American Characteristics

AMONG the most characteristic phenomena at the present time, in the United States, are the large gifts made to the public by the very rich. These prominent men seem to wish to share their riches either during their lifetime or after their death. The generosity of the American millionaire has become celebrated throughout Europe, and is considered by the Old World as singular as it is unique. In Europe, where there are many colossal fortunes, one might look in vain for persons who, like Americans, would spend so large a part of their means to further education and culture, to establish charitable institutions, to help the needy, and assist the government in carrying on public works. The very rich, in Europe, usually confine themselves to making bequests either to the poor or to some institution of learning. Indeed, this generosity on the part of Americans has been used as an argument against the higher classes, in certain European quarters, the American example being held up as a reproach.

There are Europeans — and their number is constantly increasing—who think that in Europe as in America the rich should spend of their substance for the public good. But the study of ancient history would modify this opinion. It show’s that this generosity of the rich is a phenomenon belonging to a definite period of social evolution, in fact to the moment, in a flourishing and prosperous but young civilization, when the rich assume certain public functions which the State has not yet had time to inspect, to regulate, and to absorb.

If American millionaires have but few imitators in Europe at the present time, they may find numberless prototypes in the history of ancient Greece and of Rome. In Athens first, as later in the Roman Empire, — to mention only the two most famous countries of the ancient world, — education, charity, and public amusements, as well as public works, the construction of roads, temples, theatres, were in part left by the State to the generosity of the rich, wrho thus became an indispensable element in the general public welfare.

Among the inscriptions which have come down to us from the Roman world, and are collected in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, a large number refer to these donations. These are among the most important of the ancient inscriptions, since they help us to understand how extensive and systematic was this public benevolence throughout the Empire.

From Rome to the most distant frontier, in every city, large or small, are found inscriptions which record, often at some length, how a certain citizen gave while living, or at his death bequeathed, a stated sum to the city, either to construct or repair a building, or to distribute grain to the people in time of famine, or for a gift of oil for some festival, or to assure certain periodical public games, or to increase the city funds diminished by overexpenditure or unequal to present needs. Every city had then its millionaires, its own small Carnegies, or smaller Huntingtons, whose gifts were necessary to the public weal, and to whom monuments were erected, remains of which have come down to us.

The Emperor himself was merely the leader, the most noted and generous of these rich givers, as Andrew Carnegie is to-day in America. Suetonius, for example, tells us of the sums that Augustus spent in his lifetime from his own private fortune for the public good, and in the famous Monumentum Ancyranum, the great inscription found in Asia, in which he gives a summary of his life, Augustus himself mentions many public gifts which he made with his own money. More than once he made up the deficit in the budget of the Empire; on one occasion he repaired, at his own expense, the Italian roads which had been recklessly destroyed during the civil wars; on numberless occasions he gave money for public works, to relieve suffering in time of famine, to promote public amusements, and for every form of benevolence customary at the time. These donations always came from his private fortune which he was free to use as he pleased, just as a rich American banker or manufacturer may to-day. These conspicuous gifts were, indeed, one of the means by which the imperial authority gradually established itself firmly over the Roman government, becoming the source of so much gratitude, interest, and hope, that it finally succeeded in acquiring a preëminent position in the state. But if the Emperor was the best-known and most, generous of public benefactors, he was not alone. The great men of the Empire strove each to be first in following his example, and some were so lavish in their giving that they might truly be called the Morgans or Rockefellers of antiquity.

Among the best-known benefactors of the Empire was Atticus Herodes, a very rich Athenian of the second century of our era. The origin of his fortune is unknown; he probably belonged to one of those provincial families which accumulated immense fortunes during the first century of our era, which was one of rapid acquisitions. This Atticus devoted himself to learning, and became what was then called a rhetorician, a term corresponding nearly to what we now call a professor of literature; and, as one of the richest and most learned men of the Empire, he was a great friend of Antoninus Pius and of Marcus Aurelius. But more than for his learning and good taste is he famed in the social history of the Roman world for the profusion of his gifts in all parts of the Empire. In Athens he restored the ancient edifices and constructed new ones, and to other cities of Greece he gave theatres, aqueducts, temples, and stadia. Traces of this generosity are easily found in architectural remains, in inscriptions, and in references by writers; just as the name of an American millionaire may be on hundreds of buildings in all parts of America.

Among the largest and most beautiful buildings in Rome are those which were given to the people by prominent citizens. The wonderful Pantheon in the heart of the city was built at his own expense by Agrippa, the friend of Augustus, and is thus as much due to the personal munificence of one man as Carnegie Hall in New York City. And Agrippa was inspired by the same civic zeal which has inspired Carnegie. The one structure and the other, from the point of view of the period in which they were built, embody the same idea, the desire of a wealthy citizen to have the whole people share with him the advantage of his wealth.

Ever since my earliest investigations in Roman history, my attention has naturally been attracted to this social condition in which the rich, by their liberality, take it upon themselves to shoulder a portion at least of the public burden; but I was neverable to comprehend the system until after my visit to America, where I saw colleges and school buildings erected, hospitals founded and supported, museums and universities endowed, and other institutions assisted, by wealthy men. In Europe, where the State absorbs these functions almost entirely, guarding them jealously, and almost excluding any intervention of private individuals, it is much more difficult to comprehend a social condition in which this private generosity is at once possible and necessary; much more difficult to grasp its advantages and disadvantages, and the ways and means for explaining it.

The truth is that the lavish giving of the rich is but a single aspect of a noticeable phenomenon in which America is nearer the ancient world than Europe is; a second is her minimizing of the bureaucratic side of public life. In the ancient world a bureaucracy which even distantly resembled the constitution of present-day Europe could be found only in some of those Græco-Asiatic monarchies founded by Alexander in the last period of Greek supremacy. In the most brilliant days of Greek and Roman history, on the other hand, we find states in which all public functions, even the executive, are elective; and in which, therefore, all the organs of the State are periodically changed by the electoral body. The necessity for professional differentiation and the technical preparation for certain executive functions was so little regarded, that even military commanders and magistrates were appointed by popular vote. One cannot indeed imagine a social constitution more at: variance with that of Europe to-day, where all executive functions are in the hands of a specially trained and carefully graded bureaucracy dependent upon the State, and over which the people have but slight control. In Europe one becomes a general or a judge because he has studied the art of war or jurisprudence in schools designed for that purpose, and not because a majority of the electors think best to bestow the office upon some person who has pleased them more than another.

It is this very difference that creates one of the greatest obstacles to the understanding of the ancient world by European historians. I believe, for instance, that herein lies one of the weakest points in Mommsen’s history. Accustomed to the working of a bureaucratic government, it is difficult for European historians to comprehend the administration of states in which officials are changed periodically, and in which professional distinctions do not exist; they are prone to conceive of the ancient state after the model of the modern European state, and to attribute to it the same virtues and the same defects. They are unable to understand it, and so represent both its weakness and its strength in a false light.

This difficulty is not so great for an American, especially for a citizen of the United States. It is true that the principle of professional specialization is much more highly developed in American society than it was in ancient society. Modern civilization is far too complex to admit of applying the elective principle indiscriminately to all public offices. What reasonable being would consent to-day, even under the purest form of democracy, to elect an admiral by universal suffrage? Nevertheless there are states of the Union in which many public offices, such as the judiciary and the police commissionerships, — filled in Europe bycompetitive examinations, — are elective. Thus again we find a likeness in American conditions to those in ancient society.

This is why a citizen of New York can more easily comprehend certain aspects of the life in ancient Rome or Athens than a citizen of London or of Paris can, particularly as regards the rapid recurrence of elections which involve many interests. In Europe it is difficult to imagine what the election of magistrates really was in ancient Rome, since to-day the election of public bodies, municipal or parliamentary, in no way corresponds to the ancient forms; it is only consultative or legislative bodies which are now elected; the executive power is but indirectly affected, since it is vested in a bureaucracy whose members may not be changed from one day to another. As a result, public interest, except under very extraordinary circumstances, is only lukewarm. In America, on the other hand, there happens what happened in the ancient world: elections are habitually important, and even the chief executive, whose acts involve such varied and important interests, is often changed.

In many legal details, likewise, I have found ancient Rome reappearing in the United States: for example, in the power possessed by magistrates. In the eyes of Europeans the right of the American judge to issue injunctions seems most blameworthy, and contrary to the spirit of the times. To Europeans, used to the judicial administration of a strictly bureaucratic state in which the bureaucracy is permanent, and, while subject to no control or oversight, cannot act outside the strict limitations of the law, this discretionary power of the American magistrate seems an instrument of intolerable tyranny. A very intelligent European who had lived for a long time in the United States, but who had nevertheless preserved his European point of view, said to me one day, ‘ In this country there is a tyranny far exceeding that of any European tyranny; it is the tyranny of the judicial power.’

A historian of the ancient world is better able to comprehend this apparent contradiction. The injunction is nothing more nor less than the edictum of the Roman magistrate, the power which he possessed, in common with the American judge, to issue such orders to the citizens as he deemed necessary for the protection of justice and the rights of the public, — orders which were obligatory upon the citizens, even if not based on any written law.

In those countries in which the elective principle, when applied to public offices, tends to weaken the action of the State, the magistrates should remain unhampered by the limitations of the law, especially in extreme cases. Under such circumstances the magistrate is, to a certain extent, looked upon as the personification of the law and of the State, and in an emergency, when the highest interests of the citizens are involved, he supplements the law where it may be insufficient. Such was the conception of offices and public officials held by the Romans, a conception which has altogether disappeared in the bureaucratic states of Europe, where the official is merely a faithful servant who administers the law according to the letter.

A remnant of the Roman idea is found in America, although in a modified form, where the members of all those committees upon whom the electoral body has conferred power for a limited period have, in the exercise of this power, a liberty of action which to many Europeans would seem almost autocratic. This I believe to be one of the reasons why it is on the one hand very difficult for Europeans to understand the ancient world, and on the other too easy for them to misunderstand American institutions, and to apply to them arbitrarily those conceptions of liberty and democracy which we consider as the proper criteria for judging states. As there are European jurists who have asserted that the ancients never knew the real meaning of liberty even in the most democratic republics, so there are those who maintain that the constitutional governments of Europe represent a higher degree of liberty than the arbitrary republics of America. These opinions show that once more in its general outline the political constitution of the American republics more nearly resembles that of the ancients than do the constitutions of the European states of to-day.

A thorough study of ancient history is an excellent preparation for entering speedily into the spirit of American institutions; and conversely, living in America, or at least knowing it thoroughly, ought to be an excellent preparation for the study of ancient history.