Roads, a type of civilized society

January 19, 2012

On Thanksgiving Day, 1846, Horace Bushnell, one of the nation’s most celebrated preachers, ascended the pulpit of the North Church in Hartford, Connecticut, and delivered an address, which he entitled “The Day of Roads.” It was later published as one of many essays in a very long book, Work and Play: Literary Varieties (London: Alexander Strahan & Co., 1864). Bushnell’s speech includes an extended history of road-building in antiquity and across Europe, with special attention to the recent development of railroads.

As a bicyclist, I share some of Bushnell’s appreciation of roads. They are a sign of the character of a civilization, and much about our own society is revealed by the American freeway system and the Internet, the two principal roadways that on the one hand bind us together and on the other segment us into isolated enclaves.

Since this essay on roads was delivered as a sermon, Bushnell begins it with a text from the Bible. “In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were unoccupied and the travelers walked through by-ways” (Judges 5:6). After a couple of introductory sentences, he takes to the road with this opening statement.

“The Road is that physical sign, or symbol, by which you will best understand any age or people. If they have no roads, they are savages; for the Road is a creation of man and a type of civilized society. If law is weak and society insecure, you will see men perched in castles, on the top of inaccessible rocks, or gathered into walled cities, spending all their strength, not in opening Roads, but in fortifying themselves against the access of danger.

“The drawbridge is up, the portcullis down, and sentinels are mounted on the ramparts, carefully studying every footman or horseman that turns the corner of a wood, or gallops across the distant plain. Wheeled vehicles are seldom seen, and roads are rather obstructed than opened.

“Or if you inquire after commerce, look at the Roads; for Roads are the ducts of trade. If you wish to know whether society is stagnant, learning scholastic, religion a dead formality, you may learn something by going into universities and libraries; something also by the work that is doing on cathedrals and churches, or in them; but quite as much by looking at the Roads.

“For if there is any motion in society, the Road, which is the symbol of motion, will indicate the fact. When there is activity, or enlargement, or a liberalizing spirit of any kind, then there is intercourse and travel, and these require Roads. So if there is any kind of advancement going on, if new ideas are abroad and new hopes rising, then you will see it by the roads that are building.

“Nothing makes an inroad without making a Road. All creative action, whether in government, industry, thought, or religion, creates Roads.”

Note: I copied this statement from a library copy of Bushnell’s book that I came across many years ago. The book is available as a Google digitized book. The essay begins on p. 403. For more about Bushnell, read here…


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