A Wholesome Stimulus to Higher Politics
SINCE the war with Spain was begun, it is remarkable how every action of the government and every stage of public opinion has been true to the fundamental impulses of our race and to our own history. It was begun, as most of our wars were, to uproot an intolerable wrong, but in this case to the righteousness of its provocation was added a dash of revenge ; it was prosecuted, as our previous wars were prosecuted, impetuously and without preparation, and the sheer love of adventure quickened our indignation ; it was conducted humanely to the enemy and recklessly to our land forces; after the close of hostilities, we framed a treaty of peace which throws on ourselves not only all the grave responsibilities of our own action, but also the burden of the centuries of accumulated abuse of the enemy’s power; and when it was all done, we fell vigorously to debating a policy that had already been made inevitable. At every step, the fundamental temper and the ancient traditions of our race have so displayed themselves that the course of events has not been stayed or shapen to any perceptible degree by declarations or resolutions, or by anything that has been done indoors.
And the world, including our kinsmen and ourselves, has measured us by the right measure at last, — not as a heterogeneous mass of men, without definite tendencies and ideals, but as the republican branch of the English family, with impulses, thoughts, and actions even more truly characteristic of the race than if we had never rebelled against British abuse of colonial power.
Our duty, then, is not hard to see, nor is it hard to foresee how we shall meet it; for our policy is determined by greater forces than senatorial resolutions and peace treaties. To understand how inevitable a policy it is, we have only to keep in mind the cumulative effect of three great forces, — so great that no other three forces in modern times may be put beside them : the successful world-girdling spread of our family, first as colonizers in temperate climates, and then as guarantors of order and promoters of commerce in the tropics; the continuity of English history in our own history, of English institutions in our institutions, most of all of English blood in our blood, and of English ways in our ways ; and the third fact, that in efficiency for practical tasks the American, with free opportunity for development during all the generations of his independence, has outstripped his insular kinsman, man for man, and has at last come to understand his capacity.
Our history and our ideals forbid our having “ colonies ” in the old sense, as dependencies to be governed for the direct benefit of those that govern. In fact, it was we who taught Great Britain a lesson in colonial methods that has done much toward the successful building of her empire, and that has improved the manners of wise home governments toward colonies ever since. The conception of a colony has radically changed with the spread of democratic ideas. It had one meaning in the early days of British authority in India, and it has another meaning in these days of British authority in Egypt. It may be our good fortune still further to humanize and to soften this meaning, until it come to signify only help toward free government ; for the only kind of government that we can be a party to is a government as free as conditions will permit, and guaranteed by us as fast as conditions will permit to become selfgovernment. We have neither an historical nor a moral right to fix our rule, as a permanent foreign rule, over any people. But the duty is laid on us so to direct and to control the helpless political life of these old Spanish colonies as to bring it as fast and as far toward self-government as may be, relaxing our hold as their advancement permits. In character the problem is the same in Cuba, in Porto Rico, and in the Philippine Islands, and it differs in the several cases only in the stage of its solution. It matters little whether it be ten years or a century before we can be rid of the obligation to control and to direct their political life ; but it matters much whether we recognize in the beginning that we have not the right of conquerors, but only the duty of protectors.
Our character and capacity as a branch of the greatest colonizing and protecting race in the world have made our duty plain ; our history and our ideals make plain our aims ; and the practical methods of wisely administering this trust are made clear by the experience of our kinsmen who have similar trusts in thousands of islands. They have developed a system of colonial administration that is a product of race character, — is, in fact, more characteristic of the race than any other thing that it has developed ; for what distinguishes the British from all other peoples is their empire, especially their successful management of undeveloped communities.
This success does not lie in any trick or mere system of laws, but comes from a fundamental race quality which has produced the system. The French, for example, might copy English laws and imitate English methods, yet they could never develop backward races and extend the area of productive civilization. But since we have the mettle for such a task, we may hope, naturally, to find the right method native to us.
And the right method is one that already lay before us as a duty in the management of our own affairs, — to take our colonial service, as we must take our consular and diplomatic service, clean out of party politics. This was the way the British service was raised from pillage to justice. It is easy to foresee the results of such a change, for the most impressive lesson of the war was the demonstration of the instant and almost uniform efficiency of our navy : every man was eager to take any risk, anywhere, at any time, to serve the country. Yet the officers of the navy are not in any way exceptional Americans. They are only the legitimate products of a proper system of appointment and of training. We shall have as high and as uniform efficiency in any branch of the civil service, if we make it permanent, honorable, and lucrative; for service in the navy is harder and less well paid than similar service in commercial or professional life. It has only the advantages of permanence and of honor.
In our dull and sordid periods of politics, we have sometimes forgotten that worthily to serve the state is the strongest ambition of all high-minded youth in a republic ; and we deny the state good service in non-elective offices only by wrong systems of appointment and removal. Our diplomatic service has at all times commanded some of our greatest men; but at all times it has been uneven, and in its lower ranks it has at many times been vulgarly inefficient. As soon as we see fit to dignify it by making it permanent, honorable, and well paid, so that the best equipped men may make careers as diplomatists and administrators, we may have in a single generation as good a foreign service as there is in the world. Our universities will become its recruiting grounds. The pressure of our colonial problem ought to quicken our action in opening the doors of this service to a picked and well - trained body of our most capable men. When this is done, we may hope to carry on the practical work of distant administration with success.
We shall shun the single danger in the future if we remember that the necessity to protect and to train these dependent communities forbids their participation in our own government. We should not keep our government a selfgovernment if we admitted to it representatives of untrained aliens. One of the weaknesses of our Constitution is the method of admitting states into the Union ; for it has tempted both parties to increase their strength in Congress and in the electoral college by the admission of unripe territories to statehood. But we have our own experience as a warning, and we may learn a lesson from British experience as well; for not even the greatest self-governing colonies have representatives in Parliament. The inchoate and respectable anti-imperialist party, if it outlive its initial impulse of protest and its amateur management, may do good service in the future by checking the humanitarian zeal in which partisan desperation sometimes conceals itself. We should not be who we are if we were to lose either our dominant impulse to action or our secondary habit of protesting — after the act. Thus do we keep our civilization under constant examination without checking its orbic movement.
Both the vigor of action and the earnestness of protest give evidence that we once more have a public subject that appeals to the imagination. It draws new party lines and gives meaning to our politics, which have so long been wellnigh meaningless and insufferably parochial and dull. There is now a sort of heroic temper in the time, for we have not only to solve the problem of Spain’s fallen empire, but to strengthen our own confidence in the Republic, and to give it its proper position alongside the other dominant and responsible Great Power of the world. This is the most wholesome exercise in constructive patriotism that this generation of Americans has had.
When they come to be seen in their proper perspective, the war and our colonial ” policy that must follow it will seem only incidents in a long chain of logical and natural events ; but an era of renewed interest in public affairs ought to date from the beginning of such a policy. And a renewed interest in public affairs is of greater importance to us than the war itself or the problems that it may bring. Consider, for example, the logical and probable effect on civil service reform. For twenty-five years or more a small group of patriotic and persistent men have unselfishly worked to promote it, against the indifference of the mass of citizens. The progress that the reform has made is one of the most cheering facts in the political history of the time. But it has made slow progress, it has never been beyond danger of reverses, and it has not yet reached its logical and proper development. To the mass of men, — even of right-thinking men, — engaged in their own pursuits, it has seemed rather a policy affecting the disposition of a few thousand clerks than a great principle affecting the dignity and stability of the government. The reform has been inconspicuous, and in the indifference of the larger public to it the spoilsmen have found their opportunity and encouragement. But since civil servants must now be chosen for important posts, upon which the eyes of the whole world will rest, the principle of choosing all non-elective public officers by merit will be more likely to attract public attention and to win general approval. The subject is sure now to have such dramatic presentation as will impress the popular imagination.
If civil service reform has developed slowly because of popular indifference, so has every other important movement to lift up and dignify our public life. Indeed, in popular indifference every boss in the land has found his opportunity. For lethargy, the only cure is action ; and activity in public discussion and administration is the only method of keeping the health of the republic. In fact, every period of activity in our history — every time a new and important subject has come forward — has called into public life abler men than those that sought office in stagnant eras. If consciousness of world influence is the best result of the war, there is reason to hope that a more active political life will be the best result of the new policy that follows it.