The Cowardice of Culture

“There is,” said George William Curtis, in an address at Concord, “a cynicism which fondly fancies that in its beginning the American republic moved proudly toward the future with all the splendid assurance of the Persian Xerxes descending on the shores of Greece, but that it sits to-day among shattered hopes, like Xerxes above his ships at Salamis. And when was this golden age?” His hearers might well have answered Mr. Curtis by saying that this cynicism is of no modern origin, but dates back to the very foundation of the government. Thus Alexander Hamilton wrote on February 27, 1802, to his associate, Gouverneur Morris: “Mine is an odd destiny. Perhaps no man in the United States has sacrificed or done more for the present constitution than myself; and contrary to all anticipations of its fate, as you know, from the very beginning. I am still laboring to prop the frail and worthless fabric. . . . Yet I have the murmurs of its friends no less than the curses of its foes for my reward. What can I do better than withdraw from the scene?”

Fisher Ames, probably the most brilliant American statesman of his time, said six years later than this, just before his death in 1808, at the end of his lecture on American literature: —

. . . “The condition of the United States is changing. Luxury is sure to introduce want; and the great inequalities between the very rich and the very poor will be more conspicuous, and comprehend a more formidable host of the latter. . . . Liberty has never yet lasted long in a democracy; nor has it ever ended in anything better than despotism. With the change of our government, our manners and sentiments will change. As soon as our emperour has destroyed his rivals and established order in his army, he will desire to see splendour in his court, and to occupy his subjects with the cultivation of the sciences.”

Victory is in this world apt to be a synonym for temporary disappointment. In 1775, when John Adams came back from Philadelphia after the Convention had organized the army and appointed its generals, he met in Quincy a horsejockey who had been his client, and who said, “Oh, Mr. Adams, what great things you and your colleagues have done for us. We can never be grateful enough to you. There are no courts of justice now in this province, and I hope there never will be.” Sad were Mr. Adams’s reflections when he thought that perhaps, after all, such men as this might make up the majority. In the same way Mrs. Smith, his daughter, after dining with several members of Congress at New York in 1788, wrote to her mother, “If you had been present you would have trembled for your country to have seen, heard, and observed the men who are its rulers. Very different they were, I believe, in times past.” Nearly fifty years later than this, in 1835, Chancellor Kent wrote of Judge Story, “He says all sensible men at Washington, in private conversation, admit that the Government is deplorably weak, factious, and corrupt. That everything is sinking down into despotism under the guise of a democratic Government.” In the same year Miss Catharine M. Sedgwick, who stood for many years the acknowledged head of our women authors, testified with the keen sight of a woman to the same attitude of mind in those about her. “TheFederalists believed that all sound principles, truth, justice, and patriotism were identified with the upper classes.” “They hoped a republic might exist and prosper, and be the happiest government in the world, but not without a strong aristocratic element; and that the constitutional monarchy of Britain was the safest and happiest government on earth, I am sure they believed. ... I remember my father, one of the kindest-hearted of men, and most observant of the rights of all beneath him, habitually spoke politically of the people as ‘Jacobins,’ ‘ sans-culottes’ and ‘miscreants.’ He — and in this I speak of him as the type of the Federal party — dreaded every upward step they made, regarding their elevation as a depression, in proportion to their ascension, of the intelligence and virtue of the country. The upward tendencies from education and improvements in the arts of life were unknown to them.”

That the same view prevailed among English visitors showed itself clearly enough on the publication of Hamilton’s Men and Manners in America, whose moral was thus summed up in Blackwood’s Magazine for September, 1835: —

“In Europe, the ascending intellect and increasing information of every successive generation have long been conspicuous; and society has exhibited for three hundred years the animating spectacle of each successive generation being more elevated and refined than that which preceded it. But that is far from being the case in America. There the degrading equalizing tendency of democracy is daily experienced with more deplorable effects; and instead of the lower orders ascending to the intelligence and elegance of the superior, the better order of the citizens are fast descending to the level of the labouring classes. Each successive generation is more coarse, and less enlightened, than that which precedes it. . . . America, Mr. Hamilton tells us, exhibits this painful spectacle.”

It was, moreover, such lamentations which greeted Harriet Martineau when she came to America about this same time. “The first gentleman who greeted me on my arrival in the United States,” in 1834, she tells us, “a few minutes after I had landed, informed me without delay, that I had arrived at an unhappy crisis; that the institutions of the country would be in ruins before my return to England; that the levelling spirit was desolating society; and that the United States were on the verge of a military despotism. . . . At Washington, I ventured to ask an explanation from one of the most honoured statesmen now living; who told me, with a smile, that the country had been in ‘a crisis’ for fifty years past; and would be for fifty years to come.” Miss Martineau is gone, and so, doubtless, is her Washington friend and adviser. But he has left a numerous family of descendants, and newly landing foreigners are still liable to meet them on the wharf.

How are we now to interpret this prolonged series of illustrations of what may justly be called the cowardice of culture ? It is always to be borne in mind that the whole period I have been describing was a profoundly serious one, and that the buoyant element which in these days relieves itself from over-solicitude by a bonmot or an anecdote had not then come in. Among the whole circle of the Federalists, for instance, I can find no repartee which seems really modern, except that reported to me by the only genuine Federalist whom I knew personally, James Richardson; a saying, namely, of my grandfather, Stephen Higginson, at a gathering of the Federalist leaders, in their day of defeat, at the house of George Cabot in Brookline. After a good deal of dreary lamenting, my grandfather had at last the audacity to suggest to them that if it became necessary to dwell in the same house with a cat, it would not do invariably to address the obnoxious animal as “cat;” sometimes you must call her “pussy.” There was, however, scarcely an occasion where such a remark would not, in those days, have been thought to savor of levity; and if we are to treat the whole thing as an historic situation, it must be more seriously approached.

The simple fact is that every extension of suffrage terrifies every community of voters. Every class of men when first enfranchised is distrusted by the class which it threatens to outvote. Nothing is more amusing in view of our modern standards of social gradation than to see the slow manner in which the mercantile class has come to its present position. The original charter of Delaware reserved all powers of government to a royal council, because, as it said, “Politics lie beyond the professions of merchants.” Dr. Samuel Johnson himself, who admitted that much might be made of a Scotchman “if he be caught young,” and that he was willing to love all mankind “except an American,” could never recognize the social standing of a merchant. But if the merchant was thus long distrusted, how much more the mechanic classes, when their turn for political emancipation came, in a period nearer to our own!

“It is pleasant,” said the agents of James II sent with Governor Andros to Boston, “to behold poor coblers and pitiful mechanics, who have neither home nor land, strutting and making noe mean figure at their elections, and some of the richest merchants and wealthiest of the people stand by as insignificant cyphers.” Thus in Delaware the merchant was distrusted ; in New England the mechanic. Yet in each case the distrusted class carried the day; and the Revolution, which in Virginia and Pennsylvania was the work of the landholders, was in New England the work of the people. The men of wealth and standing who took the side of liberty were so few that they could be counted; the Revolution was carried through by the masses.

On looking backwards, at this length of time, we can see the needlessness of all these fears. I take it that there was never a period in our history since the American nation was independent when it would not have been a calamity to have it controlled by its highly educated men alone. John Randolph used to point out that in the Bible the Book of Kings succeeds the Book of Judges, and the anti-slavery leaders had reason to fear the same, Edmund Quincy said during a long anti-slavery agitation, “The strength of the movement was in the masses. The presidents of colleges would at any time have voted for compromise.” And I remember when Kossuth at Faneuil Hall reminded us that “when the battle of Cannæ was lost and Hannibal was measuring by bushels the rings of the fallen Roman squires, the Senate of Rome voted thanks to Consul Terentius Varro for not having despaired of the republic.”

If it sounds like mere extravagance to say that the many may be wiser than the few, we must remember that the mere word “common-sense” implies the same assumption; and so in regard to morals, the masses of the American people are doubtless more critical as to ordinary morality than any exclusive circle. Bronson Howard tells us that a Bowery audience is far quicker than a fashionable one to hiss anything really immoral in a play. Howells, always penetrating, and commonly accurate, selects a rough Californian as the man who voluntarily patrols a sleepingcar to be the self-appointed protector of the ladies. A solitary girl may travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific and meet with less of real rudeness than she might encounter in the later hours of some fashionable city ball. Americans who have lost their character at home have often made a great social success abroad; and even at Newport or Lenox, one may see behind an unimpeachable four-in-hand men and women of whom it can by no means be said, as Mark Twain said of Queen Victoria, that they are “eminently respectable and quite the sort of person whom one would be willing to introduce into one’s family.”

If this is true in important matters, it is still more true of trivialities of dress and demeanor. Take, for example, the use of the hat. In that well-known authority, Pepys’s Diary, which is held as an infallible record of the manners of its period, we find, under date of September 22,1664, “ Home to-bed; having got a strange cold in my head, by flinging off my hat at dinner, and sitting with the wind in my neck.” So in Lord Clarendon’s essay on the decay of respect paid to age, he says that when young he never kept his hat on before those older than himself, except at dinner. He died in 1674. It is well known that the English members of Parliament sit with their hats on during session, and the same practice prevailed at early town meetings in New England. Thus do manners begin with the many rather than with the few, and hold their own longest amid the most exclusive circles. In the same way, we may often see morality itself best exemplified in the manners of the many.

Why then should it be the classes of socalled culture that set us the example of terror, as society develops year by year? The man supposed to occupy a humbler social position has no such feeling of alarm, — he sees his own organizations of working men enlarging; the rights of labor recognized; legislature after legislature passing laws in his behalf. He saw, moreover, a year ago, the President of the nation chosen by the largest vote ever known, as the outcome of popularity and confidence. Had the dozen richest men in this country joined in a solemn pledge to defeat Mr. Roosevelt, we now see that they could not have done it. Surely, it cannot be this fact on which the cowardice of culture is based. The scholar, at least, cannot share this terror. It is rather for him, by wider training, to become a leader of men.

It is a source of joy, not of peril, that every social sphere has its own standard of judgment, neither birth nor wealth nor knowledge nor even virtue monopolizing this. A friend of mine, a Boston merchant, was being rowed on the Racquette River in the Adirondacks by a guide who had been highly recommended to him, but who proved very silent. At last the oarsman found a tongue, and said casually to his passenger, “Do you know Jimmie Lowell ?” Supposing this to be one of the boatmen on the lakes, my friend disclaimed all knowledge of such a personage. “I should think you would know him,” returned the boatman with some surprise. “He teaches in Harvard College, and writes poetry and such things.” “Ah, indeed,” said my friend, surprised. " I know Professor Lowell, and have known him for many years.” “Do you ?” said the guide, and then fell back into silence, which was broken by the remark, some five minutes later, “Ignorant cuss, ain’t he?” It appeared that he had rowed Lowell on that same river for some hours earlier in the previous season, keeping always on the sunny side, and that Lowell pleaded with him to row over to the shady side, for it never occurred to him that a boatman must seek the current, not the shade. The difference of standard in tastes and faculties wi11 never be determined by money only. Still less, at least in America, will it be controlled by birth.

Long before I ever visited England, I was driving a young Englishwoman of rank, daughter of a baron and daughterin-law of an earl, to visit the old abode of Dean Berkeley in the vicinity of Newport. During our drive I asked the question, which had often occurred to me, whether the best English society was not liable to be made monotonous by being largely filled up by birth alone, thus losing something of the wholesome variety of American life. This she answered in the negative, on the ground that the very abundance of families of the higher grade made it impossible to receive them all at any one time, and in making a selection, it was therefore easy to substitute guests or friends who had no social rank whatever, but perhaps turned out the wittiest or most agreeable of the whole company. On the other hand, she said, there were families of the very highest grade who lived almost wholly at their country-seats, rarely came up to London for any length of time, and then were passed by. ”I know lots of dukes’ daughters,” she carelessly said, “who get scarcely any attention.” She was herself, at that time, very young; she came to this country largely to visit Vassar College, then a novelty; and made so hearty an acquaintance with American reformers that she named her daughter, born after her return from America, Lucretia Mott; she was, moreover, a most entertaining companion, and did not hesitate to tell an American hostess, when needful, that any particular dish on the table was “nasty,” or that any insufficient argument used by the host was “bosh.” Mere birth, like wealth,fails to make the judgment infallible.

If all the scholar’s education in a republic gives him no infallible advantage over the man who cannot read or write, let the scholar have the manliness not to whine over the results of his own inefficiency. How absurd would be any artificial system of equalization, such as we sometimes see gravely urged, which should give to the day laborer one vote, to the schoolteacher two, to the lawyer or editor three, and to the author of a treatise on the United States Constitution ten! Natural laws provide much better for the end desired; the education of the editor, the lawyer, the teacher, should enable him to carry dozens of less educated votes at his belt, as an Indian carries scalps. It, is he who writes the editorials, he who makes the speeches; all the machinery of conviction, for good or for evil, is entrusted to his hands. The political committeeman is the quartermaster of the regiment; he attends to the supplies and the encampment, and if he neglects his duty the work is ill done. Eating is essential to fighting, in the long run: but eating can never take the place of fighting; and the tone of the political campaign must be given by those who actually contend. “The glory of universal suffrage,” said Louis Blanc to me once, “is in the power it gives to intellectual leaders; a man of trained intellect really throws not one vote only, but a thousand.”

All this being true, the nation has surely the right to demand of its educated men that they should not evade and apologize, but should show some faith, not only in their principles, but in their training and in themselves. Robespierre said that power without virtue was crime, but that, virtue without power was weakness. Power naturally demands its own exercise, has faith in itself, and claims success, not by intrigue or manœuvre, but by manly self-assertion and having eyes to discover every open door. It was said of Haydon, the painter,—who killed himself because his pictures drew fewer visitors than Tom Thumb, — that if he had tried as hard to paint well as to argue the public into the belief that he had done so, he would have been the most famous of English artists.

The mistake made by many welleducated men is still greater. They leave their real opportunities unused, and then complain that they have not more chances. The hand of the ignorant man puts in the ballot, but it is the tongue of the educated man which guides him, first or last. If this is not accomplished, it is for want of force. After all, eloquence simply represents force,— something to say, and the fewest words possible to say it in. Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg and John Brown’s at the scaffold are still our high-water mark of American eloquence, though England may surpass us in Lord Chatham’s “America has resisted. I rejoice, my lords!” a passage which was pronounced by the great Irish orator Grattan to be equal to anything in Demosthenes.

If, now, the strength of society lies more, after all, in the many than in the few, and if that multitude is best stirred by individual leadership, and if that leadership is found best in the best educated, why should the prospects of the world be formidable? The history of all great reforms points this way, but let me draw my moral from what might at first be called a minor instance. It seems but a little while since I was called to the door of my lodging-house at Newport to meet, as it seemed to me, the very handsomest and most prepossessing man who ever stood on a doorstep. It was just at the end of the Civil War and he had been discharged, with the cavalry regiment which he had commanded, from Frémont’s Mountain Department, and was about to establish a large market-garden near Newport. It ended in his getting such prices for his butter as Newport had never before heard of, and this was done by one who, as a frank and manly social favorite, went everywhere and was equally popular with men and women. It mattered little to him whether he drove up in his market wagon to the back door of some stately house, to settle with the housekeeper some question of new-made butter, or rode upon his fine Kentucky racehorse, in the afternoon, to make a party call upon the mistress of the estate. By and by, he developed wholly new theories of drainage, and turned his attention to that perplexing problem, taking contracts in that direction more and more widely. Meantime the great city of New York, with which he was well acquainted, was beginning to struggle with a problem akin to drainage, the cleansing of its streets. In a happy hour, he was called in and undertook with delight something in which everybody else had failed. As a first stroke, he proceeded, amid universal derision, to clothe in a white uniform his whole corps of street cleaners; and it was not until he had driven into disappearance the vast legion of piled-up barrels and tilted carts which had collected the dirt of every street, by night; and had marched his white-clad workmen in military order down Broadway, by day, that all New York City waked to the discovery that it had found a master and his name was George Waring. Thus does every reform lie latent in the public mind until that public finds a leader; one of whom it can be said, as Carlyle said of Scott, that “when he departed he took a Man’s life with him.”