Mr. Lowell's Politics

IT is indicative of a healthy condition of American politics that Mr. Lowell, whose words receive the closest attention from the thinking public, practically is excluded from any share in the administration of public affairs. The discrimination of the governmental from the merely administrative function in modern democracy is a slow process, and we are very far yet from that political consciousness which compels us, as members of the body politic, to realize to the full our responsibility and opportunity, while denying absolutely any necessary identification of government with office-holding ; but the distinction is so involved in the whole theory of democracy, and so disclosed in every crisis of our history, that we are justified in thinking time only required to make it common. We inherited, as residuary legatees of earlier political orders, the notion that we were governed by the men who occupied official position, and for a time we thought it a final distinction that we chose these governors instead of suffering them to be imposed on us by some outside authority. Gradually we are discovering that the men in office are our trustees, and that we do not relinquish to them an iota of our real authority; that they are accountable to us, not we to them. Meanwhile, there is that in official life which retards a like growth of consciousness, and the public officer has not been so quick to divest himself of the notion that he is the one in authority, and that his principal concern is to perpetuate his power.

It is inevitable that discussions about the civil service should help to clear the air, for they spring from the disintegration of the old notion that administrators of government are the governors ; and taking the civil service out of politics is simply another way of saying that the conception of politics itself is changing ; that there are more persons than formerly who do not identify politics with administration, nor even with party, but who look with closer scrutiny upon the relations of politics to law, to sociology, to ethics. The independent movement, so called, that unorganized, unled protest of the spirit against the strict construction of the term politics, is of comparatively little importance as a mere possible vessel for holding the balance of power between parties ; its real importance lies in the assertion that one may be so greatly interested in politics as to throw away all his chances of place, so thorough-going a politician as absolutely to disregard and hold cheap as dirt the rewards of politics.

In brief, there is evidence of an increasing number of men who take the liveliest possible interest in politics, not as a game, not for the sake of increasing their own power, nor for securing places either for themselves or for their friends, but because, as they have clearer consciousness of their political nature, — and the whole movement of American history has been toward the development of this consciousness, — they take a keener interest in politics as an expression of human thought, as an element in large problems. Time was when there was a more marked trace of boyishness in the national conception of politics. Before Jackson, the old traditions made statesmen a privileged class, and politics was a dignified profession. In Jackson’s time, there was almost as much of a real addition to the political mass in America as there was to the English political world when the bars were formally let down and the right of suffrage extended. From Jackson’s time to Lincoln’s, politics was the national game. Partly from the simplicity of social conditions, which offered fewer distractions than now, but more from the inherent force of the American character which found herein its proper outlet, politics was the theatre, the opera, the base-ball game, the intellectual gymnasium, almost the church, of the people, and a man suffered two great interests to divide his life, — his business, that is, and his politics.

It is quite true that this vigorous attention to concrete politics has an immense charm for many minds, and that there is apparently an undiminished zeal for racket and rocket; but we contend that the war with the problems which it brought to the front and the rapid maturing of the country in many directions have conspired to induce an attitude towards politics which is not boyish, but very manly ; that with wider interests in life and with greater self-confidence as a people, we are not trusting all our fortunes to the keeping of a few men, whose taste and training lead them into official life, any more than we give over our religious convictions to the custody of clerical guardians, but are using our well-earned political freedom with greater fearlessness and more intelligent apprehension of means and ends.

Independence, then, does not necessarily mean indifference to politics, nor even an over-nice refinement; it is simply one form of expression of the growth of politics in the American mind, of the emancipation from conventional ideas of what politics means. This power to separate the essential from the accidental is excellently shown in Mr. Lowell, and illustrated in the volume of political essays 1 which he has gathered. Many readers, with their interest strong in current aspects of politics, will turn first to the closing paper, which is fresh in the memory of men because so recently given. They will find in it a noble apologia, not without a trace of discouragement at the apparently sluggish movement of recent years, but with that faith in the substance of his countrymen which has given Mr. Lowell the right to use words of honest scorn and warning. What impresses us most in the paper, as we remember the thoughtless gibes flung at the patriot, is the perfect selfrespect with which he defines his position, the entire absence of petty retaliation upon his aspersers, the kindliness of nature, the charity, in a word, which is the finest outcome of a strong political faith.

It must have been somewhat galling to Mr. Lowell to find himself taunted with being un-American. He could afford to meet such a charge with silence, but he has answered it with something better than silence, for he has reprinted in this volume, with his latest address, eleven of the articles contributed by him to the Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review between 1858 and 1866. It is impossible to read these papers without admiration of the political sagacity of the writer, — a sagacity before the event, and not after. Every page bears witness to the sanity with which he regarded contemporaneous affairs, when madness seemed the most natural temper in the world, and his insight of human nature was that of a poet who did not regard his power of vision as excluding the necessity of paying taxes. History has been supplying foot-notes to these pages for the past twenty years, with the result not of correcting the text, but of confirming it. We already had in various forms an expression of Mr. Lowell’s perception of Lincoln’s greatness, and we knew that this was no tardy recognition, but it is interesting to trace in these papers the steady growth of his judgment.

To read again papers which one read when they first appeared is to have one’s blood stirred by the remembrance of days when the cannon was accenting political principles that had been fought for on paper and at conventions and polling-places for more than one generation. We have been so accustomed, of late, to listening to stories of the war that it is a good thing to be reminded of that political contest which culminated in war. The American people never tire of politics, and in this volume they will find their favorite dish served with such a pinch of Attic salt as will relieve it of any possible suspicion of staleness.

It is more than wit, however, that makes this book of Mr. Lowell’s good reading to-day. It is because when he was writing it, as now, he neither allowed himself to be lost in the thin air of abstractions, nor to be tripped up by the network of so-called practical politics, that his words go straight to the minds of all Americans who see in politics a constant of human nature. There is comparatively little in this book which bears directly upon the political contest now raging, but it is impossible for one to read it without thinking politically with greater clearness.

  1. Political Essays. By JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin it Co. 1888.