Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The American Democracy
By John William Draper (18111882)
[Thoughts on the Future Civil Policy of America. 1865.]
ONE of the greatest of the Greek philosophers, Plato, held that in a political sense men are to be considered, not as men, but as elements of the state; thus carrying to its extreme consequence the idea of that public relation just referred to. In America, the principle of individual independence being thoroughly admitted, that independence can only be secured by political organization; and hence, the Platonic idea being accepted, individuals must be considered as existing for the state. To it they owe whatever they have, even life.
The fabric of the Republic arose from the spontaneous coalescence of such elements. The first immigrants necessarily maintained purely democratic relations, with only such subordination as their existing needs required. When, in the course of time, colony began to establish connections with colony, the principle of equality was never for a moment forgotten. From the union of individuals towns arose; from the union of towns, states; from the union of states, the Republic. This coalescence of individuals was and is still greatly facilitated by a certain sameness of habits among all classes, arising from their issuing from a common origin. Temporary differences of wealth are of little moment: the poor of to-day may be the rich of to-morrow.
The modes of life of various classes being more similar than in Europe, individuals fall more readily into place, and more easily assume a fitting association with one another. From this arises that sentiment of equality which curbs and checks the sentiment of individual independence.
The Republic may therefore be regarded as a restrained association of free individuals, voluntarily surrendering a part of their personal independence for the common good, yet all the time conscious and jealous of that surrender. They have bartered a portion of their liberty for security. Labor is its essential basis. In America, every one, even though he may be rich, must have some ostensible occupation. A healthy public sentiment makes it disreputable to be idle.
Elsewhere nations are governed too much; here no restraint is admissible beyond that necessary for the well-being and life of the body politic. But in that maxim much is embraced. Coercion, more energetic and more formidable than that ever felt in the most absolute monarchies, becomes justifiable, if necessary to preserve the national life. The individual must not for an instant stand in the way of the public good.
There are singular advantages arising from a personal acknowledgment of this force of public authority, and of the inevitable direction its action will take. In foreign countries there is no definitely visible path in which it is clear that the nation will advance; here every one sees plainly what the course of progress must inevitably be. The popular phrase, manifest destiny, marks out this recognition. There hence arises a concert of action, which adds prodigiously to the public power. The momentum of the whole population is felt in a definite direction.
Placed in such circumstances, a democracy will exhibit an instinct of cohesion in all its parts. Herein is the explanation of the remark so often made by observing statesmen respecting the essential difference between democracies in Europe and Americathat the former are destructive, the latter constructive.
This constructiveness is strikingly seen in new-settled American states. Where, but a short time before, there was an untrodden wilderness, population began to convergea village formed. In an incredibly short time, organization of the infant community might be observed; its outward signs, the school-house, the town hall, the church, the newspaper. These differentiations from the growing body spontaneously issued from the people; they required no stimulus from above. The village rapidly grew into a town. All round it, in precisely like manner, other towns were emerging. The instinct of cohesion I have referred to combined them together; an organized territory, a state, is the result. Constructive affinity still continues to be manifested, and the new state merges into and becomes an acknowledged part of the Republic. It loses forever, if indeed it ever possessed, the attribute of independent sovereignty.
Throughout this process of events self-government is perpetually manifest. Each individual bears a conscious share in each of the stages of procedure and in the final result. Hence arises a property of such a democracy unfortunately not understood in Europe. In monarchical countries war and peace are easily made. The people are rarely penetrated by a just appreciation of the points in dispute. The conflicting authorities, sovereigns or royal houses, compose their quarrel; the community acquiesces.
Not so in a self-conscious democracy. A public injury, perpetrated by a foreign power, is at once accepted by each individual as his personal affair. When the English government conceded belligerent rights to the insurgent states, there was not an American who did not personally appropriate the offence. Such a sensitiveness is often imputed, by those who have not considered the peculiarities of democratic life, to the youth of the nation or to other transitory causes. It arises, however, from a very different, and, it may be added, a far more dangerous condition. A course that might be pursued with impunity by one royal house toward another, cannot wisely be pursued toward a self-conscious democracy; for it has a retentive memory, and is, in virtue of its very constitution, unforgiving.
The instinct of self-government, so characteristic of the American democracy, thus leads to the formation of villages, towns, counties, territories, statesnay, even to the expansion of the Republic itself. So far from centralization and self-government standing in opposition to each other, as some authors have supposed, the former necessarily issues out of the latter. Self-government, instead of conveying the idea of absolute freedom, conveys, in reality, the idea of restraintrestraint spontaneously imposed. If, as must be the case in self-conscious communities, that restraint is organized by those who are intending to submit to its rule, centralization is the necessary result.
Moreover, the instinct of self-government implies an instinct for enlightenmentan insatiable thirst for information. This is recognized in all directions in America. It satisfies itself by the creation of great educational establishments, and descends even to amusing details. The Yankee converses in questions.
Every one is penetrated with the conviction that for social advancement to pursue the right direction, and to be pressed forward at the highest speed, it must be controlled by intelligence. Hence the public prosperity is considered to depend on education. There can be no doubt that this is a very high and noble conception. It establishes an intrinsic difference between the people of Europe and the people of America.
In Europe the attempt has been made to govern communities through their morals alone. The present state of that continent, at the close of so many centuries, shows how great the failure has been. In America, on the contrary, the attempt is to govern through intelligence. It will succeed.
From the American principle, it follows that whoever seeks the improvement of his fellow-men, the ennobling of the community among whom he lives, or the true glory of the nation, can best accomplish his purpose by spreading forth the light of knowledge, and strengthening and developing the public understanding.
For more than a thousand years the moral system has been tried in Europe. Its agent, the ecclesiastic, was animated by intentions that were good, by perseverance unwearied, by a vigorous energy. The failure is attributable, not to shortcomings in him, but to intrinsic defects in his method; though on that continent, in a very imperfect manner, in later times the other method has spontaneously and with much resistance made itself felt; a wonderful result is beginning to be apparent. The apprehension entertained by many good men in former times, that if the mind be instructed the morals may be injured, has proved to be unfounded. Men are better in proportion as they are wiser. In whatever direction we look, we see the improvement. The physical man is more powerful, the intellectual man more perfect, the moral man more pure. For the poor, in the midst of all this social activity, this business energy, charity is none the less overflowing; for him who wishes to improve his life there is certain to be encouragement.
Whoever in America desires to better his fellow-men must act by influencing their intellect. If he wishes to see no idle man and no poor man in the land, he must take care that there shall be no ignorant man. Ignorance is not, as in the old times they used to say, the mother of devotion; she is the mother of superstition and misery.
If we wish to know how we may best clear from this continent the superabundant forests that encumber ithow we may best lay the iron rail and put the locomotive upon ithow we may most profitably dig the abounding metals from their veinshow we may instantaneously communicate with our most distant townshow we may cover the ocean with our shipshow we may produce a sober, industrious, healthy, moral population, we shall find our answer in providing universal instruction. That spontaneously provides occupation. The morality of a nation is the aggregate of the morality of individuals. A lazy man is necessarily a bad man; an idle is necessarily a demoralized population.