Oldalképek
PDF
ePub

vote away the money of the rich. Secondly, there is a remarkable degree of equality among us, not merely political, but actual, resulting as well from the institutions as from the general prosperity of the country.* We know that absolute equality is out of the question, even if it were desirable; and that the growth of wealth and population, and the centralizing of industry, are constantly tending to counteract this natural influence of our institutions, and afflict us with all the evils that wait upon civilization. But to meet these evils we recognize as one of the chief problems given to our nation to solve ; and much is done towards solving it when we have secured to every man the fullest control over himself. We think it ought to be met, and the solution effected, not by any agrarian, socialistic laws, but by the fostering of every branch of national industry, and the free operation of natural laws of distribution ; that this wealth as it increases should not, as is usually the case, be distributed more and more unequally, but that, as the country grows richer, the mass of the people should grow richer likewise, and not a few millionnaires.† The surest means to prevent the lower classes from ruling, is to have no lower classes.

It is in this antagonism between rich and poor that Lord Macaulay, in his famous letter to Mr. Randall, finds the chief danger to our institutions, where he says: “ The day will come when, in the State of New York, a multitude of people, not one of whom has had more than half a breakfast, or ex

"America exhibits in her social state an extraordinary phenomenon. Men are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance.” – De Tocqueville, Vol. I. p. 67. It was a similar equality in Athens (in the privileged democracy) that made the choice of magistrates by lot not so utterly absurd as it seems at first sight.

+ There is no doubt that this is the case in New England, where the most striking fact attendant on the growth of public prosperity is the diminution of the number of the very poor. Fifty years ago there was a large class of wretched, degraded poor in all the country towns. Now there is no such class, except in secluded dis. tricts here and there ; and it may almost be said that there are no native paupers. For instance, Dedham, Massachusetts, a very fair specimen of a New England country town, has now less than a dozen native paupers in a population of about 6,000. In 1818 it had 26 (mostly native, of course), in a population of about 2,500.

VOL. LXXIV. — 5TH S. vol. XII. NO. II.

23

pects to have more than half a dinner, will choose a legislature. Is it possible to doubt what sort of a legislature will be chosen ?” We will observe that a proletariat in the condition described, (especially of Americans, who are accustomed to have plenty to eat,) which, nevertheless, should patiently wait to choose a legislature, and have that legislature pass laws for their relief, at the expense of the rich, would be a most remarkable proletariat, and well worthy the elective franchise. People in this condition usually help themselves, and to control them in such a case depends, not on the form, but on the energy of the institutions. Democratic institutions may be as energetic as any, and De Tocqueville bears ample testimony to the extensive powers possessed by our magistrates; in which the prophets across the water, who bewail the high-handed measures of our Executive, seem to concur. We have had strikes and riots here, but our institutions have survived them, just as the English have. But Lord Macaulay seems to have been under the delusion, that we intended to adopt the English policy of free trade. He should have known that, except for the controlling influence of slavery, to which free trade was an important auxiliary, there has never been a time when the masses of this country have not been clear-sighted enough to adopt the American system, of protection to home industry and development of national resources, which benefits all classes alike, in preference to the English theory, which tends to throw all power and wealth into the hands of a few. When we pride ourselves on the increased prosperity of our country, we mean not merely that the wealth is greater, but that it is better distributed. We have already shown that, so far from the tendency which Lord Macaulay prophesies, the prosperity and comfort of the masses have increased with the increase of population, and exist at the present day in the general ratio of the compactness and average wealth of the several States.

We have already intimated that the chief danger to our institutions consists, not in their having a democratic basis, but in this principle of democracy being at times lost sight of in practice, and specious theories foisted in its place. There is a false democracy, which has had much influence, and wrought irreparable mischief, which has done its best to put all power into the hands of those least fit to exercise it, and the practical effect of which is, that the country has been ruled for years by the joint power of the two most dangerous classes, - that of the slaveholders, founded on unjust wealth, and that of the city mob, used as the tools of the former. It was an honest, plausible theory at the start, that all adult males should vote, and vote for all officers ; if democracy was right, why not carry it out consistently? But the actual, inherited, American theory of democracy was lost sight of.

The American idea of democracy is based upon the right of every person to have a share in the government, as the only guaranty against oppression. On this alone rests the claim to a right to vote. But the suffrage is not merely a right necessary for the protection of the individual; it carries with it also a power over the property and actions of others. The exercise of this power has nothing to do with the rights of the individual. It belongs to society, to the state, and it is only as a member of the state that the individual possesses it. It is a dangerous power, whatever hands may hold it, and has seldom in history been exercised without being abused. Still it must be placed somewhere, or the state does not exist. If it were possible to determine by any process who in the community are fit to be trusted with it, it should certainly be given to them; for where natural rights do not exist, we must follow expediency. To give it to any one man, or any body of men, selected by chance or birth, is absurd; even wealth and culture are no certain guides; for although they may imply ability, they do not necessarily imply purity of motive. We Americans believe it is safer to give it to the whole people, than to any part of the people. But inasmuch as it is a trust, and not a right, we hold that it is the duty of the state — nay, its only salvation — to see to it that the citizens are rendered capable of exercising it. Education and virtue are the only safeguards of democratic liberty.

This is the American theory of democracy. It gives to every man a share in the government, partly as a right, partly as a trust; and it recognizes the duty of the state to fit its citizens to exercise this sacred trust, so far at least as political institutions can accomplish it. The words which Burke wrote in condemnation of democracy we accept heartily, and act upon as the fundamental principle of our democratic government. “ All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust; and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society." How far we have wandered in practice from this lofty ideal, we know too well. We do not expect that our institutions will ever actually bring about a state of society such as this theory would demand, in which every member shall be virtuous and enlightened. Nevertheless, we place our mark high, and can but do our utmost to reach it. And we believe it is so far practicable as this, – that the vast majority of the community shall be so trained as to be at once honest and intelligent in political affairs. We believe we have accomplished this in New England, where the proportion of the worthless and vicious in the native population is so small that it has absolutely no weight; they may have the right of suffrage, but it is harmless in their hands. Indeed, we assert without hesitation, that the native population throughout the Northern States might be safely trusted with the most unlimited freedom of suffrage. Imperfect as their educational institutions are, compared with those of New England, they have accomplished the result they were designed to accomplish, and created a people fit for democracy. But, unfortunately, a theory which answered well enough when it was first put in practice was boldly kept up after the country had been overrun with hordes of ignorant and vicious foreigners, — the outgrowth of monarchical and aristocratic institutions in Europe, just as the “poor whites” are the outgrowth of aristocratic institutions in the South. It is these, not native Americans, who have been the tools of demagogues, and who have cursed the land with the rule of the slave power. And it was false theories of democracy that put the power into their hands.

Now, neither the theory of universal suffrage, as we have propounded it, nor its traditionary practice in the States of the American Union, is at all inconsistent with restrictions upon its universality. Indeed, it requires them. If the franchise were merely a right, no restriction would be admissible; but it is also a trust, and must be carefully guarded. But observe, there is this fundamental distinction between the restrictions imposed here and in England. There, the aristocratic theory takes for granted that the franchise belongs to few, and grudgingly asks, now and then, how much further it will be safe to extend it. Here, we assume that it belongs to all, and only ask who has forfeited it. This question is answered variously in different States. Foreigners, of course, must pass more or less of a probation before being admitted to it. A certain degree of maturity is necessary, and it has been fixed roughly at twenty-one years. The prejudices inherited from our ancestors have confined it to the male sex ; the prejudices derived from slavery, to the white race, in most of the States. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, the two typical New England States, ability to read and write is a test; in Massachusetts, the payment of taxes is also required. These two qualifications go as far, in respect to property and education, as we think of any real consequence; but they are of importance, not so much from their actually restricting the suffrage, (which they effect very little in a community of such general prosperity and intelligence as ours,) but as a safeguard for the future. In our cities they are of value already, and if some means could be devised of restricting the suffrage in the direction of crime, the great peril of our institutions — mobocracy — would be nearly averted.*

The theory we have described is practically developed and carried out in the New England town system, of which De Tocqueville gives an accurate and appreciative sketch. This system is the fairest exponent of American democracy, and has in full the merit which Mill ascribes to theoretically good governments, as consisting “partly of the degree in which they promote the general mental advancement of the com

* This is, perhaps, hardly the place for suggestions of this nature; but it seems to us that, if convicted criminals were to be deprived of the franchise for a term of years after leaving the prison, the desired end might be accomplished. This would leave the door open for reformation, and at the same time would deprive the class of criminals of political power, – those who live by crime, and are sent to jail as a matter of course every year or two.

« ElőzőTovább »