Item of the Day: A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century (1803)

Full Title: A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century. Part First; In Two Volumes: Containing a Sketch of the Revolutions and Improvements in Science, ARts, and Literature, during that Period. By Samuel Miller. Vol. I. New-York: Printed by T. and J. Swords, No. 160 Pearl-Street, 1803.


THE oldest historian in the world, and the only one in whose information and faithfulness we can place unlimited confidence, tells us, that, in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, he said–-Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven, to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and for years. Without recurring to the regular motions of these celestial orbs, time would pass unnoticed and unmeasured. Its flight, in itself, is not an object of sense; we neither see nor hear it. But by observing the diurnal revolutions of the heavenly bodies, we acquire the conception of days; by dividing these days, we form hours and minutes; and, by multiplying them, we gain the ideas of months, years, and ages. Like all the rest of the works and ways of God, these means of marking the progress of time, and ascertaining its portions, are adapted to promote both physical and moral advantage. To the philosopher they furnish inestimable rules and principles of calculation; to the man of business they present measures and stimulants to industry; and, above all, to the christian they offer coninual memorials of the end of life, and unceasing excitements to moral dispatch.

Hence the close of one year, and the commencement of another, are generally marked by mutual congratulations, by a peculiar train of refections, by new plans and undertakings, and by characteristic changes in domestic, social, and political affairs. It is a period which interests the feelings, and constitutes a prominent point in the life of almost every man.

But, on reaching the temination of an active and eventful CENTURY, and entering upon a new one, the emotions of the reflecting mind are still more strong, and the impressions made more various and interesting. This is a transition which few individuals at present on earth have before witnessed, and which few now living will ever again behold. At such a period it is natural, and it is useful, to pause; to review the extensive scene; to estimate what has been done; to inquire whether we have grown wiser and better, or the reverse; and to derive those lessons of wisdom from the whole, which rational beings ought ever to draw from experience. —While the student of chronology is disputing about the time when the old century terminated, and the new one began; and while the astronomer sees nothing in this period but the completion of a certain number of planetary revolutions, and the commencement of another series, the man of true wisdom is employed in attending to other objects, in pursuing different inquiries. —Rich were the stores of instruction, and great the improvement, which an ancient king received from returning, after a long course of action, and looking upon all the works which his hand had wroght, and the labour which he had laboured to do. It was upon this calm retracing of his steps, that he discovered, more fully than ever before, wherein he had been profitably employed; and in what respects his unwearied exertions had been but vanity and vexation of spirit.’

Standing, therefore, as we do, upon the threshold of a NEW CENTURY, it may prove both amusing and instructive to take a hasty retrospect of that to which we have just bidden adieu. In this retrospect, the scene which lies before us is large and various. On whatever part we cast the eye, important objects, and interesting lessons, present themselves to view. Out of these it will only be possible to select a few of the most conspicuous and striking, and to display each with the utmost brevity.

He who attempts to view, even the most superficial, of human nature, and of human affairs, within any given period, will soon find that the object which he undertakes to survey, is complex and multiform. Man, always variable, and never consistent, imparts this character to every thing that he touches. To give the history of a single mind for a single day; to mark with justice its revolutions, its progress, its acquirements, and its retrocessions; to form an estimate of the good, or of the evil, which, within this time, it may have produced; and to trace, in accurate lines, wherein its character on that day differed from its character on the preceding, is a task which can appear easy only to ignorance and inexperience. And in proportion as the number of minds to be contemplated increases, or the length of the time in question is extended, the difficulties of the undertaking multiply, and it becomes, in every respect, more arduous. How numerous the difficulties, then, of estimating the operations and the progress of the human race for an hundred years!

Another source of doubt and mistake also arises here, besides that which is occasioned by the complexness and confusion of the scene. Who can distinguish between revolution and improvement in human affairs? Who can undertake to say in what cases they are synonymous terms, and when they are directly opposite? If every change were to be considered an advantage, it would follow, of course that the strides of civilized man, in every species of improvment, during the last century, have been prodigious. But, alas! this principle cannot be admitted by the cautious inquirer, or the friend of human happiness. The passion for novelty and change, so universal and unceasing, has doubtless oftentimes indulged itself at the espense of real good, and substantial enjoyment.

A wise man, and an inspired writer, has told us, that there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing wherof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us. —This passage, like many others of a similar kind, is doubtless not to be interpreted as declaring literally, that there never have been, nor ever can be, any schemes, events, or discoveries entitled to the appellation of new; but as teaching us, in a strong and figurative manner, that the projects and improvements of human genius are frequently sinking into forgetfulness, and rising again; that old systems are daily revived, clothed in new dresses, decorated with new names, and palmed on the world as creatures of modern birth; and that very few of the boasted efforts of genius, either in Solomon’s days, or at any subsequent period, could be called entirely original. The smallest acquaintance with history is sufficient to convince any one that this is a just representation. That there are some things peculiar to certain periods and countries, will not be disputed; but that these are fewer in number, and the peculiarity much smaller in degree, than transient observers imagine, is certainly also true. Hence arise a further difficulty in deciding whrein one age differs from another. History is not an instructress sufficiently minute and patient to enable us always to judge promptly and accurately on the subject.

“It affords some astonishment,” says a late writer, “and much curious speculation, to the reflecting mind, that, probably, not a system of philosophy exists among the moderns, which had not its foundation laid upon some one opinion or another of the ancient theorists, and the outlines of which may not be found in such of their writings as have come down to our time. Even the Newtonian doctrine of gravitation was not unknown to Lucretius; for that poet, in his first book, attempts to refute the idea that the universe had a centre, to which all things tend by their natural gravity. That the central point had the strongest power of attraction was equally an hypothesis of SIR ISAAC NEWTON and the ancient stoics.” The ingenious writer might have gone into a very amusing detail on this subject. Some facts, tending to confirm his position, will appear in the following pages. Let us beware, however, of carrying the principle beyond due bounds.

A difficulty also arises, in attempting to make the proposed estimate, from the dispostion of man to magnify present objects. It is an old remark, that important persons and scenes acquire an additional magnitude in our eyes when seen from a distance. But it is as true that the same error of intellectual vision occurs daily with respect to objects seen near at hand. Men have always been unduly disposed to consider their own times as distinguished, above all others, by remarkable events. The virtue of the vice, the knowledge or the ignorance, the discoveries or the destructions, which we personally witness, or of which we have recently heard, are apt to impress us more deeply, and to be estimated more highly in the history of man, than their real importance deserves. Hence nothing is more common than to hear men express an opinion, that the country and the period in which their lot is cast are more awfully degenerate, or more extensivley enlightened, according to the occurrence, or the object which happens to occupy their minds, than the world ever before witnessed. No doubt a portion of this prejudice and partiality cleaves to every mind, and must always interpose an obstacle in the way of him who would accurately calculate the magnitude, and justly exhibit the features of recent events.

But, after making every allowance for errors in calculation which may arise from these several sources, it will probably be acknowledged, that the century of which we have just taken leave has produced an unusual number of revolutions, and at least some improvements, —In LITERATURE and SCIENCE—in POLITICAL PRINCIPLES and ESTABLISHMENTS—in the MORAL WORLD–and in the CHRISTIAN CHURCH.

To think of surveying each of these wide fields, throughout its whole extent; and especially to think of conducting the survey with the minuteness of observaton, and the profundity of research which would become a philosophic inquirer, are, at present, out of the question. Had the writer temerity enough to engage in such a plan, or the presumption to assume so high a character, the variety and immensity of the task would soon convince him of his error. The most brief and rapid sketches only will, therefore, be attempted, on each of the above heads of inquiry.





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Filed under 1700's, Eighteenth century, History, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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