the great churchman, who at that period was also the great lawyer. Langton was the soul of the whole opposition. He it was who convoked the barons, and read to them the charter of Henry I., and called upon them to compel John to submit to a new one.

The crisis was most auspicious. The people hated John - all men hated him; and the Church had placed him under the ban. The barons had lately joined in the infamous act of making over the country to the Pope, and they were now as ready to join in humbling John.

John, alarmed, humbly besought the Church, as its vassal, to aid him, and the interdict was removed; nay, it was menaced against all who should oppose John. But Langton, spite of the Pope, still pressed on his great object. The barons fought, and were defeated. Their first martial enterprise, the siege of the castle of Northampton, was an utter failure. They saw that without the people they could do nothing. But Bedford and London declared for them, and they were able to bring John to Runnymede. Without other help the barons never could have come there. Church, barons, people - all had combined to bring the tyrant to submission.

Well, the charter was signed, but it was not won. John immediately repudiated it, and the barons rose again in arms to enforce it.

John put down the barons. He raged like a man insane; and we believe that was the secret of his extraordinary and violent character; we believe he was actually insane. He defeated the barons everywhere, except in London, and there the Londoners supported them. But the barons, finding that they could not prevail against John, now perpetrated the most traitorous act which has disgraced the annals of England. They offered the crown of England to the son of Louis, King of France, on condition that he brought over an army to rescue them and their estates from the tyrant who had completely foiled them. Louis came over most gladly, and, had he succeeded, England would have become a dependency of France! But, to the day of John's death, neither the barons nor the French prince could conquer him. So completely did the barons despair of success, that the Earl of Salisbury, William Marshall, Walter Beaumont, and other barons, abandoned Louis of France and submitted to John; nay, the chroniclers assert that, in his last moments, John received letters from forty of the revolted barons, offering to return to his allegiance, and, of course, to abandon the charter.

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Pictures for The Progress of the Nation

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Part of the First Chapter of St. John's Gospel
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Author, and Copyist writing
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Geoffrey Chaucer
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