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Commonwealth or Empire







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Set up and clectrotyped March, 1902.

J. 8. Cuihing & Co. Berwick & Smith
Norwood Mass. U.S.A.


IN the last Presidential election issues were
mixed. The verdict consequently was uncer
tain. Which issue was paramount was a
question greatly debated among Americans.
Some said currency was paramount, and voted
against a debasement of the coin which would
no doubt have led to commercial disaster, and
could have attractions only as a measure of par
tial relief, at a period of depression and suffer
ing from mortgage debt. Alarm was at the same
time created and votes probably were deter
mined by language menacing to the Supreme
Court and judicial authority in general, as well
as by denunciations of the action of the Federal
Government in the suppression of labour riots.
But let the paramount issue for Americans
be what it might, for the world at large it




was and is that between the Commonwealth
and Empire. Shall the American Republic be
what it has hitherto been, follow its own des
tiny, and do what it can to fulfil the special
hopes which humanity has founded on it; or
shall it slide into an imitation of European
Imperialism, and be drawn, with the military
powers of Europe, into a career of conquest
and domination over subject races, with the
political liabilities which such a career entails?
This was and is the main issue for humanity.
Seldom has a nation been brought so distinctly
as the American nation now is to the parting
of the ways. Never has a nation s choice been
more important to mankind.

Against the Commonwealth three forces,
distinct but convergent, are now arrayed.
They are Plutocracy, Militarism, and Impe
rialism. The three instinctively conspire; to
the plutocrat Imperialism is politically conge
nial, while he feels that militarism impregnates
society with a spirit of conservatism, and may
in case of a conflict of classes furnish a useful
force of repression.

Puritan New England could not last, though


it formed the foundation and has left traces
of itself in the moral force which in this elec
tion offered a notable resistance to the tidal
wave. The Puritan settlement and the United
States in general were bound to undergo the
influences of the world s progress, share the ad
vance of thought, and be embraced in the world-
unifying influences of electricity and steam.
Before the close of the seventeenth century,
in fact, vital change had set in. The origi
nal elements were largely diluted by foreign
inflow, though this has been assimilated to a
wonderful extent. Still, the American Repub
lic was the home of democracy and the hope
of labour. It promised to do something more
than the Old World toward correcting the injus
tice of nature, equalizing the human lot, and
making the community a community indeed.
The eyes of the masses everywhere were turned
to it. To the enemies of equality and popular
government it was an object of aversion and
alarm. Loud, almost frenzied, was the shout
of exultation with which, at the outbreak of
Secession, Aristocracy and Plutocracy in Eu
rope hailed its apparent fall. It had remained


free from Socialism, other than imported, thus
proving the soundness of its principle, which
is that of freedom, self-help, and self-develop
ment under the necessary restraints of the law.
Nowhere is English life better or more
attractive than in a country parish, with a kind
and conscientious squire, good ladies, an active
pastor, a well-to-do tenantry, and a contented
peasantry. Yet passing from this to an Amer
ican village, an observer felt that he had come
to something which had more of the true spirit
of a community. He felt that by the social
equality and general friendliness which pre
vailed, by the spontaneous obedience to law
which had no force to support it but that of
a single constable, by the general intelligence
and the common interest in public questions,
one step at least had been made towards some
thing like the fulfilment of the social ideal.
In the great cities, besides the special influences
of city life, there were unassimilated immigra
tion and de-Americanized wealth. But, setting
aside these two elements, there was more of the
community in an American than in a Euro
pean city, and this in spite of municipal mis-


government carried in some cases to an extent
which all deplore.

If the Commonwealth partly lost its old
Puritan support in the East, in the West there
had been developed a social and political ele
ment more energetically democratic, while it
was entirely free from ecclesiastical restraint.
The thoroughly American spirit of the West
was shown by the part which it played on the
side of the Union in the Civil War. Its tem
per is radically opposed to anything monarchi
cal or aristocratic; and if it has on this
occasion voted for a policy of aggrandizement
and war, the cause seems to be rather a vehe
mence of character still breathing of frontier
life, than anything which would render the
West more prone to Imperialism than New

There appeared to be the best reason, at
all events, for hoping that humanity had here
been finally rid of two of its greatest banes in
the Old World, standing armies and State
Churches. Of State Churches it had apparently
seen the last vestige depart when religious
liberty and equality finally triumphed over the


lingering vestiges of Puritan ecclesiasticism in
New England; though the intermeddling of
Churches with politics, which is another phase
of the same evil, unhappily had not ceased. Of
the growth of a standing army, it seemed, there
could be no danger when there was no danger
of war ; the only military force necessary being
one sufficient to secure at need the ascendency
of order in a Commonwealth which was daily
receiving foreign elements little imbued with
the freeman s respect for law. The vast army
called out in defence of the Union against Se
cession remained in spirit an army of citizens ;
the war over, it was disbanded with perfect
ease, and fell back into the ranks of industry,
much to the amazement and not a little to the
disappointment of European ill-wishers of the
Republic, who, looking to European experience,
fancied that a despotism founded on the sup
port of the victorious soldiery must be the
outcome of the war. It seemed that peace
might be preached to all nations and govern
ments more effectually than any International
Conference could preach it by the spectacle
of a mighty nation thriving beyond the other


nations by industry and living on friendly
terms with all its fellows, yet respected by the
world, and influencing the world by its example.
If the national life which had produced and
which sustained the institutions, civilization, and
wealth of the United States was not "strenu
ous " in the way of aggression and destruction,
there was another way in which it was strenuous
in the highest degree. If compared with old
war powers it lacked the glory of war, at least
of wars of rapine, it did not lack the glory of
peace and home.

But a new force has come upon the scene,
that of Plutocracy, which, if its power contin
ues to increase, must work a serious change
in the spirit of institutions, though it may
be without disturbing Republican forms and
names. The productions of a new and im
mensely rich continent, rapidly developed and
manipulated commercially by master hands,
railway and telegraph construction on the
largest scale, financial speculation on a scale
equally large, combined with the action of
protective tariffs, which have enabled groups
of capitalists to take toll of the consumer,


have given birth to fortunes unprecedented
in their magnitude, and having, through the
influence wielded by their possessors over
the financial and commercial world, a con
stant tendency to increase. There is now an
apparent prospect of still further concentra
tion, and of fortunes still more swollen, since
the forces of commercial and industrial aggre
gation have begun to work, creating gigantic
Trusts, the largest share of the profits of
which fall to those by whom the Trust is
organized and managed. The revenues of
one of the multimillionnaires already exceed
those of kings. They far exceed the reve
nues of that Thellusson estate, the magnitude
of which frightened the British Parliament into
an Act restricting accumulations for the future.
The power of wealth in the present age
is great. Nor can we easily see what there
will be to balance it. Religious aspirations,
which hitherto have formed at least some
thing of a counter-charm, are visibly losing
their force. If Humanitarian aspirations are
destined ever to supply their place, as the
votaries of a religion of Humanity believe,


that hour has not yet come; nor is there
anything at present to herald its speedy
coming. Wealth, with little regard to its
source, is becoming almost an object of our
social worship. Intellect, literary or scientific,
culture, and art may still keep up a struggle
against riches for social ascendency, but they
will hardly be able to hold their own. Popu
larity the multimillionnaire purchases with
ease, at a cost which to him is no sacrifice;
while the community, even when the munifi
cence is the noblest, is put rather too much in
the attitude of receiving alms.

That money can command Legislatures and
Municipalities is too well known. Of this
every day produces proofs. Over tariff legis
lation the nation seems to lose control, so
great is the power of a group of protected
interests bringing their pressure to bear in
concert upon Congress. The influence of
money in elections is not disguised. A Senator-
ship of the United States has been almost
openly bought. To carry a Presidential elec
tion, the party of the rich puts a vast fund
into skilful hands. Wealth can take posses-


sion of the organs of the press, and through
them influence opinion; for though a journal,
to keep up its circulation, must study public
sentiment, it may reciprocally mould that sen
timent, not only through its editorials but per
haps still more through its version of the
news. Very great, notoriously, has been the
power of Railway Companies in California
and elsewhere; and this power is practically
wielded by a few hands. We should be most
unwilling to believe that the Universities, as
seems in some quarters to be feared, are in
danger of plutocratic domination.

There is no use in raving about anything.
At the same time there is no use in denying
that the inordinate accumulation of wealth,
with the irresponsible power attached to it,
in a few hands, is dangerous to society and to
the State. We are told that this tendency
is natural; that it is the result of economic
forces against which it is vain to contend.
Other things are natural which yet are not
blessings, and which, if we could, we would
avert. The present tendency to overcrowding
in cities is natural, desirable it is not.


Only an economical anarchist will desire
to array class against class, labour against
capital; to interfere with the discharge by
the capitalist of his necessary function in the
conduct of industry ; to withhold from him
his fair gains ; or to deprive him of his just
influence in the political sphere. To the
capitalist, as society now is, we must owe
the organization of great enterprises and the
execution of great works. Yet it would surely
be an evil day for the community on which
supreme power should pass into the irre
sponsible hands of accumulated wealth. To
some such consummation, however, things
seem now to be tending as they tended to
territorial lordship at the opening of the feudal

Much of this wealth has unquestionably
been made by undertakings beneficial to the
community. Some has been made in ways
not so beneficial. But the best of millionnaires
has heirs, whose characters, cradled in idle
ness and luxury, would be ill trusted with
power over the State. The feudal Lord had
duties, social, political, and military, so on-


erous that in the opinion of an eminent his
torian their mere burden shortened life. The
modern British land-owner has local duties
which, if not so onerous as those of the feudal
Lord, still help to save him from becom
ing a mere sybarite. The heir of a financial
millionnaire has no such salt of necessary duty
to save his character from corruption.

It is vain to rail at a class for following its
natural bent. The plutocratic class, after all, is
doing no more. But its natural bent is anti
democratic. Its ostentatious prodigality and
luxury are a defiance of democratic sentiment
and subversive of democratic manners. At
heart it sighs for a court and aristocracy. It
worships anything royal or aristocratic. It
barters the hands of its daughters and its
millions for European titles. It imitates, and
even outvies in some things, the gilding of
European nobility. Its social centre is gradu
ally shifting from America, where its inclina
tions are still in some measure controlled, to
England, where it can get more homage
and subserviency for its wealth, take hold on
the mantle of high society, hope perhaps in


the end to win its way to the circle of Royalty,
and even, if it becomes naturalized, itself to

wear a coronet or a star.


tried to transplant aristocracy to Canada.
Failed, as Fox told him he would ; the plant
would not take root in the soil of the New
World. Yet a way of introducing aristocracy
into the New World without actual transplan
tation has been found. British Peerages,
Baronetcies, Knighthoods, and minor badges
of rank, besides showers of military decorations,
are conferred on Colonists. Americans natu
ralized by a residence of two years in Canada
become eligible to these distinctions. More
than one of them has been knighted. Nor
does the little Court of Ottawa fail to attract
American courtiers to its shrine. The Cana
dian Calendar comprehends a list of titled
Canadians which forms a miniature Peerage.
The craving for aristocracy goes so high
that the furniture of a house in an American
city, because a duke has lived in it, fetches
extraordinary prices, while there is special
eagerness to buy a chair in which His Grace
can be proved to have sat. There is an Amer-


ican " Burke " containing, we are told, upwards
of seven hundred coats of arms of American
families, with their lions rampant, helmets, men
in armour, and feudal mottoes. On the other
hand British aristocracy opens its arms to the
new aspirant, particularly when its acres are
mortgaged. The American who offered a
large fee to any English lady of title who
would push his daughter in high society, might
have saved his money. His bank account
would have sufficed.

The political colours of American pluto
cracy were plainly shown on the occasion of
the South African war. The drawing rooms
of New York at once declared themselves on
the side of the drawing rooms of London, and
a concert, given practically in aid of the war,
was attended, we were told, by the whole world
of New York fashion.

Of the furtive extinction of popular govern
ment without change of constitutional forms
by the action of wealth, we have at least one
historic example. It was thus that Florence
was converted from a Republic into a Princi
pality under the absolute government of the


Medici. The head of the house of Medici
accumulated an enormous fortune ; won popu
larity by the crafty munificence with which
he expended a part of it; bought up all the
springs of government ; and was thus enabled
to bequeath a virtual despotism to his son.
His usurpation, it is right to say, was aided by
the unwise and unrighteous ambition of his
countrymen, who, by trampling on the liberty
of Pisa and other sister communities, had im
paired the spirit of liberty in themselves, as
well as by the factious turbulence of Florentine
democracy which made quiet citizens long for
repose. The example and the warning of
Florence are on a very small scale ; so was the
fortune of Cosmo de Medici compared with
those the influence of which is now growing
in the American Republic.

We can see how wealth might, in a mer
cenary age, without any formal change of
the American constitution, practically pos
sess itself of supreme power. The process
may almost be said to have already begun.
Power is evidently settling in the Senate,
which is more permanent than the popular


House, less unwieldy, and better organized;
the House, owing to its unmanageable num
ber, the shortness of the tenure, the conse
quent inexperience of members, and the lack
of efficient organization, being comparatively
unable to bring its force to bear. It is
manifest that elections to Senatorships can be
controlled by wealth. By the equality of the
small to the large States in representation,
an oligarchical character is given to the body.
The mode of election, not by popular vote,
but by a conclave, facilitates personal corrup
tion. The people may desire to change the
mode, but the Senate has practically power
to withhold the question from their vote,
while the equal representation of the small
States, which would naturally be the most
venal, is placed beyond the power of amend
ment. The President may be and indeed
has been brought greatly under the sway
of the Senate. If to anyone such a forecast
seems visionary, let him ask himself whether a
few years ago he could have dreamed that the
principles of the Declaration of Independence
would be discarded and almost derided ; that


dominion over other races would be forcibly
assumed ; and that American citizens would
be heard passionately calling upon their Gov
ernment to shoot down as rebels people
struggling for their independence against a
foreign yoke.

Millionnairism was for some time disunited
and timid, shrinking from any visible exer
cise of its influence and even from bringing
itself under the public eye. It is now becom
ing at once bolder and more united. It is
learning to turn its wealth into power. In
the late contest its union seems to have been
almost complete. Even a Silver King obeyed,
against the bias of individual interest, the
stronger bias of his class.

The violence of the rupture between the
American Colonies of Great Britain and their
Mother Country was in itself infinitely to be
deplored ; but it had a redeeming feature ; it
preserved American originality, which, had the
filial connection continued, might have been
gradually lost. The American Colonies, after
all, were shoots thrown off from a full-grown
civilization. The general indication of history


is that greatness comes, not from such offsets,
but from the wild stock which has the germ
of independent life in itself. The Greater
Greece was much the lesser in everything
but bulk. So far as we can see, Carthage,
though an enlarged, was an inferior Tyre.
Little, except of a material kind, has hitherto
come of colonies in later days owing their
birth to adult civilization, such as those of
Spain, Portugal, Holland, or France. The
American Colonies of Great Britain were
founded, not merely by emigration, but by
secession, religious, political, or social, and
were ultimately torn away from the Mother
Country by a political convulsion. These
things together seemed to give them a life
of their own. A marked and even bitter
antagonism was for some time the result.
This, so far as the American Plutocracy is
concerned, is now giving way to the force of
social attraction. That the ancient antago
nism should cease, that all its traces should
be effaced, and its bitterness be replaced by
perfect amity, is what right-minded men on
both sides desire and do their best to bring


about. But it is not desirable, either for
America or for humanity, that American civili
zation should be reabsorbed into that of the
Old Country or that the original and inde
pendent life of America should be lost.

The rapid growth of plutocratic influence
is peculiar, in intensity at least, to the United
States. But America is also struck by the
sudden gust of Militarism and Imperialism
which threatens to reverse the progress made
by reason, economical government, and inter
national morality during the last half century ;
to give the world up again to the demon of
war; to arm every nation against the rest;
to take the bread from the mouth of labour
and spend it in the apparatus of destruction.
There seems to have come over us a sort of
satiety of civilization, a hankering for a return
to robust barbarism with its reign of force and
disregard of moral ties. Churches, most of
them, are carried away by the prevailing im
pulse, and lend the sanction of the Gospel to
the love of war. The change of sentiment


extends even to sports. Prize-fighting comes
again into vogue; and a prize-fight has been
attended by women. Of each of the principal
European nations a vast proportion is in arms,
withdrawn from productive industry, the fruits
of which it consumes ; though between the
people of one nation and the people of another
there is no assignable cause of quarrel. Those
who hold the theory of tides in human history,
may point to this as a tidal wave. But the
chief cause of the cataclysm probably is the
weakening by scepticism of our allegiance to
religious principles of humanity and fraternity
which hitherto have not only been formally
held sacred, but retained a certain amount
of real force. In the age of Machiavel an
eclipse of religious faith was attended by a
loosening of morality. The present eclipse
of religious faith seems to be producing a
similar effect. A writer, defending the an
nexation of Cuba in defiance of pledges, says
that " if morality is outraged, it must look for
compensation elsewhere." He gives frank
expression to a growing sentiment.

We all know that war is, and till human


nature shall have been greatly changed, will
be necessary for self-defence or for the police
of nations. We all know that the profession
of arms is consequently indispensable. We all
know that the character of the soldier has its
special virtues, with which society could hardly
afford to part; though the soldier s unreason
ing submission to discipline is a different thing
from a freeman s reasonable submission to law ;
while the idea that the discipline of the camp
is the only discipline is belied by the service of
our railways, our mercantile marine, and all our
great industrial establishments. But now come
teachers, ecclesiastical dignitaries among the
number, who tell us that war is not only an
occasional necessity, but a good thing in itself,
and a moral tonic "saving nations from the
eating canker of those vices which too often
grow up in a long continuance of peace." The
words are those of an eminent English ecclesi
astic who does not shrink from quoting such
lines as,

" That God s most perfect instrument,
In working out a pure intent,
Is man arrayed for mutual slaughter
Yea, Carnage is His daughter."


" War," says the same writer in a high-strung
passage, " is but the collective form of the age
long, unceasing conflict of the human race
against the usurpations of tyrannous evil. It
is a fraction of that Armageddon struggle,
described in the Apocalypse, in which the Son
of God rides forth at the head of all His saints
to subdue the machinations of the devil and
his angels." Such language held in such a
quarter surely warns us of the existence of an
extraordinary excitement against which we shall
do well to be on our guard.

" There are whole books of the Old Testa
ment," we are told, " which ring with the clash
of conflict." There are books of the Old

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Online LibraryGoldwin SmithCommonwealth or empire, a bystander's view of the question → online text (page 1 of 4)