Some years ago, in a lecture given at Amherst College, I had occasion to quote very moving words of the Native American Mingo Chief, Logan. It was in the spring of 1774 when two members of the Shawnee tribe murdered a Virginia settler. Col. Cresap, already famous for his violence against Native Americans, assembled a cadre and proceeded down the Kanhaway River. They hid along the litora and, seeing a canoe filled with women and children and one man, proceeded to murder every one of them. They were the sole surviving members of the family of Chief Logan. The following Fall, the Chief exempted himself from a peace negotiated between the Virginia militia and the local tribes. He explained his absence thus:
“I appeal to any white man to say, if ever he entered Logan’s cabin hungry, and he gave him not meat; if ever he came cold and naked, and he clothed him not. During the course of the last long and bloody war, Logan remained idle in his cabin, an advocate for peace. Such was my love for the whites, that my countrymen pointed as they passed, and said, `Logan is the friend of white men.’ I had even thought to have lived with you, but for the injuries of one man. Col. Cresap, the last spring, in cold blood, and unprovoked, murdered all the relations of Logan, not sparing even my women and children. There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This called on me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many: I have fully glutted my vengeance. For my country, I rejoice at the beams of peace. But do not harbour a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan? — Not one.”
This account is related by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he replies to such naturalists as Buffon who find all specimens in the New World inferior to their European varieties. Jefferson expresses a doubt as to, “…whether the bulk and faculties of animals depend on the side of the Atlantic on which their food happens to grow.” But his inclusion of the speech of Logan has a deeper purpose. It is intended to reveal what may also be found in no less than a Ciceronian oration: An authentic sentiment expressive of a virtue on which the survival of whole nations must depend. In this same place, Jefferson goes on to praise the emerging literature and fine arts of the New World, equating their genius with what rises to the same level in all the significant affairs of life; Thus:
“As in philosophy and war, so in government, in oratory, in painting, in the plastic art, we might shew that America, though but a child of yesterday, has already given hopeful proofs of genius, as well of the nobler kinds, which arouse the best feelings of man, which call him into action, which substantiate his freedom, and conduct him to happiness…”
The Speech of Logan points to the epoch’s full and realistic appreciation of the power of the passions in the creation of history and in the management of its possibilities. Seventy years later, in The Idea of a University, Cardinal Newman would identify a central duty of higher education as that of giving principle to the popular enthusiasms. The epoch denominated “enlightenment” was not less passionate than other ages, for all the doting on reason and rationality. Indeed, one requires no Freudian algorithm to discover in the rationalism of the age this realistic awareness of the passionate sources of action, the firm grounding of all significant initiatives in sentiment and sympathy. The task was not to stifle but to cultivate the passions; to rule them in ways that would lift them from the prosaic impulses of the moment to abiding satisfaction in the service of worthy and universal principles. This was the age in which one was measured by one’s sensibilities, as these gave evidence of one’s acute awareness of moral right and wrong. Consider the universal appeal of Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, the latter especially underscoring the vulnerability of goodness itself but its final defeat of evil: Its stubborn heroic resolution to preserve itself, to preserve its very sense of itself.
Jefferson’s guide and tutor at William and Mary was Dr. Small, another influential channel of the Scottish Enlightenment’s passage into the New World. Surely the most famous of these was the redoubtable John Witherspoon (1723-1794), brought from Scotland to the college at New Jersey, and under whom Princeton would soon become a national treasure. Later a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon not only presided over Princeton but personally instructed one future President of the United States, nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine members of the House of Representatives, a dozen State governors, five members of the 1787 Constitutional Convention and three Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. We find him on July 4, 1776 in the venue that came to called “Independence Hall.” On the table was the Declaration of Independence, adopted two days earlier but placed now in a chamber chilled and hushed by forebodings. Rising to the occasion, Witherspoon proclaimed:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, a nick of time. We perceive it now before us. To hesitate is to consent to our own slavery. That noble instrument upon your table, which ensures immortality to its author, should be subscribed this very morning by every pen in this house. He that will not respond to its accents and strain every nerve to carry into effect its provisions is unworthy the name freeman. For my own part, of property I have some, of reputation more. That reputation is staked, that property pledged, on the issue of this context; and although these gray hairs must soon descend into the sepulchre, I would infinitely rather that they descend thither by the hand of the executioner than desert at this crisis the sacred cause of my country”.
Note Witherspoon’s reference to the obligation to “strain every nerve.” Such phrases dominate the psychological explications of the period. It is by way of the nerves that one is excited to action, falls into harmony with the laws of the heavens and the sentiments of one’s fellows become sympathetic to their plight and their pleasure. Yes, Witherspoon had such nerves – as did Chief Logan. Attention to this part of the American story is repaid in the currency of understanding. And attention begins, it goes without saying, with religion, the well spring of those actions that aim not at a higher cause but at the highest cause.