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The Golden Age Post by :promediasys Category :Essays Author :George William Curtis Date :November 2011 Read :2017

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The Golden Age

In this country we are inclined to believe that the epoch that followed the Revolution was one of the utmost purity and simplicity. But it was one of the "fathers" who said to a friend upon the adjournment of the first Congress, "Do you suppose such a set of rascals will ever assemble again?" In his diary John Adams appeals to the calmer mind and juster judgment of the coming age--meaning that in which we live, and from which we look wistfully back to old John Adams's cocked hat and knee-breeches as the symbols of a nobler time.

Then there is Fisher Ames, one of the famous orators and conspicuous leaders of the beginning of the century, who, studying his country at the time to which we recur as the age of high purpose and lofty men, bewails the sordidness, selfishness, and degradation around him. "Of course," he says, seventy years ago, "the single passion that engrosses us, the only avenue to consideration and importance in our society, is the accumulation of property: our inclinations cling to gold, and are bedded in it as deeply as that precious ore in the mine.... As experience evinces that popularity--in other words, consideration and power--is to be procured by the meanest of mankind, the meanest in spirit and understanding, and in the worst of ways, it is obvious that at present the incitement to genius is next to nothing."

We might suppose that we were listening to a contemporary cynic; and whoever reads the history of the politics of that time will find that "the better days of the republic" were very like the days in which we deplore their disappearance. When Mr. Ames died, Mr. John Quincy Adams wrote a review of his works, in which, with the equanimity and moderation of the golden age, he remarks, "It is a melancholy contemplation of human nature to see a mind so highly cultivated and so richly gifted as that of Mr. Ames soured and exasperated into the very ravings of a bedlamite." He then proceeds to speak of those who, without believing Mr. Ames's "absurd and inconsistent political creed," are selfishly eager for its propagation, being "choice spirits, amounting to at most six hundred" (their name was the Essex Junto!), and who hold that "the porcelain must rule over the earthenware, the blind and sordid multitude must put themselves, bound hand and foot, into the custody of the lynx-eyed, seraphic souls of the six hundred, and then all together must go and squat for protection under the hundred hands of the British Briareus."

To this gentle strain Mr. John Lowell replied in a similar vein, beginning by speaking of the malignity of Mr. Adams's sarcasm, and of his following Mr. Ames to the grave with crocodile tears, informing him that he had no need to assail Mr. Ames's friends with all the venom of an infuriated partisan, because he had already obtained his reward for "ratting" from the Federalists, and this act of gratitude to his benefactors was unnecessary. Mr. Lowell ends his reply by saying that in the course of a short political life Mr. Adams had received more than seventy thousand dollars from the public, and that while no man pitied Mr. Ames, "Mr. Adams is an object of sincere commiseration with many a man of high and honorable feelings, while it is to be doubted whether he is the object of envy to any man on earth."

These are glimpses of the golden age, of that "better day" of the republic with which our own is so often and so injuriously contrasted. Indeed, there is no finer cordial for despondency than a glance at the paradise that hovers behind our retreating steps. The mountain traveller turns and sees a lovely vision floating in the sky.

"How faintly flushed, how phantom-fair,
Was Monte Rosa, hanging there--
A thousand shadowy-pencil'd valleys,
And snowy dells in a golden air."

Good lack! he cries, are those the crags and precipices along which I slid and stumbled in terror of my life? The hanging gardens of the past, the halcyon epoch of our history, the lost paradise of our fathers, are all crags and precipices along which the race and our country have stumbled and slid. If any man is disposed to think that he has fallen upon evil times, let him open his history. It is a marvellous tonic.

Does he think republics ungrateful? Look at Mr. Motley's vivid portrait of John of Barneveld. When he was seventy-two years old he writes from his prison to his wife and family: "I receive at this moment the very heavy and sorrowful tidings that I, an old man, for all my services done well and faithfully to the fatherland for so many years ... must prepare myself to die to-morrow." Does he think irreligion undermining society? Look into Smiles's "Huguenots in France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes." For attending Huguenot meetings men were captured by soldiers and sentenced to the galleys, mostly for life. They were chained by the neck with murderers and other criminals, and were quartered in Paris in the dungeon of the Chateau de la Tournelle. Thick iron collars were attached by iron chains to the beams. The collar was closed around the prisoner's neck, and riveted with blows of a hammer upon an anvil. Twenty men in pairs were chained to each beam. They could not sleep lying; they could not sleep sitting or standing up straight, for the beam was too high for the one and too low for the other. This was done in the name of religion. The age of Louis the Fourteenth is called one of the great epochs of the world. It was an age in which the king's mistress persuaded him to slaughter and banish hundreds of thousands of his subjects because of their religious faith, and the great preachers of his church applauded, and the Holy Father approved, and even Madame de Sévigné, whose letters some young ladies at Newport and Saratoga are diligently reading, and sighing for the good old witty times in which she lived, wrote of the most innocent and most devoted men: "Hanging is quite a refreshment to me. They have just taken twenty-four or thirty of these men, and are going to throw them off."

The golden age is not yesterday or to-morrow, but to-day. It is the age in which we live, not that in which somebody else lived. The trouble, vexation, corruption, weakness, selfishness, meanness, which dismay us and tempt us to despair are the old lions that have always beset the path. No man is born out of time; and what man living to-day, who is not pinched with poverty or disease, would have lived a thousand years ago? If our politics seem mean and our men small, how does Alfred's time seem, or the glory of Athens, or the court of Louis the Fourteenth, or Luther's Germany? What did Jefferson think of Hamilton, or the Aurora say of Washington?

(The end)
George William Curtis's essay: Golden Age

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