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There certainly is a period in the growth of states when aflorid health appears to circulate through the system,-a transitory period, and placed, I think, somewhere between the struggles of unformed empire, and the secure enjoyment of political greatness, while the stimulating effects of public agitations yet remain, and show themselves in a glowing vivacity of national character; and when there is a sufficient exemption from actual commotions, to give opportunity forthe display of these intellectual advantages. It is to be hoped, that the imaginations of speculators have carried this parallel beyond the truth, when they tell us, that'when once the race is once the national welfare is betrayed by individual profligacy, the period is then come which corresponds with the physical decay of old-age in man;
ing can restore the depart that luxury, grown into second nature, becomes necessary to the life of the state, interposing a lingering suspense between disease and dissolution. But though it be confessed, that the tumults of rising states are well fitted to provoke the powers of the mind, yet it seems clear that such commotions as take place in nations in an advanced stage of their history, are not productive of the same effects. They are very different from the fermentation of youthful ardours, and the effects which arise from the contests of emulation and the fierce desire of glory; they are ungenerous strifes, of which avarice, envy, and the baser passions, are the stimulants and fomenters. When the bottom is dry, we shake the vessel in vain. In the early struggles of rising Rome, contentions for power and superiority called forth individual manhood and exercised the national vigour ; in the declining periods of that great nation, the revolutions of state were only fruitful in changes for the worse, and hardened depravity into desperation. Few, indeed, of the nations of modern Europe are still standing at the highest point of their elevation. With a declination more or less rapid, they are leaving this altitude; and some, perhaps, viewing the course of ancient states and kingdoms, may think that this altitude can never again be arrived at by the same people, and never, perhaps, again be seen on the same spot, unless a fresh incursion of barbarous invaders shall again pitch upon it their desolating camps, and resolve things again into primæval rudeness, and the inceptive forms of society.
There is, to be sure, a spring and vigour in these green establishments, which after-times can seldom supply; and there does seem to be a succeeding period, when early agitations have yet an operation, and work upon a system of things that allows leisure for decoration and improvement: there then comes
sickly second childhood of national infirmity, wantoning in the imbecilities of decayed genius, and displaying the hoary puerilities of political dotage. I fear there is no magical kettle in which this national old-age can be concocted, and its virility reproduced: no revolutions seem able to affect this transformation; nor do the present convulsions of the political world promise any such compensation for the miseries they occasion. In the present view of things, however, there are circumstances in our own country that offer some consolation. The other nations of Europe have not proceeded as we have done in our political advancement. Many of them have forestalled their constitutional decay, by leaping at once out of barbarism into luxury, and have become rotten before they were ripe. In our own country, the growth and maturation of our
national strength has slowly and gradually proceeded, and a long time has been taken in travelling to its accomplishment. Initiated and exercised in its progress in almost every form of policy, it has at length obtained a constitution in which the best ingredients of different states of society are admirably compounded; and has brought with it a strong experimental sagacity on the spirit of governments and laws, that may ensure to it a longer continuance of its greatness than other nations have enjoyed. It seems, however, as if there was a certain self-moving principle, a sort of acquired mechanical velocity, in the progress of a great nation, that forces it on in a career of outward prosperity, long after the national spirit has been on the decline. It is much to be hoped, that this is not the case with England, and that the public spirit of the people has not for some time been moving in a direction retrograde to the national wealth and exterior aggrandisement. But it is not this exterior importance, and this political splendour, that cherishes the exertions of genius: true taste, and a noble relish of the arts, can only consist with a vigorous state of the public mind, and a prevailing bent towards objects that exalt the feelings and expand the intellect. Public spirit, national virtue, and a severe sense of the sublime in morals, must predominate greatly among a people, to inspire that true sentiment of taste, which is the foundation of intellectual eminence.
When the manners rest at a polished luxury, which finds its gratification in the real embellishments of life, and the national energies are not yet corrupted and enfeebled by excess; when the fierce prejudices of ruder times have made way for a gentler, though not less animated system of manners; it is then that literature and the arts are placed in
the soil most propitious to their growth. May we hope that this golden crisis is not over with our own country, and that its capacities in the elegant attainments of genius and taste have not yet arrived at their greatest allowable perfection?' It may be temporary, but the fact is too apparent, that there is, at this period, a general neglect of letters among us. The justness of this observation will be clear, while there remains to us a competent discernment between the true and the false sublime, between chaste and meretricious beauty in composition.
The same fate has attended the fine arts, under similar circumstances, in every period of history. And the hand of Providence, clearly discernible in this disposition, seems to have set certain bounds to national improvement, agreeably to his dispensations with respect to individuals, and to have stamped every thing in this preparatory world with the same revolutionary character. The plot of our adversities is laid in our felicities; and the consequence of a high degree of national prosperity is the subduction of national virtue, and the loss of that principle, that sentiment, and sensibility, which as they are the grace and support of taste and genius in the individual, so do they nourish the fine arts among a people, and give a happy turn to their collective industry. It is much too wide a position which some are so fond of maintaining, that commerce, luxury, or war, is favourable to the growth of genius. The dispassionate observer, and the sound politician, will think, perhaps, that there are kinds of luxury, and degrees of commerce, diametrically opposite in their effects; he will discern the proximity of extremes, and that excess of refinement is on the confines of barbarity itself; he will see, perhaps, that there is a degree
of commerce which administers only to depraved enjoyments, and nourishes capricious and sickly appetites; and that there is a degree of it which operates as the spring of political life, and opens all the streams of population and resource. So luxury, according to the nature of its objects, may decorate or debase society.
Of the effects of war, too, very different accounts may be given. In former times, ere funding systems were thought of, war brought only its immediate evils. Quarrels between states were the means of a circulation of treasure which peace
had accumulated, and supplied, in some measure, the want of commerce: in modern times it proceeds by an anticipation of resource, and contrives that future generations, though no sharers in its iniquity, shall yet be visited with its worst effects.
There cannot, to be sure, be imagined an æra more destructive than the present of the arts and polite literature. In the midst of times that are but too much calculated to repress the growth of genius, by the spirit of profligacy that prevails, and by a distraction of mean pursuits in social life, that enervates the force of every generous sentiment, there has
sprung up a wasting war, founded on an irreconcilable strife of opinion, and interwoven with so many domestic
wrongs and animosities, as to disclose no prospects of permanent peace to Europe, till the pride of ancestry and the ties of blood are forgotten.
Yet, in the midst of these national sorrows, luxury and debauchery are no where checked in their career, but are become, by the crooked chicane of modern policy, a great and standing source of reve
The English go sullenly on in their wasteful pleasures, and gild their despondency with unre