Maurice G. (Maurice Garland) Fulton.

National ideals and problems; essays for college English online

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might "all be true: of that I am not to be the judge. . . .
Whether I had gathered my ideas from reading or reflection, I
do not know. I know only that I turned to neither book nor
pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of
my charge to invent new ideas altogether and to offer no senti-
ment which had ever been expressed before."

Before passing from this phase of the subject, however, it
should be added that, while the Declaration of Independence
lacks originality in the sense just indicated, in another and per-
haps in a higher sense, it possesses originality it is individual-
ized by the character and by the genius of its author. Jefferson
gathered up the thoughts and emotions and even the character-
istic phrases of the people for whom he wrote, and these he per-
fectly incorporated with what was already in his mind, and then
to the music of his own keen, rich, passionate, and enkindling
style, he mustered them into that stately and triumphant pro-
cession wherein, as some of us still think, they will go march-
ing on to the world's end.

There were then in Congress several other men who could
have written the Declaration of Independence, and written it


well notably Franklin, either of the two Adamses, Richard
Henry Lee, William Livingston, and, best of all, but for his own
opposition to the measure, John Dickinson; but had any one of
these other men written the Declaration of Independence, while
it would have contained, doubtless, nearly the same topics and
nearly the same great formulas of political statement, it would
yet have been a wholly different composition from this of Jeffer-
son's. No one at all familiar with his other writings, as well as
with the writings of his chief contemporaries, could ever have a
moment's doubt, even if the fact were not already notorious,
that this document was by Jefferson. He put into it something
that was his own, and that no one else could have put there. He
put himself into it his own genius, his own moral force, his
faith in God, his faith in ideas, his love of innovation, his pas-
sion for progress, his invincible enthusiasm, his intolerance of
prescription, of injustice, of cruelty; his sympathy, his clarity of
vision, his affluence of diction, his power to fling out great
phrases which will long fire and cheer tie souls of men struggling
against political unrighteousness.

And herein lies its essential originality, perhaps the most pre-
cious, and, indeed, almost the only, originality ever attaching to
any great literary product that is representative of its time. He
made himself no improper claim, therefore, when he directed
that upon the granite obelisk at his grave should be carved the
words: "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Dec-
laration of Independence."

If the Declaration of Independence is now to be fairly judged
by us, it must be judged with reference to what it was intended
to be, namely, an impassioned manifesto of one party, and that
the weaker party, in a violent race-quarrel; of a party resolved,
at last, upon the extremity of revolution, and already menaced
by the inconceivable disaster of being defeated in the very act
of armed rebellion against the mightiest military power on earth.
This manifesto, then, is not to be censured because, being avow-
edly a statement of its own side of the quarrel, it does not also
contain a moderate and judicial statement of the opposite side;
or because, being necessarily partisan in method, it is likewise


both partisan and vehement in tone; or because it bristles with
accusations against the enemy so fierce and so unqualified as now
to seem in some respects overdrawn; or because it resounds with
certain great aphorisms about the natural rights of man, at
which, indeed, political science cannot now smile, except to its
own discomfiture and shame aphorisms which are likely to
abide hi this world as the chief source and inspiration of heroic
enterprises among men for self-deliverance from oppression.

Thus, ever since its first announcement to the world, and
down almost to the present moment, has the Declaration of
Independence been tested by criticism of every possible kind
by criticism intended and expected to be destructive. Appar-
ently, however, all this criticism has failed to accomplish its

It is proper for us to remember, also, that what we call criti-
cism is not the only valid test of the genuineness and worth of
any piece of writing of great practical interest to mankind:
there is, in addition, the test of actual use and service, in direct
contact with the common sense and the moral sense of large
masses of men, under various conditions, and for a long period.
Probably no writing which is not essentially sound and true has
ever survived this test.

Neither from this test has the great Declaration any need to
shrink. As to the immediate use for which it was sent forth
that of rallying and uniting the friends of the Revolution, and
bracing them for their great task its effectiveness was so great
and so obvious that it has never been denied. During the cen-
tury and a quarter since the Revolution, its influence on the
political character and the political conduct of the American
people has been great beyond calculation. For example, after
we had achieved our own national deliverance, and had advanced
into that enormous and somewhat corrupting material prosperity
which followed the adoption of the Constitution and the develop-
ment of the cotton-interest and the expansion of the Republic
into a trans-continental power, we fell under an appalling temp-
tation the temptation to forget, or to repudiate, or to refuse to
apply to the case of our human brethren in bondage, the


principles which we had once proclaimed as the basis of every
rightful government. The prodigious service rendered to us in
this awful moral emergency by the Declaration of Independence
was, that its public repetition, at least once every year, in the
hearing of vast throngs of the American people in every portion
of the Republic, kept constantly before our minds, in a form of
almost religious sanctity, those few great ideas as to the dignity
of human nature, and the sacredness of personality, and the
indestructible rights of man as mere man, with which we had so
gloriously identified the beginnings of our national existence.
It did at last become very hard for us to listen each year to the
preamble of the Declaration and still to remain the owners and
users and catchers of slaves; still harder, to accept the doctrine
that the righteousness and prosperity of slavery was to be ac-
cepted as the dominant policy of the nation. The logic of Cal-
houn was as flawless as usual, when he concluded that the chief
obstruction in the way of his system was the preamble of the
Declaration of Independence. Had it not been for the inviolable
sacredness given by it to those sweeping aphorisms about the
natural rights of man, it may be doubted whether Calhoun might
not have won over an immense majority of the American people
to the support of his compact and plausible scheme for making
slavery the basis of the Republic. It was the preamble of the
Declaration of Independence which elected Lincoln, which sent
forth the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave victory to
Grant, which ratified the Thirteenth Amendment.

We shall not here attempt to delineate the influence of this
state paper upon mankind in general. Of course, the emergence
of the American Republic as an imposing world-power is a phe-
nomenon which has now for many years attracted the attention
of the human race. Surely, no slight effect must have resulted
from the fact that, among all civilized peoples, the one American
document best known is the Declaration of Independence, and
that thus the spectacle of so vast and beneficent a political suc-
cess has been everywhere associated with the assertion of the
natural rights of man. "The doctrines it contained," says Buckle,
"were not merely welcomed by a majority of the French nation,


but even the government itself was unable to withstand the gen-
eral feeling." "Its effect in hastening the approach of the
French Revolution . . . was indeed most remarkable." Else-
where, also, in many lands, among many peoples, it has been
cited again and again as an inspiration to political courage, as a
model for political conduct 1 ; and if, as the brilliant historian
just alluded to has affirmed, "that noble Declaration . . .
ought to be hung up in the nursery of every king, and blazoned
on the porch of every royal palace," it is because it has become
the classic statement of political truths which must at last abolish
kings altogether, or else teach them to identify their existence
with the dignity and happiness of human nature.



[James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) added to his fame as poet and essayist
the distinction of serving as American ambassador to Spain, 1876-1880, and
to Great Britain, 1880-1885. I n this last position he performed a particu-
larly useful service in interpreting England and the United States to each
other. The famous address on Democracy, of which only the most signifi-
cant part is here printed, was delivered on the occasion of his assuming the
honorary presidency of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, England,
October 6, 1884, and expresses Lowell's native Americanism and optimistic
faith in democracy at a time when American democracy was still on the
defensive in European eyes. The selection gives the latter part of the address,
the somewhat rambling and whimsical beginning being omitted.]

Few people take the trouble of trying to find out what
democracy really is. Yet this would be a great help, for it is our
lawless and uncertain thoughts, it is the indefmiteness of our
impressions, that fill darkness, whether mental or physical, with
specters and hobgoblins. Democracy is nothing more than an
experiment in government, more likely to succeed in a new soil,
but likely to be tried in all soils, which must stand or fall on its
own merits as others have done before it. For there is no trick

J The editor of the latest edition of The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. i., Introd.
xxv., does not shrink from calling it "the paper which is probably the best known that
ever came from the pen of an individual." [Tyler's note.]


of perpetual motion in politics any more than in mechanics.
President Lincoln denned democracy to be "the government of
the people, by the people, for the people." This is a sufficiently
compact statement of it as a political arrangement. Theodore
Parker said that "Democracy meant not 'I'm as good as you are,'
but 'You're as good as I am.' " And this is the ethical conception
of it, necessary as a complement of the other; a conception which,
could it be made actual and practical, would easily solve all the
riddles that the old sphinx of political and social economy who
sits by the roadside has been proposing to mankind from the
beginning, and which mankind have shown such a singular
talent for answering wrongly. In this sense Christ was the first
true democrat that ever breathed, as the old dramatist Dekker
said He was the first true gentleman. The characters may be
easily doubled, so strong is the likeness between them. A beauti-
ful and profound parable of the Persian poet Jellaladeen tells
us that "One knocked at the Beloved's door, and a voice asked
from within, 'Who is there?' and he answered, 'It is I.' Then the
voice said, 'This house will not hold me and thee;' and the door
was not opened. Then went the lover into the desert and fasted
and prayed in solitude, and after a year he returned and knocked
again at the door; and again the voice asked, 'Who is there?'
and he said, 'It is thyself;' and the door was opened to him."
But that is idealism, you will say, and this is an only too practical
world. I grant it; but I am one of those who believe that the
real will never find an irremovable basis till it rests on the ideal.
It used to be thought that a democracy was possible only in a
small territory, and this is doubtless true of a democracy strictly
defined, for in such all the citizens decide directly upon every
question of public concern in a general assembly. An example
still survives in the tiny Swiss canton of Appenzell. But this
immediate intervention of the people in their own affairs is not of
the essence of democracy; it is not necessary, nor, indeed, in most
cases, practicable. Democracies to which Mr. Lincoln's defini-
tion would fairly enough apply have existed, and now exist, in
which, though the supreme authority reside in the people, yet
they can act only indirectly on the national policy. This genera-


tion has seen a democracy with an imperial figurehead, and in all
that have ever existed the body politic has never embraced all
the inhabitants included within its territory, the right to share
in the direction of affairs has been confined to citizens, and
citizenship has been further restricted by various limitations,
sometimes of property, sometimes of nativity, and always of age
and sex.

The framers of the American Constitution were far from wish-
ing or intending to found a democracy in the strict sense of the
word, though, as was inevitable, every expansion of the scheme
of government they elaborated has been in a democratical direc-
tion. But this has been generally the slow result of growth,
and not the sudden innovation of theory; in fact, they had a
profound disbelief in theory, and knew better than to commit
the folly of breaking with the past. They were not seduced by
the French fallacy that a new system of government could be
ordered like a new suit of clothes. They would as soon have
thought of ordering a new suit of flesh and skin. It is only on the
roaring loom of time that the stuff is woven for such a vesture of
their thought and experience as they were meditating. They
recognized fully the value of tradition and habit as the great
allies of permanence and stability. They all had that distaste
for innovation which belonged to their race, and many of them
a distrust of human nature derived from their creed. The day of
sentiment was over, and no dithyrambic affirmations or fine-
drawn analyses of the Rights of Man would serve their present
turn. This was a practical question, and they addressed them-
selves to it as men of knowledge and judgment should. Their
problem was how to adapt English principles and precedents to
the new conditions of American life, and they solved it with
singular discretion. They put as many obstacles as they could
contrive, not in the way of the people's will, but of their whim.
With few exceptions they probably admitted the logic of the
then accepted syllogism, democracy, anarchy, despotism. But
this formula was framed upon the experience of small cities shut
up to stew within their narrow walls where the number of citizens
made but an inconsiderable fraction of the inhabitants, where


every passion was reverberated from house to house and from
man to man with gathering rumor till every impulse became
gregarious and therefore inconsiderate, and every popular
assembly needed but an infusion of eloquent sophistry to turn
it into a mob, all the more dangerous because sanctified with the
formality of law.

Fortunately their case was wholly different. They were to
legislate for a widely scattered population and for States already
practiced in the discipline of a partial independence. They had
an unequaled opportunity and enormous advantages. The
material they had to work upon was already democratical by
instinct and habitude. It was tempered to their hands by more
than a century's schooling in self-government. They had but to
give permanent and conservative form to a ductile mass. In
giving impulse and direction to their new institutions, especially,
in supplying them with checks and balances, they had a great
help and safeguard in their federal organization. The different,
sometimes conflicting, interests and social systems of the several
States made existence as a Union and coalescence into a nation
conditional on a constant practice of moderation and com-
promise. The very elements of disintegration were the best
guides in political training. Their children learned the lesson of
compromise only too well, and it was the application of it to a
question of fundamental morals that cost us our civil war.
We learned once for all that compromise makes a good umbrella
but a poor roof; that it is a temporary expedient, often wise in
party politics, almost sure to be unwise in statesmanship.

Has not the trial of democracy in America proved, on the
whole, successful? If it had not, would the Old World be vexed
with any fears of its proving contagious? This trial would have
been less severe could it have been made with a people homo-
geneous in race, language, and traditions, whereas the United
States have been called on to absorb and assimilate enormous
masses of foreign population" heterogeneous in all these respects,
and drawn mainly from that class which might fairly say that
the world was not their friend, nor the world's law. The previous
condition too often justified the traditional Irishman, who,


landing in New York and asked what his politics were, inquired
if there was a Government there, and on being told that there
was, retorted, "Thin I'm agin it!" We have taken from Europe
the poorest, the most ignorant, the most turbulent of her people
and have made them over into good citizens, who have added to
our wealth, and who are ready to die in defence of a country and
of institutions which they know to be worth dying for. The
exceptions have been (and they are lamentable exceptions)
where these hordes of ignorance and poverty have coagulated
in great cities. But the social system is yet to seek which has
not to look the same terrible wolf in the eyes. On the other hand,
at this very moment Irish peasants are buying up the worn-out
farms of Massachusetts, and making them productive again by
the same virtues of industry and thrift that once made them prof-
itable to the English ancestors of the men who are deserting
them. To have achieved even these prosaic results (if you choose
to call them so), and that out of materials the most discordant,
I might say the most recalcitrant, argues a certain benefi-
cent virtue in the system that could do it, and is not to be
accounted for by mere luck. Carlyle said scornfully that
America meant only roast turkey every day for everybody.
He forgot that States, as Bacon said of wars, go on their bellies.
As for the security of property, it should be tolerably well
secured in a country where every other man hopes to be rich,
even though the only property qualification be the ownership
of two hands that add to the general wealth. Is it not the best
security for anything to interest the largest possible number of
persons in its preservation and the smallest in its division? In
point of fact, far-seeing men count the increasing power of wealth
and its combinations as one of the chief dangers with which the
institutions of the United States are threatened in the not dis-
tant future. The right of individual property is no doubt the
very corner-stone of civilization as hitherto understood, but I
am a little impatient of being told that property is entitled to
exceptional consideration because it bears all the burdens of
the State. It bears those, indeed, which can most easily be borne,
but poverty pays with its person the chief expenses of war,


pestilence, and famine. Wealth should not forget this, for poverty
is beginning to think of it now and then. Let me not be mis-
understood. I see as clearly as any man possibly can, and rate
as highly, the value of wealth, and of hereditary wealth, as the
security of refinement, the feeder of all those arts that ennoble
and beautify life, and as making a country worth living in. Many
an ancestral hall here in England has been a nursery of that
culture which has been of example and benefit to all. Old gold
has a civilizing virtue which new gold must grow old to be
capable of secreting.

I should not think of coming before you to defend or to
criticize any form of government. All have their virtues, all
their defects, and all have illustrated one period or anpther in
the history of the race, with signal services to humanity and
culture. There is not one that could stand a cynical cross-
examination by an experienced criminal lawyer, except that of a
perfectly wise and perfectly good despot, such as the world has
never seen, except in that white-haired king of Browning's

"Lived long ago
In the morning of the world,
When Earth was nearer Heaven than now."

The English race, if they did not invent government by dis-
cussion, have at least carried it nearest to perfection in practice.
It seems a very safe and reasonable contrivance for occupying
the attention of the country, and is certainly a better way of
settling questions than by push of pike. Yet, if one should ask
it why it should not rather be called government by gabble,
it would have to fumble in its pocket a good while before it
found the change for a convincing reply. As matters stand, too,
it is beginning to be doubtful whether Parliament and Congress
sit at Westminster and Washington or in the editors' rooms of
the leading journals, so thoroughly is everything debated before
the authorized and responsible debaters get on their legs. And
what shall we say of government by a majority of voices? To
a person who in the last century would have called himself an
Impartial Observer, a numerical preponderance seems on the


whole, as clumsy a way of arriving at truth as could well be
devised, but experience has apparently shown it to be a conveni-
ent arrangement for determining what may be expedient or
advisable or practicable at any given moment. Truth, after all,
wears a different face to everybody, and it would be too tedious
to wait till ah 1 were agreed. She is said to He at the bottom of a
well, for the very reason, perhaps, that whoever looks down in
search of her sees his own image at the bottom, and is persuaded
not only that he has seen the goddess, but that she is far better
looking than he had imagined.

The arguments against universal suffrage are equally un-
answerable. "What," we exclaim, "shah 1 Tom, Dick and Harry
have as much weight in the scale as I?" Of course, nothing could
be more absurd. And yet universal suffrage has not been the
instrument of greater unwisdom than contrivances of a more
select description. Assemblies could be mentioned composed
entirely of Masters of Arts and Doctors in Divinity which have
sometimes shown traces of human passion or prejudice hi their
votes. Have the Serene Highnesses and Enlightened Classes
carried on the business of Mankind so well, then, that there is
no use in trying a less costly method? The democratic theory
is that those Constitutions are likely to prove steadiest which
have the broadest base, that the right to vote makes a safety-
valve of every voter, and that the best way of teaching a man
how to vote is to give him the chance of practice. For the ques-
tion is no longer the academic one, "Is it wise to give every man
the ballot?" but rather the practical one, "Is it prudent to
deprive whole classes of it any longer?" It may be conjectured
that it is cheaper in the long run to lif t men up than to hold them
down, and that the ballot hi then- hands is less dangerous to
society than a sense of wrong in their heads. At any rate this is
the dilemma to which the drift of opinion has been for some time
sweeping us, and in politics a dilemma is a more unmanageable
thing to hold by the horns than a wolf by the ears. It is said
that the right of suffrage is not valued when it is indiscriminately
bestowed, and there may be some truth in this, for I have
observed that what men prize most is a privilege, even if it be


that of chief mourner at a funeral. But is there not danger that
it will be valued at more than its worth if denied, and that some
illegitimate way will be sought to make up for the want of it?
Men who have a voice in public affairs are at once affiliated with
one or other of the great parties between which society is divided,

Online LibraryMaurice G. (Maurice Garland) FultonNational ideals and problems; essays for college English → online text (page 16 of 39)