Belated Feudalism in America


IT is easy to see that at the time of the American Revolution, the bulk of the American people and most of their leaders took it for granted that they could discard political inequality, and still keep the remainder of the English social and ethical ideas intact. Political inequality, as exemplified in arbitrary taxation, was what they particularly objected to, as Pym or Hampden might have objected to it ; religious freedom they had, and as they were, for the most part, very English in their habits of thought, the rest of the old theories suited them well enough.

There were, it is true, two men, Jefferson and Franklin, who saw further into the millstone that had been hanged about the neck of our people than any one else in the country. Franklin was the embodiment of the colonial experience of independence ; Jefferson was this, and the prophet of a new order of ideas as well. He saw that between aristocracy and democracy there was some great intrinsic difference, much deeper than a mere difference in the form of government. He did his practical work as it came to hand : he disestablished the Church in Virginia, put the government of his State in working order, represented his country abroad, governed it at home, and tried to abolish slavery ; but he wanted to do more than this. What he feared was, not England, but aristocracy ; and he feared it, not as a form of government, but as an attitude of mind opposed to reason. In arguing for his code, he says that he would have it form “ a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of ancient and future aristocracy ” “ Now that we have no councils, governors, or kings to restrain us from doing right,” let us correct our code, “ in all its parts, with a single eye to reason, and the good of those for whose government it was framed.” In a word, he wanted to make Americans at once into anti-feudal creatures like himself.

It is no wonder that while his contemporaries made great use of him and applauded his work, many of them looked at him askance, and, failing to understand him, regarded him as a great but somewhat diabolical intelligence. For the foundation of English society was then and still is feudal, and consequently the mental attitude of men towards one another, towards literature, towards art, towards religion, was then and still is full of feudal notions. When we discarded political inequality, what we really did, though we may not have realized it, was to pull the foundation from under this whole system of feudal thinking; and though the old edifice did not fall immediately, every part of it has shifted its place or split under the new strain, till it ought to be evident now that it should be condemned and abandoned.

From the start two parties have been engaged in this work: on one side the learned and the literary, who have always upheld the traditional view, and have urged us by precept and example to stick to what we got from Europe; and against them men and women of life and action, who have gone ahead in spite of their teachers, trying this, discarding that, and steadily creating a new moral and intellectual habitation of their own. In every phase of life we have had to deal not only with the legitimate remnants of European tradition, but with the misguided efforts of academic provincialism to keep it artificially alive.

The chief obstacle to the growth of a clear-cut American conception of life was New England, her literary men and divines, and the early tremendous proslavery influence. Auguste Laugel, writing of Massachusetts after the war of the Rebellion, says, “ This State will long remain the guide and, so to speak, the intellectual protector of the country.” The description was true enough, and the result of that intellectual protectorate may now be understood. It kept us a dependency of Europe, and we held our rights as to what we should think and how we should say it in fee from Europe under the Lieutenancy of Massachusetts.

She was our self-constituted Academy to condemn what offended her tastes and beliefs, and she exercised her authority blandly in the serene conviction that she was a producer of intellect, and not a dealer in intellectual wares. Yet one morning Dr. Holmes woke up and found that he and all American poets were singing about skylarks and primroses and a host of other birds and flowers that they had never come across outside the covers of an English book. This practical example is symbolic of our thinking. To know about thought, not to think ; to speak in terms of thinking, not with ideas, was the gist and pith of her intellectuality.

The work of New England could not have been different. To speak of it in this way is not to blame ; it is only to refuse undeserved praise. We restate the results, and say that she kept us from thinking our own thoughts and from expressing them in our own way. That is the function of intellectual protectors. The story of the early struggles of New England for intellectual food (there was a time when one copy of Goethe had to suffice for Cambridge, if not for Massachusetts) is a pathetic one. Scraps of European genius in the shape of books and prints went from hand to hand, like the newspaper in a lighthouse or a schoolboy’s orange. When these rare treasures were obtained, they imposed themselves on starving minds, and created the awe and reverence that make a cult.

But awe and reverence create nothing ; they simply enjoy. They are the multitude which takes pleasure in the works of genius, and gives them a value with critics as the go-between. The real maker of thought and art does not deal with the world at second-hand. He is not a disciple, nor a wonderer, nor a critic. He fastens on life itself, and executes his own achievement. Emerson alone was inspired, not dominated by the new learning. It would not have been wonderful if he had never appeared at all.

This experience of America is not unique. The same thing took place on a larger scale over the whole of Europe after the rediscovery of the classics. The parallel must not be pushed too far; for the first effect of the Renaissance was to inspire each country as it was reached, and only later did the reverence for an alien form bring native methods into contempt, and cramp originality and the spontaneous expression of feeling. New England skipped the valuable period, and plunged at once into the stage of imitation; and just as every Frenchman between Malherbe and Hugo, and every Englishman between Waller and Byron, wrote as though Aristotle or one of the Muses had been looking over his shoulder, so all but half a dozen Americans have written under the imaginary supervision of the great spirits of Europe. We are to be congratulated that Emerson, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Lanier, Whitman, and The Biglow Papers escaped.

This influence of foreign literature has befuddled the brains of our professional critics. We live on an American plan, but our standard authors have written on a European plan. Our canons of criticism are all in the air. In estimating intellectual work, our critics do not know what is polite and what is coarse, what is decent and what vulgar, what is natural and what artificial, what artistic and what fantastic, what solid flesh and what bombast. Europe consistently rates everything by European weights and measures, and her judgments are relatively correct, while we dignify our criticism with a smack of Europe by measuring calico with a yardstick marked off into centimetres, and we never know the exact amount of our purchase.

One result is that we undervalue much good American work. America can never create a literature of her own which shall differ from English literature as much as the literature of Provence differed from that of Paris, for with us the language is the same and it is fixed. An idea once launched in good shape belongs to both countries. But we can have a literature as different from that of England as the literature of the nineteenth century is from that of the eighteenth. What is more, we have the actual makings of it; but we must know what we want. There is no use in trying to manufacture a literature which England will consider equal to her own. If we stick to her standards, we shall have to imitate ; and if we discard them, we shall never please her. The better we are, the less she will like it. We have given a fair trial to imitation, and have not been successful; for we have had no English writer of the first class except Hawthorne. As to relying on our own standards, it requires more courage than the Europeanized man of letters has, and more latitude of thought and expression than the cultivated American will tolerate. And yet it is the only way.

Cultivated people do not like the writing that represents American literature, and up to this time they have been able to keep it under. They repudiate it, not because it is not true, but because they will not accept the truth in that shape. They are ashamed of it, not because it is not human, but because it is rough and coarse compared to the polished form of Europe. They have put it into a sub-literary class, and refused to recognize it, not because it does not get to the point, but because it does not go there in that roundabout way which they learned from Europe, where there are so many corners to be turned.

Garrison and Phillips descended to it in their fighting-times, and it offended the cultivated ears of Boston quite as much as the sentiments it was used to convey. It is not “nobly censorious,” as Jonson calls the language of Bacon. It is not made up of many and greatswelling words, like the speeches of Thersites and Daniel Webster, if Phillips is to be believed. It is what Garrison calls his own language, “ as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice ; ” and our smooth-eared critics like it so little that it turns them away from the point of its argument. They shut the book of any one who uses it unchastened, and range him up with Milton as a foul-mouthed controversialist.

Yet America’s good writing must come out of this way of dealing with words and thoughts, and not from England. It need not be ribald or offensive in the hands of any one who has “ the art to cleanse a scurrilous vehemence into the style of a rousing sermon.” When made to keep a civil tongue, it becomes the best way of expressing clear ideas, as Professor Sumner has shown by adopting it, somewhat “licked into shape,” in his book What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. Novels can be written in it which will not have to keep a long way from nature to produce the illusion of reality. From this vulgar idiom could arise an American drama more Shakespearean than anything since Shakespeare’s day. Hoyt and Hart and Harrigan are its present representatives. We waste these vigorous beginnings by repudiating their influence.

The influence of the churches has been much less powerful in keeping alive tradition than the influence of letters. Americans like cultivation, but they do not like ecclesiasticism. They will do a great deal for anything that is voluntary, but they will not put up with what savors of authority. Boston is the only place I have ever heard spoken of as priest-ridden, but for the last seventy years, at least, this criticism has been only half deserved. Lyman Beecher, “ who held the orthodoxy of Boston in his right hand,” and Channing, who said, “I ought to have spoken before,” were among Boston’s most influential priests, and yet each of them made a fair share of his earthly pilgrimage with Boston on his back.

Nevertheless, the clergy of all denominations have steadily enjoined, without looking into them, rules of conduct that had their origin in feudal times, and views of life and duty that do not apply to our conditions. As it was with the skylark, so it has been with the catechism. Whatever was found set down had to be taught, whether it corresponded to conditions or not. The common law, too, is a stronghold of anachronisms. How do we handle these matters ?

The best service of America to humanity is to clear the minds of men from useless Asiatic, Hebraic, Grecian, Roman, and European superstitions ; yet it is not always possible to tell which of our social and moral possessions are valuable, and which are not. A man values what he thinks. He cannot separate good from bad by mere inspection, as one separates black beans from white, for good and bad are often indistinguishable. What is wanted is a process, a situation, that shall teach us what we cannot think out for ourselves ; that shall save what is useful, and reject what is worthless, as mercury separates gold - dust from the sweepings of a factory.

Any society affords some such process for the natural selection of ideas, but unless the conditions of that society are natural the selection will be false. In this country the conditions are more nearly natural than any that have existed else where since men began to make slaves and vassals of one another. Wherever human relations are based on mistakes of fact, historical traditions, religious doctrines, or a priori reasonings, the general ideas of the people will be as crooked as the particular absurdities with which they have to cope, and will differ from ideas founded on plain present necessity. By saying that the conditions of this country are more natural than those of any other, I mean that we have fewer arbitrary and imaginary facts to deal with than anybody else.

All societies where one set of men gets a permanent advantage over another from generation to generation become societies of imaginary facts. For example : An hereditary nobility upsets men’s ideas as to the nature of the universe, because such a nobility recognizes duties founded on status, and plays the part of Providence to the lower orders. The peasant finds outside of himself some one who considers it a duty to look after him. That being the case, he keeps alive perfectly unfounded notions as to the part played by a Providence altogether outside of human affairs, and he remains a peasant.

It is very important to know how much trust can be put in the supernatural, and anything that tends to obscure this question is an evil. The catechism which Nicholas of Russia made for the Poles, in which he told them that Christ is next below God, and the Emperor of all the Russias next below Christ, must ruin all true views of life in the mind of any one who believes it, and any system that retains traces of such teaching must be injurious. Where, however, as in this country, every man relies on his own exertions and is able to follow out the results of his own behavior, he will soon get a good idea of what assistance is to be got from another world, and what kind of help it will be.

Again, in a society where it makes no difference to the best people whether they are vicious or virtuous, where their credit, incomes, and social position depend on who they are, not on what they do, virtue remains a mere theory. Poets and philosophers, moralists and divines, will teach that virtue itself is either a divine command or an opinion to be thought out on a priori principles. They will not readily admit that virtue is a thing to be discovered. The most absurd and even the most damaging behavior will get the name of virtue, and have itself imposed on a people. This has happened an untold number of times, for the most part under the auspices of ecclesiastical authority. But in a society like ours, where even the most fashionable and the richest are liable to suffer the legitimate results of their behavior, every one soon finds that virtue is a practical thing, and morality a matter of business. All arbitrary theories of right and wrong which cannot be rationally justified drop out in practice. Virtues and vices establish and explain themselves on the basis of their results, and every antiquated creed or catechism stands out for what it is worth.

What we did when we discarded the political basis of European society was to give notice to all the inhabitants of this country that thenceforth each one of them was at liberty to consider his interests more important than those of any one else. It was a frank surrender to whatever it is in civilized life that represents the struggle for existence. This surrender involved a looser form of government than any former people had ever been able to stand. We have managed to handle it so far, and while it lasts it affords precisely the kind of process humanity wants for winnowing good from evil. Just what will be taken and what will be left cannot be foretold, but the process is one that can be trusted, and it may safely be predicted that its immediate effect will be to destroy all those ideas and beliefs which, without our knowing it, were tinged with useless traditions. Some of these traditions are still cherished by many, and they will outlive more than one generation.

Our first good piece of work was to overhaul European morality from top to bottom, and put traditional ideas of right and wrong to a new test. Men who escaped from the influence of New England, and, better still, those who got beyond the reach of the law, proceeded, with a singularly free conscience, to test the validity of every injunction. There is not a law of God or man that has not somewhere in this country been made an open question during the last hundred years. We have had Mormonism with its polygamy, human slavery, freelove, lynch law, the Ku-Klux, organized murder, organized robbery, and organized corruption. We have had governments within governments, clans, tribes, brotherhoods, and socialist experiments, more than twenty. Every sort of relationship between man and woman, even to the abolition of childbirth, has been tried by a sect; not as a vice, but as an experiment. Every kind of relation between man and man has been tried, and almost every relation, in the way of religious and spiritualistic beliefs, between man and the universe. Even New England produced a crop or two of protestants against traditional virtue.

Very often the experimenters in new moralities were brought roughly back to understand that they had been gnawing some hard old file; but that was inevitable among people who would not follow any tradition on authority, nor take any custom for granted. Yet if most of the Decalogue has stood the test, there are many other rules for conduct that have not come out as well. My duty towards my neighbor was thoroughly revised long before the evolutionary moralists began to draw upon their theory for a rational system of ethics. Having got our interests into our own hands, with no one to fall back on, we soon saw that we were under no obligation to love our neighbor as ourselves. We thought little about the matter, and wrote nothing; but the paternal and altruistic morality, invented by a mediæval priesthood to meet the requirements of lords and vassals, was simply dropped when it came to action. If the clergy have succeeded in preserving the semblance of acquiescence, they have not greatly restrained behavior. They have had to be practical themselves, and it is not in New England alone that they have had to “ take the stock list for their text.” In this respect our laity have behaved like nobles. Not since Innocent’s excommunication failed to impress the Frankish lords who sacked Zara have religious scruples prevented European aristocrats from doing what they liked. Only the common people have been kept in order by them. Here we too have done as we liked. We have declined to submit ourselves to our spiritual pastors and masters. We are doing what the Church has declared to be impossible; we are inventing an extra-theological morality which not only works well, but is getting recognition on paper. To it the clergy conform. They no longer base their advice on the sole ground that what they counsel is the will of God. They try to make their arguments good, and they do not arbitrarily dictate the right thing to do.

All this warfare against usage shocks moralists of the old school. It seems to them useless and wasteful, but above all wicked. There has been much less moral turpitude in it than they imagine. Moralists are far too parsimonious in their ideas of the cost at which good things are bought. They think a little paper and ink and a little cogitation will push the world ahead; but such things very seldom stir it. Men’s minds are hard to move, and abstract arguments make no headway against actual interests. Blood and sweat and dollars are what reach the brain of the average man, — not ink. Wrong to established right, wickedness to accepted virtue, outrage to beloved sanctity, are all on the conservative programme of progress. There was need of just such an indiscriminate mad rush to try everything that was not authorized, in order to break down the authorized version of life. The recklessness of these ethical pioneers paved the way for the enfranchisement of proper boldness. We have in it an example for those who determine to make a radical and at the same time a reasonable attack on any existing institution. The power of custom is enormous, and the custom of doing the customary thing is the strongest of all. We do not realize how thoroughly the power of senseless custom has been broken in America. One must go to Germany, or even to England, to understand how far ahead of them we are in tills respect. It is not an advance that was to be had for the asking. It requires a great shaking up to establish the custom of trying experiments, and we owe a debt of gratitude to those who helped us to do it. If in doing it they explored many a road which a child could have told them would prove to be a cul-de-sac, we should not, for all that, underestimate their service. Not all of us have courage enough to taste the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but somebody must do it, and find out whether in the day that he eats thereof he will surely die. Often the serpent who denies this threat will be found to speak the truth.

In public affairs this iconoclastic activity has now settled down to a more or less regulated latitude of action, coupled with a great willingness to experiment with the laws. We have nearly half a hundred legislative machines, which thousands of cliques are trying to use to further their own interests or to put their special theories to the test. We complain of over-legislation, and are put out by changes of equilibrium, as a rich man might be annoyed at the rolling of his yacht; but we must bear with the discomforts of our advantages. Over-legislation is bad, but it is better than to rot at ease, moored to the lethe wharf of an old custom.

In private affairs we are working out a morality based absolutely on pure egotism. Any departures from that basis are either departures in appearance only, or they are deliberate and voluntary exceptions. Many philosophers have seen that such a system was the only sensible one, if not the only possible one, for tins world, but it has remained for us to get it into thoroughgoing operation. Philosophical treatises have had nothing to do with its establishment. We have it because we have had a chance to try the experiment. The tight against it is all on paper, and comes under the head of literature, for the thing itself is a fact.

We say the fewer laws the better, but there are many things that must be provided for, and the question is how to provide for them in the best way. In most cases the only way to discover this best way is by experiment, and hundreds of legitimate experiments are getting a trial. It is fortunate that they are not tried on the whole nation at once. Quick divorces, woman suffrage, the single tax, may be good things, but better than any of them is the chance to watch all these experiments going on in different parts of the country. If there is a limit to profitable disturbance, that too must be found by experiment.

All this lack of restraint goes together with a change of moral attitude, and this has brought down upon Americans a number of charges, all of which may be summed up in the accusation that we lack individual moral courage. De Tocqueville was the first to make the accusation ; Wendell Phillips repeated it; Charles Follen, a foreigner who made this country his home, corroborated it; and Mr. Bryce, after sixty years, goes so far as to say that our public men " do not aspire to the function of forming opinion. They are like the eastern slave who says, ‘I hear and I obey.’ ”

The best explanation I can give of this charge is that every American feels that his neighbors may some day be of use to him. No one can afford to make enemies. We are all one another’s lawyers, tailors, butchers, bakers, and candlestick-makers, and we cannot risk the loss of any trade or custom. So we keep our mouths shut about one another’s shortcomings. Very good. But how about Europeans ? Examine the outspoken foreigner, English, French, or German, whose behavior is taken to represent the moral tone of his country. You will find that he relies on the fact that what he says will have no effect on his fortunes. He may appear to have no regard for consequences, but the truth is that there will be no disastrous consequences in his case. As a rule, he is bolstered up by some establishment, estate, title, class, church, social position, academy coterie or clique, which exercises an authoritative and feudal influence over the minds of his fellow citizens. He is part of some institution which, by its prestige, protects him from personal responsibility. To the outsider who does not appreciate these protective influences, or to the native who is unconscious of them, the boldness of these men seems absolute, but in reality it is confined to those points of the compass at which they are defended. They are but brave nor’-nor’east. When the wind is southerly, they know a hawk from a hand-saw, and run to cover. Their courage is relative. Take them in the rear, try to make them speak boldly about some superior on whom they depend, and who can get them into trouble, and you will find that moral independence is no commoner in Europe than it is among Americans who are not protected from the consequences of what they do and say.

But there is another aspect to this matter, and here it is that any one who tries to deal with American evils on feudal principles will come to grief. Let us admit that a prudent self-interest makes men careful as to how they attack one another; is there nothing to be said in favor of that result ? It is not necessarily immoral, for the social duty of the class-protected aristocrat may be no duty at all for the self-protected citizen of a republic. The ideas of what are and what are not the public duties of private citizens are among the very things that are undergoing a change. New conditions make new virtues, and it may well happen that a quality shall set sail from Dublin as virtue, and land an absurdity in New York or Chicago.

Is it not true that if people have reason to think twice before they indulge in a free attack upon their neighbors, much worthless criticism will be prevented ? You may call this restraint of interference by any disagreeable name you choose; it is nevertheless a good thing. It adds to the freedom of action as much as it takes away from the freedom of speech, and workers have rights as well as talkers. Unless it can be shown that real abuses go permanently free, no harm is done. It is true that the correction of some evils is delayed. We let our neighbors go their gait until they begin to injure us in some tangible way. When that happens, we grow bold enough to defend ourselves both in speech and in action. Our method has this advantage, that reform can never begin under the dangerous guidance of moral enthusiasm. Vice is attacked because it does harm, not because it is sinful. Thievery of officials is checked because we need our own money, not because they are immoral to take it. We are slow to anger and justice is delayed, but when it comes, it comes on solid principles, about which there can be no question whatever, and not on mere excitement and enthusiasm. This toleration of wrong-doing is offset by a corresponding toleration of new activities. Innovations which are thought wrong have a chance to live and prove themselves harmless and even beneficial. They are not suppressed by a priori and irresponsible moralizers before their good points can be seen. Unless we belong to the army of American cranks, we do not rebel against our neighbors on any theoretical provocation. When we condemn anybody, our judgment is a responsible one ; that is, it is a judgment which it may cost us money — and not inherited money, but earned money—to maintain. It is a real protest based on a real injury, not on an injury to some prejudice or superstition, such as can get a man into trouble in Europe, nor on arbitrary and theoretical objections, such as one still hears from the pulpit.

The man who does not grasp this situation goes about his reforms in what is really a priestly way, and he is astonished and disappointed to find how little effect he produces. He adopts the timeworn plan of making an appeal to conscience by a sweeping condemnation of abuses on moral grounds, and he gets little or no response. This angers him, and he denounces the most respectable people as selfish and spiritless cowards. The trouble is that his standard of duty no longer exists except on paper. Any one who wishes to accomplish actual reforms will waste his time if he relies on mere appeals to conscience. He must bring out facts and figures, and show the abuse he is after as a definite and tangible injury. He must then prove it, and set the machinery of the law to work at some actual point, and accomplish some practical improvement. Then the people will believe him and stand behind him. Otherwise they are probably too busy with their own affairs to attend to homiletic discourses. It is a long road, but it is the right road. Cross-cuts to righteousness are artificial survivals. Lincoln and Grant did their duty and dealt with their victories in this spirit, and in great matters it offers the most impressive exhibition of great morality. It is not unkind, but when it descends upon obliquity it is absolute. It is like the fall of night.

All these changes in the way of looking at things go to make up our theory of life, our view of the universe, our philosophy.

Henry G. Chapman.