FOREIGN economists have been at some pains to prove that presidential government in the United States is a failure, and this they attribute to the unwisdom of a "collective mediocrity." They felicitate us on our free institutions, but decry our method of selecting the chief magistrate of the nation.
M. de Tocqueville, who visited this country during the administration of Andrew Jackson, noted the paucity of great men here at that period, and philosophized concerning it:—
"On my arrival in the United States I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the subjects, and so little among the heads of the government. It is a well-authenticated fact that at the present day the most able men in the United States are very rarely placed at the head of affairs; and it must be acknowledged that such has been the result in proportion as democracy has outstepped all its former limits. The race of American statesmen has evidently dwindled most remarkably in the course of the last fifty years.... This is as much a consequence of the circumstances as of the laws of the country. When America was struggling, in the high cause of independence, to throw off the yoke of another country, and when it was about to usher a new nation into the world, the spirits of its inhabitants were roused to the height which their great efforts required. In this general excitement the most distinguished men were ready to forestall the wants of the community, and the people clung to them for support, and placed them at its head. But events of this magnitude are rare, and it is from an inspection of the ordinary course of affairs that our judgment must be formed."
If M. de Tocqueville could have foreseen the late civil war, he would have observed the same phenomenon. In that abnormal condition of affairs, the leadership of our armies and of our congressional bodies devolved upon the men most capable of grappling with the emergency. The bone, sinew, and brain of both sections were brought into play in that crucial contest, and all the latent power of the nation was developed. Most of the leaders of the struggle have passed away, and now the complaint is general that the void which they left has not been filled. The question arises, Are we dependent upon a crisis for the evolution of great men? Apparently so, although there is no valid reason for it. In England, the Pitts, George Canning, Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russell, Lord Palmerston, the Earl of Beaconsfield, and Mr. Gladstone form an almost continuous line of statesmen, than whom that country has never produced greater. There is good ground for belief that every country possesses at least one great man. In the United States his natural place is the presidential chair, the seat of power. As a matter of fact, the White House seems to stand upon a hill, gleaming like a Jack-o'-lantern, to lure public men to heights that are simply inaccessible. This anomaly in a popular government attracted the attention of John Stuart Mill, who found something intrinsically wrong in our method of choice. He says,—
"In the United States, at the election of President, the strongest party never dares put forward any of its strongest men, because every one of these, from the mere fact that he has been long in the public eye, has made himself objectionable to some portion or other of the party, and is therefore not so sure a card for rallying all their votes as a person who has never been heard of by the public at all until he is produced as the candidate. Thus, the man who is chosen, even by the strongest party, represents, perhaps, the real wishes only of the narrow margin by which that party outnumbers the other. Any section whose support is necessary to success possesses a veto on the candidate. Any section which holds out more obstinately than the rest can compel all the others to adopt its nominee; and this superior pertinacity is, unhappily, more likely to be found among those who are holding out for their own interest than for that of the public. The choice of the majority is therefore very likely to be determined by that portion of the body who are the most timid, the most narrow-minded and prejudiced, or who cling most tenaciously to the exclusive class interest; in which case the electoral rights of the minority, while useless for the purposes for which votes are given, serve only for compelling the majority to accept the candidate of the weakest or worst portion of themselves."
Mr. Mill here specifically attacks the convention, but he and M. de Tocqueville both concur in regarding the evil of unwise choice as in separable from the selection of a chief magistrate by Popular suffrage. They are right in their facts, but in their conclusion lies a fundamental error.
If democracy is responsible for the colorless character of its Presidents, it is a sin of omission, and not of commission. In truth, the people of this country have very little to do with the choice of the supreme magistrate, their option being restricted to two men, the creatures of two practically irresponsible conventions. If, in the selection of presidential candidates, democracy exhibits that indifference, singular and inexplicable to foreigners, which is the opportunity of intellectually small and ambitiously great men, and if its enthusiasm in the campaign preceding the election is mostly an artificial party product, it has the good and sufficient reason that it cannot be expected to take an interest in that which has passed beyond its control. Party organization is so strong and effectual that a revolt from the regular nominee is an act of impotency that serves only to strengthen the opposing party. Between Scylla and Charybdis, the prospect of the voter is not happy. The mischief is in the autocracy of the convention, and its correction necessitates a transfer of power from that body to the people. Mankind is governed by names, and the term "popular convention" still screens many abuses. Although the philosophical cause of the evil may have escaped the foreign critic, he has keenly apprehended the indisputable fact. Now what is so patent to outsiders must be well understood here. Nay, it is not only understood, but it has engendered a widespread dissatisfaction with the existing method, which invariably rejects men of national reputation, and compromises by evolving candidates out of obscurity. " Statesman X" has figured largely in the presidential annals of this country. Since the death of the last survivor of the founders of the republic, the list of Presidents, with few exceptions, presents a mournful and mediocre array, and has suggested the cant phrases " his obscurity" and "his accidency," which are of long standing, and contain much significance.
Dr. von Holst, an able if pessimistic historian of the American constitution, says, "In the person of Adams [John Quincy] the last statesman who was to occupy it for a long time left the White House;" and that "so many of the Presidents" who succeeded him "have worn as their only coat-of-arms the manufacturer's mark of the party 'machine ' that the rest of the world is sometimes tempted to estimate the dignity of the office too nearly in accordance with the worthiness of the person who holds it for the time being." Whether or not this severe reflection is deserved, a glance at the history of the convention and the character of its progeny will reveal.