Saturday, November 8, 2008

Darwin's pallbearer speaking in Birmingham on democracy

Given current opposition to Darwin in much of the United States, it is surprising to discover that among the pallbearers at Darwin's funeral was the then American ambassador to the UK, poet and diplomat James Russell Lowell

Given the recent illustration of American democracy in action and my earlier post about the Darwin-Birmingham links, I was interested to discover that Darwin's diplomat-pallbearer gave a speech in Birmingham, England a couple of years after Darwin's death, in October 1884, on the occasion of his becoming President of the Birmingham and Midland Institute

Lowell was 65 at the time and begins his speech with a reflection on the differences between the strength of one's opinions in youth and old age. The opening of the speech might strike today's attention-deficient reader as rather long and rambling (TLDR!), but soon there are plenty of nuggets in the eloquent defence of democracy that follows:

"I shall address myself to a single point only in the long list of offences of which we are more or less gravely accused, because that really includes all the rest. It is that we are infecting the Old World with what seems to be thought the entirely new disease of Democracy."

"Accordingly they find it simpler to class under one comprehensive heading whatever they find offensive to their nerves, their taste, their interests, or what they suppose to be their opinions, and christen it Democracy, much as physicians label every obscure disease gout, or as cross-grained fellows lay their ill-temper to the weather."

"it should not be overlooked that the acorn from which it [American democracy] sprang was ripened on the British oak."

"...the sentiment which lies at the root of democracy is nothing new.... What we used to call the tendency or drift—what we are being taught to call more wisely the evolution of things—has for some time been setting steadily in this direction. There is no good in arguing with the inevitable. The only argument available with an east wind is to put on your overcoat."

"Your grandfathers mobbed Priestley only that you might set up his statue and make Birmingham the headquarters of English Unitarianism. "

"...we should remember that nothing is more natural for people whose education has been neglected than to spell Evolution with an initial R."

"But I believe that the real gravamen of the charges [against Democracy] lies in the habit it has of making itself generally disagreeable by asking the Powers that Be at the most inconvenient moment whether they are the powers that ought to be."

"The framers of the American Constitution were far from wishing or intending to found a democracy in the strict sense of the word... They were not seduced by the French fallacy that a new system of government could be ordered like a new suit of clothes. They would as soon have thought of ordering a new suit of flesh and skin. It is only on the roaring loom of time that the stuff is woven for such a vesture of their thought and experience as they were meditating. "

"..the traditional Irishman, who, landing in New York and asked what his politics were, inquired if there was a Government there, and on being told that there was, retorted: Thin I’m agin it!"

"We have taken from Europe the poorest, the most ignorant, the most turbulent of her people, and have made them over into good citizens, who have added to our wealth, and who are ready to die in defence of a country and of institutions which they know to be worth drying for. "

"In point of fact, far-seeing men count the increasing power of wealth and its combinations as one of the chief dangers with which the institutions of the United States are threatened in the not distant future... I am a little impatient of being told that property is entitled to exceptional consideration because it bears all the burdens of the State. It bears those, indeed, which can most easily be borne, but poverty pays with its person the chief expenses of war, pestilence, and famine."

" is cheaper in the long run to lift men up than to hold them down, and that the ballot in their hands is less dangerous to society than a sense of wrong in their heads. "

"...calling democracy that form of society, no matter what its political classification, in which every man had a chance and knew that he had it. If a man can climb, and feels himself encouraged to climb, from a coalpit to the highest position for which he is fitted, he can well afford to be indifferent what name is given to the government under which he lives."
But perhaps more pertinent than ever in the current time of crisis and following the election of no-drama Obama is the speech's closing paragraph, which I quote in full:
"But for artificial evils, for evils that spring from want of thought, thought must find a remedy somewhere. There has been no period of time in which wealth has been more sensible of its duties than now. It builds hospitals, it establishes missions among the poor, it endows schools. It is one of the advantages of accumulated wealth, and of the leisure it renders possible, that people have time to think of the wants and sorrows of their fellows. But all these remedies are partial and palliative merely. It is as if we should apply plasters to a single pustule of the small-pox with a view of driving out the disease. The true way is to discover and to extirpate the germs. As society is now constituted these are in the air it breathes, in the water it drinks, in things that seem, and which it has always believed, to be the most innocent and healthful. The evil elements it neglects corrupt these in their springs and pollute them in their courses. Let us be of good cheer, however, remembering that the misfortunes hardest to bear are those which never come. The world has outlived much, and will outlive a great deal more, and men have contrived to be happy in it. It has shown the strength of its constitution in nothing more than in surviving the quack medicines it has tried. In the scales of the destinies brawn will never weigh so much as brain. Our healing is not in the storm or in the whirlwind, it is not in monarchies, or aristocracies, or democracies, but will be revealed by the still small voice that speaks to the conscience and the heart, prompting us to a wider and wiser humanity."

Read the full text of the speech here:
Read the New York Times review of the speech here.

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