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his rights and duties; but these factors are closely bound up with the
others which concern the rights and privileges of one’s neighbour. We
may sketch these briefly. Deeply as he feels his own rights, the
American is not less conscious of those of his neighbour. He does not
forget that his neighbour may not be molested and must have every
opportunity for development and the pursuit of his ambitions, and this
without scrutiny or supervision. He recognizes the other’s equal voice
and influence in public affairs, his equally sincere sense of duty and
fidelity to it. This altruism expresses itself variously in practical
life. Firstly, in a complete subordination to the majority. In America
the dissenting minority displays remarkable discipline, and if the
majority has formally taken action, one hears no grumbling or quibbling
from the discontented, whether among boys at play or men who have
everything at stake. The outvoiced minority is self-controlled and
good-natured and ready at once to take part in the work which the
majority has laid out; and herein lies one of the clearest results of
the American system and one of the superior traits of American

Closely related to this is another trait which lends to American life
much of its intrinsic worth—the unconditional insistence in any
competition on equal rights for both sides. The demand for “fair play”
dominates the whole American people, and shapes public opinion in all
matters whether large or small. And with this, finally, goes the belief
in the self-respect and integrity of one’s neighbour. The American
cannot understand how Europeans so often reinforce their statements with
explicit mention of their honour which is at stake, as if the hearer is
likely to feel a doubt about it; and even American children are often
apt to wonder at young people abroad who quarrel at play and at once
suspect one another of some unfairness. The American system does not
wait for years of discretion to come before exerting its influence; it
makes itself felt in the nursery, where already the word of one child is
never doubted by his playmates.

Here too, however, the brightest light will cast a shadow. Every
intelligent American is somewhat sadly aware that the vote of a majority
is no solution of a problem, and he realizes oftener than he will admit
that faith in the majority is pure nonsense if theoretical principles
are at issue. This is a system which compels him always where a genius
is required to substitute a committee, and to abide by the majority
vote. The very theory of unlimited opportunity has its obvious dangers
arising, here as everywhere, from extremes of feeling and so
exaggeration of the principle. The recognition of another’s rights leads
naturally to a sympathy for the weaker, which is as often as not
unjustified, and easily runs over into sentimentalism, not to say an
actual hysteria of solicitude. And this is in fact a phase of public
opinion which stands in striking contrast to the exuberant health of the
nation. What is even worse, the ever-sensitive desire not to interfere
in another’s rights leads to the shutting of one’s eyes and letting the
other do what he likes, even if it is unjust. And in this way a
situation is created which encourages the unscrupulous and rewards

For a long time the blackest spot on American life, specially in the
opinion of German critics, has been the corruption in municipal and
other politics. We need not now review the facts. It is enough to point
out that a comparison with conditions in Germany, say, is entirely
misleading if it is supposed to yield conclusions as to the moral
character of the American people. Unscrupulous persons who are keen for
plunder, are to be found everywhere; merely the conditions under which
the German public service has developed and now maintains itself make it
almost impossible for a reprobate of that sort to force his entrance.
And if a German official were discovered in dishonest practices it would
be, in fact, discrediting to the people. In America the situation is
almost reversed. The conditions on which, according to the American
system, the lesser officials secure their positions, specially in
municipal governments, and the many chances of enriching oneself
unlawfully and yet without liability to arrest, while the regular
remuneration and above all the social dignity of the positions are
relatively small, drive away the better elements of the population and
draw on the inferior. The charge against the Americans, then, should not
be that they make dishonest officials, but that they permit a system
which allows dishonest persons to become officials. This is truly a
serious reproach, yet it is not a charge of contemptible dishonesty but
of inexcusable complacency; and this springs from the national weakness
of leniency toward one’s neighbour, a trait which comes near to being a
fundamental democratic virtue. It cannot be denied, moreover, that the
whole nation is earnestly and successfully working to overcome this

The denunciations of the daily papers, however, must not be taken as an
indication of this, for the uncurbed American press makes the merest
unfounded suspicion an occasion for sensational accusations. Any one who
has compared in recent years the records of unquestionably impartial
judicial processes with the charges which had previously been made in
the papers, must be very sceptical as to the hue and cry of corruption.
Even municipal politics are much better than they are painted. The
easiest way of overcoming every evil would be to remove the public
service from popular and party influences, but this is, of course, not
feasible since it would endanger the most cherished prerogatives of
individualism. Besides, the American is comforted about his situation
because he knows that just this direct efficiency of the people’s will
is the surest means of thoroughly uprooting the evil as soon as it
becomes really threatening. He may be patient or indifferent too long,
but if he is once aroused he finds in his system a strong and ready
instrument for suddenly overturning an administration and putting
another in its stead. Moreover, if corruption becomes too unblushing an
“educational campaign” is always in order. James Bryce, who is of all
Europeans the one most thoroughly acquainted with American party
politics, gives his opinion, that the great mass of civil officials in
the United States is no more corrupt than that of England or Germany. An
American would add, however, that they excel their European rivals in a
better disposition and greater readiness to be of service.

But the situation is complicated by still another tendency which makes
the fight for clean and disinterested politics difficult. The spirit of
self-direction involves a political philosophy which is based on the
individual; and the whole commonwealth has no other meaning than an
adding up of the rights of separate individuals, so that every proposal
must benefit some individual or other if it is to commend itself for
adoption. Now since the state is a collection of numberless individuals
and the law merely a pledge between them all, the honour of the state
and the majesty of the law do not attach to a well organized and
peculiarly exalted collective will, which stands above the individual.
Such a thing would seem to an individualist a hollow abstraction, for
state and law consist only in the rights and responsibilities of such as
he. From this more or less explicitly formulated conception of political
life there accrue to society both advantages and dangers. The advantages
are obvious: the Mephistophelian saying, “Vernunft wird Unsinn, Wohltat
Plage,” becomes unthinkable, since the body-politic is continually
tested and held in check by the lively interests of individuals. Any
obvious injustice can be righted, for above the common weal stands the
great army of individuals by whom and for whom both state and law were

But the disadvantages follow as well. If state and law are only a mutual
restraint agreed on between individuals, the feeling of restraint
becomes lively in proportion as the particular individuals in question
can be pointed to, but vanishingly weak when, in a more intangible way,
the abstract totality requires allegiance. So one finds the finest
feeling for justice in cases of obligation to an individual, as in
contracts, for instance, and the minimum sense of right where the duty
is toward the state. There is no country of Europe where the sense of
individual right so pervades all classes of the inhabitants, a fact
which stands in no wise contradictory to the other prevalent tendency of
esteeming too lightly one’s righteous obligations to city or state. Men
who, in the interests of their corporations, try to influence in
irregular ways the professional politicians in the legislatures, observe
nevertheless in private life the most rigid principles of right; and
many a one who could safely be trusted by the widows and orphans of his
city with every cent which they own, would still be very apt to make a
false declaration of his taxable property.

There is a parallel case in the sphere of criminal law. Possibly even
more than the abuses of American municipal politics, the crimes of lynch
courts have brought down the condemnation of the civilized world.
Corruption and “lynch justice” are usually thought of as the two
blemishes on the nation, and it is from them that the casual observer in
Europe gets a very unfavourable impression of the American conception of
justice. We have already tried to rectify this estimate in so far as it
includes corruption, and as regards lynching it is perhaps even more in
error. Lynch violence is of course not to be excused. Crime is crime;
and the social psychologist is interested only in deciding what rubric
to put it under. Now the entire development of lynch action shows that
it is not the wanton violence of men who have no sense of right, but
rather the frenzied fulfillment of that which we have termed the
individualistic conception of justice. The typical case of lynching is
found, of course, in Southern States with a considerable negro
population. A negro will have attempted violence on a white woman,
whereon all the white men of the neighbourhood, assuming that through
the influence of his fellow negroes the criminal would not be duly
convicted, or else feeling that the regular legal penalty would not
suffice to deter others from the same crime, violently seize the culprit
from out the jurisdiction of the law, and after a summary popular trial
hang him. But these are not men who are merely seeking a victim to their
brutal instinct for murder. It is reported that after the deed, when the
horrid crime has been horribly expiated, the participants will quietly
and almost solemnly shake one another by the hand and disperse
peacefully to their homes, as if they had fulfilled a sacred obligation
of citizenship. These are men imbued with the individualistic notion of
society, confident that law is not a thing whose validity extends beyond
themselves, but something which they have freely framed and adopted, and
which they both may and must annul or disregard as soon as the
conditions which made it necessary are altered. It is a matter of course
that such presumption is abhorred and condemned in the more highly
civilized states of the Union, also by the better classes in the
Southern States; and a lyncher is legally a murderer. His deed, however,
is not to be referred psychologically to a deficient sense of justice.
That which is the foundation of this sense, resentment at an
infringement of the individual’s rights and belief in the connection
between sin and expiation, are all too vividly realized in his soul.

We have dwelt on these two offshoots of the individualistic idea of law
because they have been used constantly to distort the true picture of
American character. Rightly understood, psychologically, these phenomena
are seen to be black and ugly incidents, which have little to do with
the national consciousness of right and honour; they are the regrettable
accompaniments of an extreme individualism, which in its turn, to be
sure, grows naturally out of the doctrine of self-direction. Every
American knows that it is one of the most sacred duties of the land to
fight against these abuses, and yet the foreigner should not be deceived
into thinking, because so and so many negroes are informally disposed of
each year, and the politicians of Philadelphia or Chicago continue to
stuff their pockets with spoils in ways which are legally unpunishable,
that the American is not thoroughly informed with a respect for law. He
has not taken his instruction in the system of self-direction in vain.
And the German who estimates the tone of political life in America by
the corruption and lynch violence narrated in the daily papers, is like
the American who makes up his opinion of the German army, as he
sometimes does, from the harangues of social democrats on the abuses of
military officers, or from sensational disclosures of small garrisons on
the frontier.

One more trait must be mentioned, finally, which is characteristic of
every individualistic community, and which, having been impressed on the
individual by the American system, has now reacted and contributed much
to the working out of this system. The American possesses an astonishing
gift for rapid organization. His highest talents are primarily along
this line, and in the same way every individual has an instinct for
stationing himself at the right place in any organization. This is true
both high and low, and can be observed on every occasion, whether in the
concerted action of labouring men, in a street accident, or in any sort
of popular demonstration. For instance, one has only to notice how
quickly and naturally the public forms in orderly procession before a
ticket-office. This sure instinct for organization, which is such an
admirable complement to the spirit of initiative, gives to the American
workman his superiority over the European, for it is lamentably lacking
in the latter, and can be replaced only by the strictest discipline. But
this instinct finds its fullest expression in the political sphere. It
is this which creates parties, guarantees the efficiency of
legislatures, preserves the discipline of the state, and is in general
the most striking manifestation of the spirit of self-direction. But we
have seen that none of the merits of this system are quite without their
drawbacks, and this gift for organization has also its dangers. The
political parties which it fosters may become political “machines,” and
the party leader a “boss”—but here we are already in the midst of those
political institutions with which we must deal more in detail.

_Political Parties_

The Presidency is the highest peak in the diversified range of political
institutions, and may well be the first to occupy our attention. But
this chief executive office may be looked at in several relations:
firstly, it is one of the three divisions of the Government, which are
the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. And these might well
be considered in this order. But, on the other hand, the President
stands at the head of the federation of states; and the structural
beauty of the American political edifice consists in the repetition of
the whole in each part and of the part in every smaller part, and so on
down. The top governmental stratum of the federation is repeated on a
smaller scale at the head of each of the forty-five states, and again,
still smaller, over every city. The governor of a state has in narrower
limits the functions of the President, and so, within still narrower,
has the mayor of a city. We might, then, consider the highest office,
and after that its smaller counterparts in the order of their

But neither of these methods of treatment would bring out the most
important connection. It is possible to understand the President apart
from the miniature presidents of the separate states, or apart from the
Supreme Court, or even Congress, but it is not possible to understand
the President without taking account of the political parties. It is the
party which selects its candidate, elects him to office, and expects
from him in return party support and party politics. The same is true,
moreover, of elections to Congress and to the state legislatures. For
here again the party is the background to which everything is naturally
referred, and any description of the President, or Congress, or the
courts, which, like the original Constitution, makes no mention of the
parties, appears to us to-day as lacking in plastic reality, in
historical perspective. We shall, therefore, attempt no such artificial
analysis, but rather describe together the constitutional government and
the inofficial party formations. They imply and explain each other. Then
on this background of party activities we can view more comprehensively
the President, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the entire politics of
the federation and the states.

We must not forget, however, that in separating any of these factors
from the rest, we deal at once with highly artificial abstractions, so
that this description will have continually to neglect many facts and
cut the threads that cross its path. The history of the American
Presidency shows at all times its close connection with other
institutions. A treaty or even a nomination by the President requires
the ratification of the Senate before it is valid; and on the other
side, the President can veto any bill of Congress. Even the Supreme
Court and the President can hardly be considered apart, as was seen, for
instance, in the time of Cleveland, when his fiscal policy took final
shape in an income tax which the Supreme Court declared
unconstitutional, and therefore unlawful; or again when the colonial
policy of McKinley was upheld and validated by a decision of the same
court. Again, the party politics of state and town are no less
intimately related to the federal government and the Presidency. Here,
too, the leadings are in both directions; local politics condition the
national, and these in turn dominate the local. Cleveland was a man who
had never played a part in national politics until he became the
executive head of the nation. As Mayor of Buffalo he had been so
conspicuous throughout the State of New York as to be elected Governor
of that state, and then in the state politics so won the confidence of
his party as to be nominated and elected to the highest national office.
McKinley, on the other hand, although he, too, had been the Governor of
a state, nevertheless gained the confidence of his party during his long
term of service in Congress.

Similarly it may be said that local politics are the natural path which
leads to any national position, whether that of senator or
representative. And inversely the great federal problems play an often
decisive rôle in the politics of the states with which they strictly
have no connection. Federal party lines divide legislatures from the
largest to the smallest, and even figure in the municipal elections.
Unreasonable as it may seem, it is a fact that the great national
questions, such as expansion, free trade, and the gold standard, divide
the voters of a small village into opposing groups when they have to
elect merely some one to the police or street-cleaning department. It
is, therefore, never a question of a mechanical co-ordination and
independence of parts, but of an organic interdependence, and every
least district of the Union is thoroughly _en rapport_ with the central
government and doings of the national parties.

There are political parties in every country, but none like the American
parties. The English system presents the nearest analogy, with its two
great parties, but the similarity is merely superficial and extends to
no essential points. Even in the comparison between America and Germany
it is not the greater number of the German parties that makes the real
difference. For the German his party is in the narrower sense a group of
legislators, or, more broadly, these legislators together with the
general body of their constituents. The party has in a way concrete
reality only in the act of voting and the representation in parliament
of certain principles. Of course, even in Germany there exists some
organization between the multitude of voters and the small group which
they return to the Reichstag. Party directors, who are for the most part
the representatives themselves, central committees and local directors,
local clubs and assemblies are all necessary to stir up the voters and
to attend to various formalities of the election; but no one has dreamt
of a horde of professional politicians who are not legislators, of party
leaders who are more powerful than the representative to be elected, or
of parties which are stronger than either the parliament or the people.
The American party is first of all a closely knit organization with
extensive machinery and rigid discipline; to be represented in Congress
or legislature is only one of its many objects.

This situation is, however, no accident. One may easily understand the
incomparable machinery and irresistible might of the parties, if one but
realizes a few of the essential factors in American party life. First,
of course, comes the tremendous extent of the field in which the
citizens’ ballots have the decision. If it were as it is in the German
elections to the imperial diet, the American party organization would
never have become what it is. But besides the elections to Congress, the
state legislatures and local assemblies, there is the direct choice to
be made for President, vice-president, governor, the principal state
officials and deputies, judges of the appellate court, mayor and city
officials, and many others. The entire responsibility falls on the
voters, since the doctrine of self-direction ordains that only citizens
of the state shall vote for state officials, and of the city for city
officers. The governor, unlike an “Oberpräsident,” is not appointed by
the Government, nor a mayor by any authority outside his city. The voter
is nowhere to be politically disburdened of responsibility. But, with
the direct suffrage, his sphere of action is only begun. Almost every
one of the men he elects has in turn to make further appointments and
choices. The members of a state legislature elect senators to Congress,
and both governor and mayor name many officials, but most of all, the
President has to give out offices from ambassadors and ministers down to
village postmasters and light-house keepers, in all of which there is
ample chance to put the adherents of one’s party in influential
positions. Thus the functions of the American voter are incomparably
more important and far-reaching than those of the German voter.

But even with this, the political duties of the American citizen in
connection with his party are not exhausted. The spirit of
self-direction demands the carrying out of a principle which is unknown
to the German politician. The choice and nomination of a candidate for
election must be made by the same voting public; it must be carried on
by the same parliamentary methods, and decided strictly by a majority
vote. There are in theory no committees or head officials to relieve the
voting public of responsibility, by themselves benignly apportioning the
various offices among the candidates. A party may propose but one
candidate for each office, whereas there will often be several men
within the party who wish to be candidates for the same office, as for
instance, that of mayor, city counsellor, or treasurer. In every case
the members of a party have to select the official nominee of their
party by casting ballots, and thus it may happen that the contest
between groups within the party may be livelier than the ultimate battle
between the parties.

Now on a large scale such transactions can be no longer carried on
directly. All the citizens of the state cannot come together to nominate
the party candidate for governor. For this purpose, therefore, electors
have to be chosen, every one by a strict majority vote, and these meet
to fix finally on the candidates of the party. And when it comes to the
President of the whole country, the voting public elects a congress of

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Online LibraryHugo MünsterbergThe Americans → online text (page 4 of 10)