Saturday, February 6, 2010

James Wilson's Progressive Enlightenment Vision For America

Taken from his Oration on the Fourth of July 1788. A taste:

A PROGRESSIVE STATE is necessary to the happiness and perfection of Man. Whatever attainments are already reached, attainments still higher should be pursued. Let us, therefore, strive with noble emulation. Let us suppose we have done nothing, while any thing yet remains to be done. Let us, with fervent zeal, press forward, and make unceasing advances in every thing that can SUPPORT, IMPROVE, REFINE or EMBELISH Society.

To enter into particulars under each of these heads, and to dilate them according to their importance, would be improper at this time. A few remarks on the last of them will be congenial with the entertainments of this auspicious day.

If we give the slightest attention to NATURE, we shall discover that with utility she is curious to blend ornament. Can we imitate a better pattern? Public exhibitions have been the favorite amusements of some of the wisest and most accomplished nations. GREECE, in her most shining era, considered her games as far from being the least respectable among her public establishments. The shows of the Circus evince, that, on this subject, the sentiments of GREECE were fortified by those of ROME.

Public processions may be so planned and executed, as to join both the properties of Nature’s rule. They may instruct and improve, while they entertain and please. They may point out the elegance or usefulness of the sciences and the arts. They may preserve the memory, and engrave the importance of great political events. They may represent, with peculiar felicity and force, the operation and effects of great political truths. The picturesque and splendid decorations around me furnish the most beautiful and most brilliant proofs, that these remarks are FAR FROM BEING IMAGINARY.

The commencement of our Government has been eminently glorious: Let our progress in every excellence be proportionably great. It will, it must be so. What an enraptured prospect opens on the UNITED STATES! Placid HUSBANDRY walks in front, attended by the venerable plough. Lowing herds adorn our vallies: Bleating flocks spread o’er our hills, Verdant meadows, enameled pastures, yellow harvests, bending orchards, rise in rapid succession from east to west. PLENTY, with her copious horn, sits easy-smiling, and in conscience complacency, enjoys and presides over the scenes. COMMERCE next advances, in all her splendid and embellished forms. The rivers and lakes and seas are crouded with ships. Their shores are covered with cities. The cities are filled with inhabitants. The ARTS, decked with elegance, yet with simplicity, appear in beautiful variety, and well-adjusted arrangement. Around them are diffused, in rich abundance, the necessaries, the decencies and the ornaments of life. With heartfelt contentment, INDUSTRY beholds his honest labors flourishing and secure. PEACE walks serene and unalarmed over all the unmolested regions; while LIBERTY, VIRTUE and RELIGION go hand in hand harmoniously, protecting, enlivening and exalting all! HAPPY COUNTRY! MAY THY HAPPINESS BE PERPETUAL.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, as usual, I appreciate your your doing some digging into the Founding documents. James Wilson is perhaps the most overlooked Founder. He signed both the Declaration and the Constitution, was appointed to the Supreme Court, was a major figure in Pennsylvania, and behind Madison and perhaps Gouverneur Morris, is largely credited as being in that top 3 of those who spoke up the most at the writing of the Constitution.

And me, I've never read a word from James Wilson that I didn't find wise. Some sources say he was the best read and perhaps the deepest thinker of all the Founders.

To your point, very quickly, "Enlightenment" again presents a problem. Wilson, contra the classical thinkers, clearly believed in "human progress."

On the other side, Daniel Dreisbach portrays Madison as a Calvinistic-type skeptic, that men will always battle other men for primacy, faction vs. faction, etc.

The funny thing is, even David Hume, THE non-religious skeptic of the time, said pretty much the same thing---along the lines of classical, not Enlightenment philosophy.

Man cannot be trusted. Either he is "fallen," or he is venal and self-serving---it amounts to the same thing.

Plato, Calvin, Hume and Madison arrive at the same conclusion.

We do know that Madison was heavily influenced by Hume in designing the structure of the American government. It was Madison who knew---contra Washington's dream of a one-party state---that factions are inevitable. Politics is politics.

On the other hand, "American exceptionalism," the idea that man was given a chance by Providence to start anew in the New World---to free itself from Europe and its tyranny, classism, oppression, superstition and especially papism could be an expression of the Enlightenment. Or it could be, as Lincoln put it, some sort of New Zion, an "almost chosen people."

I'm not sure---having read him---that James Wilson argued for a true belief in human progress, that man himself could be redesigned or educated into some revolutionary French republican or Soviet Man. In fact, the quote that you give here from him

LIBERTY, VIRTUE and RELIGION go hand in hand harmoniously, protecting, enlivening and exalting all! HAPPY COUNTRY! MAY THY HAPPINESS BE PERPETUAL.

should give the modernist some pause.

It's clear Wilson is indulging in some wishful thing here. In fact, e sounds more like Newt Gingrich here than any Enlightenment figure I can think of.


Unknown said...

We are back to different views of human nature based on different views of God. I like to call it the Locke view vs. the Augustine view. It was the thesis of my posts about "Christian" ideas that helped bring us into the modern world. I guess my question is why people think that all of historical Christianity was opposed to progress? The movement has argued over this for centuries. Why do modernists think they invented the idea?