THE last session of Congress may, like most other things, be looked at from a good many different points of view ; and as the present moment in politics is not one of absorbing interest, it may be as well to turn back and consider briefly the impression produced by the proceedings of the national legislature in different quarters.
Judging from the press, then, of the effect of the proceedings of the last session of Congress on the public mind, in the first place, the foreign critic has been led to draw very unfavorable conclusions as to the merits of republican institutions. The foreign critic’s reasoning is something of this sort : A hundred years ago, the United States were colonies of England, and had a quasi-aristocratic system of society. The forms of life were simple, compared with those of our time, but the government of the colonies was in the hands of skilled political families, who managed matters so well that they were enabled, after the separation from the mother country, to form a good, conservative constitution, not only for the federation, but for the single States. By and by, the democratic fever seized on the people, and in one State after another the suffrage was made universal, offices elective, and elective too for short periods, the system of rotation was introduced, and conservatism went by the board. What results have unrestricted suffrage, a rotatory civil service, an elective judiciary, in other words republicanism, produced ? In the State governments they have produced Barnards, Cardozos, Pomeroys, Caldwells ; in Washington the system of which they are all parts has begot Credit Mobiliers, protection, and salary jobs, Oakes Ameses and Butlers ; in Louisiana and Florida, society is on the verge of anarchy ; throughout the entire country there is a universal cry of corruption, fraud, and crime, charges against everybody in office or aspiring to office, every man’s voice lifted against every man’s reputation, and a general carnival of slander and libel. The inference is, that the American people are not fit to govern themselves ; and if they are not, with all their experience, no people are. These criticisms are most openly expressed in England, but they are only less openly expressed in France and Germany, because, in those two countries, journalism does not occupy the place that it does in England.
If we turn to our own press, its discussion of the proceedings of Congress has been remarkable for more reasons than one. It might have been anticipated that the Credit Mobilier investigation, to take the principal event of the session as an illustration, would have been investigated outside of Congress in a partisan manner ; that Republican newspapers would have defended the corruption, because the members involved were for the most part Republicans ; that Democrats would have made the occasion one of party triumph, because the original exposure of the bribery was made last summer in the columns of a Liberal Republican newspaper. The discussion, however, has by no means been conducted in a partisan spirit, and it is curious to observe how unanimous the press has been in condemning, not only the original swindle of the Credit Mobilier, and the prevarications and perjury of members of Congress, but also the timidity of Congress in refusing to deal with the question in a straightforward, honest way. To be sure, there has been, now and then a newspaper which has defended the proceeding, and even extolled Oakes Ames and James Brooks, on the score of patriotism and honesty. But these were exceptions. As a general rule, the press has treated Democratic and Republican members alike ; and as this is the first case for many years in political discussion in which party interests have been subordinated to public interests, the fact is worth noticing. We may be pretty sure, that when the public gives such convincing evidence that it is beginning to discriminate between the two, and to look on its legally chosen representatives as a foreign body, of unpopular and suspicious character, that the day is not far distant when a change in the status quo must take place.
That the last session of Congress was a public scandal is generally admitted. What is the moral drawn from the fact by domestic criticism ?
The press comes to the conclusion that politics are corrupt, even corrupter than we had previously supposed ; that the system of subsidies and protection has finally ended in imbuing people with the notion that it is corporations, mills, steamship and railroad lines, that are really represented in Congress, instead of themselves ; that the politicians have come to be a real class, elected by a class, representing a class, and legislating in the interest of a class ; that the country is on the high road to destruction, unless these things can be stopped; and that the only way to stop them is, first, by Working for the election of honest representatives to Congress ; second, by being honest ourselves; and third, through a union of honest men, wherever found, throughout the country, combining without regard to party to secure a change. In fact, the only difference between foreign and domestic opinion on the subject is that foreign opinion points to republicanism and democracy, as the sources of all our evils, while we stop short of that final step, and say that, by stopping the immediate causes of degeneration, we can reanimate the body politic, and make it again a healthy organism.
Are we right ? Can it be done ? The grounds on which the foreign opinion rests are these : the character of a government depends on the character of the governing body, whatever it may be ; if the sovereign is a king, on the king’s character; if the sovereign is an aristocracy, on the character of the nobles who compose it; if the sovereign is a people, on their character. A popular government will be good only so long as the individuals who compose the population lead, in the main, simple, honest, quiet lives, and take a deep interest in government. As soon as the system of society becomes complex, the occupations of the population highly diversified, and wealth has begun to introduce distinctions, popular government begins to be an impossibility. A mixed crowd of men, some of them devoted to money-making by the pursuit of law, some to money-making by the pursuit of commerce or trade, others by the pursuit of art or letters, or any of the thousand pursuits to which the variety of modern life has given rise, does not take much more interest in good government than it does in anything else. Now and then, perhaps, on some great occasion, when a gigantic abuse has been discovered, or when a popular passion is stirred to its depths, the people may, by supreme exertion of the will, effect a momentary revolution ; but, in ordinary time, the people will no more govern themselves than the individuals who compose the people will make their own hats, mine their own coal, slaughter their own beef, weave their own clothes, or carry their grain to market on their own shoulders. Just as there are hatters, miners, butchers, manufacturers, and common carriers, so there will be politicians, who will do the work of government. Universal suffrage will have no other effect than this, that it will be regarded by the politician as a piece of machinery which must be put in running order, before he can make his possession of power secure. When this state of affairs exists, popular government is evidently at an end, though its form may linger on for a long time. The government does faithfully represent something, but what it represents is the popular incapacity to deal with political questions.
This argument is a very old one, and it all ends in the old view of the world’s affairs taken by the philosophical writers who flourished in Athens and Rome, and later by the religiosi of the Middle Ages, whose chief aim was to persuade their followers to abandon earthly struggles, hopes, joys, doubts, and fears, for the sake of philosophic calm or heavenly peace. Mundane affairs, they used to say, move in a vicious circle. First, simplicity and virtuous republicanism ; then, with the growth of wealth, corruption and the decay of republican ideas. Then the rise into power of demagogues, who, with a specious pretence of a desire to serve the public, in reality manage the public in their own interests. By and by the demagogue is succeeded by the tyrant, and the tyrant begins to govern in real earnest. The tyrant’s possession of power soon insures his own corruption ; he outrages law and justice and liberty, and the best among his subjects resist him. After a struggle they gain the day, and, meanwhile, the struggle itself has developed among the subjects an amount of selfrestraint, self-respect, and regard for law and right, which convinces them of the necessity of establishing some form ot selfgovernment. Popular rule returns, and the tale begins again. It is all a juggle ; men are puppets worked for an unknown object by an unseen conjurer.
Stoical morality and religion have not, in these days, that strong hold on people’s feelings that we can apprehend anything but extreme danger from the spread of such beliefs as these. A general belief among men of education that no struggle against evil in the government of the world was worth making because it could only in the end result in the production of some other and new kind of evil, would only lead to one conclusion, — a wide-spread materialism, indifference, or cynicism. “ Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,” would be the only answer necessary to make to importunate reformers, if, indeed, there should any longer be reformers ; for of what use is it to be a reformer at all, if, indeed, the eternal law of action and reaction in the moral world means that whatever good be done, evil of an equal amount will come of it? Would it not be better, on the whole, to play the part of tempter ? Who knows of how much good Satan has been the indirect cause ?
It is not for the purpose of expressing our belief in this philosophy that we refer to it. It can, we think, be shown to be shallow and incomplete ; but it deserves attention from the fact that the country has reached a period in its growth when, to a certain class of minds, such speculations are becoming extremely tempting, and, if unresisted, are sure to lead to results of the worst kind.
The reason we do not believe in this cynical view of politics is the same which has led the world generally, or the educated part of it, at least, to give up the old cynical view of man himself. Every man, in his progress from childhood to the grave, passes through much the same stages a government passes through. Childhood is the age of simplicity, and gradually leads to youth, the age of independence ; as soon as independence comes, temptation of every kind comes with it, — the temptations of wealth, of appetite, of sloth, of ambition. It used to be thought that the invariable result of these temptations was a moral fall, after which the victorious passion might in the human frame be supposed to represent the usurping tyrant in the body politic. Then, with another generation, the work began again. This view of man was a good while ago given up, and it is now generally admitted by most sane-minded people that a man may grow up, flourish, and descend into the grave, without illustrating the doctrine of depravity by his career. The question, in the case of each individual man is, Has he enough moral force, enough character, to resist ? It is the same with governments. The people of any country will have a good government just as long as they have in themselves virtue, public spirit, industry, strength, and courage. Whether the form of government is an empire, or a republic, or a monarchy, or that extraordinary, anomalous form which exists in England, and for which there is in reality no name, depends on other circumstances. But, in modern times, the character of the government depends on that of the people themselves.
While it is perfectly true that the complexity of life produced by the increase of wealth and the division of occupations places politics in a less prominent position than that which they occupy in simple conditions of society, it should also be remembered that, with the general advance of civilization, the business of government itself becomes different. The object of government, about which so much has been said and written, is, in barbarous times, simply the securing of power to the governor. In our day, the object of government is universally admitted, even by those who care least about it, to be the advancement of the general good Even wars are carried on, whenever it is possible, under a moral cover ; the administration of justice is not any longer the settlement of casual disputes between subjects, as it undoubtedly was in the days of the Aula Regis ; the courts are simply regarded as judicial agents of society for a certain well-known and defined purpose. Executive officials are regarded as social agents for another purpose, and legislative for a third. The taxing power was once, as it still is in Asia, a means of raising revenue for the support of a powerful individual or body of individuals. The taxing power, nowadays, is simply a device for carrying on the various pieces of intricate machinery which serve, each in its place, some end in the social order. In short, government is now, in fact, at least in this country, what a century ago it was only in theory, the servant, or rather agent, of the people, and its character will be determined by that of the people ; and we do not believe that the government is going to destruction, notwithstanding many Cincinnati Conventions and Fifth Avenue conferences, Credit Mobilier failures and salary jobs, merely because we think there is in the country an enormous amount of vital moral energy and earnestness which will, in the course of time, make itself felt by the government, and end by achieving the reform of many abuses which now seem to be growing worse and worse every year.
If we look back a little, we certainly see some ground for hope. Twelve years ago this spring, the United States was a slave power. Twelve years before that, the slave States had a far closer and surer hold on the government than any corporation, custom-house, or whiskey ring, or administration ring has ever had since. There were as many millions of capital invested in slaves, and in industries to the success of which a continuance of slavery was then honestly supposed by many people to be essential, as there are now in all the industries, schemes, enterprises, or jobs which employ the lobby at Washington, debauch the civil service, and corrupt Congress. To the good people who, twentyfive years since, prayed for the deliverance of the country from the curse of slavery, the condition of affairs looked far blacker than it does now to any one. A mere handful they were, too. They had no money. Capital was against them, the law was against them, government and social opinion were against them. They had really nothing on their side except their own conviction of its righteousness, and foreign sympathy. They had not even the cordial co-operation of the slaves whose freedom they desired to secure. Yet they triumphed so completely that not a slave is to be found now on American soil, and hardly a man who will confess that he once was a believer in slavery. To be sure, this victory was obtained at the cost of a war ; but this makes the case only the more singular proof of the fact that the country will go far, very far, in the support of what it believes to be right. The popular dislike of war was one of the obstacles which was constantly thwarting the efforts of the abolitionists. The war for the suppression of the Rebellion is, we believe, almost the first instance in history of a people sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives and thousands of millions of money for a purely moral object; for we may leave the selfish object of the preservation of the Union out of the account, since the Union might have been preserved perfectly well without the war, by one of the many compromises which were so artfully suggested, and so indignantly rejected at the beginning of the struggle.
The most cheerless pessimist must confess that there is something encouraging to the cause of reform in the history of the slavery struggle. The reforms which we now desire to be introduced into the government are certainly very different from that which the abolitionists fought for : they are, however, like it in this respect, — in which all reforms are alike, — that they cannot be introduced without the existence in the country of a number of people who are filled with the desire to do something to make the country happier and better, and whose main interest in government is to improve it. The antislavery struggle proved the existence of such a body of people ; and sooner or later we may rely on it that other people, filled with the same desire, will come forward to take their places and do the new work which this generation finds before it.
The Cincinnati movement ended in disaster, last summer, but it had one good result, which all those who avow an interest in reform ought to notice : it proved the existence of a small class of sincere reformers, who are not only capable of making a bold attack on the party in power, but who are also ready, in the interest of reform, to turn on their own soi-disant fellows and ruin them; who are not interested in the reform movement because it seems to afford an avenue to place and profit, but because it is a real reform movement; and who leave it the moment it ceases to be true to the object of its existence.