Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Vox Populi Vox Dei
By Francis Lieber (18001872)
[Born in Berlin, Germany, 1800. Died in New York, N. Y., 1872. On Civil Liberty and Self-Government. 1853.Revised Edition. 1874.]
THE MAXIM Vox Populi Vox Dei is so closely connected with the subjects which we have been examining, and it is so often quoted on grave political occasions, that it appears to me proper to conclude this work with an inquiry into the validity of this stately saying. Its poetic boldness and epigrammatic finish, its Latin and lapidary formulation, and its apparent connection of a patriotic love of the people with religious fervor, give it an air of authority and almost of sacredness. Yet history, as well as our own times, shows us that everything depends upon the question who are the people, and that even if we have fairly ascertained the legitimate sense of this great yet abused term, we frequently find that their voice is anything rather than the voice of God.
If the term people is used for a clamoring crowd, which is not even a constituted part of an organic whole, we would be still more fatally misled by taking the clamor for the voice of the deity. We shall arrive, then, at this conclusion, that in no case can we use the maxim as a test, for, even if we call the peoples voice the voice of God in those cases in which the people demand that which is right, we must first know that they do so before we could call it the voice of God. It is no guiding authority; it can sanction nothing.
The chief priests, and the rulers, and the people, cried out all at once, Crucify him, crucify him! Were then the rulers and the people not the populus? But their voice was assuredly not the vox Dei in this case. If populus means the constituted people speaking through the organs and in the forms of law, the case of Socrates arises at once in our mind. It was the people of Athens, speaking by their constituted authorities, that bade him drink the hemlock; yet it would be blasphemy to say that it was the voice of God that spoke in this case through the mouth of the Athenians. Was it the voice of the people, and, through it, the voice of God, which demanded the sway of the guillotine in the first French revolution? Or was it the voice of God which made itself heard in 1848, when all punishment of death for political offences was abolished in France? Or is it the voice of God which through the elect one of the people demanded the re-establishment of capital punishment for high political offences? Or is it the voice of God that used so indefinite a term in law as that of political offences?
How shall we ascertain, in modern times, whether anything be the voice of the people? and next, whether that voice be the voice of God, so that it may command respect? For, unless we can do this, the whole maxim amounts to no more than a poetic sentence expressing the opinion of an individual, but no rule, no canon.
Is it unanimity that indicates the voice of the people? Unanimity in this case can mean only a very large majority. But even unanimity itself is far from indicating the voice of God. Unanimity is commanding only when it is the result of digested and organic public opinion, and even then, we know perfectly well that it may be erroneous and consequently not the voice of God, but simply the best opinion at which erring and sinful men at the time are able to arrive .
Unanimity of itself proves nothing worth being proved for our purpose. In considering unanimity, the first subject that presents itself to us is that remarkable phenomenon called Fashiona phenomenon well-nigh calculated to baffle the most searching mind, and which has never received the attention it deserves at the hands of the philosopher, in every point of view, whether psychological, moral, economical, or political. Unassisted by any public power, by the leading minds of the age, by religion, literature, or any concerted action, it nevertheless rules with unbending authority, often in spite of health, comfort, and taste, and it exacts tributes such as no sultan or legislature can levy. While it often spreads ruin among producers and consumers, it is always sure to reach the most absolute czar and subject his taste. Though the head may wear a crown, Fashion puts her shears to its hair, if she has a mind to do so. Far more powerful than international law, which only rules between nations, she brings innumerable nations into one fold, and that frequently the fold of acknowledged folly. How can we explain this stupendous phenomenon? It is not necessary to do so here. The fact, however, must be acknowledged. It is the most remarkable instance of unanimity, but will any one say that Fashion is a vox Dei? The very question would be irreverent were it not candidly made in a philosophical spirit.
Nor is the dominion of fashion restricted to dress and furniture, nor to the palate and minor intercourse. Bitter as the remark may sound, it is nevertheless true that there are countries void of institutions, where a periodical on political fashions might be published, with the same variety of matter as the Petit Courrier des Dames.
There was a fearful unanimity all over Europe in the sanguinary and protracted period of witch-trials, joined in by churchmen and laymen, Protestant and Catholic, Teuton, Celt, and Sclavonic, learned and illiterate. If the fallacious and in some respects absurd Quad ab omnibus, semper, ubique, ever seemed to find an application, it was in the witch-trial from the earliest ages of history, and in all countries down to the time when very gradually it ceased to be ab omnibus, semper, ubique. But was Sprengers sad Malleus Maleficarum on that account the voice of God? What fearful fanaticisms have not swept over whole countries with deplorable unanimity! The Romans were unanimous enough when they slaughtered the worshippers of that God whose authority is invoked to dignify the voice of men in the fallacious maxim. If the voice of the people were the voice of God, the voice of the people ought not only to be unchangeable, but there ought to be one people only. Two nations frequently clamor for war, and both, under the motto Vox populi vox Dei, draw the sword against each other.
A remarkable degree of unanimity prevails in all those periods of excited commercial speculation, such as the Mississippi scheme in France, the South Sea scheme in England, the railway mania we have seen in the same country, or the commercial madness in our land some fifteen years ago.
If we carefully view the subject of unanimity, we shall find that in the cases in which vast action takes place by impelled massesand it is in these cases that the maxim is invokederror is as frequently the basis as truth. It is panic, fanaticism, revenge, lust of gain, and hatred of races that produce most of the sudden and comprehensive impulses. Truth travels slowly. Indeed, all essential progress is typified in the twelve humble men that followed Christ. The voice of God was not then the voice of the people. What the ancients said of the avenging gods, that they are shod with wool, is true of great ideas in history. They approach softly. Great truths always dwell a long time with small minorities, and the real voice of God is often that which rises above the masses, not that which follows them.
But the difficulty of fixing the meaning of this saying is not restricted to that of ascertaining what is the voice of God. It is equally difficult to find out what is the voice of the people. If by the voice of the people be meant, as was stated before, the organically evolved opinion of a people, we do not stand in need of the saying. We know we ought to obey the laws of the land. If by the voice of the people be meant the result of universal suffrage without institutions, and especially in a large country with a powerful executive, not permitting even preparatory discussion, it is an empty phrase; it is deception, or it may be the effect of vehement yet transitory excitement, or of a political fashion. The same is true when the clamoring expression of many is taken for the voice of the whole people .
The doctrine Vox populi vox Dei is essentially unrepublican, as the doctrine that the people may do what they list under the constitution, above the constitution, and against the constitution, is an open avowal of disbelief in self-government.
The true friend of freedom does not wish to be insulted by the supposition that he believes each human individual an erring man, and that nevertheless the united clamor of erring men has a character of divinity about it; nor does he desire to be told that the voice of the people, though legitimately and institutionally proclaimed and justly commanding respect and obedience, is divine on that account. He knows that the majority may err, and that he has the right and often the duty to use his whole energy to convince them of their error, and lawfully to bring about a different set of laws. The true and stanch republican wants liberty, but no deification either of himself or others; he wants a firmly built self-government and noble institutions, but no absolutism of any sortnone to practise on others, and none to be practised on himself. He is too proud for the Vox populi vox Dei. He wants no divine right of the people, for he knows very well that it means nothing but the despotic power of insinuating leaders. He wants the real rule of the people, that is, the institutionally organized country, which distinguishes it from the mere mob. For a mob is an unorganic multitude, with a general impulse of action. Woe to the country in which political hypocrisy first calls the people almighty, then teaches that the voice of the people is divine, then pretends to take a mere clamor for the true voice of the people, and lastly gets up the desired clamor. The consequences are fearful, and invariably unfitting for liberty.
Whatever meaning men may choose, then, to give to Vox populi vox Dei, in other spheres, or, if applied to the long tenor of the history of a people, in active politics and in the province of practical liberty, it either implies political levity, which is one of the most mordant corrosives of liberty, or else it is a political heresy, as much so as Vox regis vox Dei would be. If it be meant to convey the idea that the people can do no wrong, it is as grievous an untruth as would be conveyed by the maxim, the king can do no wrong, if it really were meant to be taken literally.
However indistinct the meaning of the maxim may be, the idea intended to be conveyed, and the imposing character of the saying, have, nevertheless, contributed to produce in some countries a general inability to remain in the oppositionthat necessary element of civil liberty. A degree of shame seems there to be attached to a person that does not swim with the broad stream. No matter what flagrant contradictions may take place, or however sudden the changes may be, there seems to exist in every one a feeling of discomfort until he has joined the general current. To differ from the dominant party or the ruling majority appears almost like daring to contend with a deity, or a mysterious yet irrevocable destiny. To dissent is deemed to be malcontent; it seems more than rebellious, it seems traitorous; and this feeling becomes ultimately so general that it seizes the dissenting individuals themselves. They become ashamed, and mingle with the rest. Individuality is destroyed, manly character degenerates, and the salutary effect of parties is forfeited. He that clings to his conviction is put in ban as unnational, and as an enemy to the people. Then arises a man of personal popularity. He ruins the institutions; he bears down everything before him; yet he receives the popular acclaim, and, the voice of the people being the voice of God, it is deemed equally unnational and unpatriotic to oppose him.