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THE 4th OF MAY, 1814,
DE WITT CLINTON, LL. D.
PRESIDENT OF THE LITERARY AND PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY OF NEW-YORK,
INTRODUCTORY DISCOURSE, &e.
In compliance with the solemnity expected on this occasion, I rise to address this respectable audience. For the first time has an association been established and incorporated in this state, devoted to literature and philosophy. Although I have always ardently cherished the love of letters, yet I am fully sensible that neither my attainments nor my talents entitle me to this place. On my zeal and my industry, however, the fullest reliance may be placed; for, although not a minister officiating at the holy altar of science, yet you shall always find me a sincere and humble worshipper at the vestibule of the temple. It is with societies as it is with individuals; if the first impression be favourable, it gives a tone to character which is attended with the most auspicious effects in every future stage of existence: As somewhat of the colour of our social character may depend on this first appearance on the theatre of public observation, you may judge of my embarrassment on this occasion.
The solemn considerations which grow out of an establishment of this nature must press upon our sensibility with redoubled force, when we reflect upon the accusations which are brought against our country by the literati of Europe. The celebrated Buffon has declared that, in
America, animated nature is weaker, less active, and more circumscribed in the variety of its productions, than in the old world; that there is some combination of elements and other physical causes, something that opposes its amplification; that there are obstacles to the development, and perhaps to the formation, of large germs, and that even those which, from the kindly influences of another climate, have acquired their complete form and expansion, shrink and diminish under a niggardly air and an unprolific land! Dr. Robertson has also said, that "the principle of life seems to have been less active and vigorous here than in the ancient continent;" and that "nature was not only less prolific in the new world, but she appears likewise to have been less vigorous in her productions." Need we add to this the obloquy which has been cast upon our country by the herd of tourists and travellers who have attempted to describe it. With some of them, our soil is destitute of prolific power, our atmosphere teems with disease and death, our lives are comparatively short, our institutions are tottering under debility and decay, our national character is marked with all the traits of premature corruption and precocious turpitude, our manners are barren of refinement, and our minds are destitute of learning, and incapable of great intellectual exertion. When we adventure into the fields of science, the master spirits who preside over transatlantic literature view us with a sneer of supercilious contempt, or with a smile of complaisant superiority, and consider our productions as oases in the regions of Africa, deriving their merit less from intrinsic beauty and excellence, than from their contrast with the surrounding deserts. And it has even been gravely proposed as a subject for inquiry, whether the discovery of America has been advantageous or prejudicial to mankind!*
* See Note A.
While we look down upon these aspersions, it is due to candour, and a just estimate of our own character, to acknowledge that, generally speaking, we are far behind our European brethren in the pursuits of literature. The enterprising spirit, which distinguishes our national character, has exhibited itself in every shape except that of a marked devotion to the interests of science. There is nothing in the fixed operation of physical or moral causes, nothing in our origin, in our migration, or in our settlement; nothing in our climate, our soil, our government, our religion, our manners, or our morals, which can attach debility to our minds, or can prevent the cultivation of literature. Two hundred years have nearly elapsed since the first European settlement was made in this state; and if, in the course of two centuries, labouring under difficulties of various kinds, we have not attained the first elevation in the ranks of knowledge, surely sufficient reasons may be assigned without impeaching the character of our minds, or degrading us in the scale of being. Although in a review of these causes, which I shall now attempt with all possible brevity, my remarks relate particularly to this state, they will apply, generally speaking, to the United States at large.
Ancient migrations were generally the offspring of want. Sometimes a whole people departed from their natal soil, and sought for better destinies in a milder climate, and a more prolific land. Sometimes, when population became surcharged, and subsistence difficult, a portion of a nation would change its habitation: at other times, colonies were planted for the purpose of retaining conquered countries, and checking the predatory incursions of barbarian hordes. A different principle seems to have led to the first colonization of America. The discovery of this western world appears to have infused a new spirit into Europe: the imaginations of men were dazzled with fabulous stories of dorados, or mountains of gold, and of fountains by which the human race flourished in immortal youth. In this land the god of wealth was supposed to have