Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
Some Practical Democracy
By Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803–1876)
 
[Born in Stockbridge, Vt., 1803. Died at Detroit, Mich., 1876. The Convert. 1857.]

A DEMOCRATIC government that leaves untouched all the social inequalities, or inequalities of condition, which obtain in all countries, always struck me as an absurdity; and I have seen no reason to change my opinions on that point. The political history of my own country tends to confirm them. In 1840 I had not wholly ceased to believe it possible to introduce such changes into our social and economical arrangements as would give to the political equality asserted by American Democracy a practical significance. I have got bravely over that since.
  1
  I took, in regard to society, even as late as 1840, the Democratic premises as true and unquestionable. They were given me by the public sentiment of my country. I had taken them in with my mother’s milk, and had never thought of inquiring whether they were tenable or not. I took them as my political and social starting-point, or principium, and sought simply to harmonize government and society with them. If I erred, it was in common with my Democratic countrymen, and I differed from them only in seeking what they did not seek, to be consistent in error. Democratic government was defended on the ground that it recognized and maintained the equality of all men, and was opposed to the system of privilege, class, or castes. It asserted equality as a natural right, and assumed that the introduction and maintenance of equality between man and man is desirable, and essential to the moral, intellectual, and physical well-being of mankind on earth. Taking this, without examination, to be true, I concluded very reasonably that we ought to conform society to it; and that whatever in society is repugnant to it, and tends to prevent its practical realization, is wrong, and should be warred against. My countrymen did not understand me, because they were not in the habit of generalizing their own views, and testing them by the light of first principles. They could reason well enough on particulars, or in particular instances, but not as to the whole of their political and social ideas. They could accept incongruous ideas, and felt no inconvenience in supporting anomalies and inconsistencies. They could defend with equal earnestness perfect equality in theory, and the grossest inequality in practice, and call it common sense. I could not do that. Either conform your practice, I said, to your theory, or your theory to your practice. Be Democrats socially, or do not claim to be so politically. Alas! I did not know then that men act from habit, prejudice, routine, passion, caprice, rather than from reason; and that, of all people in the world, Englishmen and Americans are the least disturbed by incongruities, inconsistencies, inconsequences, and anomalies—although I was beginning to suspect it.  2
  Starting from the Democratic theory of man and society, I contended that the great, the mother evil of modern society was the separation of capital and labor; or the fact that one class of the community owns the funds, and another and a distinct class is compelled to perform the labor of production. The consequence of this system is, that owners of capital enrich themselves at the expense of the owners of labor. The system of money wages, the modern system, is more profitable to the owners of capital than the slave-system is to the slave-masters, and hardly less oppressive to the laborer. The wages, as a general rule, are never sufficient to enable the laborer to place himself on an equal footing with the capitalist. Capital will always command the lion’s share of the proceeds. This is seen in the fact that, while they who command capital grow rich, the laborer by his simple wages at best only obtains a bare subsistence. The whole class of simple laborers are poor, and in general unable to procure by their wages more than the bare necessaries of life. This is a necessary result of the system. The capitalist employs labor that he may grow rich or richer; the laborer sells his labor that he may not die of hunger, he, his wife, and little ones; and as the urgency of guarding against hunger is always stronger than that of growing rich or richer, the capitalist holds the laborer at his mercy, and has over him, whether called a slave or a freeman, the power of life and death.  3
  An examination into the actual condition of the laboring classes in all countries, especially in Great Britain and the United States, where the modern industrial and commercial system is carried farthest, proves this reasoning to be correct. Poor men may indeed become rich, but not by the simple wages of unskilled labor. They never do become rich, except by availing themselves in some way of the labors of others. Dependent on wages alone, the laborer remains always poor, and shut out from nearly all the advantages of society. In what are called prosperous times he may, by working early and late, and with all his might, retain enough of the proceeds of his labor to save him from actual want; but in what are called “hard times,” it is not so, and cases of actual suffering for want of the necessaries of life, nay, of actual starvation, even in our own country, are no rare occurrences. It would be difficult to estimate the amount of actual suffering endured by the honest and virtuous poor in every one of our larger towns and cities, and which neither private nor public charity can reach.  4
  The evil does not stop here. The system elevates the middling class to wealth, often men who began life with poverty. A poor man, or a man of small means in the beginning, become rich by trade, speculation, or the successful exploitation of labor, is often a greater calamity to society than a wealthy man reduced to poverty. An old established nobility, with gentle manners, refined tastes, chivalrous feelings, surrounded by the prestige of rank, and endeared by the memory of heroic deeds or lofty civic virtues, is endurable, nay respectable, and not without compensating advantages to society in general, for its rank and privileges. But the upstart, the novus homo, with all the vulgar tastes and habits, ignorance and coarseness, of the class from which he has sprung, and nothing of the class into which he fancies he has risen but its wealth, is intolerable, and widely mischievous. He has nothing to sustain him but his money, and what money can purchase. He enters upon a career of lavish expenditure, and aids to introduce an expensive and luxurious style of living, destructive of genuine simplicity of manners, and of private and social morals. Moral worth and intellectual superiority count for nothing. Men, to be of any account in their town or city, must be rich, at least appear to be rich. The slow gains of patient toil and honest industry no longer suffice. There is in all classes an impatience to be rich. The most daring and reckless speculations are resorted to, and when honest means fail, dishonest, nay, criminal, means are adopted. The man of a moderate income cannot live within his means. His wife and daughters must have the house new-furnished, or a new house taken up town, and must dress so as to vie with the wives and daughters of the millionnaires of Fifth Avenue. Nobody is contented to appear what he is, or to enjoy life in the state in which he finds himself. All are striving to be, or to appear, what they are not, to work their way up to a higher social stratum, and hence society becomes hollow, a sham, a lie.  5
  Between the master and the slave, between the lord and the serf, there often grow up pleasant personal relations and attachments; there is personal intercourse, kindness, affability, protection on the one side, respect and gratitude on the other, which partially compensates for the superiority of the one and the inferiority of the other; but the modern system of wages allows very little of all this: the capitalist and the workman belong to different species, and have little personal intercourse. The agent or man of business pays the workman his wages, and there ends the responsibility of the employer. The laborer has no further claim on him, and he may want and starve, or sicken and die—it is his own affair, with which the employer has nothing to do. Hence the relation between the two classes becomes mercenary, hard, and a matter of arithmetic. The one class become proud, haughty, cold, supercilious, contemptuous, or at best superbly indifferent, looking upon their laborers as appendages of their steam-engines, their spinning-jennies, or their power-looms, with far less of esteem and affection than they bestow on their favorite dogs or horses; the other class become envious, discontented, resentful, hostile, laboring under a sense of injustice, and waiting only the opportunity to right themselves. The equality of love, of affection, cannot come in to make amends for the inequality of property and condition.  6
  To remedy these evils, I proposed to abolish the distinction between capitalists and laborers, employer and employed, by having every man an owner of the funds as well as the labor of production, and thus making it possible for every man to labor on a capital of his own, and to receive according to his works. Undoubtedly, my plan would have broken up the whole modern commercial system, prostrated all the great industries, or what I called the factory system, and thrown the mass of the people back on the land to get their living by agricultural and mechanical pursuits. I knew this well enough, but this was one of the results I aimed at. It was wherefore I opposed the whole banking and credit system, and struggled hard to separate the fiscal concerns of the government from the moneyed interests of the country, and to abolish paper currency. I wished to check commerce, to destroy speculation, and for the factory system, which we were enacting tariffs to protect and build up, to restore the old system of real home industry. The business men of the country saw as clearly as I did whither my propositions tended, and took the alarm; and as the business interests, rather than the agricultural and mechanical interests, ruled the minds of my countrymen, I had my labor for my pains. I went directly against the dominant sentiment of the British and American world, and made war on what it holds to be its chief interest and its crowning glory. Here was the gravamen of my offence. I had dared take Democracy at its word, and push its principles to their last logical consequences; I had had the incredible folly of treating the equality asserted as if it meant something, as if it could be made a reality, instead of a miserable sham. It was the attacks I made on the modern industrial and commercial system that gave the offence. Mr. Bancroft, who had been one of my stanchest friends, could not go with me in my views of property, though he did not object to my views with regard to the Church and the priesthood. John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, told me that in what I had said of the priests I was right. “You have,” he said, “told the truth of them. But your doctrine as to the descent and distribution of property is wrong, and you will do well to reëxamine it.” I was not wrong, if the premises from which I reasoned were tenable; and I am unable even to-day to detect any unsoundness in my views of the relation of capital and labor, or of the modern system of money wages. I believe firmly even still that the economical system I proposed, if it could be introduced, would be favorable to the virtue and happiness of society. But I look upon its introduction as wholly impracticable, and therefore regard all thought and effort bestowed on it as worse than thrown away. We must seek its equivalent from another source, in another order of ideas, set forth and sustained by religion.  7
  My political friends, as may well be believed, were indignant, if not precisely at my views, at my inopportune publication of them. I had injured my party, and defeated by my rashness the success of its candidates. They came to the conclusion that whatever my honesty, my zeal or ability, I was deficient in the essential qualities of a party leader. In this they were right, but they reasoned from wrong premises. I had my own purpose in publishing my essay on the laboring classes; and what they supposed I did from rashness, mere wantonness, I did with deliberation, with “malice aforethought.” I have seldom, if ever, published anything in the heat of blood, or without being well aware of what I was doing, and I must bear the full responsibility of doing it. That is, I have always acted from reason, not impulse; my reason may or may not have been a good one, but it always seemed to me a good one at the time, and generally was a good one from the position I occupied.  8
 
 
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