From the earliest ages of their recorded history, the inhabitants of the British Islands have been distinguished for their intelligence and their spirit. How much of these two qualities, the fountains of all amelioration in the condition of men, was stifled by these two principles of subserviency to ecclesiastical usurpation, and of holding rights as the donation of kings, this is not the occasion to inquire.
Of their tendency to palsy the vigor and enervate the faculties of man, all philosophical reasoning, and all actual experience, concur in testimony.
These principles, however, were not peculiar to the people of Britain. They were the delusions of all Europe, still the most enlightened and most improvable portion of the earth. The temporal chain was riveted upon the people of Britain by the conquest. Their spiritual fetters were forged by subtlety working upon superstition. Baneful as the effect of these principles was, they could not for ever extinguish the light of reason in the human mind. The discovery of the Mariner’s Compass was soon followed by the extension of intercourse between nations the most distant, and which, without that light beaming in darkness to guide the path of man over the boundless waste of waters, could never have been known to each other. The invention of Printing, and the composition of Gunpowder, which revolutionized at once the art and science of war, and the relations of peace ; the revelation of India to Vasco de Gama ; and the disclosure to Columbus of the American hemisphere, all resulted from the incompressible energies of the human intellect, bound and crippled as it was by the double cords of ecclesiastical imposture and political oppression. To these powerful agents in the progressive improvement of our species, Britain can lay no claim. For them the children of men are indebted to Italy, to Germany, to Portugal, and to Spain. All these improvements, however, consisted in successful researches into the properties and modifications of external nature. The religious reformation was an improvement in the science of mind ; an improvement in the intercourse of man with his Creator, and in his acquaintance with himself. It was an advance in the knowledge of his duties and his rights. It was a step in the progress of man in comparison with which the Magnet and Gunpowder, the wonders of either India ; nay, the Printing Press itself, were but the paces of a pigmy to the stride of a giant. If to this step of human advancement Germany likewise lays claim in the person of Martin Luther, or in the earlier but ineffectual martyrdom of John Huss, England may point to her Wicliffe as a yet more primitive vindicator of the same righteous cause, and may insist on the glory of having contributed her share to the improvement of the moral condition of man.