Such is the title of a volume just issued from the press:—a grand title, which suggests the epic poet or the philosopher. The purpose, however, of the work is modest. It is merely a compilation, from which those who have lived at some distance from the great highway may get answers to their questions, as to events and circumstances which have escaped them. It is one of those books which will be valued in the back-woods.
It would be a great book, indeed, and one that would require the eye and heart of a great man,—great as a judge, great as a seer, and great as a prophet—that could select for us and present in harmonious outline the true American facts. To select the right point of view supposes command of the field.
Such a man must be attentive, a quiet observer of the slighter signs of growth. But he must not be one to dwell superstitiously on details, nor one to hasten to conclusions. He must have the eye of the eagle, the courage of the lion, the patience of the worm, and faith such as is the prerogative of Man alone, and of Man on the highest step of his culture.
We doubt not the destiny of our Country, that she is destined to accomplish great things for Human Nature and be the mother of a nobler race, perhaps, than the world has yet known. But she has been so false to the scheme made out at her nativity that it is now hard to say which way that destiny points. We can hardly point out the true American facts, without some idea of the true character of America. Only one thing seems clear, that the energy here at work is very great, though the men employed in carrying out its purposes may have generally no more individual ambition to understand those purposes or cherish noble ones of their own, than the coral insect through whose restless working new continents are upheaved from Ocean’s breast.
Such a man passing in a boat from one extremity of the Mississipi to another, and observing every object on the shore as he passed, would yet learn nothing of universal or general value, because he has no principles, even in hope, by which to classify them. American facts! Why! what has been done that marks individuality? Among men there is Franklin! he is a fact, and an American fact. Niagara is another, in a different style. The way that newspapers and other periodicals are managed is American. A go-ahead, fearless adroitness is American; so is not, exclusively, the want of strict honor. But we look about in vain for traits as characteristic of what may be individually the character of the Nation, as we can find at a glance of Spain, England, France or Turkey. America is as yet but an European babe:—some new ways and motions she has, consequent on a new position, but that soul that may shape her mature life scarce begins to know itself yet. One thing is certain: we live in a large place, no less morally than physically; wo to him who lives meanly there and knows the exhibitions of selfishness and vanity as the only American facts.*
* By Geo. P. Putnam, of Wiley & Putnam—London, 1845.
“American Facts.” New-York Daily Tribune, 19 May 1845, p. 1.