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Scots and Scots Descendant in America
Part II - Contributions by Noted American Scotsmen
The Land We Live In by John Huston Finley, LL.D., L.H.D.


NOT the land that we live on, nor the land we live from, but the land we live in; and that land is a super-terrestrial, sub-celestial stratum of atmosphere which clings affectionately to the elevations and depressions of this land we live on despite all the revolutions and rotations of this planet, and which gathers and keeps all the vibrations; that are whispered, shouted, sung, painted or thought into it.

Lucretius, the great Epicurean philosopher and poet, in his endeavour to explain the phenomena about him, assumed that all bodies gave off emanations, idols or films in exact duplicates of themselves; that in a given space there were millions and millions of these films passing to and fro in every direction in infinite complexity and still without confusion; that through these there passed the images of man’s mind, infinitely more subtle and finer, and that the still more subtle, majestic images of the Gods were flying down constantly among the images of men. This is a suggestion of the land we live in, whether you visualize it as Lucretius did or in vibrations—a land which was inhabited at one time only by the spores of life, the star dust that came down as immigrants from other worlds; and then by the images of the aroma of wild flowers, the images of the cries of wild beasts, the images of the flowering trees. But by-and-by there came others—the images of human thoughts—and now there are billions upon billions of these images, the images of the experiences, the sufferings and joys of human beings. And by-and-by this atmosphere so populated will be as rich as the gray mists that brood over the moors of Scotland.

You may think that I am a bit visionary, that I am seeing things that are not. So I call to my aid that very accurate and particular, almost meticulous historian, Justin Windsor, whom I once heard say that if we but had instruments delicate enough we might hear the prayer of Columbus as he approached these shores, that we might hear the splash of the oar of Marquette and Joliet in the western waters; and, if he had not been a New Englander, he would have added that we might hear the footfalls of the Scotsmen as they went down the farther side of the Allegheny Mountains to make that principality lying between their crests and the Mississippi River "a Scottish conquest."

Or I might cite the iron-visaged Bismarck—the very pragmatic Bismarck— who, when asked what a land or a people was, said: "It is a multitude of invisible spirits—the nation of yesterday and to-morrow." In devising our democratic machinery, our referendum and direct primaries and all that, we are in danger of forgetting these images of the past. They should still have their suffrages. I do not mean that dead men should be permitted to vote— as they do in some places—but simply that the purposes of the past should have representation as well as the images of our hopes for the future. That nation is not a nation, which forgets the past or which does not plan for the future; which neglects the invisible company of yesterday and supports no schools for to-morrow; it is simply an ephemeral agglomeration of individuals: and this nation would not be, could not have been, the nation it is if the emanations of Scottish character had not come in such numbers to these shores. I shall not endeavour to prove it—I need only admit it.

I treasure as one of my dearest memories the reading to me of a speech by the late President Cleveland—a speech he was never able to deliver. I have had the memory of it all these years, but recently I came upon the address itself, and I will quote a few sentences: for the land we live in—the one I am talking about—is the land that was in his mind, though he called it, not the "Land We Live In," but "The Land That Lives in Us."

"But how fares," he said, "the land that lives in us? Are we sure we are doing all we ought to preserve its vigour and health? . . . We need have no fear for the continued healthfulness of the land we live in so long as we are dutifully careful of the land that lives in us. . . . The self-watchfulness of which I speak must be content with the inspiration of dutiful obedience to the requirements of disinterested patriotism, and must look for its reward in a just distribution among all our people of the benefits of a free government and a lofty, devout consciousness of direct co-operation with the purposes of God in the establishment of our nation." We must be lastingly grateful to the land which gave Scotch ancestors to the mother of Grover Cleveland!

There comes often to me in times when there is so much complaint of things, the remark of a certain Scotchrnan, of whom you have doubtless often heard—a man who was very sparing of speech and exceedingly careful in the expression of his opinion. When he was confronted by a new fact or statement, you remember, he generally answered, "Weel, it micht ha’ been waur’."

Suppose our ancestors never had left Scotland. Suppose George Rogers Clark never had prevented England from making a province of that land on the other side of the Allegheny Mountains, and we should now be trying to establish reciprocity with that State which is producing presidents; and suppose we should have to get all our presidents from New England and from the Dutch descendants in New York. Suppose John Witherspoon and James McCosh never had accepted the presidency of Princeton College. Suppose Cyrus McCormick never had been born or had died young; and we should not now be worrying about the International Harvester trust, but about getting enough to eat; because with sickles and scythes we should not be able to supply a fraction of our population with wheat. We could go on with this imagining and supposing indefinitely—and reach a climax in this: suppose that we, the flower of New York, the heather of New York, were not in the land we live in! So I say, "it rnicht ha’ been waur’." It might have been better if we had a few Scotchmen more; but if we had less—one less even—it micht ha’ been and would ha’ been waur’.

JOHN HUSTON FINLEY.

Albany, New York.


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