Page images
[ocr errors]

terra incognità of probability. In the course of
these researches, the mind expatiates in a larger
field, than the narrow and confined limits of
known facts will otherwise permit it; in one case
the inexhaustible stores of a fertile imagination sup-
ply abundant materials to our speculations; and we
are left at full liberty to form air-drawn systems,
and build impracticable theories, as extravagant as
the wildest flights of fancy could ever suggest: and
this has been the favourite, though perhaps useless,
employment of many ingenious men, and is an inno.
cent, at least, and copious source of amusement, which
fills up the languid intervals of a leisure hour. The
Atalantis of Plato, the Utopia of Sir Thomas More,
and the Oceana of Dr. Harrington, fall (sit verbo
venia) under the description of air-drawn and im-
practicable, though ingenious systems. In the other
case, we are confined to the limits of authenticated
history, and fancy makes a vain effort to burst those
chains, which knowledge and truth have imposed
upon her; we can only reflect, and draw useful in-
ferences from the various events which crowd the

from the various calamities which the treachery, the ambition, and the crimes, of one small part of mankind, have undeservedly drawn down on the infinitely larger portion that remains. This is in part the opinion of one of the most learned and ingenious men of our age; what he applies to the difference between poetry and history, I shall apply to that between history and conjecture.

** Nimium angustis finibus continetur historia, nimium severas habet operis sui leges. Res gestas tradit, eventorum vestigiis insistit: quod contigit, non quod contigisse potuit aut oportuit narrandum, nec quo documenti opportunitas, aut probabilitatis ratio vocat, sed quo facti necessitas eogit, eundum. Historia res et personas certas et constitutas tractat,

* Lowth de Poesi Hebræorum.

infinitas et universales poesis : illa præscriptum iter certâ conficit via, hæc liberis naturæ spatiis fruitur.'

History is confined within too narrow limits, is bound by too severe restrictions; she records transactions, and adheres to the traces of past deeds ; she relates what has, not what might or ought to have happened; she is to follow, not where an opportunity of drawing a moral inference, or venturing a probable conjecture, calls her, but where the necessity of relating a fact compels her. History treats of particular and determined characters ; poetry comprehends those of every description: the one finishes her allotted journey by a certain road; the other expatiates in the ample field of unbounded nature.'

But even in the historic field is an extensive range for the most comprehensive mind; and the sagacious reflections of learning on so copious a subject, have filled the volumes of knowledge and philosophy. But to exercise the speculative powers of the mind, is to me at least a more pleasing employment, especially, if forming our judgment from the past events of antiquity, and asserting, what is surely no extravagant assertion, that similar causes will produce similar effects, we thence deduce the most probable consequences : and thus tempering the licentiousness of conjecture with the caution of experience, from that hypothesis, which according to the general course of human events, and with due allowance for those unexpected incidents which often give the decisive bias to the most important transactions, is least liable to objection, and the most probable consequence of a given proposition.

Indulging this favourite propensity, I grounded the following speculation on the extract from Sulpicius's consolatory letter to Cicero, which is prefixed

to this essay.

When I reflect on the fate of the different em

pires, which have at various periods enslaved mankind; when I consider those stupendous frames of political mechanism, which have so long engaged the attention and claimed the admiration of the philosopher and speculatist, but whose remaining vestiges are to be traced only in the records of history, or discoverable in the magnificent ruins of desolated countries; I cannot but suppose, that a similar fate awaits the now-flourishing nations of the civilized world: an event, that will most probably take place in some distant period, when the sun of science will be again obscured in the shades of ignorance, and once more be immersed in primitive barbarism.

The empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, once fondly flattered themselves, that their splendour would be as lasting as the frame of the universe; and the Roman had a still stronger claim to immortality; as, by comprehending the whole then known globe within its boundaries, it seemed to be equally secure from the impetuous violence of an open enemy, or the more certain, though slower operations of the great destroyer, time.

When those ‘Subverters of Nations, and “Scourges in the hand of God,' as they were emphatically styled by the contemporary historians, who so sensibly felt the calamities they described, an Atila or an Alaric had overturned this mighty fabric; its disjointed members were divided into numberless distinct bodies ; from one or the other of which many of the present European powers derive their origin. The Lombards, Goths, and Huns, are instances too well known to need farther illustration; one alone is sufficient; the present emperors of Germany are, or pretend to be, seated on the throne of Augustus, the legal successors of the Roman Cæsars,

The Eastern or Constantinopolitan empire still subsisted, the feeble remnant of that majesty which once had swayed the sceptre of the world. But the

rising power of the Ottoman arms, under the auspices of the second Mahomet, totally obscured this only remaining ray of the declining splendour of the Roman system. The setting glory of the Saracen and Arabian caliphs entirely vanished before the Turkish crescent; and the blood-stained laurels of Genghis and Kouli Khan, polluted by that destructive ferocity which marked the rapidity of their conquest, have long since faded and withered from their brows. To close this long list of the vanity of human grandeur, the only remaining branch of the illustrious house of Tamerlane, is at this moment a precarious dependant on the capricious will of a few private merchants.

The destruction of most of these immense powers originated from a quarter, whence it was not dreaded till it was felt; from the attacks of barbarous and uncivilized nations. The Roman indeed seems to have foreseen the tempest which was to overwhelm him, and, with all the precaution which human prudence could suggest, to have guarded against it by the strong barriers and veteran legions which garrisoned the towus on the banks of the Danube and the Rhine. The event proved the wisdom of that foresight which dictated the measure; for the moment the destructive policy of Constantine removed these barriers, the barbarians rushed in at the opening, and entirely destroyed the tottering fabric.

Perhaps in future ages, by analogy of reasoning, some savage tribes, now roaming over the vast deserts of Asia or America, may enrich themselves with the fertile possessions of their more polished neighbours; and, like second Goths, raise the rude structure of ignorance and barbarism on the ruins of philosophy, science, and civilization. When the wounds of national dissension are healed, and that liberty, for which it has struggled against the authority of the parent country, is established on the firm basis of acknowledged constitutional rights, the * phenomenon of an independent Transatlantic state may give the fatal blow to European politics, and America perhaps arise the destined seat of a future empire.

When we compare Tacitus's Treatise on the Manners of the Germans, with Lafitau's Account of the American Tribes, we cannot but be struck with the similarity of the subject; and we may remark, that at the period when Tacitus wrote, when the Roman empire was in its meridian glory, Germany, Gaul, and Britain, now the seats of science and literature, were nearly in the same state of unpolished nature, vhich is the present characteristic of the American tribes, whom Lafitau describes. Europe has now nearly arrived at the highest pitch of refinement and civilization. It has been observed, that the human mind will never remain inactive, but will always have either a progressive or retrograde motion; will either gain the heights of excellence, or sink into the abyss of depravity; and there is a degree in both, beyond which it can neither rise or fall, but like the flood, when it has gained the highest shore, will naturally retreat, and when at the lowest ebb, will gradually recover its former height. The truth of this observation has been already too severely exemplified to be doubted; may not a similar corruption of manners produce a similar decline in the arts and

* To shew that speculation is in some instances at least well grounded, I shall lay before my readers a passage from Hume, which proves, that so long ago as the year 1606, the speculatists of that age foretold, what a recent event has justified, Speculative reasoners, during that age, raised many objections to planting remote colonies; and foretold, that after draining their mother coantry of its inhabitants, they would soon shake off her yoke, and erect an independent government in America.' Vol. 6, page 127. By referring to the original text, the reader will find, that the historian was no friend to this doctrine ; but the event has justified the prediction.

« PreviousContinue »