The Magazine in America

This essay was the first which Paine wrote for the Pennsylvania Magazine and appeared in the January 24, 1775 issue.]

In a country whose reigning character is the love of science, it is somewhat strange that the channels of communication should continue so narrow and limited. The weekly papers are at present the only vehicles of public information. Convenience and necessity prove that the opportunities of acquiring and communicating knowledge ought always to inlarge with the circle of population. America has now outgrown the state of infancy: her strength and commerce make large advances to manhood; and science in all its branches has not only blossomed, but even ripened on the soil. The cottages as it were of yesterday have grown to villages, and the villages to cities; and while proud antiquity, like a skeleton in rags, parades the streets of other nations, their genius, as if sickened and disgusted with the phantom, comes hither for recovery.

The present enlarged and improved state of things gives every encouragement which the editor of a New Magazine can reasonably hope for. Change of times adds propriety to new measures. In the early days of colonization, when a whisper was almost sufficient to have negotiated all our internal concerns, the publishing even of a newspaper would have been premature. those times are past; and population has established both their use and their credit. but their plan being almost wholly devoted to news and commerce, affords but a scanty resident to the Muses. Their path lies wide of the field of science, and has left a rich and unexplored region for new adventurers.

It has always been the opinion of the learned and curious, that a magazine, when properly conducted, is the nursery of genius: and by constantly accumulating new matter, becomes a kind of market for wit and utility. The opportunities which it affords to men of abilities to communicate their studies, kindle up a spirit of invention and emulation. An unexercised genius soon contracts a kind of mossiness, which not only checks its growth, but abates its natural vigour. Like an untenanted house it falls into decay, and frequently ruins the possessor.

The British magazines, at their commencement, were the repositories of ingenuity: They are now the retailers of tale and nonsense. From elegance they sunk to simplicity, from simplicity to folly, and from folly to voluptuousness. The Gentleman’s, the London, and the Universal, Magazines, bear yet some marks of their originality; but the Town and Country, the Covent-Garden, and the Westminster, are no better than incentives to profligacy and dissipation. They have added to the dissolution of manners, and supported Venus against the Muses.

America yet inherits a large portion of her first-imported virtue. Degeneracy is here almost a useless word. Those who are conversant with Europe would be tempted to believe that even the air of the Atlantic disagrees with the constitution of foreign vices; if they survive the voyage, they either expire on their arrival, or linger away in an incurable consumption. There is a happy something in the climate of America, which disarms them of all their power both of infection and attraction.

But while we give no encouragement to the importation of foreign vices, we ought to be equally as careful not to create any. A vice begotten might be worse than a vice imported. The latter, depending on favour, would be a sycophant; the other, by pride of birth, would be a tyrant: To the one we should be dupes, to the other slaves.

There is nothing which obtains so general an influence over the manners and moral of a people as the Press; from that, as from a fountain, the streams of vice or virtue are poured forth over a country: And of all publications, none are more calculated to improve or infect than a periodical one. All others have their rise and their exit: but this renew the pursuit. If it has an evil tendency, it debauches by the power of repetition; if a good one, it obtains favor by the gracefulness of soliciting it. Like a lover, it woods its mistress with unabated ardor, nor gives up the pursuit without a conquest.

The two capital supports of a magazine are Utility and Entertainment: The first is a boundless path, the other an endless spring. To suppose that arts and sciences are exhausted subjects, is doing them a kind of dishonour.

The divine mechanism of creation reproves such folly, and shews us by comparison, the imperfection of our most refined inventions. I cannot believe that this species of vanity is peculiar to the present age only. I have to doubt but that it existed before the flood, and even in the wildest ages of antiquity. ‘Tis folly we have inherited, not created; and the discovers which every day produces, have greatly contributed to dispossess us of it. Improvement and the world will expire together; And till that period arrives, we may plunder the mine, but can never exhaust it! That ’We have found out every thing,’ has been the motto of every age. Let our ideas travel a little into antiquity, and we shall find larger portions of it than now; and so unwilling were our ancestors to descend from this mountain of perfection, that when any new discovery exceed the common standard, the discovered was believed to be in alliance with the devil. It was not the ignorance of the age only, but the vanity of it, which rendered it dangerous to be ingenious. the man who planned and erected a tenable hut, with a hole for the smoke to pass, and the light to enter, was perhaps called an able architect, but he who first improved it with a chimney, could be no less than a prodigy; yet had the same man been so unfortunate as to have embellished with glass windows, he might probably have been burnt for a magician. Our fancies would be highly diverted could we look back, and behold a circle of original Indians haranguing on the sublime perfection of the age; Yet ’tis not impossible but future times may exceed us almost a much as have exceeded them.

I would wish to extirpate the least remains of this impolitic vanity. It has a direct tendency to unbrace the nerves of inventions, and is peculiarly hurtful to young colonies. A magazine can never want matter in America, if the inhabitants will do justice to their own abilities., Agriculture and manufactures owe much of the improvement in England, to hints first thrown out in some of their magazines. Gentlemen who abilities enabled them to make experiments, frequently chose that method of communication, on account of its convenience,. And who should not the same spirit operate in America? I have to doubt of seeing, in a little time, an American magazine full of more useful matter than I never saw an English one: Because we are not exceeded in abilities, have a more extensive field for enquiry; and, whatever may be out political state, Our happiness will always depend upon ourselves. Something useful will always arise from exercising the invention, though perhaps, like the witch of Endor, we shall raise up a being we did not expect. We owe many of our noblest discoveries more to accident than wisdom. In quest of a pebble we have found a diamond, and returned enriched with the treasure. Such happy accidents give additional encouragement to the making experiments; and the convenience which a magazine affords of collecting and conveying them to the public, enhances their utility. Where this opportunity is wanting, many little inventions, the forerunners of improvement, are suffered to expire on the spot that produced them; and, as an elegant writer beautifully expresses on another occasions,

They waste their sweetness on the desert air. - Gray

In matter of humour and entertainment there can be no reason to apprehend a deficiency. Wit is naturally a volunteer, delights in action, and under proper disciple is capable of great execution. ’Tis a perfect master in the art of bush-fighting; and though it attacks with more subtility than science, has often defeated a whole regiment of heavy artillery. Though I have rather exceed the line of gravity in this description of wit, I am unwilling to dismiss it without being a little more serious. ’This a qualification which, like the passions, has a natural wildness that requires governing. Life to itself, it soon overflows its banks, mixes with common filth, and brings disrepute on the fountain. We have many valuable springs of it in America , which at present run purer streams, than the generality of it in other countries. In France and Italy, ’tis froth highly fomented: In England it has much of the same spirit, but rather a browner complexion. European wit is one of the worst articles we can import. It has an intoxicating power with it, which debauches the very vitals of chastity, and gives a false colouring to every thing it censures or defends. We soon grow fatigued with the excess, and withdraw like gluttons sickened with intemperance. On the contrary, how happily are the sallies of innocent humour calculated to amuse and sweeten the vacancy of business! We enjoy the harmless luxury without surfeiting, and the strengthen the spirits by relaxing them.

The Press has not only a great influence over our manners and morals, but contributes largely to our pleasures; and a magazine when properly enriched, is very conveniently calculated for this purpose. Voluminous works weary the patience, but here we are invited by conciseness and variety. As I have formerly received much pleasure from perusing these kind of publications, I wish the present success; and have no doubt of seeing a proper diversity blended to agreeable together, as to furnish out an Olio worthy of the company for whom it is designed.

I consider a magazine as a kind of bee-hive, which both allures the swarm, and provides room to store their sweets. Its division in cells, gives every bee a province of its own; and though they all produce hone, yet perhaps they differ in their taste for flowers, and extract with great dexterity from one than from another. Thus, we are not all PHILOSOPHERS, all ARTISTS, nor all POETS.