Mr. John Morley, in replying to some of Mr. Lecky’s charges against the liberal movement of the last fifty years in England, expresses his regret that in his recent book, Democracy and Liberty, Mr. Lecky has not devoted himself to a discussion of democracy in all its aspects; its effect not only on government, but on social relations of every description, on science, on art, on literature, — on the whole of life, in short, as we see it in the western world to-day. He says:
“We can hardly imagine a finer or more engaging; inspiring, and elevating subject for inquiry than this wonderful outcome of that extraordinary industrial, intellectual, and moral development which has awakened in the masses of modern society the consciousness of their own strength, and the resolution still dim and torpid, but certain to expand and to intensify, to use that strength for purposes of their own. We may rejoice in democracy or we may dread it. Whether we like it or detest it, and whether a writer chooses to look at it as a whole or to investigate some particular aspect of it, the examination ought to take us into the highest region of political thought, and it undoubtedly calls for the best qualities of philosophic statesmanship and vision.”
The task suggested is not easy, and Mr. Lecky, perhaps wisely, has not attempted it. He devotes himself mainly, in the first volume, at least, to describing the objectionable tendencies of democracy, more particularly as illustrated by the history of the last half century in England and America. The second volume may be called a series of essays on the topics now most frequently discussed in democratic countries; Mr. Lecky gives the pros and cons of each without committing himself to very positive opinions of any of them. All authors who touch at all on democracy in our day recognize in it a new and potent force, destined before long to effect very serious changes in the social structure, and to alter in many important respects the way in which men have looked at human society since the foundation of Christianity. But they handle it very much as we handle electricity; that is to say, tentatively. They admit they are dealing with a very mysterious power, of which they know as yet but little, and on the future manifestations of which they cannot pronounce with any confidence. The great difficulty in the way of discussing it philosophically or scientifically is the one which doubtless Mr. Lecky himself has experienced, — that thus far all investigators have been themselves part of the thing to be investigated. Every man, or nearly every man, who takes up a pen to examine the questions what democracy is, and what effect it is likely to have on the race, is himself either an earnest advocate or an earnest opponent of it. He sees in it either the regeneration of mankind or the ruin of our civilization. This is true of nearly every writer of eminence who has touched on it since the French Revolution. The most moderate of its enemies seldom admits more on its behalf than his own ignorance of what it promises. Its defenders are, as a rule, too enthusiastic to make their predictions of much philosophic value.
In England, the historic background has enough social gloom in it to make the glorification of democracy comparatively easy work for the faithful thus far. In America, its success seems so closely connected with the success of the government itself that praise of it and prediction of its complete sufficiency have become the part of patriotism. Doubts about its future seem doubts about the future of the nation, which no lover of his country is willing to entertain lightly. Tocqueville is the one man of eminence who in modern times has attempted for democracy what Montesquieu attempted for all governments, — the discovery and exposition of the principle on which it rests. His work on Democracy in America is so well known that it is hardly necessary to say that, treating the base of democracy as equality, he has sought to foretell what the effect of this principle would be, in the end, on manners and institutions. Some of his predictions have come true. Some are very erroneous, and the fact is that, as the years roll by and American development continues, his work becomes less valuable. It will always be interesting as what the French all an étude, and was the first glimpse Europe got of the effect of democratic institutions on character and manners, but it has not maintained its earliest fame. Tocqueville fell more and more, before he died, into an attitude of partisanship, and his later political essays are too deeply tinged with melancholy about the future, for an impartial investigator.
No one, since his time, has taken the subject up with more authority than Sir Henry Maine. In a book on Popular Government, published in 1886, he ventures on a broad characterization of democratic society, which bears the mark of insufficient observation. The only thing he has to rely upon it the way of experience is the Athenian democracy and that of America. There was not in the ancient world any democracy at all in the sense in which we understand the term, and the working of the system in the United States has been too short, the disturbing elements have been too numerous, and Sir Henry’s acquaintance with it is all too slight, to make it possible for him to speak about it with philosophic positiveness. To crown all, he was essentially an aristocrat, an authority who, rightly or wrongly, felt his position in some sort menaced by the new régime.
Mr. Lecky suffers from the same disadvantages. He is a gentleman in the old sense of the term, who feels that his weight as such is in some sort menaced. In the new régime he expects men of his sort to count for less in some way, probably in many ways. He is fresh, too, from a revolution in his own country, much more searching and deep seated than revolutions used to be, — one of the first democratic revolutions, in short, that we have had since that of France, one hundred years ago. The recent Irish land laws are the dethronement of a great class, the apparent sacrifice of the few to the many on a large scale; this is what democracy calls for, but it is never accomplished without seemingly serious violations of natural justice. Mr. Lecky took a prominent part in opposing these recent changes in Ireland. Whether they are bad or good, no man could share either in defending or in advocating them without considerable damage to his judicial-mindedness, to his philosophic insight, so to speak. He cannot approach them as a Cavour or a Beaumont. He is part of the revolution. He cannot wholly like them, and he cannot help ascribing them in some way to the great movement which, for better or worse, is plainly upturning the world, putting down the mighty and exalted the humble. If, therefore, one were disposed to be ill natured, one might call Mr. Lecky’s book an attempt to pay democracy off for suggesting or assisting the Irish land laws and home rule movement. It is essentially an address to the opponents of democracy, written with his usual narrating ability and fullness of reading, but, for the reasons I have stated, it cannot do much to convince those who are not fellow sufferers and do not share his prejudices. In short, it is not the book on democracy of which the world is just now in need and in search.
The chief objection to it, and to most recent writings of the same sort, is that, while nominally discussing democracy, it really only points out the apparently bad tendencies of democracy. It does not treat democracy as a whole. It errs in this respect somewhat at Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution do. One could not get from Burke any idea of the objections to the ancien régime. The Revolution seems, according to him, the work of mocking devils who could give no reason for their mischief. That anybody in France had anything serious to complain of, anything which could not be removed by means of a little patience and good will, anything which was likely to have an educating influence, which was likely to mould character and breed defects, does not appear. The whole outbreak seems gratuitous, uncaused, and therefore against the order of nature. Mr. Lecky singles out and makes prominent nearly everything that can be said against democracy, by means of partial comparison, — the least fair of all methods of judging either a society or a régime, and yet it is the commonest method of travelers and essayists. For my part, I never read a description of the evils of democracy at the present day without inquiring with what state of society or with what kind of government the writer compares it. When and where was the polity from observation of which he has formed his standard? When and where was the state of things, the “good estate,” from which we have declined or are declining? This is extremely important, for all we know or can say about government must be the result of actual observation. “Ideal government,” as it is called, such as is described in Plato’s Republic, or More’s Utopia, or Bellamy’s Looking Backward, is interesting to read about, as the play of an individual mind, but no one considers any of these books very helpful to those who are actually contending with the problems of to-day.
To enable any reformer to make his impress on the age in which he lives, or to win any considerable number of his countrymen over to his way of thinking, the state of things he seeks to bring about must commend itself to his contemporaries as capable of realization. He must have some model in his mind’s eye, not too far removed, either in time or in distance, from the popular imagination. This is an essential condition of the advance of all great multitudes. Every man’s standard of civilization is drawn from what he has seen, or thinks he may readily reach. Nearly all differences touching governments, between various peoples or between various classes of the same society, come from difference of standards. Some are extremely content with a state of things that others think impossible. An Indian, for instance, cannot understand the white man’s eagerness to get him to give up the tepee, in which he has been so happy, for the log cabin or the frame house. The spoils politician is puzzled by the Mugwump’s passion for competitive examinations, and government based on party distribution of the offices as spoils seems to him most natural and thoroughly successful. Probably few or no Tammany men can to this day quite understand the objection of reformers to their style of government. They see that tens of thousands apparently like it and are satisfied with it. What is the need of a change? The cause of all the discussion is that the Mugwump has a different standard of government from the politician, and is not satisfied until the government he lives under comes up to it. In like manner, when a monarchist or conservative begins to complain to a democrat of the defects of his system and of the gloominess of its prospects, in order to produce any effect he must point out from what period or from what system there has been a falling away. When and where were things any better, taken as a whole? And how much better were they? This is a question which every writer on democracy is bound to answer at the outset.
I have said “taken as a whole,” because the fatal defect of all attacks on democracy of recent years, like Mr. Lecky’s, is this defect of partial comparison. When we undertake to compare one régime with another, old with new times, it does not do to fasten on one feature of either. In our day this is sure to be ineffective. If we judge American society, for instance, solely from the point of view of legislative purity and ability, it will certainly suffer in comparison with that of Great Britain. If we judge it from the point of view of judicial learning and independence, we shall probably reach the same conclusion. It would be quite easy to point out certain losses which it sustains from the absence of an aristocracy, as contrasted with any European country. If, too, we undertake, as Mr. Lecky does, to compare the England or Ireland of to-day with the England or Ireland of some bygone period, known or unknown, it does not do to say that at that period Parliament was better, or county government was better, or legislation was more deliberate and impartial, or other statesmen were better than Mr. Gladstone. To produce any real effect the comparison has to be complete. You have to compare the general happiness from all causes. You have to treat the two contrasted communities as places for the poor and friendless man, or for the industrious, enterprising, and thrifty man, to live in, as well as for the wealthy and cultivated man. Otherwise you make no headway. Every reader will think instantly of the things you have overlooked. You cannot compare the England of to-day with the England of 1800 or 1867 without destroying or greatly weakening your case. There is not a poor man in England who is not conscious that he is vastly better off, as regards all the things furnished him under the name of “government,” than his grandfather was. The same thing is ludicrously true of Ireland. A proposal submitted to the people in either country to go back fifty or one hundred years would be rejected almost unanimously with derision. You might give them fifty reasons for thinking them mistaken, but not one of them would produce any impression. Why is this? An adequate book on democracy would answer the question. It would not only give these reasons, but state fully and fairly why they were certain to be disregarded.
The truth is that democracy is simply an experiment in the application of the principle of equality ot the management of the common affairs of the community. It is the principle of equality which has conquered the world. That one man is as good as another is an outgrowth of what may be called social consciousness, and as soon as it has got possession of the state, democratic government follows as a matter of course. The theory of the social contract is an offspring of it. This theory made no impression on the masses when Locke preached it. It did not reach the people till Rousseau took it up, in the middle of the last century. Since then it has made great strides. Rulers have become the mere hired servants of the mass of the community, and criticism of them has come naturally with the employment of them as agents. The notion that all men are alike, and are entitled to an equal voice in the management of the common affairs, is democracy. It is the effort of all to assert this, and to see how the thing can be done, which forms the democratic experiment that is being tried in so many countries.
Many things have occurred which seem to warrant the belief that it will not succeed. What constitutes the success of a government? The very first answer to this question is that we cannot tell whether a government is successful or not without seeing how long it lasts. The first duty of a government is to last. A government, however good, which does not last is a failure. The Athenian republic, the Roman republic and empire, the Venetian republic, the French monarchy, the English monarchy, and the American republic have all to be tried by this test. To say that a government is a very good government, but that it was overthrown or changed in a few years, is an absurdity. All we know of any value about any government is derived from observation of its working. It must be confessed, therefore, that nearly all that we read in our day about democracy is pure speculation. No democracy has lasted long enough to enable one to write a treatise on it of much value. Almost everything that Mr. Lecky says of the working of democracy in America, or that he has got from Mr. Bryce, though all true, fails to throw much light upon the future.
The men who first began to write on democracy, toward the close of the last century and the beginning of this, had really a very small notion of its working on the scale which the modern world witnesses. Their only opportunities of observation lay in the history of the small Greek communities, of early Rome, of Venice and the minor Swiss cantons, and of the early New England States. They had not for a moment pictured to themselves the government by universal suffrage of communities numbering tens of millions. Their democracies all met in the forum or market-place; their leading men were known to every citizen. Nothing seemed easier than to fill the public offices by a mere show of hands. Every man was supposed to be intensely occupied with public affairs, to be eager to vote on them, and to be quite able to vote intelligently. The work of management had not a prominent place in any former democratic scheme. The “demagogue”—that is, the man who leads people astray by specious schemes, by hostility to the rich, or eagerness for war, or profuse prodigality, or winning eloquence—was well known. But the man who does not speak, who makes no public impression who is not rich or eloquent or in any manner distinguished, yet who leads the voters and has legislation in the hollow of his hand, had still to make his appearance.
In the new, unforeseen, enormous democracy, 40,000,000 to 100,000,000 in England, or France, or America, he is indispensable. In these large democracies, the work of bringing the popular will to bear in filling the offices of the government, or in performing any act of government, is one of great difficulty, which needs almost constant attention from a large army of “workers.” To influence, persuade, or inform this immense body of persons is no easy matter, as two antagonistic forces are always engaged in pulling it in different directions. The diffusion among it of any one view of anything would be a serious task. To insure the triumph of either view is still more serious. Then, a very large proportion of the voters are not interested in public questions at all, or their interest has to be aroused and kept awake. Another large proportion do not desire to give themselves the trouble to vote. They have to be, in some manner, induced to go to the polls, or have to be prepared to go by numerous visits. The business of what is called the “canvass” in modern democracy is, in fact, something unlooked for and unprovided for by theoretical democrats. It has produced a profession whose sole occupation is to get people to vote in a particular way. As the mass of voters increases, this profession, of course, becomes larger and more important. In my own opinion, its importance constitutes the strongest argument against woman suffrage. The doubling of the number of votes to be influenced or managed in any community is a very grave consideration; for not only have you to find such workers, with the certainty that their character will not be very high, but you have to pay them, and no provision for their payment has ever been made in any scheme of democratic government. The duty of remunerating them is thrown on the victorious parties at elections; in America, for a long time, this duty was discharged by distributing among them the smaller offices. There has been an escape form it here by what is called civil service reform, or, in other words, by competitive examination. In England, the aristocracy, finding the government patronage passing out of their hands, judiciously introduced the merit system, in time to save it from the incoming democracy, but in France and Italy the tendency is still in the direction of “spoils.” The passion for government places is strong, and the difficulty of getting anything done for the state except in return for a place grows apace, on the whole. If I said that the reluctance of a democracy to vote at all, or to vote right, was not foreseen by the early democratic advocates, and that they made no provision for it in their system, I should not be very far wrong. This was the greatest mistake of the theoretic democrats. They never foresaw the big democracies. The working of democracy in America is something of which they had no conception. They did not anticipate the necessity of organizing and directing the suffrage, nor of the intervention of the boss and his assistants.
When you come to examine this mistake, you find it consists really in the absence of provision for the selection of candidates by the multitude, or, in other words, in the absence of a nominating system. None of the books contain any direction for the performance of this work of nominating by a large democracy. The founders of the United States had apparently never thought of it. In their day, a few leading men met and chose one of their own number as a good person to fill, say, a legislative or other important place; or a prominent man proposed himself to his fellow citizens to fill it. For some time after the foundation of the government a committee of Congress named candidates for the presidency. But it was soon seen that this would not do. The voters would not allow any one to do this work for them. An elected assembly had to do it, and the nominating convention, in its various stages, was started. In other words, the business of electing officers was doubled by having another election to elect the people who were to select good people to elect. The work of nominating has added to the boss’s, or manager’s, power by adding to his duties. He has to see not only that people vote for the various candidates, but that they vote for those who have to choose them. More complication, more patience, more watchfulness, more dexterity.
Under this régime, the nominating system, of which no theoretical writer had the least idea, has grown into a piece of machinery more complicated than the government itself. The man who manages it, who says who must compose the body which selects the candidates, — that is, who designates the delegates to the nominating convention, — is really the most powerful man in the community. Every one who wishes to enter public life bows before him. No one who, being in public life, wishes to rise higher, no Representative who wishes to be Senator, no Governor who wishes to be President, will gainsay him or quarrel with him. Everybody but the President in a second term is at his beck. For similar reasons, he holds the legislators in his power. If they do not legislate as he pleases, he will not allow them to come back to the legislature. He has to be consulted, in fact, about every office. He may be boss of a district, a city, or a State. The larger his dominion and the denser its population, the more powerful he is. The people, being busy, are not willing to go to the trouble of voting at two elections. As a rule they do not vote at all for the nominating convention. This is therefore almost completely in the boss’s hands. As he decides who shall compose it, he also decides what it shall do. In fact, in ordinary times and in the absence of great public excitement, he is the great man of a democratic community; and yet neither he nor the nominating system which has made him what he is was foreseen by any early political thinker. There was no foreshadowing of the difficulty that democracy would experience in filling offices, and no one has as yet devised any good plan for the purpose. Any person who to-day described the government, say, of New York, or Pennsylvania, or any other large American State out of the books, would give no real idea of it. He would miss the real source of power, and the way in which it was infused into the machinery. If there be anything seriously wrong with democracy in America to-day, it lies in the nominating system, yet this attracts comparatively little attention. It has already considerably modified the substance of democratic government.
Another new phenomenon which has greatly affected the developments of democratic government, and has received no attention, is the growth of corporations. These aggregations of capital in a few hands have created a new power in the State, whose influence on government has been very grave. They employ a vast number of voters, over whom their influence is paramount; a single railroad company has in its service thousands of men. They own immense sums of money, which they think it but right to use freely for their own protection. In some States, men make a livelihood in the legislature by “striking” them, — that is, threatening them with hostile legislation, and getting themselves bought off by the agent of the corporation; for each corporation is apt to keep an agent at the seat of government to meet these very demands, and makes no secret of it. Latterly the bosses have taken charge of this business themselves. They receive the money, and see that the legislature is properly managed in return. The companies have in fact created a code of morality to meet this exigency. The officers say that they are the custodians of large amounts of other people’s property, which they are bound to defend, by whomsoever attacked. That wrong does exist in the State is not their affair. The reform of the legislature or of the State is not their affair. It is their business to keep safely what has been placed in their charge. Indeed, the levying of blackmail on companies, either as a contribution to campaign expenses or as fees to pay for protection, is now one of the principal sources of a boss’s revenue, and in States like New York goes a good way towards enabling him to defy hostile sentiment. It furnishes him with funds for subsidizing the legislature and the press. How to bring these corporations under the law, and at the same time protect them from unjust attacks, is one of the most serious problems of democratic government. But it can hardly be said to have received any discussion as yet. Corporations are as powerful as individual noblemen or aristocrats were in England in the last century, or in France before the Revolution, but are far harder to get at or to bring to justice, from their habit of making terms with their enemies instead of fighting them.
This brings me naturally to two other serious and significant changes which have occurred within fifty years in democratic societies. I mean the decline of the legislatures, and the transfer of power, or rather of the work of government, from the rich to the poor.
That this decline of the legislatures is not a mere decline in manners seems to me undeniable. It is a decline in the quality of the members in general respect, in education, in social position, in morality, in public spirit, in care and deliberation, and, I think I must add, in integrity also. Legislation is more hasty and more voluminous, is drafted with less care, and enacted with less deliberation and with much greater indifference to public opinion, particularly to instructed and thoughtful public opinion. This is said to be true of France and Italy, and in some degree of England, but it is especially true of America. Congress and the state legislatures are not what they were forty years ago. Both the Senate and the House contain fewer men of prominence and ability. The members are more slenderly instructed, but much more eagerly interested, in questions of political economy, finance, and taxation than they used to be, and more disposed to turn to account what they conceive to be their knowledge. They are more difficult to lead, and yet are more under the domination of their own cliques or sets. In the state legislatures, the boss is far more powerful than he was. But little legislation originates with the members themselves. It is generally concocted outside and passed under orders. Few of the members are really chosen and elected by the people. They are suggested and returned by the boss of the State or district. They feel accountable to him, and not to the public. The old machinery of agitation, the public meeting and the press, produces little effect on them. Their motives are rarely made known. Many of their acts, if not corrupt, are open to the suspicion of corruption; some of them are bold attempts to extort money. All this is true, as I have said, in some degree or other, of all the countries in which democratic institutions have taken or begun to take root. These bodies have not answered the earlier expectations of democratic philosophers. The men who were expected to go to them do not go to them. The men who have served the public well in them do not return to the service. The influence on them of the intellectual, cultivated, or instructed world is small.
To account for this, or to say how it is to be mended, is, I admit, very difficult. Few subjects have done more to baffle reformers and investigators. It is the great puzzle of the heartiest friends of democracy. The matter is growing more serious in America as society is becoming richer and more complicated. As commerce increases, credit expands and interests multiply. Of course the machinery of government increases in delicacy. Derangement becomes easier, repair more difficult. The effect, for instance, of instability in taxation, or of adventures in foreign policy, upon foreign trade, or upon investment and the movements of capital, is very great; so that already merchants, bankers, and dealers in money are beginning to ask themselves whether it will be long possible to carry on the financial affairs of a great nation under a government so unskillful, and possessed of so little knowledge of the machinery of credit, as democratic governments generally are. This gives great importance to the question, What prospect is there of any change for the better? What sign is there of anything of the kind? As to this, I confess I think the dependence of the optimist, if he descends to argument at all, must be on the general progress of the race in self-restraint, in love of order, and in a better knowledge, through experience, of the conditions of successful government. Any such process must necessarily be slow, and no results can be looked for until after the trial and failure of many experiments.
In other words, I do not look for the improvement of democratic legislatures in quality within any moderate period. What I believe democratic societies will do, in order to improve their government and make better provision for the protection of property and the preservation of order, is to restrict the power of these assemblies and shorten their sittings, and to use the referendum more freely for the production of really important laws. I have very little doubt that, before many years elapse, the American people will get their government more largely from constitutional conventions, and will confine the legislatures within very narrow limits and make them meet at rare intervals. The tendencies all over the Union are in this direction, and Switzerland, the most democratic country in Europe, is showing the way distinctly towards less law-making and more frequent consultation of the people at large. I believe, for instance, that after a very few years’ experience of the transfer of the currency question, which has now begun, to the management of popular suffrage, the legal tender quality of money, which is now behind the whole trouble, will be abolished, and the duty of the government will be confined simply to weighing and stamping. The use of the legal tender now is ludicrously disproportioned to the noise made about it. Except as a rule for fixing the denomination in which debtors must pay their debts in the absence of an agreement, — which rarely causes any dispute, — and for enabling debtors to cheat their creditors by paper money or the adulteration of coin, — which is not infrequent, — it is difficult to see what good purpose legal tender serves. It is almost certain that the day will come when it will be seen that no democratic government is fit to be entrusted with the power of giving any substance legal tender quality, and that the very best solution of the money problem is to be found in letting people make their own bargains, — a solution which will be hastened by the increasing tendency to settle contracts, make purchases, and pay debts by check or draft.
The other corrective of which I see signs, though of less importance, is the increasing ability or willingness of business men to separate their business form their politics, and to refuse any longer to put money into the hands of party agents to do as they please with it. This use of money, especially since the growth of the tariff question in importance, has been one of the great sources of the degradation of American politics, because it supports the excesses or abuses of the nominating system by strengthening the hands of the boss; for it is he who generally receives the funds. But it would be absurd to build great hopes of progress on the mere cessation of an abuse. It is a thing to be noted rather than dwelt on. All that we can say with certainty is that no western society is likely in modern times to let itself run completely down, as the ancient societies often did, without vigorous attempts at recovery and improvement. The general belief in progress which now prevails, the greatly increased desire to extract comfort out of life (and comfort includes quiet and order), the more scientific spirit of the time, the disposition of all classes to assume social responsibility, and the sense of what the French call “solidarity” diffused by the press, assure us that every means of progress will be tried, that no defect will be submitted to indefinitely; but what means of improvement will be most effective, and what safeguards will be found most reliable, he would be a rash man who would venture to predict in detail.
As to the transfer of the government to the poor, it should be remembered that, except during very short periods in ancient democracies, the world has been governed by rich men; that is, by the great landholders or the great merchants. This is true of all the ancient republics and of all the modern monarchies. The unfitness of poor men for the important offices of legislation and administration has been generally acted on in the modern world as a state doctrine. Every government has been a rich man’s government. It is only in some of the smaller Swiss cantons that departures form this rule have been made. I am not now criticizing; I am stating a fact. But as a rule, in democratic societies in our day, government has been transferred to poor men. These poor men find themselves in possession of very great power over rich communities. Through the taxing power rich corporations and rich individuals are at their mercy. They are not restrained by tradition; they are often stimulated by envy or other anti-social passions. If it were not for the restrictions imposed in American States by the Constitution, the lives of rich men and of companies would be full of difficulty. There has grown up around this change the foreshadowing of a code of morality in which men’s rights to be rich is called in question, and the spoliation of them, if done under forms of law, is not an offense against morality. This, again, is counterbalanced or neutralized by the general popular tendency to make the accumulation of wealth the one sign of worldly success, and to estimate men by the size of their income, from whatever source derived. There is probably in America to-day a nearer approach to a literal rendering of the English term “worth,” as measuring a man’s possession, than ever occurred elsewhere; that is, the term is more fully descriptive of the fact than it has ever been. Inevitably, there has appeared side by side with this a certain distrust of the opinions of persons who have not made money, which has naturally had an injurious effect on the government, and has, along with several other causes, contributed to the exclusion of the learned or professional class from the work of administration. A faithful description of the position of the wealthy class in America to-day would probably say that the accumulation of wealth by a man’s own exertion is admired by the public, and greatly respected if he gives it fully to public objects, but that his attempt to participate in the work of government is viewed with a certain jealousy, while contributions for party purposes are eagerly received by the bosses, and offices are occasionally given in return for them by regular bargain. It is in this way, in fact, as well as through lower forms of corruption, that individual wealth protects itself against the consequences of the change to which I have already called attention, the transfer of the government to the poor and obscure. Property still has weight in public affairs, but not open weight, and the power of persuading the legislators has been taken from the public orator, or writer, who wielded it in the beginning of the century, and turned over to the successful man of affairs, who has schemes to carry out, but cannot waste time in arguing about them with anybody.
Among the minor illustrations of the failure to foresee, afforded by the early founders of democracy and speculators on it, is the virtual abolition of the board of electors who were to elect the President. They are now a mere formal body of registrars, who have no more to do with the results than a voting machine. Another is the total loss of the power of choice by the legislatures in electing Senators of the United States. The legislatures no longer choose them. They are chosen by the managers of the party outside, and the legislators are, in fact, elected to carry out this choice. A more complete disappointment than these two modes of bringing great care to bear on two important operations of government could hardly be imagined, and yet it is a disappointment which does not appear to have been suspected as likely to come. The present generation of reformers are nearly as eager to abolish the Electoral College and the legislative election of Senators, after a century of experience, as the framers of the Constitution were to establish them. The prevailing desire is to remit the work in both cases to the popular vote.
This brings to our notice two tendencies, apparently, but only apparently, opposing, in American opinion. One is to throw as much of the nominating or canvassing or preparatory work as possible on individual men, like bosses and workers; the other is to make the constituency of each important office as wide as possible. The whole people of the Union would like to vote directly for the President, the whole people of a State would like to vote for a Senator, and the whole people of a city would like to vote for an almost despotic mayor, but few want to take any trouble in creating or arranging machinery for choosing them. The work of “getting delegates” to nominating conventions, and making other preparations for elections, is left to professionals; that is, to men who do little else, and who get a living out of this work. The exhortation of political moralists to “attend the primaries” has become almost a joke among the class to whom it is mainly addressed.
The discussion of all these matters—that is, the observation of the working of democracy on a large scale during the past century—should be the work of any writer on democracy from the philosophic point of view in our day. Mr. Bryce’s book is mainly descriptive. He does not foreshadow consequences or suggest remedies. Mr. Lecky is to a certain extent right in drawing illustrations from him, but we can read Mr. Bryce as well as Mr. Lecky can, and we know better than he what corrections or allowances to make. There are tens of thousands of Americans more troubled by many American phenomena than any European observer, and far more intelligently; yet it is difficult for any American to deal with them adequately as yet, for obvious reasons.
In the first place, political speculation is somewhat discountenanced or discouraged in America by the excessive cultivation of what is called “patriotism,” not unnatural in a young people, whose growth in wealth and numbers has been prodigious beyond example. This “patriotism” has been made by the multitude to consist in holding everything that is, to be exactly right, or easily remedied. A complaining or critical man, as a speculator is apt to be, is therefore set down as a person “unpatriotic,” or hostile to his country. He may object to the other party, but he must not find fault with the working of his government. The consequence is that any man who expects to make his way in politics, or even to succeed comfortably in a profession or business, is strongly tempted to proclaim incessantly his great content with the existing order of things, and to treat everything “American” as sacred. Criticism of the government or of political tendencies is apt to be considered a sign of infidelity to the republic, and admiration for something foreign. More than this, an American is himself part of what he discusses or proposes to amend. He has his prejudices, some of them hereditary; he has tastes and associations, few of which are corrected by contact with or knowledge of different forms of society; and his range of possibilities is therefore narrow.
What is most serious of all is that we have not, as England or France or Germany has, one great capital, in which all the philosophers and speculators, and in fact men of education, live and make a philosophical or political atmosphere, are influenced by each other’s opinions, enjoy each other’s society, profit by each other’s criticism, and transmit to the provinces, as from a court of last resort, final judgments on literature, art, and politics, and snap their fingers at country denunciation and grumbling. Our thinkers are scattered all over the country, hundreds or thousands of miles away from their congeners. They brood rather than speculate. They live among “plain people.” They have a human desire to be comfortable and happy with their neighbors, to receive their approval and respect. They have but few opportunities of intercourse with their fellows in other parts of the country. Even in cases like the Venezuelan affair, or like the greenback or silver “craze,” it is so easy to fall in with the crowd, or still easier to be silent, so hard to be generally denounced as “unpatriotic” or as a “Mugwump,” or to be accused of foreign tastes or learnings, that attempts to point out a “more excellent way” are somewhat under a cloud. Only men of marked ability or strong character make them, and even for these the work is wearisome and a little disheartening. In short, the influence of the scholarly, thinking, philosophical class is not felt in American progress nearly as much as it ought to be.
This is the more regrettable because no rational observer can suppose that the government of the United States is destined to retain indefinitely its present form. It is sure, like all governments which have preceded it, to change, and probably change from century to century. The history of all republics and of all monarchies, like the history of man himself, is one of incessant change. The Greek republics, the Roman republic and empire, the Venetian republic, the French and English monarchies, have all undergone modifications from generation to generation, in institutions, laws, and manners. Since Elizabeth the English monarchy has experienced at least four enormous changes, involving complete transfer of power and a complete revolution in political ideas. Even China is succumbing to what is called “the spirit of the age.” To suppose that we, with forty-five republics, indulging in annual experiments in government, shall be exempt from the general law is absurd. These changes consist, too, as a rule, in adaptation of the institution of the country to an altered condition of popular sentiment, to the revelation of new dangers, to the decline or deterioration of some law or custom. The English in 1649 would not submit to a monarch like Charles I. In 1688 they would not submit to a monarch like James II. In 1832 they would not submit to a Parliament like that in which Pitt thundered and Burke reasoned. In other words, the history of nations is the history of incessant attempts, fortunate or unfortunate, to better themselves.
For these reasons and many others, all disquisition on the phenomena of modern democracy in any community as final, or as certain to result in despotism or in any other great calamity, appears to me exceedingly inadequate. Democracy in America, like democracy and monarchy elsewhere, is following the course of other political societies. It is suffering from unforeseen evils, as well as enjoying unforeseen blessings. It will probably be worse before it is better. It is trying a great many experiments in laws and manners, of which some doubtless, will be hideous failures. The régime of “crazes” through which it is now passing is very discouraging, but it is engaged, like most other civilized societies, in a search after remedies.
To illustrate my meaning, let me cite the case of civil service reform. One of the unforeseen evils developed by the new democracy not long after the foundation of the government was the practice of offering all the places, high and low, in the government service, to the victors at each election as “spoils.” It took fifty years to bring this evil to what I may call perfection; that is, to reveal in practice exactly how it would work, how it would affect legislation and administration and public life. It was something novel at first, because although, under European monarchies, places were given away as rewards to favorites, and were even sold, they were permanent, and the field of distribution was small. It became deeply rooted in the political manners of the people, and by large numbers was looked on as the true American system of appointment, — the only one suited to a democratic republic. Two generations, at least, had never seen any other system. A full discussion of its injurious effects on public life and on the public service was not begun till after the civil war. The advocates of a change were met at first with intense hostility and ridicule from the politicians and from members of Congress, and were received with great indifference by the general public. Yet in five years they succeeded in making some impression upon the President. Within ten years after the war they had secured some favorable legislation. Every President since then has made further concessions to them, and this year the final transfer of the whole federal service, including 85,200 places, to the merit system has been made. I do not believe that at the time when the agitation for civil service reform began there was any evil or abuse in the government an attack on which seemed so hopeless, and yet this evil has disappeared within one generation. I cite it as an illustration of the danger or error of treating any democratic failure as permanent or hopeless, or denying to any democratic society the capacity and determination to remedy its own defects in some direction or other by some means or other. No society in our time is willing to deteriorate openly, or ever does so long, without struggling for salvation.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.