Democracy in America

“The evolution of man is the hope of the state.”

In the evolution of democracy in America, two large processes were to be worked out, — the utilization of the resources of nature, and the organization of civil affairs by means of a government adapted to such a country as ours. The industrial process has been coördinated with the civil, and democracy in America is the result. In Europe, since the heraldic summons of the Reformation, which came hard after the Columbian voyages, and in America, after the first quarter of the seventeenth century, the principles of government have shown a democratic application. It might be expected that Europe would anticipate America; that in the deep mine of Indo-European experience there should be worked out some of the principles of civil society as defined more clearly by modern tests. But in that process the toiler in the mine might miss the principles, though contributing by his labor to its definition in a later state of society, organized upon such an industrial and civil basis as has been built upon in America. The thought of More, of Milton and of Locke, of Montesquieu and of Penn, generalized upon the labor done in that mine, and grew into political systems, which, though differing from one another as their authors, agreed in placing a free man at the centre. It was too soon to find in any political system that modern correlative, free labor. The contradiction was sophistically avoided by denying manhood to the slave. The slave was a beast of burden. It is the function of the political philosopher, in the social economy, to anticipate results. Thought outruns performance. So Montesquieu anticipates the democracy of to-day, Hume anticipates the French Revolution, and Franklin the modern age of administration in government. Franklin finds the theory of the state made up, and he devotes himself to the next problem, — its administration. At times, from the close of the seventeenth to the close of the eighteenth, century, the theory of the state was set forth. That defiinition remains in the dictionary of politics essentially unchanged, save as it has been modified by another century’s experience. It was arrived at by successive processes in the evolution of democracy. Its elements are the individual, and that aggregate of individuals which we call the community: the one, and the many, and the many includes that one.

The history of that definition is a portion of the history of the evolution of democracy. Rome evolved the idea of a legal body called a corporation; itself a fiction, but a useful legal convention. This legal fiction was the chief contribution of twelve hundred years’ experience in government. It was a legal device capable of civil application; it was a discovery in politics. But while it was reaching perfection in southern Europe, among the Græco-Latin peoples, the Teutonic peoples, in northern Europe, were yet uncivilized. Communal and individual interests were at war in all that region north of the Roman world. Communal interests were there subordinate to individual interests. Between the Roman and the Teuton was the Celt, who adjusted himself to the military form of the Roman state and laid the foundations of feudalism. He divided the land into counties, and rudely began that communal organization which has survived in our local and county government. It was the Celt who first applied the Roman military idea in local government. He was the first to apply the administrative principles in the modern state, and his experience, chiefly military, bred in him slight respect for the form of government in the state. A king is as dear to him by any other name; but he prefers the other name. His idea of the administration of government is military: the citizen is first a soldier. The rude and individualistic Teuton saw in the Roman corporation not merely a legal fiction; it was a civil opportunity. Why not view that burdensome but necessary relation between individual and individual, between one and many in the state, as a compact? Why not conceive of the state as a civil resultant of these two factors, — make the many a corporation, a state-man, and yet not diminish the rights of individuals, the states-men? Between these legal parties a contract could be made, or could be conceived as made. By the terms of this contract civil rights should be guaranteed; the soldier should first be a citizen. Rome gave the world order without liberty. The Celt administers government with occasional sacrifice of order to license. The Teuton conserves liberty and order.

Democracy in America is the resultant of Roman, Celtic, and Teutonic ideas. It is a civil composite. Its evolution is recorded in a series of political adjustments. Political adjustment is the administration of government. It is that of which Franklin frequently speaks. It is a practical affair. It is the other half of the apple of civil discord, as the theory of the state was for ages the first half.

Democracy in America is but slightly original. It was latent in European life long before the colonization of America. But the adjustment of local and general interests in the state has developed before our eyes in this country, and therefore it seems new and peculiarly our own. So the fruit on the tree is the farmers; the flower on the bush, the gardener’s. Each wrought in sincerity; but the seed was before flower or fruit.

In the search after the genesis of government in America, there is no doubt that justice has not been done to English and to Dutch influence. It is time present that is hard to see. No new theory of the state distinguishes the political philosophy of our century. Philosophically, it has been a century with a backward look. It has explored the past to as great a distance as it has anticipated the future. It has set in order the genesis of our civil institutions, and has resolved us all into heirs-at-law. We have applied the past while working in the present. The style of the tool changes; but frost and rain and earth are, and weeds grow in spite of botany. But the apple on the tree is larger, fairer, and pleasanter to the taste than the wild apple; the flower on the stalk is the history of generations of gardeners. Flower and fruit are come from fruit and flower, and the changes during that time register an evolution hastened by intelligent culture. The free man is a part of the system. At one time he was of opinion that he was at the centre of the universe, but a bit of glass and the fall of a Newtonian apple dislodged him. He has his place in nature, not in the worst rank. But he is a means of adjustment rather than a creator.

Democracy in America is another chapter in the history of that adjustment. There is no break in the continuity. Roman, Celt, Teuton, American, comes each in his time. No American colony broke wholly with the past. The necessity for unrestricted labor compelled a democracy. Had the vast area now comprised within the United States been occupied, at the time of its discovery by Europeans, by a wealth-accumulating people, however civilized, who permitted European conquest, the conquerors would not have set up a democracy. The story of Mexico and Peru would have been repeated of the Mississippi Valley. Had gold or silver abounded in New England, Pennsylvania, or Virginia, the evolution of democracy on the Atlantic seaboard would have been retarded for centuries. Had the mechanical devices familiar now in lumbering, in mining, in manufacturing, and in agriculture been familiar to the world at the opening of the seventeenth century, democracy in America would still be a matter of political speculation.

It was the necessity for labor that dethroned the king, and enthroned the people, in America. But the king is not dead. He never dies. We believe that we have crowned ourselves. We are Celtic yet. But our democracy is not wholly of our own having. It is our political weather. It does not give universal satisfaction. We have had it long enough to tire of some of its virtues, and, if not acquainted with some of its vices, to be suspicious of their existence. The foundation of democracy is the necessity for free labor. If that ceases or is circumscribed, democracy will cease or will be circumscribed. The fate of democracy hangs on free labor. As long as the free man can labor to the satisfaction of his wants in this country, democracy is a condition as well as a consequence of his labor. Remove the field or the rewards of his labor, and democracy will disappear. It will be named despotism, and it will go the way of other despotisms.

Its fall will be hastened by its complexity. Democracy is not so simple as monarchy. It was long ago pointed out by Montesquieu that in a democracy there is need of more virtue than in a monarchy; for a democracy depends upon the virtue of its citizens, while a monarchy depends upon the virtue of its ruling house. There is essentially the same requisite in both: those who rule must be virtuous. But virtue in a democracy lies close to industry. The state cannot get away from the soil, from the mine, from the factory.

The crises in the history of democracy turn on industrial adjustment. The American Revolution was a war for free labor; its political purposes and effects were secondary. The political rights of our grandfathers were scarcely changed by Saratoga and Yorktown; their industrial rights were in part secured by that war. The civil war was a process of industrial adjustment. A democracy must consist wholly of free men; the old idea of states-man and states-men must be realized. America was not a democracy until slavery was abolished. If it exists to-day in any form in this United States, then democracy does not obtain among us.

There is a record of the evolution of democracy in America which seems to escape common attention. It is a record written by hard experience. It is found in the declaration of rights of our four and forty state constitutions, and in the amendments to the “supreme law of the land.” For instance, the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the national Constitution were necessitated by the industrial effects of the civil war. They record the national adjustment towards the close of the nineteenth century. Though recorded in political form, they mean an industrial and anterior fact. They are beyond repeal, just as the steam engine and the printing press are beyond repeal. Politics writes after them that their sanction is in Congress, which has power to enforce them by appropriate legislation. This provision is of vast legal import, but the necessities of industrial life are the fundamental indication of them. The necessary blending of industry and politics in a democracy is more frequently illustrated in the fundamental laws of the local governments, — the constitutions of the States. These are the most reliable history extant of democracy in America. There have been more than two hundred of these constitutions in this country since June, 1776. In the only one of the eighteenth century which continues in force, that of Massachusetts of 1780, the state is declared to be a contract. Each of the states-men makes a compact with the states-man, and the statesmen with one another, that the government “may be a government of laws, and not of men.” William Penn conceived of the state as a compact, but the government was to be a government of men, and not of laws. The evolution of these two ideas is the history of American politics. Democracy in America records the contest between laws—a conventional system of politics—and men struggling for industrial freedom. This is shown in the history of the franchise: from a franchise limited to white males, possessing a prescribed amount of real estate, confessing to belief in a prescribed creed, to a manhood and womanhood suffrage untethered by such limitations.

In these state constitutions the experience in administration has passed over into formal statements in the bills of rights. These brief clauses of 1776 have grown into a treatise on civil principles in the present state constitutions. Industrial life wrought this change. The provisions in these bills are the generalizations on industrial data which record the evolution of democracy in America.

Whatever discord may at present rage in the state, it is but the continuation of the old discord between desire and performance, between conditions in the evolution of government and the selfishness of men. But as liberty may run into license in politics, so it may in the industrial world. That world has its order and its chaos, its desire and its performance, its theory and its administration. Perhaps it is unfortunate for the fate of democracy in America that we have always attempted to interpret it politically. Our books represent it as a political device. It has become almost axiomatic with us to seek the solution of the questions in the state by a political agreement rather than by a better industrial organization. Politics and labor are the democratic team, but politics leads. The state, if corrupt, is regarded as politically corrupt. Industry has been the shuttlecock of politics, and those who labor have been viewed as the beneficiaries of the state, and not truly as the statesmen. The industrial discontents which characterize the page of the world’s present history cannot be charged against democracy. They exist independent of the form of government. It was long thought that political equality would secure industrial equality, but the effort to read industrial equality into life has not yet been an unqualified success. At present, the theory is winning popular support that the government, the public business of the state, should be made an industrial, as long ago it was made a political copartner. Democracy is now construed towards communism, towards a labor copartnership. The political copartnership, on the basis of equality, having failed to make each of the statesmen rich, those who have not suspect those who have as robbers, and look upon the state as the chief robber of all. In other words, democracy, in America, is showing its material side. Men are not content with the mere blessings of political liberty; they demand wealth wherewith to enjoy the blessings. In a democracy Nemesis is active. The privileges of democracy breed discontent. Whatever the form or the idea of the state, man cannot get rid of himself. His philosophy, his vagaries, his stomach, are always with him. Democracy is not an insurance against the consequences of being born into the world. It is no panacea. It has been quite a fashion, in this country, to maintain that our political institutions are a providential device for “redressing the wrongs of the Old World.” There can be no such device. The state is no better than the men and women in it; it can do no more than they.

A sound statesmanship starts with a sound man. If no such man exists, then he must develop before the healthy state can come. And the people know this; whence their lack of reverence for the state. It is a thing which they made, and they know its imperfections. “Vanitas vanitatum!” They have made no- thing. Did the farmer make the apple, or the gardener the flower? It is not only political, but industrial honesty that we need. The coin that is current in a sound state has two sides. If on the one side there is to be read, “Man has by nature a political life,” on the other it reads, “and an industrial also.”

Two centuries ago, democracy was necessitated by forests to be cleared, mines to be worked, fields to be ploughed, things to be made. This was at the threshold of a material age in the evolution of democracy. Some rude adjustments must be expected in politics, while yet the industrial apparatus of the people is rude. The intricacies of democracy do not disclose themselves at first view. It is the administration of government in a democracy that tests its strength. An untouched continent afforded the material opportunity of the modern world. That opportunity was America. Now that the plough has furrowed across the continent, that the primeval forest has been cut down, that the first output of the mines has made this operation more difficult and less remunerative, an industrial adjustment is necessary. The process of that adjustment is complicated, because it involves both the politics and the labor of the states-men. It demands political recognition. Labor calls upon the state for a guarantee. Labor seeks a political formula by which every man may gain wealth. There is no doubt that this condition implies changes in the state. Is the state hereafter to be defined as an industrial corporation, a copartnership of men for things? Is the state to he conceived in this material philosophy as a factory for the general welfare? Is it a device to assist those to acquire wealth who are incapable of themselves to acquire it? Is society to be divided into two groups: first, the state and the poor; second, the rich? Or is the state, like war, to be the “corrector of enormous times,” and the enormity of the times to be wholly adjudged by those who wage the war, and who expect to profit by it? Is democracy in America, like monarchy and aristocracy in Europe, to develop class interests, — those of the house of Have, and those of the house of Want?

Our democracy is evidently in a rudimentary stage. In spite of our suspicions of its defects, we like the reformers and their reforms no better. We are certain of one error, — the opinion that our democratic institutions would correct the ills of mankind. Now we cry to the oppressed of mankind, “Stay at home and endure your oppressions; we have our troubles, also.”

Wealth brings leisure, and leisure breeds criticism and discontent. A portion of our discontent arises from our limited notions of a democracy. It consists of more than meat and drink and a ballot. The whole man is involved in it. He is somewhat more than an economic integer. His world is also moral and metaphysical. Material results will never satisfy him. The range of his activities is beyond the merely industrial treadmill. Our boasted mechanical devices are in vain, if the gain by them is merely more material. Moses and Newton got on well without the steam engine or the telegraph. Comforts are forgotten when they only cry “more.”

Democracy has for its ultimate that with which it begins, — man. It is doubtless productive of unexpected results. But in its evolution it must include the whole interest of man. Every actual state, says Emerson, is corrupt. The element of decay in our democracy is the cheapness at which it holds man. This evil has long been known. It was apprehended by the most democratic of American colonizers more than two centuries ago. William Penn had learned from Sidney; he instructed Locke and Montesquieu. “The great end of all government,” William Penn declares, in his frame of government of 1682, for Pennsylvania, is “to support power in reverence with the people, and to secure the people from the abuse of power, that they may be free by their just obedience, and the magistrates honorable for their just administration; for liberty without obedience is confusion, and obedience without liberty is slavery. To carry this evenness is partly owing to the constitution [that is, the theory of the state], and partly to the magistracy [that is, the administration of government]. Where either of these fails, government will be subject to convulsions; but where both are wanting, it must be totally subverted; then where both meet, the government is like to endure.”

The convulsion of 1861 was an instance in which one of these failed. That convulsion proved that American democracy could not be longer administered with its growth retarded by “obedience without liberty.” Experience alone can correct the evils in the state. With the leisure of the twentieth century there come its political convulsions. If, in some way, men and women of leisure could see the necessity for labor, that government of a democratic kind may endure, they would find fields for their best efforts all about them. Municipal evils are not all in the city hall. Public charity is self-defense in disguise. If they who have amassed wealth desire its safety, it is better to make the use of that wealth a matter of public concern by bringing to its defense those who might destroy it. Time is the best friend of democracy. The canal-boy of to-day is the president of to-morrow. The sons of august senators become street-car conductors. The daughter of old Scrooge founds a hospital, or endows a school. Labor will have its own. In the evolution of democracy in America, industry shall receive its own, and no more. The administration of government is the chief public concern. But in that administration man must be credited to his full estate. Man, the citizen, must reckon with himself, and face his own destiny. Though crafty devices may seem to shift the burden of citizenship, the burden will always. be found in the ever-increasing wants of the citizen himself. In democracy, as in other forms of the state, it is government of man for man that is wanted. Though the state be convulsed, though it be subverted, man will remain. The evolution of man is the hope of the state. In a democracy, it is better to have a government of men rather than a government of laws. Then, whatever the forms of the state, the great end of all government will be secured.