Arthur George Sedgwick.

The democratic mistake; Godkin lectures of 1909 delivered at Harvard University online

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Published August, 1912


Since delivering these lectures in the spring
of 1909, I have not had an opportunity to re-
vise them until now. They are printed sub-
stantially as delivered; for the sake of clearness,
part of the first has been transferred to the
second, thus shortening the former, and length-
ening the latter. I have avoided, as far as
possible, attempting to enforce my points by
referring to later aspects of the questions under
discussion, presented by recent events. If the
view taken of the matter is sound, the passage
of time is sure to furnish new instances, and
the reader will have no difficulty in making
the application himself. As delivered, the title
of the lectures was "Some Unsettled Questions
Relating to Popular Government."

A. G. S.

NEW YORK, May, 1912.











In receiving last year the very flattering invi-
tation of the University to deliver these lectures,
I felt that the request must be chiefly due to
the fact of my having been for many years
associated with the writer in whose honor the
course had been founded. To his readers at
large he was a journalist who spent his life in
applying to public questions, constantly arising
and demanding a speedy answer, the test of a
rare skill, knowledge, and experience, and a
devotion perhaps still rarer to the cause of good
government; in the performance of this task,
without fear or favor, and with unflinching
endurance and remarkable success, he attained
a commanding position and influence. To those
who came into contact with him and shared his
interest in political matters, he was something
more than this; he was one of the writers (the
list is not a very long one) devoted by their
natural bent to the subject of the work of
government, who have made substantial addi-



tions to our knowledge of the subject, and of
whom it may be said with regard to many im-
portant topics: but for him we should not have
understood this.

What he wrote, for instance, about nomina-
tions, and the dominant part they play in
modern popular government, what he had to
say about the decline of legislatures, govern-
ment of cities, and what is called the "new"
political economy, and Socialism, dispel some
of the obscurity which surrounds these subjects,
so that no one who investigates them can now
afford to neglect his contributions to this branch
of knowledge.

In recalling this it struck me that I might
make these lectures of use, if at all, by endeavor-
ing to examine and state the theory of political
action as it seems to be implied (though not
systematically analyzed and expounded) in his
writings; attempting in the course of this ex-
amination to apply it to some of the unsettled
questions which in our day, as in his, press
upon us for an answer, and which our form of
government forces us to answer as best we may.
If in the course of our inquiry we do not discover
anything very novel, I must ask you to remem-


her that it is a very old and very difficult sub-
ject, in which new discoveries are seldom made.
Such an attempt may, however, be the means
of putting some of the old questions in a new
light, and help us toward reaching some con-
clusion as to the future of popular government.
If the path followed by him should prove to
be a continuation of that opened by the famous
investigators of the past, it may serve to
strengthen our confidence in the possibility of
further progress.

You will notice that my subject relates only
to one aspect of government. Government as
a whole embraces a great variety of topics.
Such matters as sovereignty, the sphere or
province of government, and the ideal or per-
fect state; the object, origin, and forms of
government; government of the family, the
tribe, and the church, the nature and powers
of government, municipal and federal govern-
ment; all are parts of a very complex whole,
which also includes a further subject of inquiry
the structure and framework of the govern-
ment of a State, or, in other words, its consti-
tution by human design and contrivance. Now,
as government is merely public business carried


on by men for certain recognized ends, there
must be behind its structure and framework
some force or power, and some principle of
action, which can, through human will and
motive, accomplish the political tasks set it;
and the question is: can any principle of action
be traced in popular government? And to come
to the questions of the day, can we learn
through an examination of the principle of its
action anything about these questions? Does
it throw any light on the referendum, or the
initiative, or recall, or direct primaries, or nomi-
nations by petition, or the "machine," or the
suffrage ?

It is simply to the constitutional operation of
government, and especially of popular govern-
ment, so far as it is a work of human contriv-
ance and design, that I wish chiefly to direct
your attention.

But at the outset any one who attempts this
is confronted by a serious difficulty. He finds
not only that there is still no general agreement
about the basis of political theory, but that
there is actually a greater diversity of theory
than there has ever been. Professor Lowell, 1

1 Now President Lowell.


in his recent volumes on the Government of
England, 1 citing Taine in his support, declares
that one feels like exclaiming, "I have dis-
covered only one political principle, that a hu-
man society, and especially a modern society,
is a vast and complex thing" and that "the
only conclusion one can draw with certainty is
that in a given environment a certain combina-
tion of causes produces the consequences that
we observe," and that whether the same causes
would produce exactly the same results else-
where we cannot predict. Now, taken literally,
this seems to leave us altogether without po-
litical theory. More closely examined, however,
in the light of the whole book, Mr. Lowell, in
his statement of his conclusion, does not mean
to go so far. For without some theory we can-
not be sure that the consequences we observe
in a particular state are produced by a certain
combination of causes. In England there is a
highly paid judiciary, with a tenure during
good behavior; the judges in general are ap-
pointed nominally by the Crown, on the recom-
mendation of the Lord Chancellor, one of the
heads of the bar. The Bench is distinguished for
1 Vol. II, p. 506.


its learning, independence, character, and au-
thority. Is this a case of cause and effect ? From
what do we infer that it is ? An isolated case
proves nothing. And what is cause and what
effect? As it stands, we merely have a descrip-
tion of facts. Is it the King, or the Lord Chan-
cellor, or their joint action, that gives England
good judges? Or is it the tenure, or the salary?
In the city of New York most of the judges are
nominated by a representative convention at
the suggestion of a private individual and are
said to require backers ready to pay a very large
sum of money for a nomination. The result is
- almost universally criticised as unsatisfactory.
Without some general theory of political cause
and effect, it seems hard to throw any light on
the cause by an argument from English experi-
ence. One system produces a good result; the
other an unsatisfactory one. Surely we must
inquire what difference of cause it is which pro-
duces such a difference of result.

To those who merely glance at Mr. Lowell's
conclusion it seems to put forward formally a
species of agnosticism about government which
I do not believe he intends to maintain, but
which is very popular at the present time, and


extremely convenient for those who wish to dis-
miss the whole subject from their minds on the
ground of a supposed discovery that govern-
ment can be nothing more or less than what it
happens at a given moment and in a given place
to be.

In reality I take Mr. Lowell's position to be
quite different from this, because in other parts
of his book he makes general observations of a
searching character, which are evidently based
on a general theory of the way in which man acts
politically. For instance, 1 "there is probably
no body of men less fitted to rule a people than
a representative assembly elected in another
land by a different race." And again 2 he says
that office-holders, if doomed to lose their places
on a defeat at the polls of the party in power,
"will certainly do their utmost," i. e., by po-
litical activity, "to avert such a defeat." "The
keeping out of politics" and "the permanence
of tenure must in the long run go together."

On the whole, comparing such passages as
these with his general conclusion, and with what
he has written elsewhere, the safest inference is
that he wishes to emphasize the difficulty of

'Vol. I, p. 90. 'Vol. I, p. 147-


establishing firm theoretic ground as to govern-
ment, not to exclude the possibility of it. This,
therefore, is a wholly different position from that
pure agnosticism which would sound the knell
of political theory altogether, and relegate it to
what Carlyle used to call the dust heap.

But it is not at all the position taken by all
the world. Down to the period of the Civil War,
our hand-book of government was the Constitu-
tion as expounded by the authors of the Fed-
eralist. Theirs were the great contributions of
America to political knowledge, and even now
it is usually admitted that they made the best
use possible for the purpose in view of all that
was then known on the subject. But there are
many who tell us now that they were funda-
mentally wrong, or, at any rate, that we have
outgrown what they wrote. Dr. Wood row
Wilson, the head of a university, and well-
known as a writer on government, puts forward
a radically new view of the matter.

In his work on constitutional government in
the United States, 1 he says that the writers of
the Federalist, following Montesquieu, made
him a scientific standard, with the result that

'Page 56.


"politics is turned into mechanics" under his
touch, and "the theory of gravitation is su-
preme." In this he thinks that they made a
mistake, because the system of "checks and
balances" is based on a theory of "blind
forces," like those of nature, while government
is "not a machine," but a "living thing," "ac-
countable to Darwin, not to Newton."

Mr. Graham Wallas, in his "Human Nature in
Politics, " looks at the matter from another point
of view. The study of government, he observes,
is in an unsatisfactory position. The early study
of government always went hand in hand with
the study of Man, and about the middle of the
last century it seemed to have reached a con-
clusion in the pretty general adoption of repre-
sentative and democratic institutions; but the
results of the democratic movement have pro-
duced much dissatisfaction. This has led to a
new historical study of institutions, customs,
manners, and man himself; and on these a
flood of light has been thrown. On the other
hand, but little attention has been recently given
in works on government to the facts of human
nature, although modern psychology has made
great advances in its own field. Now, if the


study of government is necessarily founded
upon a combined inquiry into the nature of
man and the nature of government, the present
"tendency to separate the study of politics from
that of human nature" should "prove to be
only a momentary phase of thought." Its
effects, while it lasts, however, are likely to be
harmful, and there are already signs that it is
coming to an end. 1 He thinks, therefore, that
the student of politics should begin "by mas-
tering a treatise on psychology containing all
those facts about the human type which have
been shown by experience to be helpful in
politics, and so arranged that the student's
knowledge could be most easily recalled when
wanted/' 2

It may be admitted at once that these three
views are all based upon real and important
facts. It is true that transplanted institutions
do not necessarily thrive, and that we cannot
predict that the same causes will reproduce
exactly the same results elsewhere, and that we
have made a great advance in discovering this.
It is true that government has been found to
be a developing organism, which you may, if

*Page 15. 'Page 123.


you choose, liken to a living organism, for it
is an institution developed by man, and man
himself is a product of evolution; though when
Dr. Wilson says that Hamilton, following
Montesquieu, turned politics into mechanics,
and made the theory of gravitation supreme,
and based a theory of checks and balances on
"blind forces," I am bound to say that I have
not been able to find in the Federalist or in
L 'esprit des Lois the foundation for the state-
ment. So, too, Mr. Wallas has every reason for
insisting that if we are to make any further
progress in the study of government as a human
institution we must found it upon certain definite
assumptions as to the nature of man.

All three views are of interest as an illustra-
tion of the fact that government is always pre-
senting to the inquirer more and more different
sides. Mr. Lowell, impressed with the vast
complexity of causation in government, warns
us not to believe in the delusion that because an
institution produces certain effects under one
set of circumstances it will produce the same
effects under totally different circumstances;
Dr. Wilson, impressed with the fact of evolution
in the animal and vegetable worlds in connec-


tion with the struggle for existence, finds some-
thing of the same sort going on in government;
Mr. Wallas, observing the lack of any agree-
ment as to first principles, is struck with the
fact that for a generation or two we have been
so devoted to examining government objectively
that we have forgotten that a knowledge of
government without some idea of Man is im-
possible. The Sociologists have a view of their
own, but it is altogether too vast for analysis
here. If you will go on and examine twenty
recent writers on government, you will find that
this same peculiarity of great diversity in the
points from which they approach the subject
runs through them all.

None of these views conflicts with a fact,
the importance of which can hardly be dis-
puted, certainly not by Americans, for it is
the assumption which underlies all constitutions
consciously contrived for the government of
free states, viz., that government is not merely
something to be observed and described, but
also something to be done by means of power
or force employed to effect the object. It is
a branch of knowledge, but it also is a branch of
action, or one of what used to be called the moral


sciences. Government is a task which is under-
taken in order to effect objects of some sort. Its
purposes may be of every variety. It may be
to found a dynasty or to establish a free state,
to administer a province, to carry on a war,
or to raise a revenue. It may be to do good or
to do evil; but a government without any pur-
pose at all is hardly conceivable. Now a gov-
ernment with an object means that some man
or men make use among other things of the
power of other men's wills to effect the object
in view, and to do this they must have a dis-
tinct idea of how, by what means, they can pro-
duce the effects they desire. To produce an
effect by means of any power we must have
some idea of causation in relation to it. Through
observation of ourselves and others, and of gov-
ernment itself, we must believe that certain
political arrangements lead through the motive
power of human volition and action to certain
results. This belief involves a theory of po-
litical action. If it is founded on a mistaken
idea of cause and effect, it will be disproved by
experience; but there must be behind any po-
litical contrivance or institution founded on
design a theory of this sort. The necessity of a


theory for the work of government is no greater
and no less than the necessity of a theory of
education for any one who proposes to train
the young, or a theory of military or naval dis-
cipline, or the management of a railway. It
may be crude and simple, but there is no way
of causing anything to be done by human beings
without a prevision of the means to be selected
to effect it, founded upon a theory of how men
can be got to carry out the design of other men.
Looking at the matter in this way, we cannot
but regard the manner in which we know po-
litical study to have developed as what might
have been expected. Government would have
been introduced and established as a convenient
and essential institution long before it would
have occurred to any one to inquire on what it
was founded; 1 and when the inquiry began it
would have been conducted as a single inquiry,
as if we could first determine what the nature of
government was as a whole, and what the nature
of man was as a whole, and thus solve the ques-
tion of the nature and scope of politics. As long
as this idea lasted we should have a great de-
bate, but within a comparatively narrow com-

1 There is something closely resembling it even among animals.


pass. But as it began to be perceived that gov-
ernment was a name for a vast variety of causes,
effects, and phenomena of all sorts pervading
human society, and stretching from the dawn
of history to the present time, and on into the
unfathomed future, and that man was a name
for a very great variety of races, differing among
themselves in every way that human beings
can differ, and existing in every stage of bar-
barism and civilization, and as immense stores
of knowledge as to past history, customs, habits,
and institutions accumulated, it would become
clearer and clearer that the problem was in-
definitely complex. Consequently the time
would come when the discussion would present
as many different aspects as the problem itself,
and the theory would divide itself into as many
different lines as there were seen to be branches
of inquiry. Such a stage of political inquiry we
seem to have reached; and, having reached it,
we are now able, as our predecessors were un-
able, to discriminate sharply between the line of
inquiry to which I propose to direct your at-
tention that which relates to the operation of
government by human design and all other


As good an illustration as any of what is
meant by a theory of cause and effect relating
to political action is afforded by the case of the
judiciary already referred to.

Experience tells us that there are a variety
of causes at work in England which are not at
work in New York, and that if we eliminate
causes known to have nothing to do with the
matter we may find in the end the efficient
causes which tend to produce a good judiciary;
and that these are a tenure during good be-
havior, a nomination by those whose interest is
only to select a good candidate, an absolutely
non-political appointment, and a salary which
places the incumbent above either the sus-
picion or the temptation of corruption. We find
that the same result follows whenever this
method is pursued; for instance, we find in the
United States a good federal judiciary side by
side with a less satisfactory State judiciary.
We find the same result in England, New Jersey,
and Massachusetts utterly different communi-
ties. We infer from all this that it is not a King
or a Lord Chancellor that we lack in New York,
but a secure tenure and a good nominating
system. Moreover, all this reasoning is con-


firmed a priori by our knowledge of ourselves
and of man in general. We know that a judge
dependent upon the favor of one man and the
money of another man, or even his own, for
nomination and election, and again on the same
favor for continuance in office and promotion,
is unlikely to prove what we want, even if we
pay him a large salary; the best men will not
take office on such terms, but will prefer private
employment; the men who do take it will be
under constant temptation to requite the favor,
and they will most easily requite the favor by
favors, and will in consequence sometimes either
be, or, what is as bad, be suspected of being,
corrupt. From all this we infer that wherever
you introduce the New York system your ju-
diciary will tend to run down; wherever you
introduce the English, or the Federal, the Mas-
sachusetts or the New Jersey system, you will
do better, indeed as well as you can do. In any
government the introduction of the system is a
matter of prevision and design.

Again, to take another instance, the perma-
nent civil service has, in England, for two
generations, taken the place of a civil service
manned by means of patronage. The reform of


our civil service has been copied from the
English system, and the argument on which its
introduction was based was merely this: that
as the competitive system of examination for
entrance, combined with promotion for merit
and a secure tenure, had, in England, driven
the poison of intrigue and patronage (developed
here into "rotation in office") out of the govern-
ment, so it would accomplish the same result
here. The argument by which the change from
our old system was supported was very like that
relating to the judiciary. From what we know
of man, we know that patronage for a large
body of civil servants, whether party or indi-
vidual patronage, means appointment by whim,
or favor, or for partisan activity, or for still
worse motives, and not for fitness; and that
the only way to bring intrigue and corruption
in the service to an end is to take patronage
away altogether; that the only substitute under
the circumstances is selection by open competi-
tion and tenure during good behavior; and
that all this has been verified by experience.

To make a long story short, there must always
be a theory of political action, and it is devel-
oped by experience of the nature of man, and


the study of cause and effect. This study and
the experience on which it is founded have been
going on for ages, and have produced definite
results, the most important of which is that we
now know finally how to do certain things in
government almost as well as how to do certain
things in a physical science. They can be done
by those who are fitted to undertake the task.
The Greeks did not know how to secure an
upright and efficient judiciary; we do. They
had very vague ideas of military and naval or-
ganization. We know how to manage military
power and how to create a navy. There are
certain principles of taxation and currency
which, once grasped, are a permanent addition
to political knowledge, which two or three cen-
turies ago were not even dreamed of. We may
reject the light and follow the darkness, but
that is a matter of choice, not necessity.

A brief review of some of the more salient
facts in the history of political inquiry may
serve to make clearer this point as to the nature
of political action.

All knowledge advances through dispassion-
ate observation, study, and experiment; but
questions of government so directly affect our


hopes, fears, tastes, prejudices, appetites, affec-
tions, and passions that it is extremely difficult
to examine them dispassionately at all. For
primitive man it is impossible, and this is one
of the reasons why we find primitive government
always closely connected with religion and super-
stition. 1 It is of divine origin; those who es-
tablish it are the progeny of gods; on the ob-
servances of religion all success in government
depends, and its laws have a divine sanction.

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Online LibraryArthur George SedgwickThe democratic mistake; Godkin lectures of 1909 delivered at Harvard University → online text (page 1 of 11)