It was a beautiful custom among some of the Indian tribes, once a year, to extinguish all the fires, and, by a day of fasting and profound devotion, to propitiate the Great Spirit for the coming year. They then produced sparks by friction, and lit up afresh the altar and the hearth with the new fire.
And this was considered as the most precious and sacred gift from one person to another, binding them in bonds of inviolate friendship for that year, certainly; with a hope that the same might endure through life. From the young to the old it was a token of the highest respect; from the old to the young, of a great expectation.
To us might it be granted to solemnize the new year by the mental renovation of which this ceremony was the eloquent symbol! Might we extinguish, if only for a day, those fires where an uninformed religious ardor has led to human sacrifices; which have warmed the household, but, also, prepared pernicious, more than wholesome, viands for their use.
The Indian produced the new spark by friction. It would be a still more beautiful emblem, and expressive of the more extended powers of civilized men, if we should draw the spark from the centre of our system and the source of light by means of the burning glass.
Where, then, is to be found the new knowledge, the new thought, the new hope, that shall begin a new year in a spirit not discordant with ‘the acceptable year of the Lord?’ Surely, there must be existing, if latent—some sparks of new fire, pure from ashes and from smoke, worthy to be offered as a new year’s gift? Let us look at the signs of the times, to see in what spot this fire shall be sought—on what fuel it may be fed. The ancients poured out libations of the choicest juices of Earth, to express their gratitude to the Power that had enabled them to be sustained from her bosom. They enfranchised slaves, to show that devotion to the Gods induced a sympathy with men.
Let us look about us to see with what rites, what acts of devotion, this modern Christian nation greets the approach of the New Year; by what signs she denotes the clear morning of a better day, such as may be expected when the eagle has entered into covenant with the dove!
This last week brings tidings that a portion of the inhabitants of Illinois, the rich and blossoming region on which every gift of nature has been lavished to encourage the industry and brighten the hopes of man, not only refuses a libation to the Power that has so blessed their fields, but declares that the dew is theirs, and the sunlight is theirs, that they live from and for themselves, acknowledging no obligation and no duty to God or to man.
One man has freed a slave,—but a great part of the nation is now busy in contriving measures that may best rivet the fetters on those now chained, and forge them strongest for millions yet unborn.
Selfishness and tyranny no longer wear the mask; they walk haughtily abroad, affronting with their hard-hearted boasts and brazen resolves the patience of the sweet heavens. National Honor is trodden under foot for a National bribe, and neither sex nor age defends the redresser of injuries from the rage of the injurer.
Yet, amid these reports which come flying on the paper wings of every day, the scornful laugh of the gnomes, who begin to believe they can buy all souls with their gold, was checked a moment when the aged knight of the better cause answered the challenge—truly in keeping with the ‘chivalry’ of the time.—“You are in the wrong, and I will kick you,” by holding the hands of the chevalier till those around secured him. We think the man of old must have held him with his eye, as physicians of moral power can insane patients;—great are his exploits for his age, he cannot have much bodily strength, unless by miracle.
The treatment of Mr. Adams and Mr. Hoar seems to show that we are not fitted to emulate the savages in preparation for the new fire. The Indians know how to reverence the old and the wise.
Among the manifestos of the day it is impossible not to respect that of the Mexican Minister for the manly indignation with which he has uttered truths, however deep our mortification at hearing them. It has been observed for the last fifty years that the tone of diplomatic correspondence was much improved as to simplicity and directness. Once, diplomacy was another name for intrigue, and a paper of this sort was expected to be a mesh of artful phrases, through which the true meaning might be detected, but never actually grasped. Now here is one where an occasion being afforded by the unutterable folly of the corresponding party, a Minister speaks the truth as it lies in his mind, directly and plainly, as man speaks to man. His statement will command the sympathy of the civilized world.
As to the State papers that have followed, they are of a nature to make the Austrian despot sneer, as he counts in his oratory the woolen stockings he has got knit by imprisoning all the free geniuses in his dominions. He, at least, only appeals to the legitimacy of blood; these dare appeal to legitimacy, as seen from a moral point of view. History will class them with the brags of sharpers, who bully their victims about their honor, while they stretch forth their hands for the gold they have won with loaded dice.—“Do you dare to say the dice are loaded? Prove it; and I will shoot you for injuring my honor.”
The Mexican makes his gloss on the page of American Honor. The girl in the Kentucky prison on that of her Freedom. The delegate of Massachusetts on that of her Union. Ye stars! whose image she has placed on her banner, answer us! Are not your Unions of a different sort? Do they not work to other results?
Yet we cannot lightly be discouraged or alarmed as to the destiny of our Country. The whole history of its discovery and early progress indicates too clearly the purposes of Heaven with, regard to it. Could we relinquish the thought that it was destined for the scene of a new and illustrious act in the great drama, the Past would be inexplicable, no less than the Future without hope.
Last week, which brought us so many unpleasant notices of home affairs, brought also an account of the magnificent telescope lately perfected by the Earl of Rosse. With means of observation, now almost divine, we perceive that some of the brightest stars, of which Sirius is one, have dark companions, whose presence is, by earthly spectators, only to be detected from the inequalities they cause in the motions of their radiant companions.
It was a new and most imposing illustration how, in carrying out the Divine scheme, of which we have as yet only spelt out the few first lines, the dark is made to wait upon and, in the full result, harmonize with, the bright. The sense of such pervasive analogies should enlarge patience and animate hope.
Yet, if offences must come, wo be to those by whom they come, and that of men, who sin against a heritage like ours, is as that of the backsliders among the Chosen People of the elder day. We too have been chosen, and plain indications been given, by a wonderful conjunction of auspicious influences, that the ark of human hopes has been placed for the present in our charge. Wo be to those who betray this trust! On their heads are to be heaped the curses of unnumbered ages!
Can he sleep, who in this past year has wickedly or lightly committed acts calculated to injure the few or many—who has poisoned the ears and the hearts he might have rightly informed—who has steeped in tears the cup of thousands—who has put back, as far as in him lay, the accomplishments of general good and happiness for the sake of his selfish aggrandizement or selfish luxury—who has sold to a party what is meant for mankind? If such sleep, dreadful shall be the waking.
Deliver us from evil. In public or in private it is easy to give pain—hard to give pure pleasure; easy to do evil—hard to do good. God does His good in the whole, despite of bad men; but only from a very pure mind will He permit original good to proceed in the day. Happy those who can feel that during the past year, they have, to the best of their knowledge, refrained from evil. Happy those who determine to proceed in this by the light of Conscience. It is not but a spark; yet from that spark may be drawn fire-light enough for worlds and systems of worlds, and that light is ever new.
And with this thought rises again the memory of the fair lines that light has brought to veiw in the histories of some men. If the nation tends to wrong, there are yet present the ten just men. The hands and lips of this great form may be impure, but pure blood flows yet within her veins—the blood of the noble hands who first sought these shores from the British isles and France for conscience sake. Too many have come since for bread alone. We cannot blame—we must not reject them, but let us teach them, in giving them bread, to prize that salt, too, without which all on earth must lose its savor. Yes! let us teach them, not rail at their inevitable ignorance and unenlightened action, but teach them and their children as our own; if we do so, their children and ours may yet act as one body obedient to one soul, and if we should act rightly now, that soul a pure soul.
And ye, sable hands, forced hither against your will, kept down here now by a force hateful to Nature, a will alien from God; it does sometimes seem as if the Avenging Angel wore your hue and would place in your hands the sword to punish the cruel injustice of our fathers, the selfish perversity of the sons. Yet, are there no means of atonement? Must the innocent suffer with the guilty? Teach us, oh All-Wise! the clue out of this labyrinth, and if we faithfully encounter its darkness and dread, and emerge into clear light, wilt Thou not bid us ‘go and sin no more?’
Meanwhile, let us proceed as we can, picking our steps along the slippery road. If we keep the right direction, what matters it that we must pass through so much mud? The promise is sure:
If, undismayed, we reach the hills where the true olives grow.
The olive-groves, which we must seek in cold and damp,
Alone can yield us oil for a perpetual lamp,
Then sound again the golden horn with promise ever new;
The princely deer will ne’er be caught by thine that slack pursue;
Let the ‘White Doe’of angel hopes be always kept in view.
Yes! sound again the horn—of Hope the golden horn!
Answer it, flutes and pipes, from valleys still and lorn;
Warders, from your high towers, with rumps of silver scorn,
And harps in maidens’ bowers, with strings from deep hearts torn,
All answer to the horn—of Hope the golden horn!
There is still hope, there is still an America, while private lives are rules by the Puritan, by the Huguenot conscientiousness, and while there are some who can repudiate, not their debts, but the supposition that they will not strive to pay their debts to their age, and to Heaven who gave them a share in its great promise.*
“New Year’s Day.” New-York Daily Tribune, 1 January 1845, p. 1.