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American Political Ideas Viewed from the Standpoint of Universal History online

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Three Lectures



_Voici un fait entièrement nouveau dans le monde, et dont l'imagination
elle-même ne saurait saisir la portée._






I dedicate this Book


In the spring of 1879 I gave at the Old South Meeting-house in Boston a
course of lectures on the discovery and colonization of America, and
presently, through the kindness of my friend Professor Huxley, the
course was repeated at University College in London. The lectures there
were attended by very large audiences, and awakened such an interest in
American history that I was invited to return to England in the
following year and treat of some of the philosophical aspects of my
subject in a course of lectures at the Royal Institution.

In the three lectures which were written in response to this invitation,
and which are now published in this little volume, I have endeavoured to
illustrate some of the fundamental ideas of American politics by setting
forth their relations to the general history of mankind. It is
impossible thoroughly to grasp the meaning of any group of facts, in any
department of study, until we have duly compared them with allied groups
of facts; and the political history of the American people can be
rightly understood only when it is studied in connection with that
general process of political evolution which has been going on from the
earliest times, and of which it is itself one of the most important and
remarkable phases. The government of the United States is not the result
of special creation, but of evolution. As the town-meetings of New
England are lineally descended from the village assemblies of the early
Aryans; as our huge federal union was long ago foreshadowed in the
little leagues of Greek cities and Swiss cantons; so the great political
problem which we are (thus far successfully) solving is the very same
problem upon which all civilized peoples have been working ever since
civilization began. How to insure peaceful concerted action throughout
the Whole, without infringing upon local and individual freedom in the
Parts, - this has ever been the chief aim of civilization, viewed on its
political side; and we rate the failure or success of nations
politically according to their failure or success in attaining this
supreme end. When thus considered in the light of the comparative
method, our American history acquires added dignity and interest, and a
broad and rational basis is secured for the detailed treatment of
political questions.

When viewed in this light, moreover, not only does American history
become especially interesting to Englishmen, but English history is
clothed with fresh interest for Americans. Mr. Freeman has done well in
insisting upon the fact that the history of the English people does not
begin with the Norman Conquest. In the deepest and widest sense, our
American history does not begin with the Declaration of Independence, or
even with the settlements of Jamestown and Plymouth; but it descends in
unbroken continuity from the days when stout Arminius in the forests of
northern Germany successfully defied the might of imperial Rome. In a
more restricted sense, the statesmanship of Washington and Lincoln
appears in the noblest light when regarded as the fruition of the
various work of De Montfort and Cromwell and Chatham. The good fight
begun at Lewes and continued at Naseby and Quebec was fitly crowned at
Yorktown and at Appomattox. When we duly realize this, and further come
to see how the two great branches of the English race have the common
mission of establishing throughout the larger part of the earth a higher
civilization and more permanent political order than any that has gone
before, we shall the better understand the true significance of the
history which English-speaking men have so magnificently wrought out
upon American soil.

In dealing concisely with a subject so vast, only brief hints and
suggestions can be expected; and I have not thought it worth while, for
the present at least, to change or amplify the manner of treatment. The
lectures are printed exactly as they were delivered at the Royal
Institution, more than four years ago. On one point of detail some
change will very likely by and by be called for. In the lecture on the
Town-meeting I have adopted the views of Sir Henry Maine as to the
common holding of the arable land in the ancient German mark, and as to
the primitive character of the periodical redistribution of land in the
Russian village community. It now seems highly probable that these views
will have to undergo serious modification in consequence of the valuable
evidence lately brought forward by my friend Mr. Denman Ross, in his
learned and masterly treatise on "The Early History of Landholding among
the Germans;" but as I am not yet quite clear as to how far this
modification will go, and as it can in nowise affect the general drift
of my argument, I have made no change in my incidental remarks on this
difficult and disputed question.

In describing some of the characteristic features of country life in New
England, I had especially in mind the beautiful mountain village in
which this preface is written, and in which for nearly a quarter of a
century I have felt myself more at home than in any other spot in
the world.

In writing these lectures, designed as they were for a special occasion,
no attempt was made to meet the ordinary requirements of popular
audiences; yet they have been received in many places with unlooked-for
favour. The lecture on "Manifest Destiny" was three times repeated in
London, and once in Edinburgh; seven times in Boston; four times in New
York; twice in Brooklyn, N.Y., Plainfield, N.J., and Madison, Wis.; once
in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati,
Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Milwaukee; in Appleton and Waukesha, Wis.;
Portland, Lewiston, and Brunswick, Me.; Lowell, Concord, Newburyport,
Peabody, Stoneham, Maiden, Newton Highlands, and Martha's Vineyard,
Mass.; Middletown and Stamford, Conn.; Newburg and Poughkeepsie, N.Y.;
Orange, N.J.; and at Cornell University and Haverford College. In
several of these places the course was given.

PETERSHAM, _September 13, 1884_.




Differences in outward aspect between a village in England and a village
in Massachusetts. Life in a typical New England mountain village. Tenure
of land, domestic service, absence of poverty and crime, universality of
labour and of culture, freedom of thought, complete democracy. This
state of things is to some extent passing away. Remarkable
characteristics of the Puritan settlers of New England, and extent to
which their characters and aims have influenced American history. Town
governments in New England. Different meanings of the word "city" in
England and America. Importance of local self-government in the
political life of the United States. Origin of the town-meeting. Mr.
Freeman on the cantonal assemblies of Switzerland. The old Teutonic
"mark," or dwelling-place of a clan. Political union originally based,
not on territorial contiguity, but on blood-relationship. Divisions of
the mark. Origin of the village Common. The _mark-mote_. Village
communities in Russia and Hindustan. Difference between the despotism of
Russia and that of France under the Old Régime. Elements of sound
political life fostered by the Russian village. Traces of the mark in
England. Feudalization of Europe, and partial metamorphosis of the mark
or township into the manor. Parallel transformation of the township, in
some of its features, into the parish. The court leet and the
vestry-meeting. The New England town-meeting a revival of the ancient

Vicissitudes of local self-government in the various portions of the
Aryan world illustrated in the contrasted cases of France and England.
Significant contrast between the aristocracy of England and that of the
Continent. Difference between the Teutonic conquests of Gaul and of
Britain. Growth of centralization in France. Why the English have always
been more successful than the French in founding colonies. Struggle
between France and England for the possession of North America, and
prodigious significance of the victory of England.



Wonderful greatness of ancient Athens. Causes of the political failure
of Greek civilization. Early stages of political aggregation, - the
_hundred_, the [Greek: _phratria_], the _curia_; the _shire_, the
_deme_, and the _pagus_. Aggregation of clans into tribes. Differences
in the mode of aggregation in Greece and Rome on the one hand, and in
Teutonic countries on the other. The Ancient City. Origin of cities in
Hindustan, Germany, England, and the United States. Religious character
of the ancient city. Burghership not granted to strangers. Consequences
of the political difference between the Graeco-Roman city and the
Teutonic shire. The _folk-mote_, or primary assembly, and the
_witenagemote_, or assembly of notables. Origin of representative
government in the Teutonic shire. Representation unknown to the Greeks
and Romans. The ancient city as a school for political training.
Intensity of the jealousies and rivalries between adjacent
self-governing groups of men. Smallness of simple social aggregates and
universality of warfare in primitive times. For the formation of larger
and more complex social aggregates, only two methods are
practicable, - _conquest_ or _federation_. Greek attempts at employing
the higher method, that of federation. The Athenian hegemony and its
overthrow. The Achaian and Aetolian leagues. In a low stage of political
development the Roman method of _conquest with incorporation_ was the
only one practicable. Peculiarities of the Roman conquest of Italy.
Causes of the universal dominion of Rome. Advantages and disadvantages
of this dominion: - on the one hand the _pax romana_, and the breaking
down of primitive local superstitions and prejudices; on the other hand
the partial extinction of local self-government. Despotism inevitable in
the absence of representation. Causes of the political failure of the
Roman system. Partial reversion of Europe, between the fifth and
eleventh centuries, towards a more primitive type of social structure.
Power of Rome still wielded through the Church and the imperial
jurisprudence. Preservation of local self-government in England, and at
the two ends of the Rhine. The Dutch and Swiss federations. The lesson
to be learned from Switzerland. Federation on a great scale could only
be attempted successfully by men of English political training, when
working without let or hindrance in a vast country not preoccupied by an
old civilization. Without local self-government a great Federal Union is
impossible. Illustrations from American history. Difficulty of the
problem, and failure of the early attempts at federation in New
England. Effects of the war for independence. The "Articles of
Confederation" and the "Constitution." Pacific implications of American



The Americans boast of the bigness of their country. How to "bound" the
United States. "Manifest Destiny" of the "Anglo-Saxon Race." The term
"Anglo-Saxon" slovenly and misleading. Statements relating to the
"English Race" have a common interest for Americans and for Englishmen.
Work of the English race in the world. The prime feature of civilization
is the diminution of warfare, which becomes possible only through the
formation of great political aggregates in which the parts retain their
local and individual freedom. In the earlier stages of civilization, the
possibility of peace can be guaranteed only through war, but the
preponderant military strength is gradually concentrated in the hands of
the most pacific communities, and by the continuance of this process the
permanent peace of the world will ultimately be secured. Illustrations
from the early struggles of European civilization with outer barbarism,
and with aggressive civilizations of lower type. Greece and Persia.
Keltic and Teutonic enemies of Rome. The defensible frontier of European
civilization carried northward and eastward to the Rhine by Caesar; to
the Oder by Charles the Great; to the Vistula by the Teutonic Knights;
to the Volga and the Oxus by the Russians. Danger in the Dark Ages from
Huns and Mongols on the one hand, from Mussulmans on the other. Immense
increase of the area and physical strength of European civilization,
which can never again be in danger from outer barbarism. Effect of all
this secular turmoil upon the political institutions of Europe. It
hindered the formation of closely coherent nations, and was at the same
time an obstacle to the preservation of popular liberties. Tendency
towards the _Asiaticization_ of European life. Opposing influences of
the Church, and of the Germanic tribal organizations. Military type of
society on the Continent. Old Aryan self-government happily preserved in
England. Strategic position of England favourable to the early
elimination of warfare from her soil. Hence the exceptionally normal and
plastic political development of the English race. Significant
coincidence of the discovery of America with the beginnings of the
Protestant revolt against the asiaticizing tendency. Significance of the
struggle between Spain, France, and England for the possession of an
enormous area of virgin soil which should insure to the conqueror an
unprecedented opportunity for future development. The race which gained
control of North America must become the dominant race of the world, and
its political ideas must prevail in the struggle for life. Moral
significance of the rapid increase of the English race in America.
Fallacy of the notion that centralized governments are needed for very
large nations. It is only through federalism, combined with local
self-government, that the stability of so huge an aggregate as the
United States can be permanently maintained. What the American
government really fought for in the late Civil War. Magnitude of the
results achieved. Unprecedented military strength shown by this most
pacific and industrial of peoples. Improbability of any future attempt
to break up the Federal Union. Stupendous future of the English
race, - in Africa, in Australia, and in the islands of the Pacific
Ocean. Future of the English language. Probable further adoption of
federalism. Probable effects upon Europe of industrial competition with
the United States: impossibility of keeping up the present military
armaments. The States of Europe will be forced, by pressure of
circumstances, into some kind of federal union. A similar process will
go on until the whole of mankind shall constitute a single political
body, and warfare shall disappear forever from the face of the earth.




The traveller from the Old World, who has a few weeks at his disposal
for a visit to the United States, usually passes straight from one to
another of our principal cities, such as Boston, New York, Washington,
or Chicago, stopping for a day or two perhaps at Niagara Falls, - or,
perhaps, after traversing a distance like that which separates England
from Mesopotamia, reaches the vast table-lands of the Far West and
inspects their interesting fauna of antelopes and buffaloes, red Indians
and Mormons. In a journey of this sort one gets a very superficial view
of the peculiarities, physical and social, which characterize the
different portions of our country; and in this there is nothing to
complain of, since the knowledge gained in a vacation-journey cannot
well be expected to be thorough or profound. The traveller, however,
who should visit the United States in a more leisurely way, with the
purpose of increasing his knowledge of history and politics, would find
it well to proceed somewhat differently. He would find himself richly
repaid for a sojourn in some insignificant place the very name of which
is unknown beyond sea, - just as Mr. Mackenzie Wallace - whose book on
Russia is a model of what such books should be - got so much invaluable
experience from his months of voluntary exile at Ivánofka in the
province of Novgorod. Out of the innumerable places which one might
visit in America, there are none which would better reward such careful
observation, or which are more full of interest for the comparative
historian, than the rural towns and mountain villages of New England;
that part of English America which is oldest in civilization (though not
in actual date of settlement), and which, while most completely English
in blood and in traditions, is at the same time most completely American
in so far as it has most distinctly illustrated and most successfully
represented those political ideas which have given to American history
its chief significance in the general work of civilization.

The United States are not unfrequently spoken of as a "new country," in
terms which would be appropriate if applied to Australia or New Zealand,
and which are not inappropriate as applied to the vast region west of
the Mississippi River, where the white man had hardly set foot before
the beginning of the present century. New England, however, has a
history which carries us back to the times of James I.; and while its
cities are full of such bustling modern life as one sees in Liverpool or
Manchester or Glasgow, its rural towns show us much that is
old-fashioned in aspect, - much that one can approach in an antiquarian
spirit. We are there introduced to a phase of social life which is
highly interesting on its own account and which has played an important
part in the world, yet which, if not actually passing away, is at least
becoming so rapidly modified as to afford a theme for grave reflections
to those who have learned how to appreciate its value. As any
far-reaching change in the condition of landed property in England, due
to agricultural causes, might seriously affect the position of one of
the noblest and most useful aristocracies that has ever existed; so, on
the other hand, as we consider the possible action of similar causes
upon the _personnel_ and upon the occupations of rural New England, we
are unwillingly forced to contemplate the possibility of a
deterioration in the character of the most perfect democracy the world
has ever seen.

In the outward aspect of a village in Massachusetts or Connecticut, the
feature which would be most likely first to impress itself upon the mind
of a visitor from England is the manner in which the village is laid out
and built. Neither in England nor anywhere else in western Europe have I
ever met with a village of the New England type. In English villages one
finds small houses closely crowded together, sometimes in blocks of ten
or a dozen, and inhabited by people belonging to the lower orders of
society; while the fine houses of gentlemen stand quite apart in the
country, perhaps out of sight of one another, and surrounded by very
extensive grounds. The origin of the village, in a mere aggregation of
tenants of the lord of the manor, is thus vividly suggested. In France
one is still more impressed, I think, with this closely packed structure
of the village. In the New England village, on the other hand, the finer
and the poorer houses stand side by side along the road. There are wide
straight streets overarched with spreading elms and maples, and on
either side stand the houses, with little green lawns in front, called
in rustic parlance "door-yards." The finer houses may stand a thousand
feet apart from their neighbours on either side, while between the
poorer ones there may be intervals of from twenty to one hundred feet,
but they are never found crowded together in blocks. Built in this
capacious fashion, a village of a thousand inhabitants may have a main
street more than a mile in length, with half a dozen crossing streets
losing themselves gradually in long stretches of country road. The
finest houses are not ducal palaces, but may be compared with the
ordinary country-houses of gentlemen in England. The poorest houses are
never hovels, such as one sees in the Scotch Highlands. The picturesque
and cosy cottage at Shottery, where Shakespeare used to do his courting,
will serve very well as a sample of the humblest sort of old-fashioned
New England farm-house. But most of the dwellings in the village come
between these extremes. They are plain neat wooden houses, in
capaciousness more like villas than cottages. A New England village
street, laid out in this way, is usually very picturesque and beautiful,
and it is highly characteristic. In comparing it with things in Europe,
where one rarely finds anything at all like it, one must go to something
very different from a village. As you stand in the Court of Heroes at
Versailles and look down the broad and noble avenue that leads to
Paris, the effect of the vista is much like that of a New England
village street. As American villages grow into cities, the increase in
the value of land usually tends to crowd the houses together into blocks
as in a European city. But in some of our western cities founded and
settled by people from New England, this spacious fashion of building
has been retained for streets occupied by dwelling-houses. In
Cleveland - a city on the southern shore of Lake Erie, with a population
about equal to that of Edinburgh - there is a street some five or six
miles in length and five hundred feet in width, bordered on each side
with a double row of arching trees, and with handsome stone houses, of
sufficient variety and freedom in architectural design, standing at
intervals of from one to two hundred feet along the entire length of the
street. The effect, it is needless to add, is very noble indeed. The
vistas remind one of the nave and aisles of a huge cathedral.

Now this generous way in which a New England village is built is very
closely associated with the historical origin of the village and with
the peculiar kind of political and social life by which it is
characterized. First of all, it implies abundance of land. As a rule the
head of each family owns the house in which he lives and the ground on
which it is built. The relation of landlord and tenant, though not
unknown, is not commonly met with. No sort of social distinction or
political privilege is associated with the ownership of land; and the
legal differences between real and personal property, especially as
regards ease of transfer, have been reduced to the smallest minimum that
practical convenience will allow. Each householder, therefore, though an
absolute proprietor, cannot be called a miniature lord of the manor,
because there exists no permanent dependent class such as is implied in
the use of such a phrase. Each larger proprietor attends in person to
the cultivation of his own land, assisted perhaps by his own sons or by
neighbours working for hire in the leisure left over from the care of
their own smaller estates. So in the interior of the house there is
usually no domestic service that is not performed by the mother of the
family and the daughters. Yet in spite of this universality of manual
labour, the people are as far as possible from presenting the appearance
of peasants. Poor or shabbily-dressed people are rarely seen, and there
is no one in the village whom it would be proper to address in a
patronizing tone, or who would not consider it a gross insult to be
offered a shilling. As with poverty, so with dram-drinking and with
crime; all alike are conspicuous by their absence. In a village of one
thousand inhabitants there will be a poor-house where five or six
decrepit old people are supported at the common charge; and there will
be one tavern where it is not easy to find anything stronger to drink
than light beer or cider. The danger from thieves is so slight that it
is not always thought necessary to fasten the outer doors of the house
at night. The universality of literary culture is as remarkable as the
freedom with which all persons engage in manual labour. The village of a
thousand inhabitants will be very likely to have a public circulating
library, in which you may find Professor Huxley's "Lay Sermons" or Sir

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Online LibraryJohn FiskeAmerican Political Ideas Viewed from the Standpoint of Universal History → online text (page 1 of 8)