Roads, a type of civilized society

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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2 Responses to Roads, a type of civilized society

  1. Dave says:

    What got me thinking is Bushnell’s line “If they have no roads, they are savages; for the Road is a creation of man and a type of civilized society.” Being a preacher and of Campbell’s era, I can’t help but wonder how easy or normal it was to equate no roads with savages. I wonder if he carried a belief that Roads were a form meeting a God given call to have dominion over the land and without such dominion then a society is uncivilized. Or might it be he could buy into an un-roaded society as “a type of civilized society,” or does his line “All creative action, whether in government, industry, thought, or religion, creates Roads” not allow such civilized speculation? What does this hold for us, if anything, who hang out in expression of Christianity that had it’s birth during Bushnell’s era?

    I have added the essay to my reading on Google Books…to be read soon.

    Great post, it has be asking questions!

    • Hello Dave. I really appreciate your comment and question. In the essay, Bushnell gives a lot of attention to railroads, and it is easy to believe that he was prejudiced against the “pre-civilized” people. I like the direction of this question that you asked: Or might it be he could buy into an un-roaded society as “a type of civilized society,”. It certainly was the case that pre-discovery residents of the Pacific Northwest had developed extensive transportation and communication routes, both on the rivers and on land. Much of the culture, as well as the economic system, depended upon these “roads,” if we can enlarge the meaning of this word. John McPhee’s book on the birch canoe gives an extended account of the remarkable character of the birch canoe that the newcomers discovered when they came to the new world. I think that Bushnell’s thesis is sustained, even if he did not understand it adequately. Keith

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