The Age of the Americas



Delivered at the Parrish Memorial Art Museum, Southampton, Long Island, September 6, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 721-724.

THE Age of the Americas has come. The world's center of gravity—intellectual, economic and political—has after four hundred and fifty years followed Christopher Columbus across the Atlantic. Succeeding the long and amazing Ancient Age of Greece and Rome which for more than a thousand years gave to the Western World its leadership and its dominating character, first the Dark Ages and then the Middle Ages came to their respective ends. Then followed the Modern Age that drew its character and its strength from Western Europe and which is now in turn plainly passing into history. The score of independent nations which the Modern Age called into existence and to which it offered opportunity for independent government and policy, are now rocking in the balance. Whether or not they will continue to exist as independent economic and political units, is a question to be answered only by the outcome of the colossal military struggle which reaches and involves every part of the present-day world. In any event, it is already plain that the status of overseas colonies and dependencies of the various European nationswill be wholly changed. Indeed, they may not even continue to exist in their present form. The British Commonwealth of Nations will be still more greatly decentralized than it was in 1931 by the Statute of Westminster. The invaluable sources of supply for the economic life of the whole world to be found in the Dutch East Indies may— and probably will—come under some new form of political and economic control. In other words, the Age of Modern Europe is coming to its end. Oswald Spengler was a true prophet in much which he wrote concerning the Western World a quarter-century ago.

We in this Western World have not realized that before our own history began, all this had happened several times and on a huge scale. The ancient civilizations of the Far East, including those of China, India, Persia and Egypt, together with the Empires of Java and of Korea, both of which so long dominated the Pacific and all of which made literally stupendous achievements in the civilization of their day—are not only forgotten, but to most of us their onetime existence is wholly unknown. Their story will befound in the amazing book, Glimpses of World History, which has only just been written by a distinguished leader of the India of today, who was trained at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge. This book records and interprets with almost incredible scholarship and skill, outstanding world events from the beginning of human records of any sort and kind.

On this side of the Atlantic we shall celebrate on October 12, the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first landing of Christopher Columbus on what we have come to know as the Americas. The fact that the group of islands, on one of which Columbus landed, is known as the West Indies, makes it plain that it was thought that he had reached or nearly reached, the continent of Asia. It has taken full four centuries and a half for these then discovered lands to build the foundation upon which their present-day civilization rests, to face the new problems of government and of economic life which dominate this modern world and to prepare themselves, unexpectedly no doubt, to take that world leadership which is now being practically forced upon them. This is how the Age of the Americas has come.

The vast territory which constitutes North America, Central America and South America offers every sort and kind of climate, every sort and kind of soil, and every sort and kind of product which enters into and supports the economic life of a modern people. During the last four centuries and a half, the distance between the Americas and Europe has seemed very great. It is only one hundred years since it took from six to eight weeks to come by sailing vessel from Liverpool to New York. That journey is now made by air in but a few hours. The electric spark and man's amazing scientific discoveries and their adaptations during the past two generations, have absolutely revolutionized human life and given new meaning to the words human safety and human comfort. It would not be possible for our grandfathers, nor easy for even our fathers, to look out upon the world of today with anything but sheer amazement. How can such things be, is the question which they would ask.

The streams of emigration which began to flow across the Atlantic some three and a half centuries ago were, with the exception of the English settlers of Virginia and the Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts, without any dominating political purpose or aim. Their ruling motives were curiosity and economic gain or advantage. It was, however, the influence of the settlers of Virginia and of the Pilgrim Fathers, followed by William Penn and his group, which began the gigantic task of building on these distant and unknown lands the foundations of a new social and political order. These streams of trans-Atlantic migration soon extended to include France, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, Portugal and Spain. Still later, there came vast numbers from Germany, from Italy and from southeastern Europe. The diversities of habit and tradition which marked the home lives of these various peoples, while not leading to animosity and conflict on American soil, did make understanding and close cooperation matters of slow development. Every American who knows his country's history—and every American should know it—is familiar with what was happening during the middle of the eighteenth century, and knows what were the causes, economic and political, which led to the Declaration of Independence made on behalf and in the name of the thirteen colonies in North America, on July 4, 1776. Not many Americans of today, however, in their study of our European relationships, realize that this Declaration of Independence was a final step. It was not made until after those members of the Continental Congress who signed it had proposed to the King—following the battles of Lexington, of Concord and of Bunker Hill—almost precisely the relation between the American colonies and the Crown which now exists on the part of Canada and Australia and South Africa. The solution of the problem which confronted this new and independent nation was far removed from what was then the dominant intellectual and economic life of the world, and required the leadership, the judgment and the outstanding ability of a George Washington, a Benjamin Franklin, an Alexander Hamilton, a Thomas Jefferson, a John Adams and a John Marshall, There are no greater names than these in the whole history of government. They were all to be found among these widely scattered colonies spread over newly settled and almost wholly undeveloped territory.

The beginnings of the American Republic and the laying of its solid and, we trust, permanent foundations remain the outstanding happenings in the history of the modern world. The organization and the government of other nations have; almost without exception grown up slowly and over long periods of time. The government of the United States was called into being by a stroke of the pen under the leadership of statesmen and political philosophers of the highest order of ability. For an American to make this statement is not to boast. It is simply to record obvious historic facts.

Meanwhile and over a longer period of time the stream of migration from the older Latin countries in Europe was moving towards South and Central America. There, too, were huge distances and enormous areas of rich land to be settled and cultivated, together with opportunity for the building of new national units on independent foundations. This movement went forward rapidly year by year and brought into existence significant institutions of higher education which made it plain that these settlers on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean had not left the intellectual life behind. As early as 1538, an institution of higher learning existed in Santo Domingo and the University of Mexico dates from 1553. The distinguished University of San Marcos at Lima, Peru, probably the earliest institution of higher education of first rank to come into existence in the Americas, dates from 1551. This is almost a century before Harvard University, the first institution of higher education to come into existence on the North American continent north of the Rio Grande, was founded.

The huge mountain ranges which separate so many of the Latin American countries from each other made almost impossible the kind of interdependence which grew up among the British colonies in North America. So it was that while the North American colonies were building a single nation, the Latin American colonies were building a group of separate and independent—but in many respects interdependent—nations to the south.

To the north of the United States is the truly great Dominion of Canada which despite its relatively long history is only at the beginning of its usefulness and its power. Stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, its vast area of 3,694,000 square miles must be classed with the area of the United States, 3,022,000; of Australia, 3,974,000; of Brazil, 3,275,000; of India, 1,808,000; and of China, 4,480,000. The Canadian population, at first drawn chiefly from France and then from Great Britain, has always been marked by the progressive instinct which carried it from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The problems which confront the people of the Dominion of Canada are not dissimilar to those with which the people of the United States have been and are still called upon to deal. The outstanding event in the history of Canada is its agreement with the United States upon the long and wholly unfortified and undefended line, extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which divides these two vast nations. For a century and a quarter this Canadian-American line has been held up as an example to the whole world of what every international boundary must certainly strive to become. The long existence of this boundary is one of the greatest achievements of the Americas.

Out of all these different influences and conditions has come the America of today. During the two centuries and more while all these developments have been taking place on this side of the Atlantic, there has been growing up a new and different series of problems to confront the nations of Western Europe. Those nations began to be depressed as to their condition and their future at just about the time when Christopher Columbus made his first voyage of discovery. They were developing antagonisms and frictions. They were feeling the effect within their several boundaries of new social, economic, political and religious ideas which were shaking such foundations of the feudal system as were left, and raising questions as to the continued dominance of social classes and reigning houses. For the time being, the discovery of America relieved the pressure of these problems in large part, and turned the eyes and hopes of men toward the newly discovered lands across the Atlantic. Eventually, however, when the novelty of America had worn off, these European conditions and influences returned and were strong enough to write the history of Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. First the English revolution and then the French revolution brought about stupendous changes in the life and political organization of those peoples, and the end was not yet. Scientific discovery and economic pressure led the more ambitious and outward-looking of these nations to build up colonial possessions overseas in every part of the known world. In particular, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands established important, and in some cases literally huge, colonial empires, which gave to the home nations an influence and an economic advantage of which they could never have dreamed.

This in turn led to new international complications and to new international jealousies. When in the middle of the eighteenth century the people of Prussia came to a new self-consciousness and to an increased ambition for power, they began to ask why it should not be possible for them to do what Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and Portugal had already done. Their own national boundaries were not very definitely marked by rivers and mountains. Why should they not spread out and take possession of adjoining territory which would add to their economic resources? This question was asked from the time of Frederick the Great to the time of Bismarck. That constructive and truly philosophic statesman thought he knew how to answer it in a way which would put the German people in a position, if not of economic dominance, at least of very great economic and political power.

During the nineteenth century, while on the surface international relations often showed signs of improvement, underneath the surface forces making for disunity and conflict were steadily growing in influence. Scientific discovery had much to do with these conditions. It produced in momentous fashion one after another alteration in man's mode of life and in his economic needs, which were quite as revolutionary as any theoretical ideals could possibly have been.

The end of Europe's opportunity to guide the way to those international relations upon which alone could rest world prosperity and world peace, came at the close of the Victorian Era which was marked by the passing of the nineteenth century. There is a striking forecast of what was to happen in the famous cartoon by Sir John Tenniel, printed in the English magazine, Punch, during the month of March, 1890. That cartoon bore the title, "Dropping the Pilot." It shows Prince Bismarck going over the side ofthe ship of state, his place in command being taken by the then youthful Kaiser who stood on the deck watching the departure of his old captain. The lesson which this cartoon taught applied not to Germany alone but to the civilization of the whole Western Europe. It is a striking coincidence that the closing of the Victorian Era, the dropping of Prince Bismarck and the end of the nineteenth century should have come into modern history together. It was then that the end of the leadership of Western Europe in the task of world civilization came plainly into view.

As these world conditions became apparent, outstanding leaders of American opinion grasped the fact, and expressed it, that it was both the opportunity and the duty of the people of the United States to take quick and effective part in world leadership. It was plain to men of vision everywhere that unless some new and effective form of world organization could be brought about in the field of economics and of politics, the governments of the European nations and the government of the United States as well, would find themselves drifting into a condition which must, in all probability, lead to a very widespread and destructive war. This is precisely what happened. The underlying causes of that war which has now been carried on for nearly forty years were chiefly economic and the result of national desire for wide economic control even over parts of the earth's surface far distant from the ambitious nations themselves.

There were those shortsighted enough to believe and to say that the government of the United States at least was so far removed from the center of this struggle that it need take no part in it and that the American people would be unaffected by it. While it seems inconceivable that such views should be held by men of intelligence and knowledge of world history, they were so held, not only in the United States but in other lands as well.

Decade by decade, year by year, sometimes almost day by day, the electric current has destroyed what long had been the barrier of distance, and has brought the people of every land into close and intimate communication as well as into many new forms of interdependence. When President McKinley made his famous statement, "The period of exclusiveness is past," he spoke a profound truth which applied not only to the people of the United States but to those of Australia, of India, of China, of Japan and of Latin America as well.

The ambition to control the world, or a large part of it, by a single government is not new. It is only a century and a quarter since this was the dream of Napoleon Bonaparte. At the height of his military success he felt that he was reaching this great ambition. Finally, however, he was defeated at Waterloo and fell from power. He recorded the fact that while he himself might have failed to organize the European nations, yet that end would some day be realized. He wrote these words: "Sooner or later this union [of European nations] will be brought about by the force of events. The first impetus has been given; and after the fall of my system it seems to me that the only way in which an equilibrium can be achieved in Europe is through a league of nations."

Napoleon Bonaparte was profoundly right. It is in the Americas that the most convincing example of what must be done to bring about world organization has been given. It is in the Americas that by far the most important steps, through the development and application of the federal principle, have been taken to unite separate and, in a sense, independent groups into effectively cooperating political units. It is to the Americas that the world of tomorrow must look for guidance and leadership if it is to be a prosperous and a peaceful world. The federal principle is old and well known. No demonstration of its power, however,has ever approached that made, now more than a century and a half ago, by the adoption of the Constitution of the United States of America and its Bill of Rights. Those who are to have the great opportunity and the privilege of taking part in organizing the world of tomorrow for prosperity and for peace should, without delay, read The Federalist. From the essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay contained in that classic volume, may be gained accurate and far-reaching knowledge of the underlying forces which gave to that federal principle its practicability and its power. There also will be found the arguments which made it possible to bring thirteen—now forty-eight— separate political units into a single, closely organized nation under the federal form of government. To be sure, the problems of world organization are in many respects quite different in kind and in character from the problems which had to be dealt with in organizing the United States of America. Nevertheless, from the viewpoint of psychology and of ethics these problems are one and the same.

For many years, in various European countries as well as in the Americas, I have emphasized the fact that what the world of today most needs is the service of another Alexander Hamilton. His wholly exceptional intellectual power, his capacity for constructive and persuasive leadership, and his practical sagacity as a counselor and an administrator have made him the outstanding personality in the history of government. Alexander Hamilton not only clearly grasped the fundamental principles which were at stake in his day, but he had the highest order of administrative capacity in applying those principles to the solution of the practical problems of his time. Without an Alexander Hamilton there could have been no Federal Constitution of the United States drafted in 1787 or adopted in 1789.

It may be that the Alexander Hamilton of tomorrow will not be a man of high public office in any land. He may perhaps be an outstanding personality who, without the prestige and authority of public office, has the power to guide and to stimulate public opinion. It was none other than Disraeli who said: "The most powerful men are not public men. A public man is responsible, and a responsible man is a slave.—It is private life that governs the world."

The more that one studies the history of the building of the American nation, the clearer it becomes that it may be justly described as a laboratory experiment in understanding and in solving the world problems of tomorrow. It was the economic problem that grew out of the fact that three separate and independent states had access to Chesapeake Bay and interest in its commerce, which led Hamilton to propose that a conference of all the thirteen states be held in Philadelphia in May, 1787, over which George Washington was appointed to preside. The outlook for a successful result from its endeavors was anything but hopeful. Once again it was Hamilton, who, in an eloquent and persuasive address lasting several hours, put new heart and new life into the delegates who constituted the membership of the Convention. He thereby made possible the result which was reached in the following September. As we all know from the history of the League of Nations, the conditions which now confront those who would go forward to the organization of a federal world are fundamentally the same as those which confronted the Philadelphia Convention in 1787.

Later when the New York State Convention met to pass upon the question of adopting the new Federal Constitution, it was found that a large majority of the delegates were opposed to that action. It was Alexander Hamilton who, in discussion and argument extending over more than two weeks, led those delegates to change their mind and to vote by a majority of three to ratify the Federal Constitution.

This is precisely the situation which will confront nation after nation when a plan of federal world organization is offered to the cooperating states for their final action.

These are the essential reasons why the careful and detailed study of the Constitution of the United States, its framing, its ratification, its subsequent operation and amendment will be of greatest possible assistance to those who find themselves face to face with the pressing and highly dangerous problems to be confronted when armed hostilities shall be brought to an end. No American statesman could possibly have foreseen this relationship between the building of a single nation and the building of a federal world, but now there it is—open to all men to read, to study and to understand.

It is truly extraordinary how political relationships and underlying principles of organization repeat themselves. The United States Senate was brought into being in order that the smaller and less populous states like Rhode Island and Delaware should not be made wholly subject to the majorities which would be drawn from the largest states such as Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. This same problem presents itself when world organization is undertaken. A Switzerland, a Netherlands, a Denmark, a Finland, an Austria, a Poland, a Jugo-Slavia, a Hungary, a Czechoslovakia, a Greece and a Korea are just as much entitled to be protected in the preservation of their independence and self-government as are India and China, Germany and France, Italy and Spain, Great Britain and the United States.

It would appear then that the ruling question still is, Can men learn by experience? If not, they must be prepared for still more centuries to tread the long and painful road of lack of understanding, lack of preparation and lack of vision. The ancient Latin maxim, experientia docet, is unfortunately not always true. If experience really had taught men, nine-tenths of the world's calamities could have been avoided. It is just because men will not and do not learn by experience, that far-reaching and most difficult problems return to confront them, time and time again and generation after generation.

It may well be that with the coming of the Americas-North, Central and South—into their new position of leadership and power, that which has been done on this side of the Atlantic, during the past four and one-half centuries, will be accepted as guidance for the leaders in the movement to organize the world of tomorrow. If so, those leaders will carry civilization a long way forward in its march toward the highest ideals of human life and human conduct.

The first and all dominating object of the Americas must be to bring to an end by victory for themselves and their Allies the terrible world war which is now raging. There can be no assurance of safety for the Americas themselves, and no assurance of their ability or opportunity to maintain and to strengthen their own free institutions, until the ruthlessly cruel and barbarous attack upon them has been overcome. Given victory—at whatever cost in manpower and in economic resources—then, and then only, will the Americas have their new opportunity for constructive leadership.

It is quite plain that the world which will follow upon victory will be a truly new world. Neither the social nor the economic systems as they have so long existed—particularly in Great Britain and in France—can remain unchanged. The new and forward-facing world must follow a policy of constructive liberalism. Such will be the best possible protection—perhaps the only protection—for the free peoples of tomorrow against their invasion and overthrow by state socialism and communism.

This is surely the Age of the Americas.