Chapter IV. A Short Chapter . . .

From: At Home and Abroad, or Things and Thoughts in Europe (1856)
Author: Margaret Fuller Ossoli
Published: and Company 1856 Boston


  CHICAGO had become interesting to me now, that I knew it as the portal to so fair a scene. I had become interested in the land, in the people, and looked sorrowfully on the lake on which I must soon embark, to leave behind what I had just begun to enjoy.

  Now was the time to see the lake. The July moon was near its full, and night after night it rose in a cloudless sky above this majestic sea. The heat was excessive, so that there was no enjoyment of life, except in the night; but then the air was of that delicious temperature, worthy of orange-groves. However, they were not wanted;—nothing was, as that full light fell on the faintly rippling waters, which then seemed boundless.

  The most picturesque objects to be seen from Chicago on the inland side were the lines of Hoosier wagons. These rude farmers, the large first product of the soil, travel leisurely along, sleeping in their wagons by night, eating only what they bring with them. In the town they observe the same plan, and trouble no luxurious hotel for board and lodging. Here they look like foreign peasantry, and contrast well with the many Germans, Duthc, and Irish. In the country it is very pretty to see them prepared to “camp out” at night, their horses taken out of harness, and they lounging under the trees, enjoying the evening meal.

  On the lake-side it is fine to see the great boats come panting in from their rapid and marvelous journey. Especially at night the motion of their lights is very majestic.

  When the favorite boats, the Great Western and Illinois, are going out, the town is thronged with people from the South and farther West, to go in them. These moonlight nights I would hear the French rippling and fluttering familiarly amid the rude ups and downs of the Hoosier dialect.
At the hotel were daily to be seen new faces, and new stories to be learned. And any one who has a large acquaintance may be pretty sure of meeting some of them here in the course of a few days.

  At Chicago I read again Philip Van Artevelde, and certain passages in it will always be in my mind associated with the deep sound of the lake, as heard in the night. I used to read a short time at night, and then open the blind to look out. The moon would be full upon the lake, and thr calm breath, pure light, and the deep voice harmonized well with the thought of the Flemish here. When will this country have such a man? It is what she needs; no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist, but a man whose eye reads the heavens, while his feet step firmly on the ground, and his hands are strong and dexterous for the use of human implements. A man religious, virtuous, and—sagacious; a man of universal sympathies, but self-possessed; a man who knows the region of emotion, though he is not its slave; a man to whom this world is no mere spectacle, or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value, yet who, if his own play be true, heeds not what he loses by the falsehood of others;—a man who hives from the past, yet knows that its honey can but moderately avail him; whose comprehensive eye scans the present, neither infatuated by its golden lures, nor chilled by its many ventures; who possesses prescience, as the wise man must, but not so far as to be driven mad to-day by the gift which discerns to-morrow;—when there is such a man for America, the thought which urges her on will be expressed.


  Now that I am about to leave Illinois, feelings of regret and admiration come over me, as if parting with a friend whom we have not had the good sense to prize and study, while hours of association, never perhaps to return, were granted. I have fixed my attention almost exclusively on the picturesque beauty of this region; it was so new, so inspiring. But I ought to have been more interested in the housekeeping of this magnificent State, in the education she is giving her children, in their prospects.

  Illinois is, at present, a by-word of reproach among the nations, for the careless, prodigal course by which, in early youth, she has endangered her honor. But you cannot look about you there, without seeing that there are resources abundant to retrieve, and soon to retrieve, far greater errors, if they are only directed with wisdom.

  Would that the simple maxim, that honesty is the best policy, might be laid to heart; that a sense of the true aims of life elevate the tone of politics and trade till public and private honor become identical; that the Western man, in that crowded and exciting life which develops his faculties so fully for to-day, might not forget that better part which could not be taken from him; that the Western woman take that interest and acquire that light for the education of the children, for which she alone has leisure!

  This is indeed the great problem of the place and time. If the next generation be well prepared for their work, ambitious of good and skilful to achieve it, the children of the present settlers may be leaven enough for the mass constantly increasing by immigration. And how much is this needed, where those rude foreigners can so little understand the best interests of the land they seek for bread and shelter! It would be a happiness to aid in this good work, and interweave the white and golden threads into the fate of Illinois. It would be a work worthy the devotion of any mind.

  In the little that I saw was a large proportion of intelligence, activity, and kind feeling; but, if there was much serious laying to heart of the true purposes of life, it did not appear in the tone of conversation.

  Having before me the Illinois Guide-Book, I find there mentioned, as a “visionary,” one of the men I should think of as able to be a truly valuable settler in a new and great country,—Morris Birkbeck, of England. Since my return, I have read his journey to, and letters from, Illinois. I see nothing promised there that will not surely belong to the man who knows how to seek for it.

  Mr. Birkbeck was an enlightened philanthropist, the rather that he did not wish to sacrifice himself to his fellow men, but to benefit them with all he had, and was, and wished. He thought all the creatures of a divine love ought to be happy and ought to be good, and that his own soul and his own life were not less precious than those of others; indeed, that to keep these healthy was his only means of a healthy influence.

  But his aims were altogether generous. Freedom, the liberty of law, not license; not indolence, work for himself and children and all men, but under genial and poetic influences;—these were his aims. How different from those of the new settlers in general! And into his mind so long ago shone steadily the two thoughts, now so prevalent in thinking and aspiring minds, of “Resist not evil,” and “Every man his own priest, and the heart the only true church.”

  He has lost credit for sagacity from accidental circumstances. It does not appear that his position was ill chosen, or his means disproportioned to his ends, had he been sustained by funds from England, as he had a right to expect. But through the profligacy of a near relative, commissioned to collect these dues, he was disappointed of them, and his paper protested and credit destroyed in our cities, before he became aware of his danger.

  Still, though more slowly and with more difficulty, he might have succeeded in his designs. The English farmer might have made the English settlement a model for good methods and good aims to all that region, had not death prematurely cut short his plans.

  I have wished to say these few words, because the veneration with which I have inspired for his character by those who knew him well, makes me impatient of this careless blame being passed from mouth to mouth and book to book. Success is no test of a man’s endeavor, and Illinois will yet, I hope, regard this man, who knew so well what ought to be, as one of her true patriarchs, the Abraham of a promised land.

  He was one too much before his time to be soon valued; but the time is growing up to him, and will understand his mild philanthropy and clear, large views.

  I subjoin the account of his death, given me by a friend, as expressing, in fair picture, the character of the man.

  “Mr. Birkbeck was returning from the seat of government, whither be had been on public business, and was accompanied by his son Bradford, a youth of sixteen or eighteen. It was necessary to cross a ford, which was rendered difficult by the swelling of the stream. Mr. B.’s horse was unwilling to plunge into the water, so his son offered to go first, and he followed. Bradford’s horse had just gained footing on the opposite shore, when he looked back and perceived his father was dismounted, struggling in the water, and carried down by the current.

  “Mr. Birkbeck could not swim; Bradford could; he dismounted, and plunged into the stream to save his father. He got to him before he sank, held him up above water, and told him to take hold of his collar, and he would swim ashore with him. Mr. B. did so, and Bradford exerted all his strength to stem the current and reach the shore at a point where they could land; but encumbered by his own clothing and his father’s weight, he made no progress; and when Mr. B. perceived this, he, with his characteristic calmness and resolution, gave up his hold of his son, and, motioning to him to save himself, resigned himself to his fate. His son reached the shore, but was too much overwhelmed by his loss to leave it. He was found by some travellers; many hours after, seated on the margin of the stream, with his face in his hands, stupefied with grief.

  “The body was found, and on the countenance was the sweetest smile; and Bradford said, ‘Just so he smiled upon me when he let go and pushed me away from him.’”

  Many men can choose the right and best on a great occasion, but not many can, with such ready and serene decision, lay aside even life, when it is right and best. This little narrative touched my imagination in very early youth, and often has come up, in lonely vision, that face, serenely smiling above the current which bore him away to another realm of being.

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