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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Passion for Power
By William Ellery Channing (1780–1842)
 
From ‘The Life and Character of Napoleon Bonaparte’

THE PASSION for ruling, though most completely developed in despotisms, is confined to no forms of government. It is the chief peril of free States, the natural enemy of free institutions. It agitates our own country, and still throws an uncertainty over the great experiment we are making here in behalf of liberty…. It is the distinction of republican institutions, that whilst they compel the passion for power to moderate its pretensions, and to satisfy itself with more limited gratifications, they tend to spread it more widely through the community, and to make it a universal principle. The doors of office being opened to all, crowds burn to rush in. A thousand hands are stretched out to grasp the reins which are denied to none. Perhaps in this boasted and boasting land of liberty, not a few, if called to state the chief good of a republic, would place it in this: that every man is eligible to every office, and that the highest places of power and trust are prizes for universal competition. The superiority attributed by many to our institutions is, not that they secure the greatest freedom, but give every man a chance of ruling; not that they reduce the power of government within the narrowest limits which the safety of the State admits, but throw it into as many hands as possible. The despot’s great crime is thought to be that he keeps the delight of dominion to himself, that he makes a monopoly of it; whilst our more generous institutions, by breaking it into parcels and inviting the multitude to scramble for it, spread this joy more widely. The result is that political ambition infects our country and generates a feverish restlessness and discontent, which to the monarchist may seem more than a balance for our forms of liberty. The spirit of intrigue, which in absolute governments is confined to courts, walks abroad through the land; and as individuals can accomplish no political purposes single-handed, they band themselves into parties, ostensibly framed for public ends, but aiming only at the acquisition of power. The nominal sovereign,—that is, the people,—like all other sovereigns, is courted and flattered and told that it can do no wrong. Its pride is pampered, its passions inflamed, its prejudices made inveterate. Such are the processes by which other republics have been subverted, and he must be blind who cannot trace them among ourselves. We mean not to exaggerate our dangers. We rejoice to know that the improvements of society oppose many checks to the love of power. But every wise man who sees its workings must dread it as one chief foe.  1
  This passion derives strength and vehemence in our country from the common idea that political power is the highest prize which society has to offer. We know not a more general delusion, nor is it the least dangerous. Instilled as it is in our youth, it gives infinite excitement to political ambition. It turns the active talents of the country to public station as the supreme good, and makes it restless, intriguing, and unprincipled. It calls out hosts of selfish competitors for comparatively few places, and encourages a bold, unblushing pursuit of personal elevation, which a just moral sense and self-respect in the community would frown upon and cover with shame.  2
 
 
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