Notes on the Reaction

“ THERE are no longer many Republicans in France,” we read in Monsieur Bergeret à Paris, “ because a French Republic cannot form Republicans. It is absolute government in France which makes Republicans.” Thus Anatole France, speaking through that delightful mask which he has invented, and which he wears so loosely over his own smilingly cynical and detached opinions concerning contemporary French politics. Monsieur Bergeret seems to have hit upon a law of political reaction and repulsion similar to that which Mark Pattison detected in operation at Oxford. Every scholastic generation, he said, the pendulum swung violently from Whig to Tory, or vice versa. The reason lay in the natural revolt of young men against the tenets of their teachers. When their own time came to be teachers, they were found at the opposite political pole ; from which, in their turn, they infallibly repelled the ingenuous youth who came to sit at their feet. It is a kind of atavism in the inheritance of party opinion. Mr. Lawrence Lowell has traced a somewhat kindred process on a large scale, for American political history, in his instructive paper on Oscillations in Politics. Allowing for the influence of vast and abnormal disturbances, like the Civil War, he makes out a pretty steady law of alternation in our politics. The phenomenon is at least as old as Machiavelli, who attributed the inconstancy of political man to his restless but ever frustrated desire of bettering himself — “gli uomini mutano volentiere signore, credendo migliorare . . . di che s’ingannano, perchè veggono poi per esperienza aver peggiorato.”

On general principles, then, one might expect the ship of state soon to take a sharp democratic lurch, after sailing so long on the monarchical tack. There has been throughout the civilized world a marked reaction against democracy for some years past; the reaction to democracy will follow, if only on the seesaw principle. That there is nothing in the whole political process of the suns but the dreary ups and downs of a tiltingboard, it would be a miserable comment on human nature to admit for a moment ; but even if a man says that the imagined current of progress is only a perpetual ebb and flow, carrying the same driftwood now here, now there, but never really onward, he will still have to confess that the monarchical tide is about ready to run out. I use the word “monarchical” simply for convenience, not as an epithet. By it I mean only the “ superior being ” theory of government. An exact definition of this it is not necessary to give. Examples are always the illuminating thing, and examples will occur to everybody. In England, we see a king whose policy it is to impress and overawe the imagination of his people by gorgeous display and court ceremony ; while the Liberals, who, on the occasion of the last grant of Parliament in payment of the debts of this same monarch, when Prince of Wales, vowed that the rising democracy of Britain would soon make a “ jolly smash ” of all that tinsel majesty, look on in a daze, or else go home to make sure that their own court dress is ready to be submitted to the severe scrutiny of Edward VII., with his royal clothes - philosophy. In matters more directly connected with government, take Sir Alfred Milner’s frank repudiation of representative institutions in Egypt. It is the very incarnation of the spirit I am referring to, — force employed with apologies, deference to democratic principles while denying them application. “ As a trueborn Briton,” writes Sir Alfred, with a badly concealed sneer, “ I of course take off my hat to everything that calls itself Franchise, Parliament, Representation of the People, the Voice of the Majority, and all the rest of it.” But in Egypt, he goes on to say, the people neither comprehend nor desire popular government, and “ would come to singular grief if they had it. Nobody, except a few silly theorists, thinks of giving it to them.” One has only to contrast with this the glowing vindication of democracy contained in Mr. Gladstone’s speech on the Reform Bill of 1866, to see from what moorings opinion in England has swung away : —

“ I shall not attempt to measure with precision the forces that are to be arrayed against us in the coming issue. At some point of the contest you may possibly succeed. You may drive us from our seats. You may slay, you may bury, the measure that we have introduced. But we will write upon its gravestone for an epitaph this line, with certain confidence in its fulfillment: —

' Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor.’

You cannot fight against the future. Time is on our side. The great social forces which move onward in their might and majesty, and which the tumult of these debates does not for a moment impede or disturb, those great social forces are against you ; they are marshaled in our support. And the banner which we now carry in the fight, though, perhaps, at some moment of the struggle it may droop over our sinking heads, yet will float again in the eye of heaven, and will be borne by the firm hands of the united people of the three kingdoms, perhaps not to an easy, but to a certain and to a not distant victory.”

In Germany, we have to measure the reaction not merely from the ebullient and revolutionary Liberalism of 1848, but from even the mild and measured Liberalism of Lasker, of the Emperor Frederick himself, He would not have the Volkszeitung suppressed, he told his ministers. What they thought, what the court thought, what the army thought, he knew well enough in advance ; but he was curious to find out what the people thought. His son, however, undertakes to do all the thinking for both government and people, and is ready to ignore or dash to pieces all opposing opinion, high or low, not merely with a gallant Wilhelmus contra mundum, but with a serene totus mundus stultizat. They do these things with better hypocrisy in France. There the reaction has at least the grace to profess to be democratic. The Rights of Man are ordered to be placarded in all the public schools of France ; the vote in the Chamber (doubtless with much smirking in sleeves) being 542 to 1. “ Meta-

physic rights,” — we know Burke’s impassioned denunciation of the French declarations of 1791 and 1793 ; but did not our ancestors talk the same “ metaphysical jargon ” ? Take the Bill of Rights of Virginia, June 12,1776 ; it betrays all the foolish fondness for abstractions which we so comfortably associate with the Gallic spirit: “ That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity,” etc. No need to argue whether that is traceable to Rousseau or to Locke ; there we get a declaration of the kind which we think of as breathing the fool fury of the Seine, but which was actually made by “ the Representatives of the good People of Virginia assembled in full and free Convention.” “ Other colonies,” says Bancroft, “ had framed bills of rights in reference to their relations with Britain ; Virginia moved from charters and customs to primal principles, from a narrow altercation about facts to the contemplation of immutable truth. She summoned the eternal laws of man’s being to protest against all tyranny.”

The question is, Will those old cries make themselves heard again ? Rather it is, Just how and when will they ? — for no one but a dreamer can imagine that the fire which burns at the heart of democracy has been extinguished. Democracy has undoubtedly brought disappointments even to its ardent advocates. It has not made for the world’s peace so directly and powerfully as was hoped and prophesied sixty years ago. It has not produced a higher type of public virtue, — has not crushed out venality, self-seeking, and corruption. If it has dethroned old tyrants, it has created new ones of its own, and bowed its neck to their yoke. Yet none of these things can affect our belief in the persistence of democracy, in its infallible rising to new life and to new power, if we have ever really been convinced democrats. The trouble is that many of us have not. Democracy has had the lip adherence of two classes of unbelievers. One has thought of it as a power to be dreaded ; the other, as a power to be tricked. Thiers, Tocqueville, used to speak with apprehension of “the inclined plane of Democracy.” They saw a power stronger than themselves, — a power which they disliked and distrusted, but with which they felt compelled to temporize and make terms. Only, beware of giving up too much to the monster, or letting him discover the extent of his strength ! That attitude is typical. Many openly, more in their secret hearts, adopt it. But, whatever they may be called, they cannot be called sincere believers in democracy. Still less can that other class, all too numerous among us, who think of democracy as merely a leviathan in whose nose it is for them skillfully to put their hook. I mean the rich men who see in a democratic government only so much bribable material. They buy their way through city councils and state legislatures and national Congresses, and then, with their coveted and profitable franchise, charter, or bounty safe in pocket, meet at dinner to chuckle over the infinite gullibility of those who think there is anything in the democratic principle except the main chance of shrewd and unscrupulous wealth. For Disraeli’s favorite theory, “ The Monarch and the Multitude,” they have substituted “The Millionaire and the Multitude.” They will furnish the toys and the bribes, and will let the “ swinish multitude ” of Burke’s too contemptuous phrase do the rest.

It is in this direction, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the anti-democratic reaction has gone furthest among us here in the United States. Our “ superior beings ” who condescend to rule, by trick and juggle, are the men of superior and soulless wealth. They are the great flouters as well as corrupters of democracy, — our really “ dangerous classes.” How to throw off their ignoble tyranny is the next pressing task of the republican at home. And I think we have in contemporary and pending political movements a hint of the way in which the work may be done. This is not by directly socialistic measures. We may, in the end, come to Mr. Herbert Spencer’s dreaded but predicted “ bureaucratic despotism of a socialistic organization.” There are those who think this fated. Mark Pattison, as reported by his friend Mr. Tollemache, said: “Everything seems to be tending toward Socialism. I hate it.” Tollemache asked why, if so great an evil was approaching, he, and those who thought as he did, did not stop it. “ Look there,” said Pattison, pointing to the sea at Biarritz. “ Just as men can construct moles and breakwaters against the waves, so individuals can, in some slight degree, modify passing events. They are powerless against the tide of history, as they are against the tide of the ocean. No, what is to be will be, in spite of you or me.” But it will not be in America, for a long time, at any rate, in spite of

Billion Dollar Trusts and the open joy of the Socialists at getting such water for their mill. American democracy is not yet wound up to that doctrinaire level. By inheritance, by tendency, its road to redress of grievances is still that of the Corn-Law Rhymes : —

“ Avenge the plundered poor, oh Lord !
But not with fire, but not with sword.”

Our method is much more likely to be to try, by rule of thumb and experiment heaped on experiment, to find some gradual way of undoing excess by gradual distribution. And, as I say, some of the ways certain to be given large and long trial are already opening before our eyes.

Shakespeare gives us the beginnings of the modus operandi. In Pericles we have a bit of dialogue which might almost pass for a comment on “ current events ” in the most up-to-date periodical : —

Third Fisherman. . . . Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.

First Fish. Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones. I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as a whale ; a’ plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful: such whales have I heard on o’ the land, who never leave gaping till they’ve swallowed the whole parish, church, steeple, bells, and all.”

There is greedy monopoly ; now for the struggle against it: —

Third Fish. But, master, if I had been the sexton, I would have been that day in the belfry.

“ Sec. Fish. Why, man?

Third Fish. Because he should have swallowed me too : and when I had been in his belly, I would have kept such a jangling of the bells, that he should never have left, till he cast bells, steeple, church, and parish, up again.”

My point is that we can already hear this jangling of the bells as the signal of democracy’s revolt against plutocracy. Mr. Bryan has done a deal of furious ringing. Perhaps his main function will turn out, historically, to have been that of a strong-armed sexton, tugging madly at the bell ropes in order to make the whale cast him up, Jonah fashion. To be the hero of such a political " Versunkene Glocke ” would be something! But if he has done only the bell-ringing, as Pio Nono complained of Pusey, others have been going to church. He pealed out the chime of the income tax, and lo ! Congressman Grosvenor, “ next friend ” of the President, has declared himself in favor of it. Mr. Bryan clattered the bells about government control of railroads, and straightway Congressman Dick, of Ohio, chairman of the State Republican Committee, trusted friend of Hanna, went him several better by publicly advocating government ownership of railroads, with telegraphs thrown in. Sexton Bryan tolled manfully for the repeal of all duties on trust-made articles, and has lived to see Mr. Babcock, chairman of the Republican Congressional Committee, introduce a bill for that purpose, and organize a powerful movement for its support within the Republican party.

Still more significant than these significant events, however, are the municipal elections of last spring in the great cities of the West. All of them had given Republican majorities in November ; all of them in April swung, unexpectedly and violently, to candidates labeled Democratic. But this result had no partisan meaning. Party lines were, in fact, cut through and crumpled up by new issues thrust sharply into the canvass. The triumphant nominees made their appeals and won their elections, not as Democrats, but as reformers of municipal taxation, as pledged advocates of a more vigorous control of corporations, especially of corporations holding public franchises. Along with this political upheaval, we must take account of the quieter but fully as extraordinary work accomplished by Governor Odell in New York. He coolly picked up $3,100,000 a year in taxes from corporations that had never paid the state one penny before. The political skill with which he contrived to do this is another story ; what bulks large in the minds of the farmer and artisan whose taxes were remitted is the simple fact that a way has been found to correct, by state taxation, the evils incident to state incorporation. Only a beginning has been made; but no one can doubt that the Caliban of democracy, having once scratched this idea into his skull, will brood upon it till it urges him to fresh applications of it. The power to tax ! Let the multitude once grasp the range of that weapon, necessarily left in its hands, and the bargaining and bribing millionaire will not find the partnership so pleasant. At any rate, we are evidently in for a period of eager discussion and experiment in all this province of taxation and restraint of corporate wealth. The old talk about vested rights ” and " spoliation ” will no longer be able to sweep out the flood. The doctrinaire defense of the rights of property, as well as the doctrinaire assault upon them, is out of date. What the people have in mind is to take up each question on its merits, as it arises, and settle it, — settle it with a very rough kind of social justice, if you please, but settle it, and on a basis wholly different from anything we have yet seen. That way, I am persuaded, lies our coming reaction to democracy. Leviathan is visibly rushing in that direction now, and there is still truth in Haydon’s rather surprising dictum that democracy is, after all, the form of government which most surely has its will.

But is there no “ gratitude ” in people ? our superior beings indignantly ask. Will not the workingman be suitably grateful to us for steady employment and higher wages ? Will not Cuban and Filipino remember the tyranny from which we redeemed them ? Ask the Egyptians. They are a thousandfold better off, no one questions, than they were under Mehemet or Tewfik, but the ungrateful beggars fill the air with their complaints of English rule. Why is this ? Simply because memories are short; because envy is more powerful than gratitude ; and because every day brings into the world beings who know nothing about past evils, but who have a very lively sense of present inconveniences. It is thus with races ; it is the same with classes. Men will not reflect how much worse off they once were, so long as they can see how much better off they might be. I detect in laboring men no signs of gratitude for our national prosperity. If I were a machinist or a carpenter, I doubt if I should feel any gratitude myself. I should probably do just what all the workingmen appear to be doing, — what it is both socially and politically and morally desirable that they should do, &emdash accepting every betterment in wage or hours of labor that is offered, biding their time, watching the markets, and pushing for every further advantage that they think obtainable. That is not lovely, but it is life. It is the way in which classes struggle upwards, in which democracy progresses. To all those who think to pause at any given stage, who imagine that gratitude for past attainment will stay the eager pressing toward future achievement, the voice of history comes with a cry of “ On, on! ” — like that in Bossuet’s sermon : “ La loi est prononcée ; il faut avancer toujours. Je voudrois retourner sur mes pas: ' Marche, marche! ’ ”

The prospects of democracy are to be estimated differently now from a hundred years ago. The difference is the difference between Jefferson and Lowell. The former saw the main, if not the sole enemy of democracy in what he called tyranny ; that is, the reluctance of the privileged classes to surrender their privileges. Lowell saw the great danger in democracy itself, — in its exposure to sweeping and senseless passion, its liability to wild excesses, its susceptibility to corruption, its going on its belly instead of on its head. Yet both Jefferson and Lowell were optimists about the future of democracy; and both for the same reason, — the infinite educability of mankind. Only inch by inch, said Jefferson, can liberty make progress, for it is a hard and slow process to educate men even as regards what is for their own good ; but educated they can and will be in the end. Little by little only, said Lowell, can democracy purge itself of its grossness, its stupidity, its cruelty ; but the work of purification has been steadily going on, and that it will continue to go on we must believe. When two such disparate minds in disparate ages agree, it is not for me to hold to the contrary opinion. It is often hard to be optimistic, but, on the whole, I believe we are bound to be, and to go forward toward what democracy has in store for us with muscles prudently relaxed ; counting on more than one disagreeable knock, but on no hurt that is beyond the art of the great surgeon, Time.

“ I know not; but, sustained by sure belief That man still rises level with the height Of noblest opportunities, or makes Such, if the time supply not, I can wait.”

An Emersonian Democrat.