We are separated from the year 1857 as men of one age are separated from those of another. We live amidst scenes and circumstances to which the events of that day can hardly be made to seem even a prelude. A stupendous civil war and the economic and political reconstruction of a nation have been crowded into the brief space of fifty years, — one era closed and another opened, — and it hardly seems possible that men now living can recollect as the happenings of a single lifetime events which seem to have wrought the effect of a couple of centuries. It was in fact the completion of one great process and the beginning of another. The process by which a nation was created and unified came at last to an end, and a still more fateful process began which was to determine its place and example in the general history of the world. Whether the new century we have entered upon will carry us to the completion of another phase of our life remains to be seen.
So far, a century seems to have been our dramatic unit: one century, the seventeenth, we spent upon the processes of settlement; another, the eighteenth, in clearing the continental spaces we had chosen for our own of all serious rivals, the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, and in making ourselves free of oversight and interference from over sea; a third in constituting a nation, giving it government and homogeneity of life and institutions; and now we have entered upon a fourth century, and are sometimes in doubt what we shall do with it. We have for the nonce no clear purpose or programme. We are finding ourselves in a new age, amidst new questions and new opportunities, and shall have a clear vision of what we are about only when common counsel shall have further steadied and enlightened us.
If assessed by events, the year 1857 was not a year of particular significance. It was rather a year between times, when the sweep of events seemed to pause, and some were tempted to interpret the signs of the times as signs of peace, it seeming on the surface as if old issues were in some sort concluded and a time of settled policy at hand. Men who looked beneath the surface could, of course, see that no peace or settled nimble of action could come out of opinions and policies constituted as were the opinions and policies they then saw to be the ruling elements of politics. Such, among others, were the men who founded the Atlantic Monthly. And yet it was at least a year quiet and undisturbed enough to afford the historian an opportunity to look about him, and take stock of what haul come and was coining. It was a year in which one chapter may close and another open, as if at a pause or turning-point in the narrative.
The year 1856 had witnessed a presidential election, and in March, 1857, Mr. Buchanan became President in the place of Mr. Pierce, Democrat succeeding Democrat; but sonic significant things had taken place within the Democratic ranks within the four years that had elapsed since Mr. Pierce was elected. In 1848, Mr. Polk, the Democratic candidate, had carried fifteen out of the twenty-six states that then constituted the Union; in 1852 Mr. Pierce had received the electoral votes of every state except Vermont, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Kentucky; but Mr. Buchanan had received the support of no states outside the South except Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, and Illinois. His party, from being national, had seemed amidst the new ordering of affairs to become of a sudden little more than sectional, and, in spite of its success and its apparent confidence, seemed touched, as other parties were, with change and decay. The Democratic party had had its easy successes at the last three presidential elections largely because other parties were going to pieces and it held together unbroken and with definite purpose with regard to the main issues of the day; but at last its own followers were yielding to the influences of divided opinion, and few besides its southern adherents remained steadfast of purpose.
The slavery question had proved an effectual dissolvent of parties, — not the question of the continued existence of slavery in the Southern States, but the question of the extension of shivery into the regions of settlement where new territories and states were being erected. It seemed a question impossible of definitive settlement until the ceaseless movement of population should come naturally to an end and the spaces of the continent should have been filled in everywhere with communities which had chosen their own order of life. Attempt after attempt had been made to determine it beforehand. The great Ordinance of 1787, contemporaneous with the making of the Constitution itself, had excluded slavery from the broad Northwest Territory which the States had ceded to the Union as a nursery of new commonwealths; the Missouri Compromise had excluded it from so much of the territory embraced within the Louisiana Purchase as lay north of the southern boundary of Missouri extended; and the extensive State of California, a small empire of itself, cut out of the vast territories snatched from Mexico, had been admitted as a State with a constitution of her own making which excluded slavery, thus determining the critical matter for the only portion of that great region with regard to which the movement of population rendered its immediate settlement imperative. Settlers by the tens of thousands had rushed into California upon the discovery of gold. The discovery had been made the very month the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed (February,1848), and before Congress was ready to legislate for the new possessions, California had become a self-governing community of the familiar frontier pattern, with ruling spirits to whom it was impossible to dictate laws they did not like. The gold-hunters and the tradesmen who went with them neither had slaves nor wanted them, and Congress had no choice but to admit them as at state upon terms of their own making. And the rest of the Mexican cession it left open to be taken care of by the fortunes of settlement and the preference of its first occupants, after the same fashion. Such had been the terms of the famous Compromise of 1850, which also shut the odious slave trade out of the District of Columbia and provided southern slave-owners with a stringent Fugitive Slave Law which enabled them to recover their runaway slaves by simple and effective process through the action of the local officials of the federal government itself. That great Compromise, upon which Mr. Clay had spent the last years of his life and power, — that latest "settlement" of the irrepressible question, — was but six years old when Mr. Buchanan was chosen President.
But each successive handling of the critical matter seemed rather to unsettle than to determine it; and this last attempt to deal with it proved the least conclusive of all,—seemed, indeed, purposely to leave it open with regard at any rate to so much of the Mexican cession as was not included within the boundaries of the new State of California. Mr. Calhoun had explicitly denied the right of the federal government to exclude slaves, the legal property of such settlers as might come from the South, from the territories of the United States, and had declared it as his opinion, and that of all southern men who thought clearly of their rights under the partnership of the Union, that the people of the several territories, wherever situated, whether on the one side or the other of compromise lines, had the constitutional right "to act as they pleased upon the subject of the status of the negro race amongst them, as upon other subjects of internal policy, when they came to form their constitutions," and to apply for admission to the Union as slates. The Compromise of 1850 had been framed upon that principle; and that compromise was not four years old, Mr. Calhoun was not four years dead, before the new principle had been enacted into law, to the sweeping away of all former compromises and arrangements.
It had been an astonishing reversal of policy, brought about by a man of surprising vigor and directness, who for a little while seemed the leader of the country. Not Mr. Calhoun only, but Mr. Webster and Mr. Clay were dead; a new generation was on the stage, and its leader, while parties changed, was Stephen A. Douglas, since 1847 one of the senators from Illinois. No man better fitted for confident and aggressive leadership in an age of doubt and confusion could have been found, even in the western country from which he came. He was but forty-one, but had won every step of his way for himself since he came a lad out of Vermont, and knew how to work his will with men and circumstances. His appearance bespoke what he was. He was short of stature, but gave the impression of mass and extraordinary vigor, carrying his square, firmly set head with its mass of dark hair with an alert poise that gave their right bearing to his deep-set eyes and mouth of determined line, his friends dubbed him the Little Giant, with affectionate familiarity; and his opponents found in him a candor that matched his fearlessness, a daring and readiness of wit that were the more formidable in contests before the people because he was a bit coarse-fibred and could be counted on to hold his own inn any sort of debate. He had in a certain sense taken Mr. Benton's place in the Senate. His chief interest was in the development of the western country, the new communities constantly making to the westward, which were like the Illinois of his own youth, and carried so much of the vigor and initiative of American life; and he had by natural selection become chairman of the Senate's Committee on Territories. West of Iowa and Missouri stretched the great Platte country all the way to the Rockies, and across it ran the trails which were the highways into the far West. The western Indians had their hunting grounds there upon the plains, and the authorities at 'Washington had once and again thought of allotting to than nun extensive reservation which should secure them in their hunting privileges. Mr. Douglas feared that something of that kind might throw a barrier across the main lines of the westward movement which he watched with such sympathy and interest, and had more than once urged the erection of a territory in the Platte country. In 1854, he had had his will, and had quickened the approach of revolution by the way in which he chose to have it.
His measure, as finally submitted to the Senate, provided for the creation of two territories, one lying immediately to the west of Missouri and to be known as Kansas, and the other, to be known as Nebraska, stretching northward upon the great plains through which the Platte found its way to the Missouri. Both lay north of the southern boundary of Missouri extended, the historic line of the Missouri Compromise, established now these thirty-three years, but Mr. Douglas declared himself impelled by "a proper sense of patriotic duty" to set that compromise aside and to act upon the principle of the later compromise of 1850, legislation which bad been framed but the other day to compose the agitation of parties. The bill which lie introduced, therefore, explicitly declared the Missouri Compromise "inoperative and void," and left the matter of the extension of slavery into the new territories entirely to the sovereign choice of the people who should occupy them.
Mr. Douglas did not wish to see slavery extended; he was simply taking what seemed to him the straightest way to the settlement of a vexed question which apparently could be settled in no other way. He did not expect the settlers of the new country to accept or desire slavery; lie expected them to reject it. But whether they accepted it or rejected it, lie thought them the best judges of such a question, affecting their own life and social makeup; and he did not believe that in any case Congress could either successfully or constitutionally determine such a matter beforehand, There were men in the Senate who earnestly opposed what he sought to do: Seward, and Sumner, and Chase, and Fish, and Foote, and Wade were there, the representatives of a new party which had devoted itself to this very task of blocking the extension of slavery; but they did not avail against the confident Democratic majority, which seemed to find a certain exhilaration in having obtained at last a leader who did not propose compromises but was willing to venture the open contests which only actual settlement and the direct action of the people themselves could conclude. It seemed clearly Democratic doctrine, this doctrine of "squatter sovereignty," and they accepted it with a certain zest and sense as of relief.
They must have seen how direct a challenge it was to the rival interests, pro-slavery and anti-slavery, to attempt a con-quest of the new territories. Not. that there was any question about Nebraska. That lay too far north to be available for the extension into it of the southern system. But that system had got its established foothold already in Missouri, and Kansas lay close neighbor to slave territory within the same parallels of latitude; and so far as tier lands were concerned the challenge was accepted, — accepted in a way that held the attention of the whole country. It was a very tragic thing that ensued. Settlers out of the slave-owning states just at hand were naturally the first to enter the new territory, taking their slaves with them; but there presently began a movement of settlers out of the North which was of no ordinary kind. Nothing could have stimulated active opposition to the extension of slavery more than what Mr. Douglas had done. He had notified the country that law was neither here nor there in such a matter; that there was no legislative body that had the authority to say beforehand whether slaves could go with the settlers who entered the new lands of the national domain or not; that the predominance of men who wished slavery or did not wish it their predominance, not in the nation, but in the territories themselves—must determine the question. In brief, he had made it a question of numbers, a question of conquest, of prevailing majorities on the one side or the other. Kansas therefore began to be peopled as no other territory had been. Settlers were sent there by organized effort. Individuals and societies in the North set themselves to work to find the men and the means to take possession of it, and the new settlers came prepared for anything that might prove to be necessary to establish themselves or their principles in the new territory, whether legal or illegal, understanding that it was not to be a process of law but an act of choice made in any form of fact. It was an opportunity for desperate men, as well as for peaceful immigrants who wanted homes and Caine to till the broad, level acres of the prairie; and desperate men availed themselves of it. Kansas became a veritable battlefield. Men stopped at no violence to prevail, and flames of partisan warfare burst forth there which threatened, as every one saw, to spread to the whole Union.
Mr. Douglas's principles were put to the test the very year Mr. Buchanan became President. Until that year the pro-slavery men who had come out of Missouri and the farther South had predominated in numbers in Kansas, and had pressed their advantage with characteristic energy and initiative. Before they had lost their majority by the pouring in of settlers coining faster and faster out of the North, they had called a constitutional convention, and had submitted to the people of the territory an instrument which established slavery by organic law. One of the first things it fell to Mr. Buchanan to do was to submit to Congress their application for admission to the Union as a state under that instrument. But Mr. Douglas would not vote to accept the new state on those terms, and there were men enough of his opinion in the Democratic ranks to exclude it. He knew that, even at the time the constitution which was submitted with the application was in process of being drawn and submitted, the weight of opinion in the territory had shifted, and that when the popular vote upon it was taken the majority of the voters of the territory were against it. Multitudes had refrained from voting upon the question of its acceptance at all, because they had felt that they were being tricked. The instrument was not submitted to them to be accepted or rejected, but to be accepted "with slavery" or "without slavery," — all other provisions contained in it in any case to go into effect; and it was clear from the text of it that to vote for it "without slavery" would not in fact exclude slavery; because clauses which were quite independent of the organic provision in question threw effective safeguards about the ownership of slaves, which would in all probability in any case indirectly secure it. This was not "squatter sovereignty." Whatever might be said of Mr. Douglas's doctrine, he held it candidly and in all sincerity, and would not consent to deal falsely with it; and at the certain risk of losing the confidence of the southern wing of his party, now its chief and controlling wing, he voted against the admission of Kansas under a pro-slavery constitution, notwithstanding the fact that the President backed it with his recognition as, in form at any rate, the legally expressed wish of the people of the territory.
And so things stood in the year 1857, a very doubtful face upon them, — a vast deal undone that had seemed at least to give definite form and security to the movements of politics, and nothing done by way of new definition or settlement. And then, as if to complete the confusion and destroy even Mr. Douglas's principle of action, came the Dred Scott decision, and the country learned that in the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States the people of a territory had no more right than Congress to forbid the holding of slaves as chattels within their boundaries. Dred Scott was a negro of Missouri, whose master had taken him first into one of the States from which slavery was excluded by local law, and then into one of the territories from which slavery had been excluded by the congressional legislation of 1820, the famous Missouri Compromise. After his return to Missouri and the death of his master, Scott sought to obtain his freedom on the ground that his temporary residence on free soil had operated to annul his master's rights over him. The court not only decided against him: it went much farther and undertook a systematic exposition of its opinion with regard to the legal status of slavery in national politics. It declared that in its opinion slaves were not citizens within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, but property, and that neither Congress nor the legislature of a territory—the power of a territorial government being only the power of Congress delegated—could legislate with hostile intent against any species of property belonging to citizens of the United States; that the compromise legislation of 1820 had been ultra vires and had no legal effect; and that under our constitutional allotment of powers only slates could make valid laws concerning property, whether in slaves or in anything else. The repeal of the compromise measures of 1820 by Mr. Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 had not been necessary. They had been legally null from the first. The Dred Scott decision was uttered two days after Mr. Buchanan's inauguration.
As if there were not grounds enough of uneasiness, financial distress was added, — not because of the political fears and disquietude of the time, though they no doubt played their part in disturbing the minds of men of business and clouding their calculations of the future, — but because of the operation of forces familiar enough in financial history. An era of extraordinary enterprise had followed the rapid extension of railways and the successful establishment of steam navigation on the seas, and the discovery of gold in California had added excitement to enterprise when stimulation was not necessary and excitement was very dangerous. It was hard at best to give solidity and prudent limit to industrial and commercial undertakings which sought to keep pace with the growth of a new nation, to follow a people constantly moving everywhere into new lands, spreading their thin and scattered settlements far and near upon the practically unlimited spaces of a great continent. It was a speculative process in any case, based upon necessarily uncertain calculations as to the movement of population and the development of industry. The very railways which facilitated enterprise were themselves hazardous pieces of business, and had been pushed so fast. and far through sparsely settled districts as to give those who invested in them scant return for their money, when they gave them any return at all and did not prove utter financial failures, so far as those were concerned who met their first cost. The speculative element in business, necessarily present everywhere, had grown larger and larger until, added to mere waste and bad management and that dishonesty, there had come an inevitable crash of credit, and in the reaction business was prostrated. The crisis came in the winter which followed the presidential election of 1856, and Mr. Buchanan's term of office began when its effects were freshest and most depressing. It did not wear the features of panic, after the first crash had come, so much as of mere lethargy. Enterprise was at a standstill: the face of all business was dead; men not only did not venture, they did not hope: they were shinned, and the spirit taken out of them.
It was one of the significant signs of the times that no particular political importance was attributed to these financial disturbances. No one sought to make political capital of them. No doubt the uneasiness of the time, the removal of old political foundations by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the apparent transformation of the process of settlement into a process of civil war in Kansas, the rising passion of conviction that the contest of parties upon the question of slavery must presently come to some hot issue, contributed to confirm merchants and manufacturers and bankers and transportation companies in the opinion that nothing was safe that depended upon calculations of future advantage; but such matters lay apart from what politicians were chiefly thinking of, seemed to belong among the ordinary interests of the country's every-day life, and not among the extraordinary interests they were called on to handle, interests that loomed bigger and more ominous the more closely they were approached, the more intimately they were dealt with. Nothing financial was for the tunic being of party significance or interest. It was even possible to revise the tariff without party contest, in the interest of business instead of in the interest of politicians. It seemed to men of all parties that the tariff as it stood contributed to the financial distress of the time. It was steadily drawing into the Treasury a surplus of funds which the government did not use and which it was at that time especially inconvenient to withdraw from circulation. It was agreed, therefore, to put many of the raw materials of manufacture, hitherto taxed, on the free list, and to reduce the general level of duties to twenty-four per cent. Not since the War of 1812 had it been possible to arrange such a matter so amicably, with so little debate, with such immediate concert of action. The interest of parties was evidently withdrawn to other things.
These friendly debates, Mr. Buchanan's decisive majority in the electoral college, and the apparent dispersion of all organized elements of opposition, might give to the year 1857, as we look back to it, a deceptive air of peace. Even the radical views of the Supreme Court in deciding the Dred Scott case, and the uncomfortable matter of determining the right of Kansas to enter the Union with a pro-slavery constitution, might be made to look like the end of a process of change rather than the beginning of things still more radical and doubtful of issue, if one were seeking signs of accommodation and were satisfied to look no deeper than the surface. Undoubtedly 1857 was a year of pause, when the strains of polities were for the moment eased. It seemed a year of peace and settled policy.
It was in fact, however, the pause which precedes concerted and decisive movements of opinion upon matters too critical to form the ordinary subjects of party contest. Parties will join issue as hotly as you please upon any ordinary question of the nation's life, even though the elements of that question cut perilously deep into individual interests and involve radical economic or political changes; but they waver, postpone, and evade when they come within sight of questions which cut as deep and swing through as wide a compass as did that which divided North and South, and seemed to involve the very character and perpetuation of the Union of the States. The Democratic party had held a steady enough course upon the question of slavery. No doubt it was the easier course to maintain, — the course which seemed only a fulfillment of the older understandings of our constitutional system, only a working out of the policy of the country on lines long established and, it might be, inevitable. No doubt, too, the definite principles and undeviating purposes of the Southern men who constituted so important an element of the strength of the party, and who furnished from the ranks of their politicians so many men who had the capacity and the desire to lead, gave the party a leadership and a motive for framing definite programmes which the party of opposition lacked; and in a time of vacillation and doubt the confident party, with a mind of its own, has always the advantage. But, for whatever reason, the Democrats had so far remained for the most part of one mind and purpose, and other parties had gone to pieces. Only within the year had it begun to look as if a party ready to face the Democrats with resolute purpose and determined programme would at last form. The Whig party had finally gone to pieces in the presidential campaign of 1852. It had never been a party to declare its principles very strongly at critical moments or to espouse a cause very definitely in a time of doubt. It had had splendid leaders. The annals of the country have been made illustrious by few greater names than those of Webster and Clay, and their steadfast endeavor to keep the government to clear lines of thoughtful policy it must ever be the pleasure of the historian to praise; but the party had too often gone into presidential campaigns depending upon some mere popular cry, some passing enthusiasm of the people for a particular hero. The only Whig Presidents had been successful soldiers, General Harrison and General Taylor, both of whom died in office, to be succeeded, the one by Mr. Tyler who was not a Whig but a Democrat, the other by Mr. Fillmore who followed the leaders of his party, and counted for little in the formation of policies. Mr. Clay himself had shifted very uneasily from Yes to No in 1844 on the question of the annexation of Texas, when pitted against Mr. Polk, and the confident programme of the Democrats for "the reoccupation of Oregon and the reannexation of Texas," to the great loss of personal prestige; and the "Liberty Party" which then drew discontented Whigs from Mr. Clay's following had found successors in parties which showed more and more powerful as the number of voters grew who found the Whigs without courage or purpose on the chief issue of the day.
It was easy, with the machinery of nominating conventions open to every-body's use, as it had been since General Jackson's day, to bring new parties into the field from season to season, though it was by no means so easy to give them strength and coherency amidst shifting opinion; and independent nominations had more than once diverted votes from the ruling party at critical moments. There was little doubt but that the sixty thousand votes cast for the candidate of the Liberty Party in 1844 had been chiefly drawn from time Whig ranks, and had cost Mr. Clay the election. In 1848 "Free-Soil" convention had nominated Mr. Van Buren, and a strong faction of Democrats in New York, displeased with time attitude of their party on the question of slavery in the Mexican cession, had followed their example, with the result that the Whig candidate won and the Democrat lost. The opposition to the extension of slavery was strongest among men of Whig connections, but it showed itself also in the Democratic ranks and rendered party calculations most uncertain. Mr. Wilmot, whose proviso against slavery had made such difficulty in the debates on the Mexican cession, was a Democrat, not a Whig, not a professed partisan of the new men of Mr. Seward's creed, who were slowly making their way into Congress. The Free-Soil men held another convention in 1852, when the Whigs went to pieces, and spoke to the country with a ringing platform of "no slave states, no more slave territories, no nationalized slavery, no national legislation for the extradition of slaves," and again made their own nomination for the presidency; but opinion was shifting again; the Compromise of 1850 had disposed voters for the time to let critical matters alone; restless men were turning in other directions, and the Free-Soilers reaped no apparent advantage from the break-up of parties. It was not until Mr. Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Bill, and the pitiful spectacle of the struggle in Kansas which followed, had drawn men sharply from thought to action, that the Republican party emerged and showed the strength of a party that would last and win its way to power; and even then it felt obliged to compound a singular Free¬Soil-Anti-Nebraska-Whig creed and nominate a Democrat for the presidency.
Meantime there had been witnessed an extraordinary diversion in the field of parties. The Know-Nothing party had sprung into sudden importance, with a programme which had nothing to say of slavery one way or the other, but concentrated attention upon the formidable tide of foreigners pouring into the country, because of the famine in Ireland and the political upheavals of 1848 in Europe, and urged upon the country the necessity of safeguarding its institutions against alien influences, of confining its gifts of political office to native Americans, and of regulating very circumspectly the bestowal of the suffrage. Voters turned to this new party as if glad to find some new current for their thoughts, some new interest touched at least with a common patriotism. In the autumn of 1854 the Know-Nothings elected their candidates for the governorship in Massachusetts and Delaware, and sent nearly a hundred members to the House of Representatives. In the autumn of 1855 they carried New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Kentucky, and California, and fell but little short of winning majorities in six of the Southern States. The House of Representatives which met in December, 1855, was an extraordinary medley of Democrats, Anti-Nebraska men, Free-Soilers, southern pro-slavery Whigs, northern anti-slavery Whigs, Know-Nothings who favored the extension of slavery, and Know-Nothings who opposed it. Nothing was certain of that assembly except that the Democrats had lost their majority in it. Even in 1856, when the elements of opposition began to draw together into the Republican party, there were still in the field a remnant of Whigs and a remnant of Know-Nothings. The four years of another administration were needed for the final formation of parties as they were to enter the conclusive contest of 1860. And so the year 1857 was a year between-limes, when the country had not yet consciously drawn away from its past, had not yet consciously entered its revolutionary future.
It was indeed a revolution which ensued. Changes more complete, more pervasive and radical than those which were wrought by the war between the States, by the "Reconstruction" of the southern Slates, and by all that has followed of social and economic transformation, could hardly be imagined. The nation of 1907 is hardly recognizable, socially, politically, or economically, as the nation of 1857 or of 1860. The generation that wrought that extraordinary revolution left the stage but yesterday: We have all known and familiarly conversed with men who belonged to it and who performed its tremendous tasks. Some of the soldiers who officered the armies of that war of transformation are still among us. But we do not think their thoughts; it requires an effort of the imagination to carry our minds back to the things which are for them the most vital facts and recollections of their lives. Even they are now unconsciously dominated by influences which have lost all flavor of the days they remember. They have come to think our thoughts and see the world as we see it: a nation not made apparently by the forces they handled, but by forces new and of a modern world, — by vast economic alterations and unforeseen growths of enterprise and endeavor; by the opening up of the Orient and the new stir of affairs upon the Pacific; by an unlooked-for war which has drawn us out of our one-time domestic self-absorption into the doubtful and perilous field of international politics; by new influences of opinion and new problems of political organization and of legal regulation. Nothing remains of that older day but the irreparable mischief wrought by the reconstruction of the southern States. That folly has left upon us the burden of a race problem well-nigh insoluble, which even the alchemy of these extraordinary fifty years has not transmuted into stuff of calculable human purpose. That is of the old world; all else is of the new. We see what has gone by only across a gulf of unfamiliar things.
* * *
And so we stand in the year 1907 as if in a new age, and look not back but forward. It would perhaps he too fanciful to pretend to find in 1907 a close parallel of circumstances with the far year 1857, which lies so long a half century away from us; but there is this particular feature of resemblance, that this, like that, is a brief season between times, when forces are gathering which we have not clearly analyzed, and tasks are to be performed for which we have not formed definite party combinations. Parties are in partial solution now as then, and for the same reason. The issue of the day is clearly enough defined in our thoughts, as was the issue with regard to the extension of slavery in the thought of all observant men in 1857; but parties have not yet squarely aligned themselves along what must of course be the line of cleavage. It is manifest that we must adjust our legal and political principles to a new set of conditions which involve the whole moral and economic make-up of our national life; but party platforms are not yet clearly differentiated, party programmes are not yet explicit for the voter's choice. Let us hope that we are on the eve of a campaign of sharp definition.
There are many things to define, and yet there is only one thing. It is easy enough to point out the perplexing complexity of our present field of choice in every matter that calls for action. Our new business organization is so different from our old, to which, we had adjusted our morals and our economic analyses, that we find ourselves confused when we try to think out its problems. Everything is upon a gigantic scale. The individual is lost in the organization. No man any longer, it would seem, understands the whole of any modern business. Every part of every undertaking demands special knowledge and expert skill. Individuals play their parts in subordination to the organizations which they serve, and we are made to doubt their moral responsibility beyond the limits of the mere tasks they are set to do; and yet the morality of the machine itself we do not know how to formulate. If we cannot formulate its morals, we cannot formulate the legal principles upon which we are to deal with it; for law is only so much of the moral understandings of society, so much of its rules of right and of convenience as it has been possible to reduce to principles plainly suitable for general application without too much doubt or refinement. Our thinkers, whether in the field of morals or in the field of economics, have before them nothing less than the task of translating law and morals into the terms of modern business; and inasmuch as morals cannot be corporate, but must be individual, however ingeniously the individual may seek covert, that task in simple terms comes to this: to find the individual amidst modern circumstances and bring him face to face once more with a clearly defined personal responsibility.
And that is the one thing which the politician, as well as the moralist and the economist, must make up his mind about. It is easy to state the matter in a way that makes it sound very subtle, very philosophical, a thing for the casuist, not for the man of affairs. But it is a plain question for practical men after all. And practical men are very busy just now, in confused and. haphazard ways, perhaps, but very energetically, nevertheless, in settling it for better or for worse. We state our problem for statesmen by saying that it is the problem of the control of corporations. Corporations are, of course, only combinations of individuals, but the individuals combined in them have a power in their respective fields, an opportunity of enterprise, which is beyond all precedent in private undertakings and which gives them a sort of public character, if only by reason of their size and scope and the enormous resources they command; some of them seeming, if it were possible, rivals of the government itself in their control over individuals and affairs. Lawyers have always spoken of corporations as artificial persons, but these modern corporations seem in the popular imagination and in the minds of law-makers to be actual persons, the colossal personalities of modern industrial society.
One school of politicians amongst us, one school of lawyers and of law-makers, accepts the prodigy as literal facts and tries to deal with it as with a person. It is a new doctrine of "squatter sovereignty." Mr. Douglas maintained that those who formed the great corporate bodies of the West which we have called territories could not by any rightful legal principle be dealt with as citizens, but must be suffered corporately to form their lives and practices as they pleased, and then dealt with as states; his modern counterparts tell us that corporations must contrive their ways of business at their pleasure and peril, and that law cannot deal with them as a body of citizens but only as an organized power to be regulated in its entirety and handled as a corporate member of our new national society of corporations. Corporations, we are told, have grown bigger than States, and must take a sort of precedence of them in the new organism of our law, being made participants in a federal system of legal regulation which States cannot negative or tamper with. The only way in which to meet such amazing—I had almost said amusing—ideas, is to meet them as the older doctrine of squatter sovereignty was met: by a flat denial that there is or can be any such thing as corporate morality or a corporate privilege and standing which is lifted out of the realm of ordinary citizenship and individual responsibility. The whole theory is compounded of confused thinking and impossible principles of law; and the political party that explicitly rejects it and substitutes for it plain sense and feasible law will bring health and the exhilaration of comprehensible policy into affairs again.
The present apparent approach of the two great parties of the nation to one another, their apparent agreement upon the chief questions now of significance, is not real, it is only apparent. At any rate it is plain that if it is in fact taking place, it does not truly represent the two great bodies of opinion that exist in the nation. There is a great and apparently growing body of opinion in the country which approves of a radical change in the character of our institutions and the objects of our law, which wishes to see government, and the federal government at that, regulate business. Some men who entertain this wish perceive that it is socialistic, some do not. But of course it is socialistic. Government cannot properly or intelligently regulate business without fully comprehending it in its details as well as in its larger aspects; it cannot comprehend it except through the instrumentality of expert commissions; it cannot use expert commissions long for purposes of regulation without itself by degrees undertaking actually to order and conduct what it began by regulating. We are at present on the high road to government ownership of many sorts, or to some other method of control which will in practice be as complete as actual ownership.
On the other hand, there is a great body of opinion, slow to express itself, sorely perplexed in the presence of modern business conditions, but very powerful and upon the eve of an uprising, which prefers the older and simpler methods of the law, prefers courts to commissions, and believes them, if properly used and adapted, better, more efficacious, in the end more purifying, than the new instrumentalities now being so unthinkingly elaborated. The country is still full of men who retain a deep enthusiasm for the old ideals of individual liberty, sobered and kept within bounds by the equally old definitions of personal responsibility, the ancient safeguards against license; and these men are right in believing that those older principles can be so used as to control modern business and keep government outside the pale of industrial enterprise. The law can deal with transactions instead of with methods of business, and with individuals instead of with corporations. It can reverse the process which creates corporations, and instead of compounding individuals, oblige corporations to analyze their organization and name the individuals responsible for each class of their transactions. The law, both civil and criminal, can clearly enough characterize transactions, can clearly enough determine what their consequences shall be to the individuals who engage in them in a responsible capacity. New definitions in that field are not beyond the knowledge of modern lawyers or the skill of modern law-makers, if they will accept the advice of disinterested lawyers. We shall never moralize society by fining or even dissolving corporations; we shall only inconvenience it. We shall moralize it only when we make up our minds as to what transactions are reprehensible, and bring those transactions home to individuals with the full penalties of the law. That is the other, the greater body of opinion; one or other of the great parties of the nation must sooner or later stand with it, while the other stands with those who burden government with the regulation of business by direct oversight.
Such a season between times as this in which we live demands nothing so imperatively as clear thinking and definite conviction: thinking clear both in its objects and in its details; conviction which can be satisfied only by action. The Atlantic Monthly has enjoyed the great distinction of supplying the writing of conviction throughout the deep troubles and perplexities of a half-century of contest and reconstruction; it enters now upon a second half-century which is no less in need of similar tonic. Our very political ideals are now to be decided. We are to keep or lose our place of distinction among the nations, by keeping or losing our faith in the practicability of individual liberty.