Friday, June 15, 2012

The Last Hope of Mankind

The Last Hope of Mankind
by David Trumbull -- June 15, 2012

Last week I discussed the first half of Daniel Webster's First Bunker Hill Oration; here, in time for Bunker Hill Day, is the rest.

After his brief summary of the history of America, from Christopher Columbus to the Battle of Bunker Hill, our guide, Daniel Webster, next surveys the fifty years since the battle and finds progress both in America and abroad although not at the same pace, which he compares to "vessels on a common tide, propelled by the gales at different rates, according to their several structure and management, but all moved forward by one mighty current, strong enough to bear onward whatever does not sink beneath it." Knowledge, he says, has triumphed and mankind in 1825 are, "better fed and better clothed . . . they are able also to enjoy more leisure; they possess more refinement and more self-respect. A superior tone of education, manners, and habits prevail." More importantly, he finds those past fifty years to have been given over to "the great question of politics and government."

“A great wheel of political revolution," says Webster, "began to move in America." He compares the guarded regularity and safety of that wheel's rotation in America with its irregular and violent impulses elsewhere and concludes that America was fortunate in the condition of the land and character of the populace at the time of our Revolution. Americans, while under the authority of the mother country, had, nevertheless, many years' experience of self-government as regards internal matters and were accustomed to some of the basic elements of our Constitution: representative bodies, division of power, and checks and balances. He credits the character of the American people -- sober, moral, and religious -- for the restraint from plunder and spoil that might otherwise have attended our Revolution.

Webster exhorts Americans to exult in the conviction that our Revolution was a beneficial example to the world. It is, however, an example that he would not necessarily apply as a template. "We are not propagandists," he says. "Wherever other systems are preferred . . . we leave the preference to be enjoyed." However, given the favorable circumstances of America's experiment in democratic government he concludes that if the representative system fail here, it is unlikely to ever succeed. With America, he asserts, rests "the last hope of mankind." this is a phrase that will be echoed by Abraham Lincoln in his December 1862 Annual Message to Congress ("the last best, hope of earth") and Ronald Reagan in his January 1974 "We Will Be a City on a Hill" speech ("the last best hope of man on earth").

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