Ingersoll moves to discuss the American contributions to practical life in an era when great efficiency yielded greater power and influence.
An Oration Delivered Before the American Philosophical Society
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In our second portion from Charles Ingersoll’s exposition of Americans’ contributions to intellectual pursuits, our orator shifts from academic to more pragmatic concerns. Despite Ingersoll’s desire for looser patent laws, the list of American inventions was already long by 1823. Advancements in machinery like the cotton gin “has been of more profit to the United States, than ten times all they ever received by internal taxation,” and steam power afforded Britain “the power of a hundred millions of hands.” Navigation by steam was an American innovation born of necessity “on the shores of the Potomac, the Delaware, or the Hudson, yet belonging to the Missouri, the Arkansas, the Mississippi, and the Pacific ocean.” During what historians have called either the Market, Transportation, or Communications revolutions (all roughly 1815–1845), entrepreneurs, inventors, and pioneers of many sorts stitched together the vast American wilds into a common marketplace. Contemporary artists and intellectuals followed with the invention of a national culture capable of tying the identities of Americans from one ocean to another. Cities and trades multiplied while subcultures endlessly subdivided a more and more complex society. Ingersoll’s well‐ordered and enlightened young republic gradually gave way to a complicated modern democracy fueled with a volatile mixture of national cultural identity and pride in existing political institutions.
In our current number, Ingersoll’s primary focus is the law. Contrary to those Europeans governments which ruled through tiny cliques of aristocrats or even absolute monarchs, Americans ruled themselves through the elected representative and the voluntary association. Americans’ representatives were chosen from among the people themselves, through the peoples’ own sovereign choices, and together they composed a body of “three thousand chosen members…in five and twenty Legislatures.” While the harshest of critics might still recognize this as a ruling class of sorts, it was a distinctly different kind than those which dominated other nations. The large pool of legislators required an even larger pool of lawyers, which Ingersoll deemed “in all ages the teeming offspring of freedom. Their number in the United States has been lately computed at six thousand; which is probably an under estimate.” Rather than taking their cue from the new Market Revolutionaries, however, “American lawyers and judges adhere with professional tenacity to the laws of the mother country,” and English interpretations of legal matters. With his locofoco, Young American contemporaries over the next several decades, Ingersoll calls on his fellow lawyer‐citizens to revolutionize this corner of thought as well.
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.
From literature the transition is natural to the arts, which minister to usefulness, comfort and prosperity, individual and national. Under their authority to provide for the encouragement of the arts and sciences, the United States, in thirty years, have issued about four thousand four hundred patent rights for new and useful inventions, discoveries, and improvements. By the prevailing construction of the acts of Congress, American patentees must be American inventors or improvers, and are excluded from all things before known or used in any other part or period of the world. The English law allows English patentees to monopolise the inventions, discoveries, and improvements of all the rest of the world when naturalised in Great Britain. Notwithstanding this remarkable disadvantage, I believe the American list of discoveries is quite equal to the English. The specimens and models open to public inspection in the national repository at Washington, are equal, I understand, to any similar collections in England or France, and superior to those of any other country. It will hardly be expected that I should undertake to mention even the most remarkable articles of this immense museum, containing every element of practical science, of mechanism, of refinement, and of skill. I may be allowed, however, to say that the cotton gin has been of more profit to the United States, than ten times all they ever received by internal taxation…Where American ingenuity has been put to trial it has never failed. In all the useful arts, and in the philosophy of comfort…we have no superiors. If labour saving machinery has added the power of a hundred millions of hands to the resources of Great Britain, what must be the effect of it on the population and means of the United States? Steam navigation, destined to have greater influence than any triumph of mind over matter, equal to gunpowder, to printing, and to the compass, worthy to rank in momentum with religious reformation, and civil liberty, belongs to America… Necessity, the mother of this invention, was an American mother; born, perhaps, on the shores of the Potomac, the Delaware, or the Hudson, yet belonging to the Missouri, the Arkansas, the Mississippi, and the Pacific ocean…Most if not all of [our major and minor rivers] are innavigable but by steam boats, owing to the course of their currents and other circumstances. These then are the latitudes of steam boats, which have been abandoned in some parts of Europe, as too large for their rivers, and too expensive for their traveling. – In less than ten years from this time, steam boats may pass from the great lakes of the north‐west by canals to the Atlantic, thence to the isthmus of Darien, and across that to China and New Holland. They now ply like ferry boats from New York to Pensacola, New Orleans and Havanna, with the punctuality and security, and more than the accommodation, of the best land carriage of Europe. Wherever this wonderful invention appears, overcoming the winds and waves by stream, measuring trackless ocean distances by the quadrant, and protected from lightning by the rod, it displays in every one of these accomplishments the genius of America.
In the ordinary art of navigation, the construction, equipment, and manipulation of vessels, commercial and belligerent, America is also conspicuous. The merchant vessels of the United States, manned with fewer hands, perform their voyages, generally, in one third less time than those of the only other maritime people to be compared with them. And without referring to the achievements of the American navy as credentials of courage or renown, I may with propriety remark, that an intelligent and scientific fabrication and application of arms, ammunition, ships, and all the materials of maritime warfare, are unquestionably demonstrated by their success in it.
The mechanics, artisans, and laborers of this country are remarkable for a disposition to learn. Asserted European superiority has been of great advantage to America in preventing habitual repugnance to improvement, so common to all mankind, especially the least informed classes. Superior aptitude, versatility and quickness in the handicrafts, are the consequences of this disposition of our people. A mechanic in Europe is apt to consider it almost irreverent, and altogether vain to suppose that any thing can be done better than as he was taught to do it by his father or master. A house or ship, is built in much less time here than there. From a line of battle ship, or a steam engine, to a ten penny nail, in every thing, the mechanical genius displays itself by superior productions. The success of a highly gifted American mechanical genius now in England, seems to be owing in part to his adapting his improvements, by a happy ingenuity, to the preservation of machinery, for which several English mechanics have been enriched and ennobled, but which would have been superseded as useless had it not been thus rescued.
If a ship, a plough and a house be taken as symbols of the primary social arts of navigation, agriculture and habitation, we need not fear comparisons with other people in any one of them. In the intellectual use of the dements, the combinations and improvements of the earth and its products, of water, of air, and of fire, no greater progress has been made in Europe within this century than in the United States. The houses, ships, carriages, tools, utensils, manufactures, implements of husbandry, conveniences, comforts, the whole circle of social refinement, are always equal, mostly superior here to those of the most improved nations. I do not speak of mere natural advantages, of being better fed, more universally housed and more comfortably clothed, than any other people; but excepting the ostentatious, and extravagant, if not degenerate and mischievous, luxuries of a few in the capitals of Europe merely; looking to the general average of civilisation, where does it bespeak more mind or display greater advancement? Internal improvements, roads, bridges, canals, water‐ works, and all the meliorations of intercourse, have been as extensively and as expensively made within the last ten years in the United States, as in probably any other country ; notwithstanding the sparseness of a population, of which scarcely half a million is concentrated in cities, and a slender capital. Five thousand post offices distribute intelligence throughout the United States with amazing celerity and precision over eighty thousand miles of post roads. The mail travels twenty‐one thousand miles every day, compassing eight millions of miles in a year. There are twelve thousand miles of turnpike roads. Our facilities and habits of intercourse are unequalled in Europe: almost annihilating the obstacles of space. Within two years from this time, when all the great canals now in progress shall be completed, an internal navigation often thousand miles will belt this country from the great western valley to the waters of the Hudson and the Chesapeake. The New York canal and the Philadelphia water works are not surpassed, if equalled, by any similar improvements m Europe within the period of their construction.
The polite arts, painting, engraving, music, sculpture, architecture, the arts of recreation, amusement, and pageantry, flourish most in the seats of dense population. Few of them thrive without the forcing of great capitals, the reservoirs of the refinements of ancient, sometimes declining, empire. Architecture is an art of state, whose master works are reserved for seats of government. The public edifices of Edinburgh or Liverpool, for instance, or those erected at any other provincial town within the last twenty years, bear no comparison to the costly and magnificent capitol, built, burnt, and rebuilt, within that period at Washington. Indeed, I believe that there are no public buildings which have been constructed at London during this century in so expensive and splendid a style. The Halls of the Senate, and of the Representatives at Washington, are in the relation of contrast with the Houses of Commons and the Lords in London, as to magnitude, magnificence and accommodation. And, if I am not mistaken, the only historical paintings of national events, which have ever been paid for by legislative appropriation, are those executed by an American artist for the walls of the capitol.
Representation is the great distinction between ancient and modem government. Representation and confederation distinguish the politics of America, where representation is real and legislation perennial. Thousands of springs, gushing from every quarter, eddy onward the cataract of representative democracy, from primary self‐constituted assemblies, to the State Legislatures, and the national Congress. Three thousand chosen members represent these United States, in five and twenty Legislatures. There are, moreover, innumerable voluntary associations under legislative regulations in their proceedings. I am within bounds in asserting, that several hundred thousand persons assemble in this country every year, in various spontaneous convocations, to discuss and determine measures according to parliamentary routine. From bible societies to the lowest handicraft there is no impediment, but every facility, by law, to their organisation: And we find not only harmless but beneficial, those various self‐created associations, which in other countries give so much trouble and alarm. It is not my purpose to consider the political influences of these assemblies, nor even their political character. But their philosophical effect on the individuals composing them, is to sharpen their wits, temper their passions, and cultivate their elocution: While this almost universal practice of political or voluntary legislation, could hardly fail to familiarise a great number of persons with its proprieties. The mode of transacting business is nearly the same in them all, from the humblest debating club to Congress in the capitol. Legislation in the United States is better ordered, more deliberative, decorous, and dignified, much less tumultuous or arbitrary and more eloquent than in Europe. Continual changes of the political representatives, afford not less than ten thousand individuals spread throughout the United States, practically familiar with the forms and principles of legislation, who, through the vivid medium of a free press, constitute, as it were, an auditory greatly superior to that of any other nation. A large proportion of this great number of practical legislators, is qualified by the habits of discussion incident to such employment, and perfect freedom, to deliver their sentiments in public speaking; which, being in greater request, of greater efficacy, and at greater liberty in America than in Europe, is naturally more prevalent and powerful here than there. It is a striking view of the ideas of legislation in Europe, that within the last thirty years France and Spain have waged destructive wars for legislatures, consisting of single assemblies; a constitution, which in America, would not be thought worth so much bloodshed.
The much abused French revolution, has given to that country a Legislature of two houses, and a press of considerable freedom. But the peers are lost in the secrecy of their sessions: and the deputies can hardly be called a deliberative assembly. Few speak, inasmuch as most of the orations are read from a pulpit: and still fewer listen, amidst the tumults that agitate the whole body. To crown these frustrations of eloquent debate, when it becomes intense and critical, as it must be, to do its offices, the proceedings are sometimes closed by an armed force, marched in to seize and expel an obnoxious orator. This is certainly not the philosophy of legislation.
In Great Britain, an excessive number is crowded into an inconvenient apartment, where but few attempt to speak, and few can be brought to listen: and where both speakers and hearers are disturbed by tumultuous shouts and unseemly noises, not, according to our ideas, consonant with either eloquent or deliberative legislation. In theory, the House of Commons contains nearly 700 members: in practice the most important laws are debated and enacted by sixty or fifty. Owing to the want of personal accommodation, when the house is crowded, its divisions to be counted are attended with great confusion. Most of the bills are drafted, not by members, but by clerks hired for that purpose: to which is owing much of the inordinate tautology and technicality of modem acts of Parliament. In theory and principle there is no audience, and in fact, bystanders are not permitted but occasionally, under inconvenient restrictions. Reports and publications of the debates are unauthorised, and of course imperfect, notwithstanding the exploits of stenography. Although Parliament is omnipotent, yet a member may not publish abroad what he says in his place, without incurring ignominious punishment as a libeller: which punishment was actually inflicted not long ago on a peer, proceeded against by information, for that offence. In France, the press is, in this respect, freer than in England. The publication of speeches in the Legislature is considered an inviolable right, which, among all the revocations of the present government, has never been molested or called in question. By a perversion of the hours, unknown, I believe, in any other country or age, most of the business of Parliament is done in the dead of night, to which, probably, many of the irregularities now mentioned are ascribable. The great popular principles which have preserved the British Parliament, while every other similar attempt in Europe has failed, or nearly so, and its brilliant political performances, have recommended it to admiration, notwithstanding these disadvantages; and indeed sanctioned them as part of the system. But unprejudiced judgment must allow, that all these are imperfections which have no place in Congress. Hence it is, that there are not now, and probably never were at any one time, more than two or three members of Parliament actuated by the great impulses of oratory: and that the talent of extemporaneous and useful eloquence always has been much more common in Congress. Burke’s inimitable orations, which all ages will read with delight, were delivered to an empty house. A member, now a peer, himself one of the most eloquent men of England, whose political and personal ties bound him particularly to remain during the delivery of one of these master‐pieces, after nearly every body else had withdrawn, actually crawled out of the house to escape unnoticed from an intolerable scene. Johnson, the editor of Chatham’s famous speeches, in a number of the Rambler, treats the graces of eloquence with elaborate ridicule and contempt; and Hume, in his Essay on Eloquence, and Blair, in his Lectures on Rhetoric, acknowledge that they are not characteristics of British oratory. The printed speeches of England are among the finest specimens of the art of composition; but it is notorious that in parliament and at the bar the most celebrated speeches avail nothing with those to whom they are addressed; and eloquence, in the pulpit of the established church is, I believe, a thing unheard of. The talent of effective oratory is much more common in America, where laws are made, controversies are settled, and proselytes are gained, by it, every day. An eloquent professor or lecturer, in, England, is very rare, if there be any such. While it is well known that the medical school of Philadelphia owes its success, in part, to the mere eloquence of its lecturers. Crowds of listeners are continually collected in all parts of this country to hear eloquent speeches and sermons. The legislature, the court house, and the church, are thronged with auditors of both sexes, attracted by that talent which was the intense study and great power of the ancient orators. Thought, speech, and action, must be perfectly free to call forth the utmost powers of this mighty art. It requires difficulties; but it needs hopes. Its temples in free countries are innumerable. When its rites are administered the most divine of human unctions searches the marrow of the understanding; the orator is inspired, the auditor is absorbed, by the occasion.
Annual sessions of five and twenty legislatures multiply laws, which produce a numerous bar, in all ages the teeming offspring of freedom. Their number in the United States has been lately computed at six thousand ; which is probably an under estimate. American lawyers and judges adhere with professional tenacity to the laws of the mother country. The absolute authority of recent English adjudications is disclaimed: but they are received with a respect too much bordering on submission. British commercial law, in many respects, inferior to that of the continent of Europe, is becoming the law of America…This veneration on our part, and estrangement on theirs, are infirmities characteristic of both. Our professional bigotry has been counteracted by penal laws in some of the States against the quotation of recent British precedents, as it was once a capital offence in Spain to cite the civil law, and as the English common law has always repelled that excellent code from its tribunals. I cannot think, with the learned editor of the Law Register, that late English law books are a dead expense to the American bar; or that, in his strong phrase, scarcely an important case is furnished by a bale of their reports. But I deplore the colonial acquiescence in which they are adopted, too often without probation or fitness. The use and respect of American jurisprudence in Great Britain will begin only when we cease to prefer their adjudications to our own. By the same means we shall be relieved from disadvantageous restrictions on our use of British wisdom; and our system will acquire that level to which it is entitled by the education, learning, and purity of those by whose administration it is formed.
In their national capacity, the United States have no common law, but all the original States are governed by that of England, with adaptations. In one of the new States, in which the French, Spanish, and English laws, happen to be all naturalised, an attempt at codification from all these stocks is making, under legislative sanction. In others, possibly all of the new States, which have been carved out of the old, a great question is in agitation whether the English common law is their inheritance. Being a scheme of traditional precepts and judicial precedents, that law requires continual adjudications, with their reasons at large, to explain, replenish, and enforce it. Of these reports, as they are termed, no less than sixty four, consisting of more than two hundred volumes, and a million of pages, have already been uttered in the United States…I have heard of an American lawyer of eminence whose whole property is said to consist in a large and expensive law library.
Notwithstanding this mass of literature, the law has been much simplified in transplantation from Europe to America: and its professional as well as political tendency is still to further simplicity. The brutal, ferocious, and inhuman laws of the feudists, as they were termed by the civilians, (I use their own phrase,) the arbitrary rescripts of the civil law, and the harsh doctrines of the common law, have all been melted down by the genial mildness of American institutions. Most of the feudal distinctions between real and personal property, complicated tenures and primogeniture, the salique exclusion of females, the unnatural rejection of the half‐blood, and ante‐nuptial offspring, forfeitures for crimes, the penalties of alienage, and other vices of European jurisprudence, which nothing but their existence can defend, and reason must condemn, are either abolished, or in a course of abrogation here. Cognisance of marriage, divorce, and posthumous administration, taken from ecclesiastical, has been conferred on the civil tribunals. Voluminous conveyancing and intricate special pleading, among the costliest mysteries of professional learning in Great Britain, have given place to the plain and cheap substitutes of the old common law. With a like view to abridge and economise litigation, coercive arbitration, or equivalents for it, have been tried by legislative provision; jury trial, the great safeguard of personal security, is nearly universal, and ought to be quite so, for its invaluable political influences. It not only does justice between the litigant parties, but elevates the understanding and enlightens the rectitude of all the community. Sanguinary and corporal punishments are yielding to the interesting experiment of penitential confinement. Judicial official tenure is mostly independent of legislative interposition, and completely of executive influence. The jurisdiction of the courts, is far more extensive and elevated than that of the mother country. They exercise, among other high political functions, the original and remarkable power of invalidating statutes, by declaring them unconstitutional: an ascendancy over politics never before or elsewhere asserted by jurisprudence, which authorises the weakest branch of a popular government to annul the measures of the strongest… Judicial appointment is less influenced by politics; and judicial proceedings more independent of political considerations.
The education for the bar is less technical, their practice is more intellectual, the vocation is relatively at least more independent in the United States, than in Great Britain. Here, as there, it is a much frequented avenue to political honours. All the chief justices of the United States have filled eminent political stations, both abroad and at home. Of the five Presidents of the United States, four were lawyers; of the several candidates at present for that office, most, if not all, are lawyers. But without any public promotion, American society has no superior to the man who is advanced in any of the liberal professions. Hence there are more accomplished individuals in professional life here, than where this is not the case. Under other governments, patronage will advance the unworthy, and power will oppress the meritorious. Even in France, where there are, and always have been lawyers of great and just celebrity, we sometimes see that for exerting the noblest, and, in free countries, the most common duties of their profession, for resisting the powerful and defending the weak, they are liable to irresponsible arrest, imprisonment, and degradation, without the succour and sanctuary of a free press, and dauntless public sympathy. In Great Britain, it is true, there is no such apprehension to deter them: and equally true, that professional, as well as political dignities, are free to all candidates. But the ascendancy of rank, the contracted divisions of intellectual labour, the technicality of practice, combine with other causes to render even the English individuals, not perhaps inferior lawyers, but subordinate men.
British jurisprudence itself, too, that sturdy and inveterate common law, to which Great Britain owes many of the great popular conservative principles of her constitution – even these have been impaired by long and terrible wars, during which, shut up within their impregnable island, the offspring of Alfred and of Edward, infusing their passions, their politics, and their prejudices into their laws, have wrenched them to their occasions. The distinguishing attributes and merits of the common law are, that it is popular and mutable; takes its doctrines from the people, and suits them to their views. While the American judiciary enforces this system of jurisprudence, may it never let wars, or popular passions, or foreign influences, impair its principles.
There are about ten thousand physicians in the United States, and medical colleges for their education in Massachusetts, Rhode‐Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio. There are also two medical universities in the state of New York, one in Pennsylvania, one in Maryland, one in Massachusetts, and one in Kentucky; containing altogether about twelve hundred students. Under the impulses of a new climate and its peculiar distempers, the medical profession has been pursued and its sciences developed with great zeal and success in this country; whose necessities have called forth a bolder and more energetic treatment of diseases, more discriminating and philosophical, as well as decisive and efficient; a more scientific assignment of their causes, and ascertainments of their nature. Many medical errors and prejudices, now abandoned in Europe, were first refuted here. What is justly termed a national character, has been given to the medical science of America, and American medical literature is circulated and read in Europe, where several American medical discoveries and improvements have been claimed as European. Anatomy, the most stationary of the medical sciences, is ardently cultivated, and has been advanced by discoveries in the American schools. Valuable contributions have been made to physiology, and more rational views inculcated of animal economy. An American discovery in chemistry has distinguished its author throughout Europe: Where the achievements of this master spirit of sciences, while, to be sure they leave ours behind, yet encourage it to an application full of promise. It is a merit of the American schools, at least, to have accurately defined the bounds of chemistry and physiology…
American physicians are probably unrivalled in the knowledge and use of what are termed the heroic remedies. They have introduced new and rational doctrines respecting the operation of remedies; combatting the notion of their reception into the circulation, and referring it to the principle of sympathy. They deny the asserted identity of remedies; believing, that they have succeeded in proving an essential difference in their operation, not only in degree, but in effect. The American improvements in Surgery are too numerous, and though not the less important, too minute and technical, to be generalised in a summary. Its apparatus, mechanism, and operations, have been improved by a theory and practice equal in science, skill and success, to any in the world. But its greatest melioration is philosophical. The founder of most of the improvements in surgery alluded to, deeming its most skillful operations, but imperfect ions in the preserving art, reserves them for its last resort, never to be performed till all means of natural cure prove abortive…American medical science and skill have outstripped those of the rest of the world, Europe included, in the character and treatment of epidemics and pestilences. In this great field, Europe has done little, while the progress of America has been great. Bigoted to antiquated notions the medical science of the old world has stagnated for centuries in prejudices, which have been expelled in the new, where the causes, nature, laws, and treatment of these destructive visitations have been ascertained and systematised. English critics particularly dwell with exultation on their supposed late triumphs over these distempers. Divested of the long prevalent notion of debility and putrescency, they now urge depletion as if the suggestion were their own, whereas thirty years have elapsed since the physicians of this country were in the full employment of it.
The theory and practice of medicine, the fearless and generous resistance of pestilential disease, suggest a recollection of a late medical professor here, whose works are in the libraries of the learned in many countries, and in several languages, whose fascinating manners and eloquent lectures largely contributed to the foundation of a flourishing school, whose zeal, if some times excessive, was characteristic of genius, and the pioneer of success; whose services, let me add, as a patriot, and a philanthropist, shed a divine lustre on his career as a physician. The first leading man to lay down his life in battle in the American revolution, was an eminent physician. The best historian of that period, was also an eminent physician: And in a country, which knows no grade above that of the eminent in learning and usefulness, there have been, and there are, many others of this profession to whom more than professional celebrity belongs. They frequently unite political with professional distinctions. Many of the members of this profession, have filled various stations in every branch of our government. Many of them at this moment, occupy high executive and legislative public offices. The pernicious and degrading system which subdivides labour infinitesimally – a system useful perhaps for pin‐makers, but most injurious in all the thinking occupations – has no countenance in America. The American physician practices pharmacy, surgery, midwifery; and is cast on his own resources for success in all he does: The consequence of which is, that he is forced to think more for himself, and of course to excel…In this country, medical skill is much more generally distributed. Every hamlet, every region abounds with educated physicians, whose qualifications to be sure, ultimately depend much on their opportunities: But who, at least for the most part, begin with the recommendations of diplomas.
Perhaps the most humane discovery in modem medicine is vaccination; to which America has no claim: though superior intelligence here has given it much greater effect, than among the ignorant populace of Europe. The doctrine of non‐contagion in pestilential distempers, should it be established, must also enjoy great credit as a triumph for humanity. The most distressing prejudices concerning contagion, are not yet extirpated in Europe…