French Democracy

"The republic can be established, if the brain of the country lend itself to the heart in the work."

The number of political writers in France is out of all proportion to the number of reading and reflecting men who enter into the population of the state. This has been the case uninterruptedly since the Revolution; but it has become doubly apparent since the last great social and political convulsions. Those events serve at once to furnish the text and to point the moral. The Empire with its uncovered vices, the war with its hard and serious lessons, the Commune with its baffled purposes, keep the presses of Paris working day and night. Every writer has his theory ; every theory has its printer. Renan leaves the Semitic languages and the battle-grounds of Biblical history, to write scholarly and thoughtful essays on the questions of the hour. Tame forsakes art and artists, and assails universal suffrage. Littré the lexicographer, Victor Hugo the poet, Alexandre Dumas the playwright, the Bishop of Orleans, and a great army of professors, soldiers, churchmen, and nobles, men of every profession and every rank in society, join in the great work of the patriot. It is the work of the patriot, because patriotism exacts of every man that he reflect on the affairs of his country, and that he give his neighbors the result of his reflections. In politics, as in every other department of life, the clashing of thought is sometimes a proof of disease, but always a promise of reform. But politics has this feature almost uniquely; it has relation to one of the most important concerns of practical life, and therefore its abstract principles are also rules for the conduct of men. It is at once a science and an art. Hence one of the most attractive of subjects may become one of the most pernicious, when carried too far or in the wrong direction. Now French political speculation is not free from either of these defects. The great body of French political literature contains much that is good and admirable; but after a few standard names are excepted, it will be found that the writers in that branch have loaded it with superficial virtues, which scarcely hide its deeper and graver vices. They have made it clever, fascinating, shallow, egotistic, and dangerous.

The fruitful parent of much of this activity is the French Ac4demy. Found ed by Richelieu, the type of clerical absolutism, and built up by Louis XIV., the type of royal absolutism, the French Academy has passed through the vicissitudes of politics with the calm dignity becoming its character, and without often losing sight of constitutional principles of government. It weighed the Second Empire boldly and accurately. During the whole term of that treacherous régime, the Academy was its fearless, implacable, and hated foe. The Emperor might banish particular members of the order, but the Academy itself, the pride of France and the admiration of Europe, he could neither bribe nor intimidate. Hence the venerable institution stood forth the champion of liberal principles in a country where so many thoughtful men seemed to believe that everything but the Empire led to anarchy. Without taking a formal part in governmental affairs, it came to represent a very distinct political creed. It rests itself on the traditions of the July Monarchy. The reign of Louis Philippe was the golden age of the French Academy, and, according to the Academy, the golden age of France itself. The Academy therefore presents hereditary monarchy with free parliamentary institutions as the true ideal of a political system for France. But doctrines which were liberal when the Empire was at Paris are conservative when the Empire is a fugitive in Europe; hence the Academy now lifts up its voice against democracy, without at all changing its own creed. If individual differences be overlooked, and the sum of opinion on essential points be alone regarded, it will appear, we think, that the circle of writers of which the Academy is the centre reach their conclusions by the path which we proceed to indicate.

In the view of those amiable bourgeois, democracy and imperialism are the extremes of a scale, whereof the middle is the point of prudence and safety. Imperialism is a false system for reasons which all but imperialists now accept. But the reasons for rejecting democracy are quite different. Democracy is held to be out of place in France, because historically and philosophically France requires monarchical institutions. Her greatness was founded by Charlemagne, the most sagacious of kings, and the country pursued, under a long succession of monarchs, a career of growth and glory, until the Revolution, warring justly against a perversion of the kingly principle, imbued the people with hostility to the principle itself. From the moment at which the Revolution exceeded its proper limits dates the decline of France. When the Revolution planted in the popular mind the heresies of equality and self-government, it invited all the disasters which followed, from Waterloo to Sedan. The one glimpse of light in the century of darkness was afforded by the short reign of the house of Orleans. The house of Orleans founded a system which satisfied at once the monarchical traditions and the liberal aspirations of France. It centred the executive power of the state in a personal head; and it formulated the will of the people through an independent parliament. Theoretically the July Monarchy was perfect. But a popular revolt overthrew it.

The overthrow of the Orleans monarchy was the act of this extreme democratic spirit. The proceeding was strictly analogous to the later stages of the first Revolution. The first Revolution, carried too far, produced the First Empire; the Revolution of 1848 produced the Second Empire. In both cases the cause was the same. The democratic spirit of France is the source of all the difficulty, because, first, that spirit is at war with the traditions of the country, and hence can never realize its aim; second, it is unsuited to the slight discipline of the people, and must in all cases become the victim of demagogues or usurpers; third, because it ~s out of character with the situation of France in the great family of European powers. Most of the writers who share this belief hold that democracy is originally and always an evil; but out of deference to the stupidity of the age, they present the above among other practical reasons for opposing it in France.

In beginning an examination of this theory, it is proper to assume with its author that this democratic spirit does actually exist. The question then is, How shall that spirit be treated? How shall it be utilized, or how shall it be destroyed?

The student of French history will recall three systems which have tried to deal with this admitted passion of the French people. The Bourbons crushed it; the Orleanists snubbed it; the Bonapartes deceived it. We need not describe in detail these three series of tactics. We need not recall how the Bourbon princes trampled under foot till 1789 the growing spirit of democracy among their subjects; or how under Louis Philippe the bourgeoisie quietly absorbed all the powers and all the honors of the state; or how the Bonapartes flattered the people with plébiscites which bore false witness. The essential fact is that no one of these dynasties has made a sincere and intelligent effort to deal with democracy as something which can be fostered and utilized, but cannot be exterminated. Each has sought by its own method to destroy the indestructible. This fact is the key to French history of the past hundred years, of the half-dozen revolutions, of the sham republics, and the spurious monarchies, of the Directory and the Commune, of the series of harrowing events which stain with blood the records of a noble people. It has scarcely occurred to the elegant doctrinaires of the French Academy to accept democracy as a stubborn fact, and to mould it into an ally of sound constitutional government. Yet this was the problem which presented itself in 1789, and which has presented itself unceasingly ever since. How must one explain this failure ?

No error is more common than to confound democracy as an element in national character with democracy as a form of government. The Academicians themselves fall into this error in arguing that the democratic spirit of France is an evil because it can never establish democratic institutions. Now the two are not on]y not identical, but they are not even necessarily coexistent. By the former we understand that spirit in a people which leads them to demand equality among citizens and a substantial control over their own affairs ; by the latter, a system in which the people pronounce directly on all the details of government. Hence there may be democratic peoples without strictly democratic institutions; and there may be popular institutions with a very weak democratic spirit. No one can deny that the Americans are more democratic than the English; yet the government of England feels more directly than that of the United States the force of public opinion. Each has its check on the action of the popular will. In the United States the check is found in narrowing and lengthening the channels by which that will reaches the governing powers; in England it consists of an hereditary crown and an hereditary nobility, which can restrain hut cannot thwart the people. But the latter system is much the weaker, and is slowly giving way. A perfect democracy is a creature of the fancy. It has never existed. Perhaps the nearest approach to it was reached in the free city of the Middle Ages, an institution which is copied, though without the element of political independence, in the unit of our system, the township.

Another error in the use of terms is that which confounds democratic government with republican government. Even Montesquieu failed to draw clearly the distinction. His oft-quoted declaration that a republic is possible only in a small state, means really that a strict democracy is possible only in a small state, a proposition obviously true. But a republic is a device for utilizing democracy in a large state. The three great evils of a democracy are these: it is too clumsy for convenience, it is imperfectly responsible, and it is too passionate for deliberate action. The republic grapples with all these defects. It relieves unwieldiness, it distributes responsibility; it checks precipitation. At the same time it carefully fosters the democratic spirit in a variety of ways, but chiefly by the institution of local self-government.

In this view the value of a republic is merely a question of utility, or, if one prefers, a question of relation. Given the democratic spirit, and the desire to afford it the best method of utterance, does or does not the republic combine the most features of excellence? With him who holds that democracy is an evil to be destroyed, we can, at this point, have no dispute. The only possible disputant is he who believes in democracy, but not in the republic as a means of conserving it. But the day for that species of controversy has nearly passed away. Thanks to Alexander Hamilton, America has shown how a free people can found a democracy shorn of all the terrors which for so many ages haunted the dreams of philosophers. The federative republic now finds few sceptics among those who truly believe that democracy is a healthy and beneficent spirit.

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