Presaging the Young Americans a generation later, Ingersoll argues that an exceptional degree of liberty can produce exceptional contributions to civilization.
An Oration Before the American Philosophical Society
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Charles Ingersoll was born in Philadelphia in 1782 almost a year before the British King George III recognized Pennsylvania’s sovereignty and independence. His father Jared was among the political elite, but one might say the Ingersolls were never exactly of the elite. Charles’ grandfather–also Jared–was a loyalist and a stamp agent whom Patriots made sure to tar and feather. The torture dampened the younger Jared’s enthusiasm slightly, but he soon joined the Continental Congress as a delegate from Pennsylvania. He later participated in the Constitutional Convention and was an active member of Jefferson’s Democratic‐Republican coalition. Charles continued the family tradition and represented his state in the national Congress for several terms throughout his career. Ingersoll was a lawyer by trade and very aware of the importance in practical reasoning and the application of knowledge to real experience. He was also, by virtue of his political experience, an amateur diplomat and keen observer of humanity. In the following document, we present readers with a speech he gave to the American Philosophical Society in 1823. Ingersoll died in 1862 at the age of 79. Our selection therefore comes at the near exact midpoint in his life, which itself paralleled that of his country. By the end of his days, his country burned and bled; his father’s work turned to smoldering ruins and grandfather’s loyalism may have seemed a bit more sensible after all. But in 1823, all no doubt appeared rosy and hopeful to someone so well positioned and well‐read as Charles Ingersoll.
Appropriately enough given his learned audience, Ingersoll begins his survey of American contributions to knowledge by remarking on the powerful influence of widespread private and public education. While many European regimes’ survival largely depended upon the ignorance and subjection of the masses of people, the American peoples’ various governments required enlightenment for success. Inspired by their lifelong educations and practical necessities, Americans were an especially inventive and pioneering lot. Liberty of mind stimulated material and artistic prosperity alike, and during Ingersoll’s lifetime American intellectuals and artists distinguished an authentically American culture from European antecedents. In subject after subject–highly academic and intellectual or technical and practical–Americans contributed more and more to the modern world, racing ahead of less‐free contemporaries in Europe with much longer national histories. He even has relatively kind words for our print media, at least compared to the raucous London political sheets.
Despite his whiggish tone and interpretation, Ingersoll grew to understand the baser foundations on which American life rested. While we will expand our discussion of this point later, readers should not confuse Ingersoll’s respect for intellectual achievement with a naïve endorsement of American culture or institutions. Nevertheless, Ingersoll’s generation and that which followed him often stubbornly refused to see history as anything but a conflict between American values and everything else. Too often they confused the love of one’s civil society with the love of one’s nation‐state, and Ingersoll’s rhetoric of the free individual unlocking Nature’s mysteries for the practical use of all easily morphed into base nationalism. But that process took time, and even in the heat of civil war Ingersoll never quite gave in to the sort of haughty nationalism he helped to foster.
Being the Annual Oration Delivered Before the American Philosophical Society, at the University in Philadelphia, on the 18th October, 1823, by Their Appointment, and Published by Their Order.
A Discourse Concerning the Influence of America on the Mind
By Charles J. Ingersoll. Philadelphia: Abraham Small. 1823.
We will begin with the base of the American pile, whose aggrandisement, like the pyramids of Africa, confounds the speculations of Europe. While the summit and sides elsewhere are more wrought and finished, America excels in the foundation, in which we are at least the seniors, of all other nations. Public funds for the education of the whole community are endowments exclusively American, which have been in operation here for several ages, while the most improved governments of Europe are but essaying such a groundwork, which indeed some of them dread, and others dare not risk. It is nearly two hundred years since school funds were established by that aboriginal and immortal hive of intelligence, piety, and self‐government, the Plymouth colony. These inestimable appropriations are now incorporated with all our fundamental institutions. By the Constitution of the United States it is the duty of government to promote the progress of science and the useful arts. Not one of the eleven new States has been admitted into the Union without provision in its constitution for schools, academies, colleges, and universities. In most of the original States large sums in money are appropriated to education, and they claim a share in the great landed investments which are mortgaged to it in the new States. Reckoning all those contributions federal and local, it may be asserted that nearly as much as the whole national expenditure of the United States is set apart by laws to enlighten the people. The public patronage of learning in this country, adverting to what the value of these donations will be before the close of the present century, equals at least the ostentatious bounties conferred on it in Europe…Nearly the whole minor population of the United States are receiving school education. Besides the multitudes at school, there are considerably more than three thousand under graduates always matriculated at the various colleges and universities, authorised to grant academical degrees; not less than twelve hundred at the medical schools; several hundred at the theological seminaries; and at least a thousand students of law. Nearly all of these are under the tuition of professors, without sinecure support, depending for their livelihood on capacity and success in the science of instruction. In no part of these extensive realms of knowledge is there any monastic prepossession against the modern improvements. Not long since chemistry, political economy, and the other great improvements of the age were excluded from the English universities as innovations unfit to be classed with rhetoric, logic, and scholastic ethics. Oxford and Cambridge, in the fine metaphor of Dugald Stewart, are immovably moored to the same station by the strength of their cables, thereby enabling the historian of the human mind to measure the rapidity of the current by which the rest of the world are borne along. The schools are equally stationary. Notwithstanding their barbarous discipline, and the barbarous privileges of the colleges, they have always produced good Latinists and Hellenists. But American education is better adapted to enlarge and strengthen the mind, and prepare it for practical usefulness…Eminent individuals have appeared in literature and science, without the help of that kind of scholarship. The founder of the American Philosophical Society was not a scholar in this sense; yet his vigorous and fruitful mind, teeming with sagacity, and cultivated by observation, germinated many of the great discoveries, which, since matured by others, have become the monuments of the age: And whether science, politics, or polite literature, was the subject of which Franklin treated, he always wrote in a fine, pure style, with the power and the charm of genius.
Successive improvements in the modern languages, continually perfecting themselves under the prevalence of liberal ideas, have brought them to a degree of moral certainty and common attainment, which must render the dead languages less important hereafter. Their study will be confined probably to a few; and may, perhaps, in the lapse of time, perish under the mass of knowledge destined to occupy entirely the limited powers of the human understanding…Unfettered by inveterate prepossessions, the mind, on this continent, follows in its march the new spirit that is abroad, leading the intelligence of all the world to other pursuits.
Since the career of this country began, education on the continent of Europe has severely suffered by political fluctuations, and continues to be thwarted by political superintendence. Whatever science and literature accomplish there must be in spite of a perplexing and pernicious education. Wanting the stability and tranquility and security of free institutions, their existence is in perpetual fluctuation and jeopardy. The schools are regulated by one dynasty to day, by another on opposite principles tomorrow, as the instruments of each in its turn, employed as much in unlearning what had been taught, as in learning what is to be inculcated, continually molested and convulsed by state intrusion. The arts and sciences which war requires and requites, may be encouraged and advanced; and fortunately for mankind, their extensive circle embraces many in which peace also delights or may enjoy. The northern universities have best preserved both their liberality and their usefulness. But in southern Europe, learning appears to be disastrously eclipsed where it has never ceased to receive Pagan and Christian sacrifice for more than two thousand successive years, – Liberty, says Sismondi, bad bestowed on Italy four centuries of grandeur and glory; during which, she did not need conquests to make her greatness known. The Italians were the first to study the theory of government, and to set the example of liberal institutions. They restored to the world, philosophy, eloquence, poetry, history, architecture, sculpture, painting, and music. No science, art, or knowledge could be mentioned, the elements of which they did not teach to people who have since surpassed them. This universality of intelligence had developed their mind, their taste, and their manners, and lasted as long as Italian liberty. How melancholy is the modem reverse of this attractive picture! When even freedom of thought can hardly breathe, and freedom of speech or writing has no existence, revolution is the only remedy for disorder; sedition infects the schools, rebellion the academies, and treason the universities. In America, where universal education is the hand‐maid of universal suffrage, execution has never been done on a traitor; general intelligence disarms politics of their chimerical terrors; our only revolution was but a temperate transition, without mobs, massacres, or more than a single instance of signal perfidy; every husbandman understands the philosophy of politics better than many princes in Europe. Poetry, music, sculpture, and painting, may yet linger in their Italian haunts. But philosophy, the sciences, and the useful arts, must establish their empire in the modem republic of letters, where the mind is free from power or fear, on this side of that great water barrier which the creator seems to have designed for the protection of their asylum. The monarchs of the old world may learn from those sovereign citizens, the ex‐presidents of these United States, the worth of an educated nation: who, having made large contributions to literature and the sciences, live in voluntary retirement from supreme authority, at ages beyond the ordinary period of European existence, enjoying the noble recreations of books and benevolence, without guards for their protection, or pomp for their disguise, accessible, admired, protected, and immortalised. The Egyptians pronounced posthumous judgment on their kings: we try our presidents while living in canonised resignation, and award to those deserving it, an exquisite foretaste of immortality.
…Such is the influence of general education and self‐government, that already over a surface of almost two thousand miles square, there are scarcely any material provincialisms or peculiarities of dialect, much less than in any nation in Europe, I believe I might say than in any hundred miles square in Europe; and, what is perhaps even more remarkable, the German, Dutch and French veins which exist in different sections, are rapidly yielding to the English ascendancy, by voluntary fusion, without any coercive or violent applications. Adverting to the great results from the mysterious diversity of the various languages of mankind, the anticipation is delightful in the effects of the American unity of tongue, combined with universal education throughout this vast continent, – the home of liberty at least, if not the seat of one great empire.
But speaking and writing the language of an ancient and refined people, whose literature preoccupies nearly every department, is, in many respects, an unexampled disadvantage in the comparative estimate. America cannot contribute in any comparative proportion to the great British stock of literature, which almost supercedes the necessity of American subscriptions. Independent of this foreign oppression, the American mind has been called more to political, scientific, and mechanical, than to literary exertion. And our institutions, moreover, partaking of the nature of our government, have a levelling tendency. . The average of intellect, and of intellectual power in the United States, surpasses that of any part of Europe. But the range is not, in general, so great, either above or below the horizontal line. In the literature of imagination, our standard is considerably below that of England, France, Germany and perhaps Italy. The concession, however, may be qualified by a claim to a respectable production of poetry; and the recollection that American scenes and incidents have been wrought by American authors into successful romances, some of which have been re‐published and translated, and are in vogue in Europe; and that even popular dramatic performances have been composed out of these incidents. The stage, however, is indicative of many things in America, being engrossed by the English drama and English actors. But as a proof of American fondness, if not taste, for theatrical entertainment, I may mention here that an English comedian has lately received for performances before the audiences of four or five towns, whose united population falls short of four hundred thousand people, a much larger income than any of the actors of that country receive in which this sort of intellectual recreation is most esteemed…As another remarkable proof of the state of the stage in the United States, I may add that an eminent American actor appears in the same season, (and it is practicable within the same month) before audiences at Boston and New -Orleans, compassing two thousand miles from one to the other, by internal conveyance. Such is the philosophical, as well as natural, approximation of place, and the unity of speech throughout that distance.
In the literature of fact, of education, of politics, and of perhaps even science, European pre‐eminence is by no means so decided. The American schools, the church, the state, the bar, the medical profession, are, all but the last, largely, and all of them adequately, supplied by their own literature. Respectable [local, state, and regional] histories are extant by American authors…Our national histories, inferior in subordinate attractions to the romantic historical fictions of Europe, are composed of much more permanent and available materials. In biography, without equal means, have we not done as much since we began as our English masters? In the literature as well as the learning of the sciences, botany, mineralogy, metallurgy, entymology, ornithology, astronomy, and navigation, there is no reason to be ashamed of our proficiency. In mathematics and chemistry, our comparative deficiency is perhaps the most remarkable. In grammatical researches, particularly in the interesting elements of the Indian languages, American erudition has preceded that of Europe, where some of the most learned and celebrated of the German and French philologists have caught from American publications, the spirit of similar inquiry. In natural and political geography our magnificent interior has produced great accomplishments, scientific and literary. The maps of America have been thought worthy of imitation in Europe…The surveys of the coast now making by government, will be among the most extensive, accurate, and important memorials extant. Several scientific expeditions have likewise been sent by the government at different times into the western regions, whose vast rivers, steppes and deltas have been explored by learned men, whose publications enrich many departments of science, and are incorporated with applause into the useful literature of the age. One of the most copious and authentic statistical works in print, is an American production, which owes its publication to the patronage of Congress. The public libraries, particularly those of Cambridge University, of the New York Historical Society, of the American Philosophical Society, of the city of Philadelphia, of Congress, and others which might be enumerated, abound with proof and promise of the flourishing condition and rapid advances of literature and science throughout America. A single newspaper of this city, contains advertisements, by a single bookseller, of more than one hundred and fifty recent publications by American authors from…
The first and the present Secretaries of the Department of State, who have both made reports on this important branch of scientific politics, rank among the foremost scholars of the age by their eminence in various literary and scientific attainments. The American state papers, generally, have received the homage of the most illustrious statesmen of England, for excellence in the principles and eloquence of that philosophy which is the most extensively applied to the affairs of men: and their publications afford large contributions to its literature. Whether any policy be preferable to another, is generally a merely speculative topic. But I may with propriety assert that the United States have been the most steadfast supporters of maritime liberality, of inter‐national neutrality, and of the modem system of commercial equality. They were the first to outlaw the slave trade, and the first to declare it piratical. Great Britain is imitating their example in commercial, colonial, navigation, penal, and even financial, regulations. France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, parts of Germany, and South America, have in part adopted their political principles. And in all the branches of political knowledge, the American mind has been distinguished.
The publication of books is so much cheaper in this country than in Great Britain, that nearly all we use are American editions. According to reports from the Custom‐houses, made under a resolution of the Senate in 1822, it appears that the importation of books bears an extremely small proportion to the American editions. The imported books are the mere seed. It is estimated that between two and three millions of dollars worth of books are annually published in the United States. It is to be regretted, that literary property here is held by an imperfect tenure, there being no other protection for it than the provisions of an inefficient act of Congress, the impotent offspring of an obsolete English statute. The inducement to take copyrights is therefore inadequate, and a large proportion of the most valuable American books are published without any legal title. Yet there were one hundred and thirty five copy rights purchased from January 1822 to April 1823. There have been eight editions, comprising 7500 copies of Stewart’s Philosophy published here since its appearance in Europe thirty years ago. Five hundred thousand dollars was the capital invested in one edition of Rees’ Cyclopoedia. Of a lighter kind of reading, nearly 200,000 copies of the Waverley novels, comprising 500,000 volumes, have issued from the American press in the last nine years. Four thousand copies of a late American novel were disposed of immediately on its publication. Five hundred dollars were paid by an enterprising bookseller for a single copy of one of these novels, without any copy right, merely by prompt republication to gratify the eagerness to read it. Among the curiosities of American literature, I must mention the itinerant book trade. There are, I understand, more than two hundred wagons which travel through the country, loaded with books for sale. Many biographical accounts of distinguished Americans are thus distributed. Fifty thousand copies of Mr. Weem’s Life of Washington have been published, and mostly circulated in this way throughout the interior. I might add to these instances, but it is unnecessary, and would be irksome. Education, the sciences; the learned professions, the church, politics; together with ephemeral and fanciful publications, maintain the press in respectable activity.
The modern manuals of literature and science, magazines, journals and reviews, abound in the United States, although they have to cope with a larger field of newspapers than elsewhere. The North American Review, of which about four thousand copies are circulated, is not surpassed in knowledge or learning, is not equalled in liberal and judicious criticism, by its great British models, the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews, of which about four thousand copies are also published in the United States. Written in a pure, old English style, and, for the most part, a fine American spirit, the North American Review, superintends with ability the literature and science of America.
Not less than a thousand newspapers, some of them with several thousand subscribers, are circulated in this country; the daily fare of nearly every meal in almost every family; so cheap and common, that, like air and water, its uses are undervalued. But a free press is the great distinction of this age and country, and as indispensable as those elements to the welfare of all free countries. Abundant and emulous accounts of remarkable occurrences concentrate and diffuse information, stimulate inquiry, dispel prejudices, and multiply enjoyments. Copious advertisements quicken commerce; rapid and pervading publicity is a cheap police. Above all the press is the palladium of liberty. An American would forego the charms of France or Italy for the luxury of a large newspaper; which makes every post an epoch, and provides the barrenest corners of existence with an universal succedaneum. Duly to appreciate the pleasures of it, like health or liberty, we must undergo their temporary privation. Nor is our experience of the licentiousness of the press too dear a price to pay for its freedom. It is a memorable fact in the history of American newspapers, that while some of the most powerful have been consumed in the combustion of their own calumnies, on the other hand, the most permanent and flourishing are those least addicted to defamation. It is also a fact, that the most licentious newspapers which have appeared in America, were edited by Europeans. The American standard is equally removed from the coarse licentiousness which characterises much of the English press, and the constraints of that of the rest of Europe – and this standard has been established, while state prosecutions have been falling into dislike. Our newspapers are regulated by a public tact much truer and stronger than such ordeals. The same ethereal influence in a free temperature, is equally effective to preserve the good from obloquy, and to consign the unworthy to degradation. Where the press is perfectly free, truth is an overmatch for detraction. Many of our public men have constantly enjoyed the public favour, in spite of intense abuse; and have survived its oblivion, to receive a foretaste of posthumous veneration. Under the light of these results, the press has learned the value of temperance, and while all the avenues of private redress are open to those who choose to seek it, state prosecutions have nearly disappeared. Irreligious, obscene, and seditious publications, are infinitely more common from the English than from the American press: scurrilous and libellous newspapers exist to be sure, but they are the lowest and most obscure of the vocation; whereas in England, some of the most elevated and best patronised, are the most scandalous and personal. In the darker ages, dungeons, scaffolds, torture, and mutilation, were the dreadful, but vain restraints put on the understanding. Can it be supposed, that in this enlightened era, punishment, however mitigated, will do more than inflame it? And what is the English law of public prosecution for libels, but a milder remnant of those principles? By which, infidelity, blasphemy, sedition, treason, and individual calumny, are provoked, disseminated and infuriated. Experience has taught us, that the freedom of the press is the best protection against its abuse, and that its transient licentiousness is part of the very nature of the blessing itself…This American deduction of the much apprehended postulate of the press, is obviously and rapidly gaining converts in England, whence perhaps it may ultimately spread over Europe, and abolish the pernicious alternatives there prevalent. Without it, the press must cause convulsions, and retard the progress of the mind. The English newspaper press, much less free by law than the American, is in practice much more licentious…English party vituperation is much coarser and more personal than ours. But, without going into politics, it may suffice to notice the difference in other things. There are vented in the London newspapers, regular and perennial streams of defilement – polluting police reports, details of inhuman amusements, pugilistic and others, indelicate particulars of various private occurrences, the infamous amours of the royal and noble, are catered for every day’s repast, and demanded with an eagerness which bespeaks a vitiated appetite. It seems to be thought that publicity, like execution, deters from crimes, when assuredly, hey both stimulate their perpetration. There is…[also] the journalising private and domestic concerns, and the most trivial transactions of social intercourse, for the gratification of a vanity, peculiar to the aristocracy of that kingdom. The effects of this proclamation of the common affairs of private life, can hardly fail to be injurious to the female character in particular, whose modesty and retirement are thus perpetually broken in upon. The American newspaper press is conducted in better taste, and with more dignity.