Nations and the Decalogue


THE difference between the current doctrines concerning the conduct of men and those concerning the conduct of nations is an old topic of debate, wearisome and inclining to dullness ; but every now and then our minds are startled by the contrast, as by the stroke of an unexpected hour, and we bound, as it were, to our feet, resolute to set the matter in our minds in a state of permanent equilibrium. Such bells have been striking frequently during the last year, owing to the difficult questions before the United States and before Great Britain. Simple propositions concerning the objects and aims of a nation have been expressed in simple language. These propositions owe their interest for us to the nature of the objects and aims advocated, and not to the particular circumstances which caused the advocates to speak. Colonel Denby, one of our commissioners to the Philippines, has said : “ Commerce, not politics, is king. I learned what I know of diplomacy in a severe school. I found among my colleagues not the least hesitation in proposing to their respective governments to do anything which was supposed to be conducive to their interests. There can be no other rale for the government of all persons who are charged with the conduct of affairs than the promotion of the welfare of their respective countries.” The cold, hard, practical question alone remains: Will the possession of these islands benefit us as a nation ? ” Mr. Edward Dicey, C. B., writing in the Nineteenth Century of Mr. Gladstone’s conduct after the battle of Majuba Hill, said: “I am willing to grant that Mr. Gladstone seriously believed that for England to make peace without an attempt to reëstablish her impaired prestige was an act so magnanimous as to be certain to secure the admiration of mankind, to bring about a union of hearts between Boers and British, and to inaugurate an era of good will and peace, not only in the annals of South Africa, but of the British Empire. The conception, I fully admit, was grand, but a failure is a failure, no matter what may have been the nobility of the motives by which its authors were inspired.” Senator Beveridge opened the debate upon the Philippine question in the Senate by argument that the matter was a commercial speculation, that a very large profit was absolutely certain, and that the rulers of a nation had nothing more to consider. “ The Philippines are so valuable in themselves that we should hold them.”

The interest in these passages lies in the fundamental doctrine that a state is an exceedingly simple society, with no concerns except those of its belly ; and in the corollary thereto, that its rulers ought to give free rein to an appetite which in a private citizen ought to be checked and controlled. By a logical necessity, the statecraft of stuffing the belly carries its own pack of means on its back, for as surely as we think only of the belly we shall do those things that creatures do who have only the belly to think of. Poor Richard says, “ He who thinks that money is everything will do everything to get money.” It is a law of life that means match ends: fair means to failends, foul means to foul ends.

The conception of statecraft shown in our quotations is no new doctrine. Four hundred years ago Machiavelli held similar notions, and he spoke with a frankness equal to that of Senator Beveridge ; but he differs in his expositions, for he spends little space upon the ends of statecraft, taking them for granted, and discourses chiefly upon the means to those ends. He says : “ How worthy it is in a ruler to keep faith, to practice fair dealing, and not cunning, everybody agrees. Nevertheless, experience in these days teaches us that those rulers have done great things who have made little account of keeping faith, who have had cunning to bewilder men’s minds, and that in the end they have overcome those who have based their conduct on honest dealing. ... A prudent ruler cannot, nor ought he to keep faith, when such fidelity shall turn against him, and the reasons which moved him to make his promises are spent. . . . And a ruler will never lack pretexts to color his breach of faith. Of this I could give numberless examples in our own times, and show how many treaties, how many promises, have been made naught by the faithlessness of rulers; and he who best has played the fox has prospered best. But it is necessary to know well how to conceal this nature, and to be a great deceiver and hypocrite ; for men are so simple, and yield so readily to the wants of the moment, that he who will trick shall always find another who will suffer himself to be tricked. . . . We must recognize this, that a ruler, and especially a new ruler (one serving his first term), cannot observe all those things which men deem good ; being often obliged, for the welfare of the state, to act contrary to humanity, contrary to charity, contrary to religion. And besides, he must have a mind ready to shift as the winds and eddies of fortune bid ; not to depart from good, if he can help himself, but to know how to do evil, if he must. Therefore a ruler must take great care that no word shall slip from his mouth that shall not be full of piety, trust, humanity, religion, and simple faith, and he must appear, to eye and ear, all compact of these. . . . Let a ruler, then, make the state prosper, and his methods always will be judged honorable and be praised by all; because the vulgar are always caught by appearance and by the event; and in this world there are none but the vulgar. A certain ruler of to-day — it is well not to name names — proclaims nothing but peace and faith; had he observed either, he would have toppled the state and his own reputation.” 1

This passage displays a courage and a plain-dealing equal to the theme. This frankness in Machiavelli, however, deserves less praise than similar frankness in Colonel Denby or Senator Beveridge, because our English-speaking world attaches greater value to appearance than does the Latin world ; thinking that if our children see a vast simulacrum of patriotic honor, piety, and propriety looming huge on the horizon, they will believe it real, until they too are old enough and have worldly wisdom enough to be let into the secret, and to hand the show as a rich legacy, uninjured, to their children. “ Respect the Outside ” is an English educational doctrine. All ranks stand firm, protesting the reality of the simulacrum ; for if somebody should come along and give the painted Colossus a tiny push, what might not happen ? When Don Quixote had made himself an helmet out of pasteboard and glue, in order to make proof of it, he set it on a block, and swinging his sword dealt it a mighty stroke. It took him some time to put the pieces together, and he deemed it wise not to put the helmet to the test again. So our Anglo-Saxon public, with their quick instincts in practical matters, act on the rule, in international affairs, not to lay a finger on the national simulacrum of faith, honor, and religion, for fear it might tumble over. Instead of cold consideration, nimble analysis, and curious questioning of policy ; instead of discussing the advantages or disadvantages of national gluttony, patriotic orators praise the piety and magnanimity and devotion with which Great Britain and the United States do their several tasks of civilizing Indians, Irish, Dervishes, Philippines, Boers, or whoever it may be ; saying to themselves, Let not our children suspect that there are low animal processes in national life. Thus oratory is fit for kindergartens and little boys. Therefore all the greater praise is due to men of a new way of thinking, who have adopted somewhat of that Latin plainness of speech which is so conspicuous in Machiavelli; who publicly declare, not that a government must act with honor, faith, humanity, and religion, but that it must be resolute to procure the aggrandizement of the state.


This plainness of speech is a great gain; we owe much to the men who have dared to speak out. For the English notion of the worth of appearances, however valuable it may be as a means of education for the young, however valuable for its qualities of scenery and background for a picture of a president or premier and his cabinet, however valuable as a point of vantage from which to throw stones at the Latins, is full of danger. A statesman cannot proceed safely with a major premiss which assumes that all that glitters is gold. Prop appearance as one may, the ways in which it will serve as substitute for reality are few. A national policy is a whole composed of ends, and of means to those ends. How are we to discuss a national policy, if our rulers proclaim that the nation seeks honor, faith, religion, and those qualities which Machiavelli tells them a government should pretend to seek? Nobody can oppose such ends, debate is confined to means ; and, so long as the ends are hidden by words, discussion as to whether the means adopted by the government — war, tariff, monopolies, nepotism, or whatever they are — be the wisest means or no is mere blindman’s buff. But when we are told that the government has no proper aim other than the commercial welfare of the country, that noble aims which do not result in commercial welfare are to be blamed, that the sole interest of a nation lies in its belly, then we have a subject to discuss which may justify a certain difference of opinion ; and gratitude is due to those plain-speaking men who have put the question so clearly before us.

These statesmen have a perfect right to adopt Machiavelli’s reasoning and invoke his authority, because the situation at the beginning of the twentieth century is not so different from that in the time of Machiavelli. In Florence and in Italy there were dangers similar to those which affect the minds of statesmen to-day. Now we stand in the fear of Chinese hordes, or shudder at the premonitory thrills of a life-and-death grapple between the English and the Slav races; then there were Tedeschi, Francesi, Spagnuoli, who were not horrible imaginings, but present fears, and overran the peninsula. Now Europe is struggling for trade with the East; then the seaboard cities of Italy and France, the towns of Flanders, of the Netherlands, of Portugual and of Spain, pricked on their governments to fight for the Eastern trade and its forty per cent increase. In the sixteenth century the individual was as eager to make a fortune at little cost as he is to-day. Then, too, the Italians felt, in like manner as we feel to-day, that they were " of earth’s first blood,” and bore on their shoulders the burden of civilization. Machiavelli spurred on his countrymen with Petrarch’s verses: —

“ Cho l’ autico valore
Negli Italici cuor non è ancor morto.”

Machiavelli lived contemporary with Cæsar Borgia and Bembo, cardinals; Julius della Rovere, Pope; Benvenuto Cellini, artist; Aretino, man of letters; and with a society not very different, perhaps, from that drawn by Boccaccio. It is not to be wondered that as he believed that individuals had no moral standards, he also believed that a government should have no other aim than the aggrandizement of the state, and that the rules of right had nothing to do with statecraft. In this half century, Manning and Newman, cardinals, Leo XIII., Pope, John Ruskin in art, Tennyson in letters, Abraham Lincoln and Gladstone, statesmen, show the softening of our manners and the development of our ethical standards. Mr. Chamberlain, zealous though he be for the spread of civilization, as Torquemada for that of true religion, recognizes the changed customs of the time. President McKinley, resolute though he be for the enlargement of the United States, as Louis XI. for that of France, recognizes the changes in statecraft. Nevertheless, the clash of national interests is very much like what it was centuries ago. We change the fashion of the stomacher, but the old appetites remain. And if, as Senator Beveridge would say, the old appetites remain unchanged, why change the processes of feeding ?

On the other hand, it may be suggested that the continuance of the same processes of feeding has perpetuated the old appetites ; that on the whole the success of Europe as a commonwealth of nations has not been so conspicuous as to warrant a hasty judgment that good fruit has grown from these methods. In Italy, for example, Machiavelli’s rules were obeyed, and three hundred years of degradation followed. Relief came to Italy from the sympathy of England, the romance of France, the self-sacrifice of her own sons; no Borgia, no Medici, saved her, but the preachings of Mazzini, the deeds of Garibaldi. If doctrines in conformity to an ethical standard serve the interest of a single state, why not try them as rules of statecraft in international relations ?

It does not seem unreasonable for a state to try an ethical standard. Presidents and premiers have admitted that such a standard among individuals has been of great service to humanity; that it has enabled races to prevail over others in which individuals followed only the rules of selfishness. After myriad experiments of other methods, men have fashioned a code for dealing with their fellow men ; they have gradually learned to believe in the wisdom of obedience to that code. No man, except a statesman, dares publicly to disavow it. The great product of these myriad experiments of humanity is faith.

Faith is belief in the nobler experience of life. So necessary is that belief to the human race that in all the assaults of expediency there have been men to guard it, packing it as a sacred thing into little sentences. The questionings of selfish men, the curiosity of subtle minds, the skepticism of the advocates of novelty, have only served to grind and polish the great teaching of experience into language which babies can understand ; and none reject it except those who have set up in its place what they please to call “ knowledge of the world.” The real experience of humanity,is that right, justice, and high endeavor should guide the conduct of men. The reward of virtue is not always bread, nor of magnanimity to be the cynosure of envious eyes; none the less, we teach our children the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, and in private life we strive to obey them.

Why are statesmen so fearful of the great experience of humanity, why do they dread an ethical standard, why are they men of such little faith ? Why do they, at all times, in all places, shake their heads, and say, “ Oh the intricacy, oh the difficulties, oh the clashing and smashing of a million interests ! We all recognize the intricacy and the difficulty surrounding the course of nations. Not from the simplicity of the task of guiding a nation do we wonder at the disregard of those rules of right conduct which govern private men, but because of its manifold dangers and of its infinite perplexities. No man is endowed with sight to see far into the future, no man can foretell the forces which will prevail a generation hence ; no ship of state can steer its course by the foam of the surrounding waves. The threads of life are so many and so complicated, the forces of life so myriad, the influences of individual men so uncertain, that no man’s experience will serve him for a compass. There is but one course for a statesman to pursue. He must consult the deepest and truest experience of humanity, ponder over it till he feels conviction, and then act in obedience to that conviction continually. The deepest and truest experience of mankind is embodied in its moral laws, and even in tender care of a nation’s belly rulers are not wise to disregard it. There is no foresight elsewhere.

If the Ten Commandments bind a man, and prescribe what he shall do and what he shall not do, do they bind two men and three ? And if two and three, then do they bind an hundred, and an hundred thousand, and an hundred million ? If they hind John P. Robinson, private citizen, do they cease to bind him when he takes oath as selectman, as mayor, governor, member of Parliament, premier, or president ? The distinction is worthy of Thomas Aquinas or Tartuffe. Nothing is more striking, as evidence of the nature of the public mind, than the difference made by crossing the threshold of the Department of State or of the House of Commons. Conscience, inquisitive before, now stays flunkey-like outside, while the public unbonnets, muttering phrases about “ practical matters,” “affairs of the nation,” “economic development,” “ destiny ; ” or else silently nods, like men at the funeral eulogy of a bad man, “ Nihil de Re Publica nisi bonum.” What is there about the oath of office, crossing the congressional threshold, hanging of coats on the Commons’ pegs, that makes a grand climacteric in a virtuous man’s life, and turns his moral ideas topsy-turvy, and induces him to talk sin and folly ? Can he no longer hear the great voices whispering out of the past that by justice shall a nation flourish, and by injustice shall she grow faint? Every great national wrongdoing weakens the bonds of duty between her private citizens ; it enfeebles civic virtues; it encourages license and selfindulgence ; it induces the rich to oppression, and the poor to crime ; it is like a great shock that wrenches every nail in the ship, and by a thousand little weakenings deprives her of the robustness of her strength.


The causes which mislead statesmen to disbelieve the Ten Commandments are many. They believe that the world is governed by greed and its servants ; that though the Commandments he read aloud in churches, Lombard and Wall streets, together with all the little byways and alleys which branch therefrom, pay no heed. If that belief he correct, are they justified ? Shall a king or a secretary of state lie because the citizens are liars ? It is written, “ Thou shalt not follow the multitude to sin.” Shall statesmen never lead ?

They disbelieve because they lack courage to hear “ simple truth miscalled simplicity.” They are tempted to fight the devil with his own weapons. They see offices and honors immediately above them stretching out their arms. They distrust long aims, for men are creatures of short life, and, outside of their individual experience, are skeptical of cause and effect. They feel that might will prevail, whatever right may do. They see straight before them the easy path smoothed by the feet of little men. Their hearts are not lifted up to the great interests of the nation. They find that it is difficult for crawling things to stand erect. Thus statesmen wander to and fro over the face of the earth, seeking approval of constituents and patrons, harking to the murmurs of the crowd, and “ Nel mondo non è, se non volgo,” as Machiavelli says.

Moreover, our rulers blindfold themselves, repeating, as we know, that matters of state are so vast, so complicated, so profound, that they cannot be judged by ordinary standards, not if there were an hundred commandments instead of ten ;

“ But John P.
Robinson he
Sez they did n’t know everythin’ down in Judee.”

They persuade themselves that they practice some mystery, — priests of Cybele, thyrsus-bearers of Dionysus; that their actions, like stars, are controlled by skyey laws of which we have no means to judge. It is true that affairs of nations are the greatest matters of business in the world, but they have little mimics. The British East India Company, the Dutch East India Company, even in greatness have not been unlike nations. Their corporate business has been vast and complicated. Lesser corporations are of the same genus, many of the same species : “ Sic canibus catulos similis.” The difference is in degree, not in kind. When the president and directors of a railroad company lower their rates till they have broken a weaker rival, then buy half the stock and one share more, or when they make a bargain with other railroad companies not to carry freight at less than a certain price, and then privily contract with great shippers to violate that bargain, their acts are of the kind known as those justified by reasons of state.

Affairs corporate, in like manner as national affairs, influence those who conduct them. Brown, Jones, and Robinson are good husbands, honest, upright, church-going men, keeping faith and eschewing evil. The moment that they form the B. J. R. company, impersonality enwraps them like a witch’s cloak. They have done nothing but combine their goods, yet that union acts like poison. Brown waters the stock, Jones bribes his alderman, Robinson marks the nick of time to break a bargain. In the dregs of their minds is some vague notion that a man of business is nothing but a moneygetting animal ; that, as nature has made money his end, she has endowed him by implication with the right to pursue all convenient means to that end. They scent nothing but their duty to increase dividends by hook and crook for their stockholders, who, strange to say, are one Brown, one Jones, and a certain J. P. Robinson. This is the way with statesmen : they do not know that a nation has a soul.

Back of these little causes which conspire together to keep a nation from the path of the Ten Commandments, there is a great, vague, powerful force, that seems to move among the affairs of nations like a current through the waters. It is recognized by all, but it is known to men by different names. Some form this idea of it, some that. Professor Washburn Hopkins calls it, in its relation to Great Britain, the “ higher morality.” Senator Beveridge calls it, in its relation to the United States, “ racial tendency.” He says, “ their racial tendency is as resistless as the currents of the sea, or the process of the suns, or any other elemental movement of nature, of which that racial tendency is itself the most majestic.” Others, again, call it “destiny,” and others the “ will of God.” There is always difficulty in giving the appropriate and characteristic name to a force till it be well understood. This force is very simple, and should be well understood. It is an instinct, a powerful instinct; but instincts are not blindly to be followed. Even upon an instinct must judgment be passed, whether it shall be strengthened and obeyed or thwarted and disobeyed.

It needs no knowledge of sociology and biology to see that a nation has life, health, growth, and decay, like an animal ; that it has a structure, divided into parts, and maintains life by means of organs with allotted functions. It has a governing power, centralized in its head or capital, which both directs and depends upon the whole body politic. It has members of offense and defense; it has means of communication between its several parts, roads, rivers, wires, which show like a diagram of nerves and muscles ; it has an ever hungry appetite, and at times betrays occasional traces of the rudiments of a conscience and of a moral sense. It is composed of a multitude of units, all of which act separately for their private good, and are often slow to act together for the benefit of the aggregate. Groups of individual units perform different functions. Such a whole is not a special creation, nor does it vary greatly from the ordinary type of organism on this planet. A nation is simply the largest of organisms ; the forces which control it are primitive instincts, the “higher morality” or “racial tendency” being the chief nerve of the alimentary canal. The vibrations of this nerve shake the faith of our statesmen in the Ten Commandments.

But though a nation is an organism, and has structure and organs like another, there is a respect in which it differs from other low organic aggregates. In the latter the individual cells are of inferior nature to the aggregate to which they belong, — it owes them no obedience ; whereas, in the case of nations, citizens are of superior nature to the nation. Common organisms rightly follow what instincts they have, because instincts are the highest springs of action they know. The celt has no conscience which it can set up in opposition ; it cannot appeal to a higher law or urge its own profound experience. Therefore the presumption in favor of an instinct — that it is good — does not hold in the case of nations. Statesmen cannot invoke the authority of the polyp. It must be remembered, too, that the worth of an instinct is to be judged by the length of time it has been tried, and by the success it has achieved. The instincts in man and his progenitors have been at work for ages. Man has triumphed over all his competitors ; his race will endure as long as this globe is inhabitable. His instincts have proved their virtue ; yet many of them must be governed, controlled, and rebuked. This national instinct, the higher morality, racial tendency, or alimentary nerve has existed but a few thousand years ; its future is uncertain, its services in the past are doubtful. It has often brought war, destruction, and suspicion to Europe; it has prevented the interchange of wealth and of knowledge ; it has crushed forms of civilization which would be most useful now ; when has it brought peace, fraternity, or happiness ? Was it national feeling that produced Socrates, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, St. Francis, Dr. Channing, Phillips Brooks ? Did nationality produce Jesus ?

So we find that this great force, which bears statesmen hither and thither, like cockles on the tide, is nothing but the great national instinct of greed, the craving of the belly. What power has it to excuse statesmen for breaches of the moral law ?


Where there is plain wrong there must be a remedy. It is impossible to believe that men, creatures of reason and of experience painfully bought, will leave blind nations to the blind guidance of rude instincts which spring, like maggots from cheese, out of the union of many men. We must shunt these guides. Let us not fear to follow our private faith in matters international. Let us not be cowed by apparent failure. Let us serve our God; let us refuse to worship the aggrandizement of our country. If our country is fitted to advance the cause for which Christ was crucified, we are granted the great privilege of serene patriotism. If it is not, let us face the consequences. It may be that this system of division of mankind into nations has had its day. Perhaps nations lag superfluous on the stage. The purpose that they were contrived to serve, the union of people of one blood, and the preservation of the purity of that blood, they have not served. There is not one nation of pure breed and native blood; people of the same race are divided into different nations, — England and the United States, Spain and Mexico, Portugal and Brazil, France and the Province of Quebec, Germany and Austria. They may be mere temporary makeshifts to bridge a gap while mankind prepares some better means of serving its interests. There are signs that this system of nations is breaking up, to make way for a cosmopolitan system. Science with its locomotive forces, commerce with its maxim “Ubi bene ibi patria,” democracy with its brotherhood of man, are daily undermining the national system. World’s fairs, peace conferences, international labor societies, drawings together of Latins and of Anglo-Saxons, — all indicate the coming of a new system, without need of weapons of offense and defense, and with no national belly to be filled.

The substitution of a cosmopolitan system, with its ethical laws, in the place of our national system, with its individualistic laws, will no doubt be a long task. Two famous endeavors to effect that substitution have been made in the past by the European world. The first was the Roman attempt at universal empire, which failed because no one people can supply and adjust the amount of capacity necessary to administer the affairs of the world. The lesson from this attempt is that, not empire, but federation is the true political step toward a cosmopolitan system. The second was the attempt of the Roman Church to make a political Christendom, by bringing all nations into a common obedience to an ecclesiastical Christianity. But the evil conduct of her great priests weakened the Church, and the strong instincts of nationality foiled the attempt. The lesson from this failure is that the fruits of religion cannot grow upon political graftings. An attempt at universal empire is not likely to be made again by one nation ; but it may well be that Christianity, embodying as it does the great truths of human experience, will be the chief factor in the federation of the world ; that that cosmopolitanism which shall supplant the crew of nations will be a new name for Christendom ; that Christian laws will oust national instincts. For though cosmopolitanism does not prevent, nor pretend to prevent, the struggles among individuals, it substitutes symbols of peace in place of national flags, those great exemplars of the brute struggle for dominion ; it annuls the sanction given by national customs, by bloody victories, by vulgar history, to the doctrine that might makes right; it brings in the reign of law and of a public opinion which is continually more and more affected by Christianity. Centuries may have to pass into a millennium first, but the longer the road the greater the need of haste.

There are three matters to be recognized clearly. The first is that there is nothing peculiar or mysterious about politics or international relations. When two or three men live within hail of one another political relations begin. Politics begin when men realize that other men are forces to be considered. Men meet, bow; each drives his wagon to the right; one sells, another buys; they fence their acres in. They put their heads and arms together to chop down a tree, to mend the road, to regulate county matters with the next community. Whether they like it or not, politics have begun, ethical relations have begun, religion has come in ; men cannot separate politics from ethics, nor ethics from religion ; they are threefold, yet one and indivisible. From that union springs the moral law. Rightly to understand that law is the chief problem of life, and mankind has long been busy at the task ; but the immediate matter for men is to understand that what is true of two men and three gathered together is true of tens of millions. Are men to recognize this law, which acts on the individual and on society, only when the company is small and they can see the whites of one another’s eyes ? The duty of the state is to recognize the scientific truth of the universality and persistence of the moral law, and to put it to use in state affairs.

The second immediate matter is to recognize that education is one of the main functions of a government. Misled by practical difficulties of machinery, by old custom, and by many repetitions, lawyers and lecturers talk of the executive duties of the executive, of the legislative duties of the legislature, as if those terms bounded the subject. Rarely does a man, as Bagehot did in England, stop to look at the real nature of the functions of President and of Congress. A chief function is to instruct the people by example. The reason that a good and able man should be chosen President rather than a bad and able man is, not that he will execute the laws more promptly and more exactly, but because it is important that a conspicuous object in the nation’s eye should be good. One reason that good men, and not bad, should be chosen Senators is that speeches in the Senate should fill the newspapers with lofty thought that will be good for all to read. The influence of men in high places is farreaching ; people take their standards of conduct as they do the fashions of their dress. See the effect of a virtuous court on the manners of a people.

The third matter is the immediate need of plain speech. Shams must be rent asunder, no matter how high the motives which support them. Statesmen must speak out straight from the heart. It is in this that Senator Beveridge and Colonel Denby have rendered so salutary service. Whatever may be the justice of their views on current policy, they have opened the attack against sham. Let there be plain speech, and the American people — among whom the great social experiments are to be tried — shall have the front place in the ranks of nations, to say whether the partisans of the national belly or the partisans of the national conscience shall prevail, and what America will do to make straight the way for Christendom.

H. D. Sedgwick, Jr.

  1. The Prince, chap. xviii.