The Project Gutenberg EBook of England, by Charles Dudley Warner
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Author: Charles Dudley Warner
Release Date: December 6, 2004 [EBook #3122]
*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK ENGLAND ***
Produced by David Widger
By Charles Dudley Warner
England has played a part in modern history altogether out of proportion to its size. The whole of Great Britain, including Ireland, has only eleven thousand more square miles than Italy; and England and Wales alone are not half so large as Italy. England alone is about the size of North Carolina. It is, as Franklin, in 1763, wrote to Mary Stevenson in London, "that petty island which, compared to America, is but a stepping-stone in a brook, scarce enough of it above water to keep one's shoes dry."
A considerable portion of it is under water, or water-soaked a good part of the year, and I suppose it has more acres for breeding frogs than any other northern land, except Holland. Old Harrison says that the North Britons when overcome by hunger used to creep into the marshes till the water was up to their chins and there remain a long time, "onlie to qualifie the heats of their stomachs by violence, which otherwise would have wrought and beene readie to oppresse them for hunger and want of sustinance." It lies so far north—the latitude of Labrador—that the winters are long and the climate inhospitable. It would be severely cold if the Gulf Stream did not make it always damp and curtain it with clouds. In some parts the soil is heavy with water, in others it is only a thin stratum above the chalk; in fact, agricultural production could scarcely be said to exist there until fortunes made in India and in other foreign adventure enabled the owners of the land to pile it knee-deep with fertilizers from Peru and elsewhere. Thanks to accumulated wealth and the Gulf Stream, its turf is green and soft; figs, which will not mature with us north of the capes of Virginia, ripen in sheltered nooks in Oxford, and the large and unfrequent strawberry sometimes appears upon the dinner-table in such profusion that the guests can indulge in one apiece.
Yet this small, originally infertile island has been for two centuries, and is today, the most vital influence on the globe. Cast your eye over the world upon her possessions, insular and continental, into any one of which, almost, England might be dropped, with slight disturbance, as you would transfer a hanging garden. For any parallel to her power and possessions you must go back to ancient Rome. Egypt under Thotmes and Seti overran the then known world and took tribute of it; but it was a temporary wave of conquest and not an assimilation. Rome sent her laws and her roads to the end of the earth, and made an empire of it; but it was an empire of barbarians largely, of dynasties rather than of peoples. The dynasties fought, the dynasties submitted, and the dynasties paid the tribute. The modern "people" did not exist. One battle decided the fate of half the world—it might be lost or won for a woman's eyes; the flight of a chieftain might settle the fate of a province; a campaign might determine the allegiance of half Asia. There was but one compact, disciplined, law-ordered nation, and that had its seat on the Tiber.
Under what different circumstances did England win her position! Before she came to the front, Venice controlled, and almost monopolized, the trade of the Orient. When she entered upon her career Spain was almost omnipotent in Europe, and was in possession of more than half the Western world; and besides Spain, England had, wherever she went, to contend for a foothold with Portugal, skilled in trade and adventure; and with Holland, rich, and powerful on the sea. That is to say, she met everywhere civilizations old and technically her superior. Of the ruling powers, she was the least in arts and arms. If you will take time to fill out this picture, you will have some conception of the marvelous achievements of England, say since the abdication of the Emperor Charles V.
This little island is today the centre of the wealth, of the solid civilization, of the world. I will not say of art, of music, of the lighter social graces that make life agreeable; but I will say of the moral forces that make progress possible and worth while. Of this island the centre is London; of London the heart is "the City," and in the City you can put your finger on one spot where the pulse of the world is distinctly felt to beat. The Moslem regards the Kaaba at Mecca as the centre of the universe; but that is only a theological phrase. The centre of the world is the Bank of England in Leadenhall Street. There is not an occurrence, not a conquest or a defeat, a revolution, a panic, a famine, an abundance, not a change in value of money or material, no depression or stoppage in trade, no recovery, no political, and scarcely any great religious movement—say the civil deposition of the Pope or the Wahhabee revival in Arabia and India—that does not report itself instantly at this sensitive spot. Other capitals feel a local influence; this feels all the local influences. Put your ear at the door of the Bank or the Stock Exchange near by, and you hear the roar of the world.
But this is not all, nor the most striking thing, nor the greatest contrast to the empires of Rome and of Spain. The civilization that has gone forth from England is a self-sustaining one, vital to grow where it is planted, in vast communities, in an order that does not depend, as that of the Roman world did, upon edicts and legions from the capital. And it must be remembered that if the land empire of England is not so vast as that of Rome, England has for two centuries been mistress of the seas, with all the consequences of that opportunity—consequences to trade beyond computation. And we must add to all this that an intellectual and moral power has been put forth from England clear round the globe, and felt beyond the limits of the English tongue.
How is it that England has attained this supremacy—a supremacy in vain disputed on land and on sea by France, but now threatened by an equipped and disciplined Germany, by an unformed Colossus—a Slav and Tartar conglomerate; and perhaps by one of her own children, the United States? I will mention some of the things that have determined England's extraordinary career; and they will help us to consider her prospects. I name:
I. The Race. It is a mixed race, but with certain dominant qualities, which we call, loosely, Teutonic; certainly the most aggressive, tough, and vigorous people the world has seen. It does not shrink from any climate, from any exposure, from any geographic condition; yet its choice of migration and of residence has mainly been on the grass belt of the globe, where soil and moisture produce good turf, where a changing and unequal climate, with extremes of heat and cold, calls out the physical resources, stimulates invention, and requires an aggressive and defensive attitude of mind and body. The early history of this people is marked by two things:
( 1 ) Town and village organizations, nurseries of law, order, and self-dependence, nuclei of power, capable of indefinite expansion, leading directly to a free and a strong government, the breeders of civil liberty.
( 2 ) Individualism in religion, Protestantism in the widest sense: I mean by this,