The Strong Government Idea

I NEED not review the history of the country to prove that up to this time there has been steady progress towards the realization of a broad ideal of national authority. Everybody knows how the constitution grew out of the demonstrated weakness of the confederate scheme of government; how the ability of the nation to deal with foreign enemies was shown by the War of 1812 and the Mexican War ; how in the long conflict between the opposing theories of state sovereignty and national supremacy the former idea grew in strength, while the latter drew its nourishment only from the exigencies of the slave system; and how, finally, the civil war made the one theory patriotism and loyalty, and the other treason, while immensely strengthening the recognized powers of the national government, and giving it a hold on the hearts of the people it never had before. The state’srights theory survives, it is true, but only as a sentiment associated with the beaten rebellion. Even in the South the younger generation does not understand it, or care for it. The intelligent whites have made use of it to some extent, under the cry of “ home rule,” to release themselves from the consequences of negro suffrage; but it is not the living force in the convictions of great masses of people which it used to be. In its place there has come what the democrats call “ opposition to the centralizing tendencies of the republican party.” This opposition is scarcely formulated, however, into a political creed, and no democrat ventures to give it the old discredited name of state sovereignty. The existence and strength of the tendency towards nationalism are clearly shown by its avowal by one political party, and by the hesitancy of the other to antagonize it with the counterpoise of state rights. A blind opposition without a well-defined hostile theory of government is a recognition of its force. If it were necessary to seek for further proofs of the existence of the centralizing movement, we should find them in a multitude of projects of legislation brought forward every winter at Washington, in the assertion by the republican party of the duty of the government to protect the citizen in his right of suffrage, and in the impossibility of conducting state canvasses on state issues. The latter evidence is an important indication of the condition of the public mind, irrespective of party feeling. It is very difficult now to have a state election that will be purely a verdict on state affairs. There may be important state offices to fill, amendments to the state constitution to ratify or reject, and legislative acts closely affecting the welfare of the people to approve or condemn; but when the contest grows hot, both parties draw their ammunition from Washington, and fight the battle over questions raised in national conventions, or at the last session of Congress. Men of first-rate talent can barely be persuaded to go to the legislature, and the state governments have fallen into the hands of small politicians, who use them as mere stepping-stones to influence and place in national politics.

It may be said in reply that we have a great political party opposed to centralization, and that its triumph, which in the natural course of politics must some day come, will reverse the engine and set the country back towards the old state’s-rights theories. I grant that the masses of the democratic party in the North are opposed to a strong government. Being incapable of governing themselves wisely, they dislike all forms of restraining authority. The leaders imagine, just at present, that they want to abstract power from the national government and distribute it among the States. Let them once get possession of the administration at Washington, and they will change their tone. There is a great deal of truth in the remark made by President Hayes recently, that the party in power always favors a strong government, and the party out of power opposes it. When the democracy was in power, it had no scruples about dragooning Kansas to make it a slave State, nor did it hesitate to place its hand upon every citizen and force him to be a slave catcher. At that time the republicans were state’s - rights advocates. With their personal-liberty bills they attempted to nullify the fugitiveslave law, and defied the federal authority. The war changed the attitude of parties ; but if the democrats were again to be a few years in power, another change would very likely take place. The democrats would in all probability endeavor to perpetuate their hold on the government by schemes of centralization, against which the republicans would raise the standard of state authority. The South may probably be expected to remain for many years attached to its state’s-rights notions, by reason of its natural desire to escape from the results of its defeat in war, and the unwillingness of its governing classes to recognize the full citizenship of the negroes ; but the South will not be formidable much longer. Political power in this country is fast passing to the growing West, which is increasing in strength every day. The census of 1880 will shear the South of a large part of its relative power; and the census of 1890 will still further reduce its weight in electoral colleges and in Congress. While the East has got its growth, and the South is standing still, so as not to get out of sight of its former delusions and mistakes, the great West, with an almost limitless food-producing capacity, a population made up of the enterprising from all sections, free from hampering prejudices and outworn faiths, and imbued with a strong sentiment of nationality, wall continue to increase in power, and from its central position will reach out to govern the extremities of the country. Whatever may be the attitude of parties, therefore, the working of the forces which are producing great, compact nationalities wherever civilization prevails is not likely to be much impeded in the United States.

If we are now convinced of the existence in the United States of the same centralizing tendency, with the effects of which we are familiar in the Old World, let us inquire as to its probable results here. How will it affect the form and workings of our governmental system ? Evidently, it is going to bring the government and the citizen into closer relations with each other. The citizen begins to demand more than he has received heretofore. He says to the government, “ You have the right, in case of insurrection or foreign war, to seize my property and force me into the army, where my life is subject to the terrible hazards of battle and disease. Now I insist that you shall do more for me in return than to coin my money and carry my letters. I want protection in my essential rights of citizenship. Only once in two years do I have any voice in influencing the legislation of the country; only once in four years can I exert any control over its executive policy. On these rare occasions, when I can put my hand on the government which can always put its hand on me, I demand that I shall be free from restraint and violence, and that the expression of my will shall be guaranteed its due force and result.” If he is told that he must look to his State for this protection and guaranty, he says, “This is illogical. I am not dealing with the State at these elections for congressmen and for president; I am dealing with the nation. From the nation I demand my rights.” There will be no resisting this demand. The democratic politicians will talk in vain about the prerogatives of the States. In vain will they dig up old anti-federalist interpretations of the constitution. The federal election laws will not be repealed. They will be strengthened and perfected, until the supervisory power of the national government over national elections is made much broader than it is now. The citizen will not stop with a demand for protection to himself and his ballot. He will go much further. He will say that he has the same interest in a fair election in another State as in his own, because the congressmen chosen in that State have just as much voice in making laws for him to obey as his own representative. He will therefore say that it is his personal right as a citizen that all elections of a national character should be fair and honest, and that all voters, wherever they may live, should have the same freedom to express their opinions and wishes with their ballots that he himself enjoys. If he lives in New York, he cannot look to the state government of Louisiana to insure such elections within her borders. He has no claim on that government, and no way to get at it. Yet he is wronged individually if, by the suppression of the vote of his party in a dozen parishes on Red River, a congressman is returned who helps establish a political policy antagonistic to his own views. To right such wrongs and prevent their repetition he must look to national law and administration.

Furthermore, in a government by parties, the right of each party to the exercise of the full measure of power which its voting strength entitles it to is unquestionable. If the republican party has a majority of the voters in a majority of the congressional districts in the country, it is entitled to control legislation in the house of representatives. If it is deprived of a majority in the house by intimidation or ballot-box stuffing in a few districts, the whole party is wronged, every member of it is outraged in his essential rights of citizenship, and the basis of representative institutions is undermined. The party thus wronged cannot turn for justice to the State which permitted and perhaps instigated the injury. It will have recourse to the national authority, and will find warrant in the constitution for the exercise of power sufficient to punish and prevent such evils. In a free country the usurpation of a party by violence or fraud is as intolerable as the usurpation of a tyrant in a monarchy.

An early result from the development of the national idea, we may therefore expect, will be the exercise by the general government of still greater control over elections which are national in their character, and the recognition of its duty and power to protect the rights of citizenship and of parties. I think we may next look for a change in the manner of electing the president and vice-president. The present method is clumsy and antiquated, and is based on two notions now wholly discarded: one that the people are not to be trusted to vote directly for their chief magistrate, and the other that the States, rather than the people, constitute the national government.

The electoral colleges no longer serve a useful purpose. Their members have no free choice, as the constitution intended they should have, but are the mere instruments to express the will of the constituencies electing them, and often serve to balk the purpose of a majority of the whole people of the country. An aristocracy of electors like that which chose the old German emperors has no place in our republican system, and the choice of a president by thirty-eight separate bodies of electors, not a man of whom has any real freedom of choice, is a grotesque absurdity. The people are as competent to vote for their presidents as for their state governors, and they will demand the privilege before long.

We may expect, too, that a system of legislation for the control of railways wall be adopted at no distant day, which will afford protection to the capital invested in railway stocks and bonds, and to the lives of passengers, and will guarantee shippers against extortionate rates and sudden and arbitrary changes of tariffs. Ample warrant for such legislation can be found in the clause of the constitution which empowers Congress to regulate commerce between the States. A national marriage and divorce law is already demanded by public opinion. The conflicting laws of the States relating to this subject often work cruel wrong to individuals, and tend to weaken respect for the foundation institution of modern society. When an honest couple are sent to the penitentiary in Virginia because of a marriage that was perfectly legal under the statutes of the District of Columbia, where it was contracted, and a citizen of Indiana goes to jail for bigamy because that State refuses to recognize the validity of a divorce obtained by him in another State, the absurdity of the present system is glaringly apparent.

A national quarantine system is already in a fair way of being established. Our national currency system has withstood the assaults of demagogues for more than a decade, and has now passed all serious danger of destruction. The right of the national government to improve rivers and harbors, and construct canals and railways, was long denied, but is now recognized by all political parties. We may expect a more liberal and intelligent exercise of this power in the future. Among other results which the centralizing tendency will probably produce, we may, I think, foresee the following: an increase in the strength of the army and navy ; the lengthening of the presidential term to six or seven years ; the granting of larger powers to the federal courts, to enable them to protect the rights of citizenship ; the establishment of a postal telegraph system; the introduction of the metric system of weights and measures ; the annexation of Canada ; the conquest of Mexico, followed by a protectorate; government aid for an interoceanic canal, and for a railroad from the Rio Grande to the Isthmus of Darien; an intelligent and vigorous policy for extending our foreign commerce, building up our commercial marine, and opening markets for our manufactures. Authority will be found for many of these measures in the constitution as it now is. That instrument admits of very expansive interpretations. In framing it our fathers wisely made it elastic enough to be stretched to meet the needs of the powerful nation which they foresaw would grow out of the thirteen feeble colonies. When its capacity for liberal application is exhausted it will be amended, and finally it will, in all probability, be subjected to a thorough revision at the hands of a national convention.

Will not this crowding of the state governments into narrower fields of action, and this enlargement of the powers of the national government, weaken and in the end destroy republican institutions ? Not necessarily. The demand for a stronger central government carries with it no disposition to surrender individual rights. The citizen believes that the central power is a more effectual agency to protect his rights and work out beneficial results to him than the State can possibly be. He does not relinquish the principle that government should be for the sake of the governed. Never was republicanism stronger in the world than to-day. It would be folly to suppose that while Europe is weakening the authority of its sovereigns, or getting rid of them altogether, America is going to set up a Cæsar. The cry of imperialism will no doubt be raised again and again by the party out of power, in its denunciation of the measures of its successful rival; but unless the whole course of human thought should be sharply altered there will be no real danger of an invasion of popular rights by the central authority. Respect for office and dignity is not increasing. Indeed, it would be well if there were more of it. There was far more aristocracy of birth in this country a hundred years ago than now. As for our new aristocracy of wealth, it inspires no personal respect, and seldom succeeds in obtaining important public trusts. The great majority of the voting population will always be composed of men of small means or no means, and the national government will be their servant, and not the tool of great capitalists and corporations. Universal suffrage may work much mischief before universal education leavens it with judgment, but it will not enslave itself. No tyrant will be raised upon its shoulders. The strong government towards which we are steadily tending, we may feel assured, will be “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”