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Colonial Life

To compare our own age with a former age only to show our cleverness and wisdom over those of our ancestors to laud and magnify our intelligence and civilization at the expense of our forefathers -- is at least of doubtful good taste. Certain it is that we, with the same environment, would be as our grandfathers were, would act, speak, and believe as they did. It cannot be demonstrated that the human race has, in historic times, advanced in mental capacity at all. Our modern civilization has produced no greater figures than Moses or Plato, Aristotle, Hannibal, or Ceasar. But to get nearer the time we are treating: Shakespeare died but nine years after the founding of Jamestown, and the same year (1616) Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood; yet with all our advance in civilization the world has not produced another Shakespeare, nor has any anatomist of our times made a discovery equal to that of Harvey. The year before (1619) the coming of the Pilgrim Fathers, Kepler discovered the three eternal astronomical laws that bear his name; and the year before Roger Williams hied away to his native land for a charter and the New England Confederacy was formed, Isaac Newton, the discoverer of the universal application of the law of gravitation, was born -- and Keplers and Newtons since then have been rare. We may twit the seventeenth century for its religious intolerance, its belief in witchcraft, its ignorance of steam navigation, of electric motors, and of sulphur matches -- and here is the answer: "We gave you Shakespeare and Harvey and Kepler and Newton." Verily, we are no better nor cleverer than were our ancestors; yet in one respect we are wiser than they -- superior to former generations: we do not persecute our Roger Bacons and Galileos; we welcome them as prophets of good. And herein lies the secret of modern progress. The result has been marvelous. Our moderway of living is quite unlike that of our fathers of colonial times, and a glance at the latter is not only interesting, but also highly profitable.


Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter X p. 197-198. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.




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