The discovery of America meant different things to different people. To some it meant only gold and the possibility of other plunder. To others less mean-spirited it meant a wilderness which might in time become another Europe. But there were also not a few whose imaginations were most profoundly stirred by what it was rather than by what it might become.
The wilderness and the idea of the wilderness is one of the permanent homes of the human spirit. Here, as many realized, had been miraculously preserved until the time when civilization could appreciate it, the richness and variety of a natural world which had disappeared unnoticed and little by little from Europe. America was a dream of something long past which had suddenly become a reality. It was what Thoreau called the great “poem” before many of its fairest pages had been ripped out and thrown away. The desire to experience that reality rather than to destroy it drew to our shores some of the best who have ever come to them.
That most of it is no longer a wilderness is no cause for regret. But it is a cause for congratulation that the four centuries and more which have passed since Columbus set sail have not been long enough to permit men to take over the whole continent as completely as they long ago took over Europe. And that fact is responsible for an important part of the difference which still exists, spiritually as well as physically, between the Old World and the New. The frontier, so long an important influence on the temper of the American, no longer exists. But … the continent can still boast a spaciousness, a grandeur, a richness and a variety which a European can hardly imagine.…
These are things which other nations can never recover. Should we lose them, we could not recover them either. The generation now living may very well be that which will make the irrevocable decision whether or not America will continue to be for centuries to come the one great nation which had the foresight to preserve an important part of its heritage. If we do not preserve it, then we shall have diminished by just that much the unique privilege of being an American.