Limited Sovereignty in the United States
THE last state elections in Massachusetts were chiefly of local interest, but the vote which decided them, if carefully analyzed, possesses a national importance. There has been much rejoicing in Massachusetts and elsewhere over the defeat of General Butler. But if the event was fortunate, the manner of its accomplishment is a subject for the most serious reflection. It was generally anticipated that the bulk of the respectable democrats would adhere to their party nominee, and that the republican party, single-handed, would be able to crush Butler. These expectations were not realized. The respectable democrats, with comparatively few exceptions, voted for the republican candidate, and without their votes Mr. Talbot would probably not Lave obtained a plurality. The significance of this fact is sufficiently obvious. The wealth, the intelligence, the conservatism, the decency, of the State were arrayed on one side, without regard to party. On the other, demanding the suffrages of the people for the office of governor, appeared a man whose name has become a synonym for everything that is bad in American polities. His immediate and most zealous supporters were unknown, or known only for evil. He liad plenty of money, but beyond this nothing personally “to back his suit at all, but the plain devil and dissembling looks.” His whole career was known to the people who were to vote for him. Every evil act, every inconsistency, every meanness, of which he had ever been guilty was dragged into light
and spread before the public, day after day, by a bitterly hostile press. As the returns show, the struggle became at the polls a simple contest between honesty and dishonesty; between all the best elements in the State and an artful, able, and unscrupulous demagogue. In that contest dishonesty and the demagogue were defeated, but they received in round numbers one hundred and ten thousand votes out of two hundred and sixty thousand. Of this vote, probably a very small proportion only was cast by mere political adventurers, or by men of ruined fortunes and broken reputations, who followed General Butler, as they would anybody else, with perfect skepticism and cynicism as to all principles, and solely with a view to their own material welfare. A portion of the vote was undoubtedly due to that general discontent caused by hard times, which is ready to try any change in the hope of relief. Yet even of this discontented vote a large part must have been merely thoughtless and ignorant, and not intelligently convinced that there was any real help to be found in General Butler. The great majority of those who voted for Butler did so simply because they were very ignorant. Any other hypothesis requires the admission that a great body of citizens not only knowingly and willfully supported dishonesty in finance, but that they cared nothing about personal character or morality on the part of their candidate. This supposition no man of patriotism or good sense wishes to accept. The fact is that these voters were men who for the most part placed faith in General Cutler’s promises that if he were elected good times would return, wages would rise, and their individual fortunes would be benefited. Such beliefs indicate ignorance of the densest kind. It is not as if the voters had supposed that a certain financial policy would relieve them, or improve their condition. Any people may be misled by a specious and mistaken scheme of finance, and if this were all, the vote in Massachusetts would lose much of its significance. But a sincere faith in Butler’s demagogue promises necessarily meant on the part of the believer an ignorance of the most fundamental and simple facts in regard to our institutions. It required a conviction that the governor of Massachusetts, besides regulating the immutable laws of supply and demand, controlled the financial policy of the general government, and that he also had possession of all political power in his own State. It compelled an acceptance of the theory that the governor is everything, and the legislature nothing, whereas every child is supposed to know that almost the exact contrary is the truth. Yet there were apparently nearly one hundred thousand voters in Massachusetts who believed these things, and who were ready to follow the first Jack Cade who should come along and promise them that when he should be in office two and two should make five. Such ignorance as this, when it is found to be so widely diffused, has a national meaning and importance. In a greater or less degree it must exist in every State, and the sum total is appalling. Every one concedes that the safety of our system rests upon education. In no State has more been done for public education than in Massachusetts, and the result is seen in the recent election. Such a thing would have been impossible a hundred years ago, in such a form and with a like candidate. Nothing can be plainer than that we are now, relatively speaking, less competent than we were in 1789 to conduct a government constituted on the same principles, and regulated in the same fashion, as the one then adopted.
Our civilization and our material wealth have made enormous strides since that period, but we are not, as a people, so well able to make a democracy succeed as we were when the government was founded. In other words, education has not been able to deal with the growth of population, and meet the changes of occupation and of modes of life which do so much to shape the political character and habits of a people. No doubt if education reached every man in the community, or even a very large majority of men, all would be well. But it does not. There is a dangerous amount of ignorance on the part of those who hold sovereign power in the United States. Education can remedy it, and may ultimately do so, but a long time must elapse before this state of affairs can be brought about. Meanwhile, this ignorance is lowering the tone of public life and the character of our public men, and threatens the safety of our whole system.
It is not proposed to discuss here the merits or demerits of uneducated voters. Every honest and intelligent man admits that an ignorant suffrage is in itself and by itself an unmitigated evil. The amount of this ignorance is very large, as the surprising figures of Butler’s vote most conclusively show. There is, however, another feature of our political life which is closely connected with such questions as are presented by the Butler vote. This is the feeling of distrust and fear in regard to the holders of sovereign power, which is manifesting itself more and more among the most intelligent classes of the community. No careful observer can have failed to notice the change of sentiment in this respect. The democratic principle, which triumphed with Jefferson and was established and extended by Jackson, left wholly to itself, ran rapidly to extremes, as far as American common sense would permit, and reached its culmination about 1850. The constitutions made and revised in the various States at that period are the best proof of this statement, and the mania for having every conceivable official, including judges, annually elected by a popular vote is the most striking example of the prevalence of the ultra-democratic theory. It was at this point that theories and methods of government were lost sight of in the slavery conflict, and in the war which followed. When the war closed, the last class government in the United States had been swept away by the destruction of the slave power, and men found themselves face to face with a pure democracy from one end of the country to the other. Then it was that the change in public sentiment to which allusion has just been made began. Thirty or forty years ago it was considered the rankest heresy to doubt that a government based on universal suffrage was the wisest and best that could be devised. No man, whether he were whig or democrat, ventured publicly to question this great principle. Such is not now the case. Expressions of doubt and distrust in regard to universal suffrage are heard constantly in conversation, and in all parts of the country. They have already found utterance in literature, and before long they will make their way to the pulpit and the platform. It is easy to denounce such opinions, and to cast them aside with a sneer. Any demagogue or penny-a-liner is capable of it. But neither denunciations nor sneers can remove the hard fact. There is a growing disbelief in the system of universal suffrage, which cannot be concealed. It must not be supposed that there is any reference here to the opinions of those wretched creatures who from the precincts of the American colony in Paris scoff at their country and its institutions, or those others who ape the manners of the English aristocracy, and with unblushing snobbishness look on everything American as necessarily vulgar. The doubt and distrust intended here have begun at the top of our society, among some of the most intelligent, the most thoughtful, and the most patriotic men, and it is slowly and surely creeping downwards. No man will question that it is a grave matter. Only the shallow-minded will push it aside as the vain, speculative opinion of a minority who can never have power. There is no greater mistake than to suppose that because the intelligent, the educated, the wealthy, and the able men are in a minority, they are therefore powerless. They are loath to move, it is true, they act only in great emergencies, but when they are fairly pushed to the wall they always have won and they always will win in the end, because they have the greatest intellectual strength. The men of brains are sure to have the bulk of the property in any country, and they are equally sure to become its only rulers if matters are ever carried to the last extremity. If they cannot have liberty, they will at least have security. The world has always been governed by force in one form or another. When it is moral and intellectual force alone that rules, there is constitutional and peaceable government; when it is physical force alone, it is revolution or despotism. But in any event intellectual force sooner or later becomes master of the physical force, and then it is irresistible and permanent. The minority, therefore, is not to be despised. But, without supposing extreme cases, it is enough for us to admit that it is ruin when the people have not faith in their own theory of government, and that it is a serious misfortune when an intelligent minority, no matter how small, begins to distrust the political system of their country. This is the danger which is ever assuming larger proportions. To express the case in a few words, there is a considerable body of intelligent and patriotic men in the United States who fear and distrust their sovereign.
Opinions of this sort, it is needless to say, are greatly stimulated and increased by such an exhibition as the vote just cast for General Butler. Thus we have at the bottom a vast amount of dangerous ignorance, and at the top a growing distrust of the system which gives to that ignorance political power. The latter, if misdirected or left to itself, may become most mischievous; the former is simply a great and threatening danger. There is much misconception, too, in regard to this doubt and fear, and much injustice shown toward them. There is nothing treasonable or reactionary in such feelings. On the contrary, resistance to the sovereign power, in English history at least, has usually proceeded from the wisest, the most public-spirited, and the most far-sighted men in the community. If the existence of such sentiments is a misfortune, if it proves that the sovereign has done wrong, it also shows that there are watchful and patriotic men ready to observe errors and publish them, which is the first step toward recovery, and is a sure sign that selfish indifference, the most deadly of all diseases incident to the body politic, has not yet set in. This spirit of opposition and criticism in regard to the sovereign has always been, and always will be, regarded at the outset as criminal and almost monstrous. Many men who applaud the resistance of the “ country party ” to the extension of the prerogative by James and Charles, and who look upon the principles of our own Revolution as sacred, are only too ready to condemn the spirit which cavils at the sovereign of the present day. It is always the old story of the right divine of kings to govern wrong, and arises in great measure from the very common confusion of ideas in regard to sovereignty.
That sovereignty is the ultimate power in the state possessed of ability to enforce its commands is pretty well understood. Where this sovereignty resides, and that it is always in its essence the same, is by no means equally well appreciated. There are but three kinds of government, if we classify them according to the nature of the sovereignty, which is after all the only fundamental and perfectly distinctive test. Sovereignty in any government must rest somewhere among the men who make up the society for which that government is constituted, and there are obviously only three places which it can occupy. It may reside in one man, in some men, or in all men. In the first case it is a despotism, in the second an aristocracy or class government, in the third a democracy. In all forms it is liable to error and excess. The aggregate of mankind are undoubtedly less likely to make mistakes than any single man, such as the Pope, for example, but at the same time neither is infallible. Nor is there anything more peculiarly sacred in one kind of sovereignty than in another. The numerical majority of a whole people may be or may become as tyrannical and bitterly oppressive as a Venetian oligarchy or a successful usurper. There is no sovereign that may not err, and the one effort under all systems should be to reduce his possible errors to a minimum.
That which is true of other sovereigns is true in a greater or less degree of our own. There is no use in attempting to propagate the “ peculiar race ” doctrine, or in trying to suppose that we are exempt from the operation of general laws, or are too clever to profit by experience. Let us on the contrary look into the past, and see whether we cannot find suggestions that will help us in our difficulties. There is no better guide than the history of our own race. We do not need to seek instruction beyond its pages, if we take to heart and act upon the lessons which we can there find set down.
No other people ever displayed political talents of so high an order as that derived from the Anglo-Saxon stock. They have surpassed even the Romans in the practical art of government, and in adapting political systems to new conditions and changing times. In their history, therefore, can be found the secret of their success, —the most important part of which lies in the constant effort to limit and restrain the sovereign power. This struggle runs through the whole story, and although the seat of sovereignty has changed, the doctrine of limitations never has. In England the contest began with the crown. Gradually the regal powers were limited, until the sovereignty shifted its place and rested with an aristocracy instead of with the king. A class government replaced a despotic one. That governing class has been steadily widening, in accordance with the democratic forces of modern times, but it is still a class government and a limited sovereignty. The same is true of that branch of the English family which founded and built up the United States. Our own history teaches us the same lesson as that of our kindred. When the constitution was formed, one principal object of the men who gathered in convention at Philadelphia in 1789 was to check and limit the sovereign power in the state. They conceded sovereignty to the people, as defined by the laws of the various States. But so great were the existing limitations upon the suffrage that the scheme might fairly have been described as a broad form of class government. The exceptions to the system of a pure democracy were very numerous, and in some cases very considerable. In the convention of 1789, moreover, the chief desire of many, if not of most, members was to check the growth and power of the democratic principle. There was nothing more dreaded by the framers of the constitution than the excesses of the sovereign people. This dread was confined to no party, for we find among the opponents of unlimited democracy such men as Mr. Gerry, who afterwards was a leader of the democrats in the Jeffersonian period. The founders of our government sought to hedge the sovereign with artificial barriers which would modify and restrain his action. A similar policy was pursued by the great political party which carried the constitution, and organized, established, and set in motion the government. The federalists built the strong walls within which the current of democracy has thus far flowed strongly but safely. But the waters have always been rising; there are illlooking leaks in the embankments, and the swollen stream threatens to overflow its dikes.
What is the cause of the danger, and of the consequent fear and distrust so strongly felt in certain quarters, and what is the remedy for these evils? The cause is clearly a defect in the character or actions of the sovereign. The sovereign is the whole people, and wields his power by means of universal suffrage, unqualified and containing a large amount of most perilous ignorance. The danger, the fear, and the distrust all spring from the same source, — universal suf-
frage, the very essence of our whole system. There is no use in crying out against unlimited suffrage. Denunciation may serve as a warning, but in every other way it is useless. Railing and invective only harden opposition, and make compromise and amelioration impossible. But if abuse is futile and bad, the unreasoning praise of the suffrage to which we are accustomed is still worse. Nothing can be more childish than the indiscriminate laudation of our institutions which is so common. It is every bit as bad and false as the flattery which high church clergymen were wont to pour out before the throne of Charles II. The English race has not achieved its successes by refusing to consider the defects of its state and institutions. The Revolution was not fought, nor the constitution made, by men who did not dare to inquire into the conduct and the limitations of their sovereign. We have got universal suffrage. We cannot directly limit it, except possibly in a very small way, or retrace our steps, without a social convulsion. There is no use, on the one hand, in railing at it, or, on the other, in looking upon adverse criticism as treason. Universal suffrage has its virtues and its defects. It is our duty to foster the one, and remedy, if we can, the other. During the century of our existence as a nation our system has worked well. There is no other system, except the English, which has worked anything like as well as our own, and there is absolutely none which has produced on the whole so great an amount of human happiness and well-being, or which has done so much to raise the condition of the average man. But in the process of time, and from a variety of causes, our system has begun to work less well. That which was admirably adapted to a small population, with an almost indefinite opportunity for expansion in 1789, is not equally well fitted for a people numbering fifty millions. The simple occupations of agriculture and trade have been succeeded by vast and complicated industries, by an immense commerce, internal and external, by an enormous system of railroads, and by all sorts of interests of the greatest magnitude and value. Great cities have come into being. We have received and undertaken to absorb an almost unlimited immigration of adult foreigners, largely illiterate, of the lowest class and of other races. We have added at one stroke four millions and more of ignorant negroes to our voting population in the South, and we have not been able to reach with education even the natural increase of the native-born population. The result of such tremendous changes is that our system moves with increasing difficulty, and its faults become from day to day more conspicuous and more threatening. We have relied upon education to solve the problem, to keep ignorance in check and to make universal suffrage work acceptably. Education has proved itself insufficient to meet, in a manner which must remove all proper doubt, the demands we have made upon it. It cannot accomplish the desired results and provide the necessary safeguards, at least not within any reasonable time. This remedy having failed, is there any other? Universal suffrage is a fixed fact; there is no possibility of disfranchising the ignorant, and making the suffrage the reward and the badge of intelligence, except in a limited degree. It only remains to make the system as it is work as well and as long as we can, so that education may have a fair chance to render it ultimately and permanently successful. The lesson of our history is plain, and the example of the framers of the constitution and of the founders of our government is before us. The sovereign must be still further limited in conformity with the exigencies of the time, and no political devices which tend to his enlightenment must be passed over. There is nothing very startling in such a proposition. Practical limitation of our sovereign has occurred and is occurring all the time. In the South, where the civilization is not advanced and the pepple are poor, the suffrage or the sovereign is limited by the sabre and pistol. In great Northern cities, and in Northern States where parties are nearly equal, the sovereign is limited by
money and by complicated party machinery. So great are these limitations in New York, for instance, that the seat of sovereignty shifts, or is supposed to do so, and we read of struggles against despotism and the “ one-man power,” and see John Kelly caricatured in the guise of Cæsar. In the city of Washington the people have been wholly deprived of the franchise, and have been placed under an arbitrary government created by act of Congress, and all the respectable and tax-paying portion of the community rejoice in this paternal and despotic rule. A more indirect way, but a precisely similar one, is that pursued by the large and respectable body of manufacturers who make it their business to elect, and afterward control, congressmen, in order that their interests as affected by the tariff may be properly watched. Thus violence and corruption and fraud, the influence of property and irresistible external power, come in to limit the sovereign, and to secure a representation to those interests which have no especial political rights conceded to them by law, and of which they cannot obtain a recognition from the sovereign by purely legal methods. Some of these various methods (and their name is legion) which are employed in practice to limit the sovereign are very rude, and are generally regarded, and with perfect justice, as immoral and debasing. Yet it is an open question, if we consider the political aptitude and shrewdness of the American people, whether they are not, in the majority of instances, the least of two evils, and whether they do not do more good on the whole than would be obtained by their abandonment, and the consequent license and mismanagement of the unfettered sovereign. They at least show that the need of limitations on the sovereign is so strongly felt that in practice they are constantly enforced. The probability is that under the present conditions of our civilization these rude and corrupting methods of limitation will be always more or less used. But is there no way of reducing them to the lowest possible point by changes which will obviate, in large measure, their necessity ? Two obvious solutions at once suggest themselves, — the reading and writing qualification, and an increased poll tax. The first can only, as experience shows, be partially enforced; and the second, being in its nature a property qualification, arouses such deep hostility that it cannot as a rule be made effective. Direct disfranchisement, in short, on a large scale is out of the question, and its absolute necessity and consequent possibility could arise only under circumstances which no one wishes to contemplate. But there are other forms of limitation which would tend to diminish the dangers and defects of our system, and make it work with perhaps as little friction as may be under any form of government. The first step is to put aside all shams and fine language, and to admit frankly and manfully that universal suffrage has very grave defects, that the sovereign power has need of limitations and increased “ checks and balances,” and that it is desirable to devise and establish them. To describe all the possible limitations and improvements of this sort in detail would require a volume instead of an article. But some of them, at least, can be enumerated, as they are none of them very novel in themselves, and they illustrate sufficiently well the theory on which they rest and the advantages which it is to be hoped they would produce.
The right of voting cannot be taken away, but the subjects of voting can be much reduced. The numbers of the voters need not be diminished, but their action can be circumscribed and concentrated. In other words, the governments of our States and cities, in the latter of which the chief danger to our system lies, — a danger so great that many persons believe that only direct and extensive disfranchisement can remedy it,—ought to be assimilated as closely as possible to the national form. The only officers to be chosen by popular election ought to be the chief executive and the legislature. These are the delegated possessors of all the power of the sovereign who appoints them, and the nature of the sovereign body is not changed by making them only elected officers. The direct action of the sovereign is simply confined to those offices of whose incumbents it is the best and final judge, and which are the immediate recipients of the delegated power. Its action is withdrawn and made indirect with respect to those other offices, the requirements of which a large body of men cannot determine so well as their representatives. Few persons would advocate the choice of custom-house officers, or revenue inspectors, or cabinet officers, or government counsel, by a direct popular vote. Yet there is nothing more absurd in making these officers elective than in entrusting to the choice of the people, guided by caucuses and party machinery of all sorts, the selection of judges and sheriffs and district attorneys, of state treasurers and attorney-generals, of school commissioners arid civil engineers. The greatest room for independent thought and action ought to be allowed in all these instances, and the men who hold such places ought to be as far removed as possible from the debasing influence which springs from the necessity of catching votes in order to make a living. At the same time that the number of offices would be reduced and the character of their holders improved by a better method of appointment, the attention of the sovereign would be more closely drawn to those cases in which direct action still remained; the standard of representation would be greatly raised, and responsibility would be increased. All this would react upon the appointed officers; the sovereign would be better served, and the greatest good of the greatest number would be furthered.
Closely allied to a reduction of the subjects of voting is a reduction of the opportunities for the exercise of that right. It has become a truism that frequent elections as well as a multitude of offices are in the direct interest of the worst political classes. The busy and therefore the best portion of the community cannot spare the time, and ought not to be compelled to give it to elections which recur annually. Such a system is a direct injury to business, and ought to be checked on this if on no other ground. But its political effects are still worse. It gives a fuller scope to the designing and selfish to mislead the ignorant. Men who cannot attend to an annual election are, however, ready to give time and labor once in two years, and still more once in four years. If the opportunities for voting are limited, the right, too, is more highly prized, and more carefully and more intelligently exercised. To take again the example of the national government: no one considers that two years are too long a term for a representative, or diminish his sense of responsibility; while it is generally agreed that four years are too short a period for the president to hold office, and cause the disturbance involved in a general election to recur too frequently. If two and four years are not too long in the case of national offices, they are certainly not so in the case of States and cities, which are largely, especially the latter, mere business corporations. Thus, by limiting the occasions for the exercise of the sovereign power, as well as by limiting the subjects of its direct action, the cause of good government would be aided; there would be a still further improvement in the character of officials; the general welfare would be increased; and the whole machinery would work more easily.1
Another change, of almost equal importance with the two already suggested, would be a destruction of localization. This, instead of limiting the sovereign power, would tend to give it the free range of which it is now deprived. Under the present system, in order that a man may be eligible for a certain office he must reside in a certain place. To be able to go to Congress or to the legislature, a candidate must live within certain arbitrarily defined limits. The smaller the territory, the greater the trading and the rotation in office. Every little group and every small section must have its representative in turn, and the result is that no man holds office long enough to know his business, and politics offer no career for able and ambitious men. The constituencies, too, are deprived of the opportunity of selecting some man outside their own district, whom they may prefer on the ground of capacity and talent, and are restricted to their own neighborhood for a representative. This example merely shows that while it is important to limit the exercise of the suffrage, so that it may be used with the greatest care and give the fullest expression to all the best elements in the community, it is equally necessary that it should not be limited in the one thing where the utmost freedom is essential, — the opportunity of choosing the best men possible.
One other point occurs, which involves many and most intricate questions, but which admits of brief statement. It does not tend, perhaps, to limit so much as to guide the sovereign; but enlightenment is only another form of limitation, for both prevent excess and foster good government. We need more responsibility in office. Matters which should be entrusted to single ministers are confided to legislative committees, and no one is responsible. Affairs which could be better and more efficiently managed by one man are given to commissions of several men, and no one is responsible. The sovereign sees a wrong committed, and can find nobody to pay the penalty; We want more of the one-man power, not as the product of corrupt and dangerous party machinery, and veiled behind a net-work of intrigue, but in places of high administrative trust, so that the responsibility may be concentrated, publicity secured, and the sovereign be able to hold its officer to strict account. We must be prepared also to remedy the discontent which did so much to help Butler, and which will always become the prey of dangerous politicians. We must look to it that there be no reasonable cause of discontent, and then whatever exists is no longer to be dreaded. But there are just causes of discontent, and that they are not removed is due to the carelessness and ignorance of those who hold the delegated sovereign power. Take, for instance, taxation. It is unjust, unequal, and oppressive, and falls with especial severity upon the laboring classes. Its reform has come before legislative bodies, state and national, again and again, and nothing is done. Look at the glaring instances of waste and profusion in national, state, and above all in city governments; and again nothing, or next to nothing, is done except to cut down salaries and reduce the police force. The usual practice, in other words, has been to economize where economy is most injurious, and to lavish money where it is only sheer extravagance. And yet very worthy people wonder that anybody should feel the need of reform, and that the laboring classes should be filled with a blind and savage discontent with existing administrations.
Suggestions of this sort might be almost indefinitely extended, but the examples that have been given illustrate sufficiently what is meant by limiting and enlightening the sovereign in the United States. Unless education can be made to accomplish what it has not yet accomplished, and to do that which seems beyond its strength, our system can be improved and made to work successfully only by the additional limitation and enlightenment of the sovereign, which the progress of time has rendered imperative. There is no reason to believe that we are free from danger because the sovereignty is vested in all men, instead of in one man or in a class. A tyranny as gross as that of the Cæsars is not so likely to issue from universal suffrage as from a military usurper. But it may do so, and tyranny of any kind and from any source is the greatest of political evils. Let it be remembered that there is one thing quite as precious as national freedom, and that is individual liberty. If a man’s house is not his castle, it makes very little difference whether it is entered by the king, to imprison the person of the owner, or by the emissary of a government elected by the rabble, who is commissioned to take his property under forms of law. A fair field and no favor, combined with the greatest amount of individual liberty compatible with the general welfare, has always been the American doctrine, and it is the only safe one. If the sovereign, from ignorance or from any other cause, threatens the general welfare and endangers the cherished political system of the country, he must be educated; and if he cannot be educated sufficiently, he must be limited. Nothing is surer than that if these limitations, when they become necessary, are not made peaceably and reasonably, they will sooner or later be made by violence.
- Annual elections have been already abandoned in some of the States, notably in Maryland, and the result has been very satisfactory.↩