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merge their individual hopes and opinions in its safer, because
more generalized, hopes and opinions, are disciplined by its
tactics, and acquire, to a certain degree, the orderly qualities
of an army. They no longer belong to a class, but to a body cor-
porate. Of one thing, at least, we may be certain, that, under
whatever method of helping things to go wrong man's wit can
contrive, those who have the divine right to govern will be found
to govern in the end, and that the highest privilege to which the
majority of mankind can aspire is that of being governed by
those wiser than they. Universal suffrage has in the United
States sometimes been made the instrument of inconsiderate
changes, under the notion of reform, and this from a misconcep-
tion of the true meaning of popular government. One of these
has been the substitution in many of the states of popular
election for official selection in the choice of judges. The same
system applied to military officers was the source of much evil
during our civil war, and, I believe, had to be abandoned. But
it has been also true that on all great questions of national policy
a reserve of prudence and discretion has been brought out at
the critical moment to turn the scale in favor of a wiser decision.
An appeal to the reason of the people has never been known to
fail in the long run. It is, perhaps, true that, by effacing the
principle of passive obedience, democracy, ill understood, has
slackened the spring of that ductility to discipline which is
essential to "the unity and married calm of States." But I
feel assured that experience and necessity will cure this evil,
as they have shown their power to cure others. And under what
frame of policy have evils ever been remedied till they became
intolerable, and shook men out of their indolent indifference
through their fears?

We are told that the inevitable result of democracy is to sap
the foundations of personal independence, to weaken the prin-



174 NATIONAL IDEALS AND PROBLEMS

ciple of authority, to lessen the respect due to eminence, whether
in station, virtue, or genius. If these things were so, society
could not hold together. Perhaps the best forcing-house of
robust individuality would be where public opinion is inclined
to be most overbearing, as he must be of heroic temper who
should walk along Piccadilly at the height of the season in a
soft hat. As for authority, it is one of the symptoms of the time
that the religious reverence for it is declining everywhere, but
this is due partly to the fact that statecraft is no longer looked
upon as a mystery, but as a business, and partly to the decay
of superstition, by which I mean the habit of respecting what
we are told to respect rather than what is respectable in itself.
There is more rough and tumble in the American democracy
than is altogether agreeable to people of sensitive nerves and
refined habits, and the people take their political duties lightly
and laughingly, as is, perhaps, neither unnatural nor unbecom-
ing in a young giant. Democracies can no more jump away from
their own shadows than the rest of us can. They no doubt
sometimes make mistakes and pay honor to men who do not
deserve it. But they do this because they believe them worthy
of it, and though it be true that the idol is the measure of the
worshipper, yet the worship has in it the germ of a nobler religion.
But is it democracies alone that fall into these errors? I, who
have seen it proposed to erect a statue to Hudson, the railway
king, and have heard Louis Napoleon hailed as the savior of
society by men who certainly had no democratic associations
or leanings, am not ready to think so. But democracies have
likewise their finer instincts. I have also seen the wisest states-
man and most pregnant speaker of our generation, a man of
humble birth and ungainly manners, of little culture beyond
what his own genius supplied, become more absolute in power
than any monarch of modern times through the reverence of his
countrymen for his honesty, his wisdom, his sincerity, his faith
in God and man, and the nobly humane simplicity of his char-
acter. And I remember another whom popular respect en-
veloped as with a halo, the least vulgar of men, the most austerely
genial, and the most independent of opinion. Wherever he went



AMERICAN DEMOCRACY 175

he never met a stranger, but everywhere neighbors and friends
proud of him as their ornament and decoration. Institutions
which could bear and breed such men as Lincoln and Emerson
had surely some energy for good. No, amid all the fruitless tur-
moil and miscarriage of the world, if there be one thing steadfast
and of favorable omen, one thing to make optimism distrust its
own obscure distrust, it is the rooted instinct in men to admire
what is better and more beautiful than themselves. The touch-
stone of political and social institutions is their ability to supply
them with worthy objects of this sentiment, which is the very
tap-root of civilization and progress. There would seem to be
no readier way of feeding it with the elements of growth and
vigor than such an organization of society as will enable men to
respect themselves, and so to justify them in respecting others.
Such a result is quite possible under other conditions than
those of an avowedly democratical Constitution. For I take it
that the real essence of democracy was fairly enough defined by
the First Napoleon when he said that the French Revolution
meant "la carriere ouverte aux talents" a clear pathway for
merit of whatever kind. I should be inclined to paraphrase this
by calling democracy that form of society, no matter what its
political classification, hi which every man had a chance and
knew that he had it. If a man can climb, and feels himself
encouraged to climb, from a coalpit to the highest position for
which he is fitted, he can well afford to be indifferent what
name is given to the government under which he lives. The
Bailli of Mirabeau, uncle of the more famous tribune of that
name, wrote in 1771 : "The English are, in my opinion, a hundred
times more agitated and more unfortunate than the very
Algerines themselves, because they do not know and will not
know till the destruction of their overswollen power, which I
believe very near, whether they are monarchy, aristocracy, or
democracy, and wish to play the part of all three." England has
not been obliging enough to fulfill the Bailli's prophecy, and
perhaps it was this very carelessness about the name, and con-
cern about the substance of popular government, this skill in
getting the best out of things as they are, in utilizing all the



176 NATIONAL IDEALS AND PROBLEMS

motives which influence men, and in giving one direction to
many impulses, that has been a principal factor of her greatness
and power. Perhaps it is fortunate to have an unwritten con-
stitution, for men are prone to be tinkering the work of their own
hands, whereas they are more willing to let time and circum-
stance mend or moclify what time and circumstances have made.
All free governments, whatever their name, are in reality govern-
ments by public opinion, and it is on the quality of this public
opinion that their prosperity depends. It is, therefore, their
first duty to purify the element from which they draw the
breath of life. With the growth of democracy grows also the
fear, if not the danger, that this atmosphere may be corrupted
with poisonous exhalations from lower and more malarious
levels, and the question of sanitation becomes more instant
and pressing. Democracy in its best sense is merely the letting
in of light and air. Lord Sherbrooke, with his usual epigrammatic
terseness, bids you educate your future rulers. But would this
alone be a sufficient safeguard? To educate the intelligence is to
enlarge the horizon of its desires and wants. And it is well that
this should be so. But the enterprise must go deeper and prepare
the way for satisfying those desires and wants in so far as they
are legitimate. What is really ominous of danger to the existing
order of things is not democracy (which, properly understood, is
a conservative force), but the Socialism, which may find a
fulcrum hi it. If we cannot equalize conditions and fortunes
any more than we can equalize the brains of men and a very
sagacious person has said that "where two men ride of a horse
one must ride behind" we can yet, perhaps, do something to
correct those methods and influences that lead to enormous
inequalities, and to prevent their growing more enormous. It
is all very well to pooh-pooh Mr. George and to prove him mis-
taken in His political economy. I do not believe that land should
be divided because the quantity of it is limited by nature. Of
what may this not be said? A fortiori, we might on the same
principle insist on a division of human wit, for I have observed
that the quantity of this has been even more inconveniently
limited. Mr. George himself has an inequitably large share of it.



AMERICAN DEMOCRACY 177

But he is right in his impelling motive; right also, I am convinced,
in insisting that humanity makes a part, by far the most impor-
tant part, of political economy; and in thinking man to be of
more concern and more convincing than the longest columns
of figures in the world. For unless you include human nature in
your addition, your total is sure to be wrong and your deductions
from it fallacious. Communism means barbarism, but Socialism
means, or wishes to mean, cooperation and community of in-
terests, sympathy, the giving to the hands not so large a share
as to the brains, but a krger share than hitherto in the wealth
they must combine to produce means, in short, the practical
application of Christianity to life, and has in it the secret of an
orderly and benign reconstruction. State Socialism would cut
off the very roots in personal character self-help, forethought,
and frugality which nourish and sustain the trunk and branches
of every vigorous Commonwealth.

I do not believe in violent changes, nor do I expect them.
Things in possession have a very firm grip. One of the strongest
cements of society is the conviction of mankind that the state
of things into which they are born is a part of the order of the
universe, as natural, let us say, as that the sun should go around
the earth. It is a conviction that they will not surrender except
on compulsion, and a wise society should look to it that this
compulsion be not put upon them. For the individual man there
is no radical cure, outside of human nature itself, for the evils
to which human nature is heir. The rule will always hold good
that you must

"Be your own palace or the world's your gaol."

But for artificial evils, for evils that spring from want of thought,
thought must find a remedy somewhere. There has been no
period of time in which wealth has been more sensible of its
duties than now. It builds hospitals, it establishes missions
among the poor, it endows schools. It is one of the advantages
of accumulated wealth, and of the leisure it renders possible,
that people have time to think of the wants and sorrows of their
fellows. But all these remedies are partial and palliative merely.



i 7 8 NATIONAL IDEALS AND PROBLEMS

It is as if we should apply plasters to a single pustule of the
smallpox with a view of driving out the disease. The true way
is to discover and to extirpate the germs. As society is now con-
stituted these are in the air it breathes, in the water it drinks,
in things that seem, and which it has always believed, to be the
most innocent and healthful. The evil elements it neglects
corrupt these in their springs and pollute them in their courses.
Let us be of good cheer, however, remembering that the mis-
fortunes hardest to bear are those which never come. The world
has outlived much, and will outlive a great deal more, and men
have contrived to be happy in it. It has shown the strength of
its constitution in nothing more than in surviving the quack
medicines it has tried. In the scales of the destinies brawn will
never weigh so much as brain. Our healing is not in the storm
or in the whirlwind, it is not in monarchies, or aristocracies, or
democracies, but will be revealed by the still small voice that
speaks to the conscience and the heart, prompting us to a wider
and wiser humanity.



THE WORKING OF THE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY 1

CHARLES WILLIAM ELIOT

[Charles William Eliot (1834 ) has been for a great many years one

of the foremost figures in American education. During the larger part of
his career he was president of Harvard University, a position which he filled
with notable distinction until his voluntary retirement in 1909. He has not
only written and spoken much on educational matters, but has written and
spoken much on civic affairs, his utterances always commanding attention
because of their clearness and thoughtfulness. The discussion of the achieve-
ments of American democracy, which is here given with some abridgment,
was originally delivered in 1888 before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of
Harvard University.]

In discussing some parts of our national experience, I intend
to confine myself to moral and intellectual phenomena, and
shall have little to say about the material prosperity of the

iFrom American Contributions to 'Civilisation. (Copyright, 1907, The Century
Company.) Reprinted by permission.



AMERICAN DEMOCRACY 179

country. The rapid growth of the United States in population,
wealth, and everything which constitutes material strength is,
indeed, marvelous; but this concomitant of the existence of
democratic institutions in a fertile land, rich also in minerals,
ores, oil, and gas, has often been dilated upon, and may be dis-
missed with only two remarks: First, that a great deal of moral
vigor has been put into the material development of the United
States; and, secondly, that widespread comfort ought to promote
rather than to hinder the civilizing of a people. Sensible and
righteous government ought ultimately to make a nation rich;
and although this proposition cannot be directly reversed, yet
diffused well-being, comfort, and material prosperity establish a
fair presumption in favor of the government and the prevailing
social conditions under which these blessings have been secured.

The first question I wish to deal with is a fundamental one:
How wisely, and by what process, has the American people made
up its mind upon public questions of supreme difficulty and im-
portance? Not how will it, or how might it, make up its mind,
but how has it made up its mind? It is commonly said that the
multitude, being ignorant and untrained, cannot reach so wise
a conclusion upon questions of state as the cultivated few; that
the wisdom of a mass of men can only be an average wisdom at
the best; and that democracy, which in things material levels
up, in things intellectual and moral levels down. Even De
Tocqueville says that there is a middling standard of knowledge
in a democracy, to which some rise and others descend. Let us
put these speculative opinions, which have so plausible a sound,
in contrast with American facts, and see what conclusions are
to be drawn.

The people of this country have had three supreme questions
to settle within the last hundred and thirty years: first, the
question of independence of Great Britain; secondly, the ques-
tion of forming a firm federal union; and thirdly, the question of
maintaining that union at whatever cost of blood and treasure.
In the decision of these questions, four generations of men took
active part. The first two questions were settled by a population
mainly English; but when the third was decided, die foreign



i8o NATIONAL IDEALS AND PROBLEMS

admixture was already considerable. That graver or more far-
reaching political problems could be presented to any people, it
is impossible to imagine. Everybody can now see that in each
case the only wise decision was arrived at by the multitude, in
spite of difficulties and dangers which many contemporary states-
men and publicists of our own and other lands thought insuper-
able. It is quite the fashion to laud to the skies the second of
these three great achievements of the American democracy; but
the creation of the Federal Union, regarded as a wise determina-
tion of a multitude of voters, was certainly not more remark-
able than the other two. No government tyranny or oligarchy,
despotic or constitutional could possibly have made wiser
decisions or executed them more resolutely, as the event has
proved in each of the three cases mentioned.

So much for the wisdom of these great resolves. Now, by
what process were they arrived at?

In each case the process was slow, covering many years dur-
ing which discussion and debate went on in pulpits, legislatures,
public meetings, newspapers, and books. The best minds of the
country took part in these prolonged debates. Party passions
were aroused; advocates on each side disputed before the people;
the authority of recognized political leaders was invoked; public
spirit and selfish interest were appealed to; and that vague but
powerful sentiment called love of country, felt equally by high
and low, stirred men's hearts and lit the intellectual combat with
lofty emotion. In presence of such a protracted discussion, a
multitude of interested men make up their minds just as one
interested man does. They listen, compare what they hear with
their own experience, consider the bearings of the question on
their own interests, and consult their self-respect, their hopes,
and their fears. Not one in a thousand of them could originate,
or even state with precision, the arguments he hears; not one in
a thousand could give a clear account of his own observations,
processes of thought, and motives of action upon the subject
but the collective judgment is informed and guided by the
keener wits and stronger wills, and the collective wisdom is
higher and surer in guiding public conduct than that of one mind



AMERICAN DEMOCRACY 181

or of several superior minds uninstructed by million-eyed
observation and million- tongued debate. . . .

I shall next consider certain forms of mental and moral ac-
tivity which the American democracy demands of hundreds of
thousands of the best citizens, but which are without parallel in
despotic and oligarchic states. I refer to the widely diffused and
ceaseless activity which maintains, first, the immense Federal
Union, with all its various subdivisions into states, counties,
and towns; secondly, the voluntary system in religion; and
thirdly, the voluntary system in the higher instruction.

To have carried into successful practice on a great scale the
federative principle, which binds many semi-independent states
into one nation, is a good work done for all peoples. Federation
promises to counteract the ferocious quarrelsomeness of man-
kind, and to abolish the jealousy of trade; but its price in mental
labor and moral initiative is high. It is a system which demands
not only vital force at the heart of the state, but a diffused vital-
ity in every part. In a despotic government the intellectual
and moral force of the whole organism radiates from the central
seat of power; in a federal union political vitality must be dif-
fused throughout the whole organism, as animal heat is developed
and maintained in every molecule of the entire body. The suc-
cess of the United States as a federal union has been and is
effected by the watchfulness, industry, and public spirit of mil-
lions of men who spend in that noble cause the greater part of
their leisure, and of the mental force which can be spared from
bread-winning occupations. The costly expenditure goes on
without ceasing, all over the country, wherever citizens come
together to attend to the affairs of the village, town, county, or
state. This is the price of liberty and union. The well-known
promptness and skill of Americans in organizing a new com-
munity result from the fact that hundreds of thousands of
Americans and their fathers before them have had practice
in managing public affairs. To get this practice costs time, labor,
and vitality, which in a despotic or oligarchic state are seldom
spent in this direction.

The successful establishment and support of religious insti-



182 NATIONAL IDEALS AND PROBLEMS

tutions churches, seminaries, and religious charities upon a
purely voluntary system, is another unprecedented achievement
of the American democracy. In only three generations American
democratic society has effected the complete separation of
church and state, a reform which no other people has ever at-
tempted. Yet religious institutions are not stinted in the United
States; on the contrary, they abound and thrive, and all alike
are protected and encouraged, but not supported, by the state.
Who has taken up the work which the state has relinquished?
Somebody has had to do it, for the work is done. Who provides
the money to build churches, pay salaries, conduct missions, and
educate ministers? Who supplies the brains for organizing and
maintaining these various activities? This is the work, not of a
few officials, but of millions of intelligent and devoted men and
women scattered through all the villages and cities of the broad
land. The maintenance of churches, seminaries, and charities by
voluntary contributions and by the administrative labors of
volunteers, implies an enormous and incessant expenditure of
mental and moral force. It is a force which must ever be renewed
from generation to generation; for it is a personal force, con-
stantly expiring, and as constantly to be replaced. Into the
maintenance of the voluntary system in religion has gone a good
part of the moral energy which three generations have been able
to spare from the work of getting a living; but it is worth the
sacrifice, and will be accounted in history one of the most re-
markable feats of American public spirit and faith hi freedom.
A similar exhibition of diffused mental and moral energy has
accompanied the establishment and the development of a sys-
tem of higher instruction in the United States, with no inheri-
tance of monastic endowments, and no gifts from royal or
ecclesiastical personages disposing of great resources derived
from the state, and with but scanty help from the public purse.
Whoever is familiar with the colleges and universities of the
United States knows that the creation of these democratic insti-
tutions has cost the life-work of thousands of devoted men.
At the sacrifice of other aspirations, and under heavy discour-
agements and disappointments, but with faith and hope, these



AMERICAN DEMOCRACY 183

teachers and trustees have built up institutions, which, however
imperfect, have cherished scientific enthusiasm, fostered piety,
literature, art, and maintained the standards of honor and pub-
lic duty, and steadily kept in view the ethical ideas which democ-
racy cherishes. It has been a popular work, to which large num-
bers of people in successive generations have contributed of their
substance or of their labor. The endowment of institutions of
education, including libraries and museums, by private persons
in the United States, is a phenomenon without precedent or par-
allel, and is a legitimate effect of democratic institutions. Under
a tyranny were it that of a Marcus Aurelius or an oligar-
chy were it as enlightened as that which now rules Germany
such a phenomenon would be simply impossible. The University
of Strasburg, was lately established by an imperial decree, and
is chiefly maintained out of the revenue of the state. Harvard
University has been 250 years in growing to its present stature,
and is even now inferior at many points to the new University
of Strasburg; but Harvard is the creation of thousands of per-
sons, living and dead, rich and poor, learned and simple, who
have voluntarily given it then: tune, thought, or money, and
lavished upon it their affection; Strasburg exists by the mandate
of the ruling few directing upon it a part of the product of ordi-
nary taxation. Like the voluntary system in religion, the volun-
tary system in the higher education fortifies democracy; each
demands from the community a large outlay of intellectual
activity and moral vigor.

There is another direction in which the people of the United
States have spent and are now spending a vast amount of in-
tellectual and moral energy a direction not, as in the three
cases just considered, absolutely peculiar to the American re-
public, but still highly characteristic of democracy. I mean



Online LibraryMaurice G. (Maurice Garland) FultonNational ideals and problems; essays for college English → online text (page 17 of 39)