Maurice G. (Maurice Garland) Fulton.

National ideals and problems; essays for college English online

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make the possession of office the primary and all-absorbing pur-
pose of political conflict. A complicated system of party organ-
ization and representation grew up under which a disciplined
body of party workers in each state supported one another,
controlled the machinery of nomination, and thus controlled
nominations. The members of state legislatures and other
officers, when elected, felt a more acute responsibility to the
organization which could control their renomination than to the
electors, and therefore became accustomed to shape their con-
duct according to the wishes of the nominating organization.
Accordingly the real power of government came to be vested to
a high degree in these unofficial political organizations, and where
there was a strong man at the head of an organization his con-
trol came to be something very closely approaching dictator-
ship. Another feature of this system aggravated its evils. As
population grew, political campaigns became more expensive.
At the same time, as wealth grew, corporations for production
and transportation increased in capital and extent of operations
and became more dependent upon the protection or toleration
of government. They found a ready means to secure this by
contributing heavily to the campaign funds of political organiza-
tions, and therefore their influence played a large part in deter-


mining who should be nominated and elected to office. So that
in many states political organizations controlled the operations
of government, in accordance with the wishes of the managers
of the great corporations. Under these circumstances our govern-
mental institutions were not working as they were intended to
work, and a desire to break up and get away from this extra
constitutional method of controlling our constitutional govern-
ment has caused a great part of the new political methods of the
last few years.

It is manifest that the laws which were entirely adequate
under the conditions of a century ago to secure individual and
public welfare must be in many respects inadequate to accomplish
the same results under all these new conditions; and our people
are now engaged in the difficult but imperative duty of adapting
their laws to the life of today. The changes in conditions have
come very rapidly, and a good deal of experiment will be neces-
sary to find out just what government can do and ought to do
to meet them.

The process of devising and trying new laws to meet new
conditions naturally leads to the question whether we need not
merely to make new laws, but also to modify the principles
upon which our government is based and the institutions of
government designed for the application of those principles to
the affairs of life. Upon this question it is of the utmost im-
portance that we proceed with considerable wisdom.

By institutions of government I mean the established rule or
order of action through which the sovereign (in our case the
sovereign people) attains the ends of government. The govern-
mental institutions of Great Britain have been established by
the growth through many centuries of a great body of accepted
rules and customs which, taken together, are called the British
Constitution. In this country we have set forth in the Declara-
tion of Independence the principles which we consider to lie at
the basis of civil society "that all men are created equal; that
they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable
rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are insti-


tuted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent
of the governed."

In our Federal and state constitutions we have established the
institutions through which these rights are to be secured. We
have declared what officers shall make the laws, what officers
shall execute them, what officers shall sit in judgment upon claims
of right under them. We have prescribed how these officers
shall be selected and the tenure by which they shall hold their
offices. We have limited them in the powers which they are to
exercise, and, where it has been deemed necessary, we have im-
posed specific duties upon them. The body of rules thus pre-
scribed constitute the governmental institutions of the United

When proposals are made to change these institutions there
are certain general considerations which should be observed.

The first consideration is that free government is impossible
except through prescribed and established governmental insti-
tutions, which work out the ends of government through many
separate human agents, each doing his part in obedience to law.
Popular will cannot execute itself directly except through a mob.
Popular will cannot get itself executed through an irresponsible
executive, for that is simple autocracy. An executive limited
only by the direct expression of popular will cannot be held to
responsibility against his will, because, having possession of all
the powers of government, he can prevent any true, free, and
general expression adverse to himself, and unless he yields vol-
untarily he can be overturned only by a revolution. The
familiar Spanish-American dictatorships are illustrations of this.
A dictator once established by what is or is alleged to be public
choice never permits an expression of public will which will dis-
place him, and he goes out only through a new revolution be-
cause he alone controls the machinery through which he could
be displaced peaceably. A system with a plebiscite at one end
and Louis Napoleon at the other could not give France free
government; and it was only after the humiliation of defeat in
a great war and the horrors of the Commune that the French
people were able to establish a government which would really


execute their will through carefully devised institutions in which
they gave their chief executive very little power indeed.

We should, therefore, reject every proposal which involves
the idea that the people can rule merely by voting, or merely
by voting and having one man or group of men to execute
their will.

A second consideration is that in estimating the value of
any system of governmental institutions due regard must be
had to the true functions of government and to the limitations
imposed by nature upon what it is possible for government to
accomplish. We all know, of course, that we cannot abolish all
the evils in this world by statute or by the enforcement of
statutes, nor can we prevent the inexorable law of nature which
decrees that suffering shall follow vice, and all the evil passions
and folly of mankind. Law cannot give to depravity the re-
wards of virtue, to indolence the rewards of industry, to indif-
ference the rewards of ambition, or to ignorance the rewards of
learning. The utmost that government can do is measurably to
protect men, not against the wrong they do themselves, but
against wrong done by others, and to promote the long, slow
process of educating mind and character to a better knowledge
and nobler standards of life and conduct. We know all this, but
when we see how much misery there is in the world and instinc-
tively cry out against it, and when we see some things that gov-
ernment may do to mitigate it, we are apt to forget how little,
after all, it is possible for any government to do, and to hold the
particular government of the tune and place to a standard of
responsibility which no government can possibly meet. The
chief motive power which has moved mankind along the course
of development which we call the progress of civilization has
been the sum total of intelligent selfishness in a vast number of
individuals, each working for his own support, his own gain, his
own betterment. It is that which has cleared the forests and
cultivated the fields and built the ships and railroads, made the
discoveries and inventions, covered the earth with commerce,
softened by intercourse the enmities of nations and races, and
made possible the wonders of literature and of art. Gradually,


during the long process, selfishness has grown more intelligent,
with a broader view of individual benefit from the common good,
and gradually the influences of nobler standards of altruism, of
justice, and human sympathy have impressed themselves upon
the conception of right conduct among civilized men. But the
complete control of such motives will be the millennium. Any
attempt to enforce a millennial standard now by law must neces-
sarily fail, and any judgment which assumes government's
responsibility to enforce such a standard must be an unjust
judgment. Indeed, no such standard can ever be forced. It
must come, not by superior force, but from the changed nature
of man, from his willingness to be altogether just and merciful.

A third consideration is that it is not merely useless, but
injurious for government to attempt too much. It is manifest
that to enable it to deal with the new conditions I have de-
scribed we must invest government with authority to interfere
with the individual conduct of the citizen to a degree hitherto
unknown in this country. When government undertakes to
give the individual citizen protection by regulating the conduct
of others toward him in the field where formerly he protected
himself by his freedom of contract, it is limiting the liberty of the
citizen whose conduct is regulated and taking a step in the direc-
tion of paternal government. While the new conditions of in-
dustrial life make it plainly necessary that many such steps shall
be taken, they should be taken only so far as they are necessary
and are effective. Interference with individual liberty by gov-
ernment should be jealously watched and restrained, because
the habit of undue interference destroys that independence of
character without which in its citizens no free government can

We should not forget that while institutions receive their
form from national character, they have a powerful reflex in-
fluence upon that character. Just so far as a nation allows its
institutions to be moulded by its weaknesses of character rather
than by its strength, it creates an influence to increase weakness
at the expense of strength.

The habit of undue interference by government in private


affairs breeds the habit of undue reliance upon government in
private affairs at the expense of individual initiative, energy,
enterprise, courage, independent manhood.

The strength of self-government and the motive power of
progress must be found in the characters of the individual
citizens who make up a nation. Weaken individual character
among a people by comfortable reliance upon paternal govern-
ment and a nation soon becomes incapable of free self-govern-
ment and fit only to be governed: the higher and nobler qualities
of national life that make for ideals and effort and achievement
become atrophied and the nation is decadent.

A fourth consideration is that in the nature of things all
government must be imperfect because men are imperfect.
Every system has its shortcomings and inconveniences; and
these are seen and felt as they exist in the system under which
we live, while the shortcomings and inconveniences of other
systems are forgotten or ignored.

It is not unusual to see governmental methods reformed and
after a time, long enough to forget the evils that caused the
change, to have a new movement for a reform which consists in
changing back to substantially the same old methods that were
cast out by the first reform.

The recognition of shortcomings or inconveniences in govern-
ment is not by itself sufficient to warrant a change of system.
There should be also an effort to estimate and compare the short-
comings and inconveniences of the system to be substituted, for
although they may be different they will certainly exist.

A fifth consideration is that whatever changes in government
ought to be made, we should follow the method which under-
takes as one of its cardinal points to hold fast that which is good.
Francis Lieber, whose affection for the country of his birth
equaled his loyalty to the country of his adoption, once said:

"There is this difference between the English, French, and Germans:
That the English only change what is necessary and as far as it is neces-
sary; the French plunge into all sorts of novelties by whole masses, get into
a chaos, see that they are fools, and retrace their steps as quickly, with a
high degree of practical sense in all this impracticability; the Germans


attempt no change without first recurring to first principles and metaphysics
beyond them, systematizing the smallest details in their minds; and when
at last they mean to apply all their meditation, opportunity, with its wide
and swift wings of a gull, is gone."

This was written more than sixty years ago, before the present
French Republic and the present German Empire, and Lieber
would doubtless have modified his conclusions in view of those
great achievements in government if he were writing today.
But he does correctly indicate the differences of method and
the dangers avoided by the practical course which he ascribes
to the English and in accordance with which the great structure
of British and American liberty has been built up generation
after generation and century after century. Through all the
seven hundred years since Magna Charta we have been shaping,
adjusting, adapting our system to the new conditions of life as
they have arisen, but we have always held on to everything
essentially good that we have ever had in the system. We have
never undertaken to begin over again and build up a new system
under the idea that we could do it better. We have never let go
of Magna Charta or the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of
Independence or the Constitution. When we take account of
all that governments have sought to do and have failed to do in
this selfish and sinful world, we find that as a rule the applica-
tion of new theories of government, though devised by the most
brilliant constructive genius, have availed but little to preserve
the people of any considerable regions of the earth for any long
periods from the evils of despotism on the one hand or of anarchy
on the other, or to raise any considerable portion of the mass of
mankind above the hard conditions of oppression and misery.
And we find that our system of government which has been built
up in this practical way through so many centuries, and the whole
history of which is potent in the provisions of our Constitution,
has done more to preserve liberty, justice, security, and freedom
of opportunity for many people for a long period and over a
great portion of the earth, than any other system of govern-
ment ever devised by man. Human nature does not change
very much. The forces of evil are hard to control now as they


always have been. It is easy to fail and hard to succeed in recon-
ciling liberty and order. In dealing with this most successful
body of governmental institutions the question should not be
what sort of government do you or I think we should have.
What you and I think on such a subject is of very little value
indeed. The question should be:

How can we adapt our laws and the workings of our govern-
ment to the new conditions which confront us without sacrificing
any essential element of this system of government which has so
nobly stood the test of time and without abandoning the political
principles which have inspired the growth of its institutions?
For there are political principles, and nothing can be more fatal
to self-government than to lose sight of them under the influence
of apparent expediency. . . .

The Constitution of the United States deals in the main with
essentials. There are some non-essential directions such as those
relating to the methods of election and of legislation, but in the
main it sets forth the foundations of government in clear, simple,
concise terms. It is for this reason that it has stood the test of
more than a century with but slight amendment, while the
modern state constitutions, into which a multitude of ordinary
statutory provisions are crowded, have to be changed from year
to year. The peculiar and essential qualities of the government
established by the Constitution are:

First, it is representative.

Second, it recognizes the liberty of the individual citizen as
distinguished from the total mass of citizens, and it protects
that liberty by specific limitations upon the power of government.

Third, it distributes the legislative, executive, and judicial
powers, which make up the sum total of all government, into
three separate departments, and specifically limits the powers of
the officers in each department.

Fourth, it superimposes upon a federation of state govern-
ments a national government with sovereignty acting directly
not merely upon the states, but upon the citizens of each state,
within a line of limitation drawn between the powers of the
national government and the powers of the state governments.


Fifth, it makes observance of its limitations requisite to the
validity of laws, whether passed by the nation or by the states,
to be judged by the courts of law in each concrete case as it arises.

Every one of these five characteristics of the government
established by the Constitution was a distinct advance beyond
the ancient attempts at popular government, and the elimina-
tion of any one of them would be a retrograde movement and a
reversion to a former and discarded type of government. In
each case it would be the abandonment of a distinctive feature
of government which has succeeded, in order to go back and try
again the methods of government which have failed. Of course
we ought not to take such a backward step except under the
pressure of inevitable necessity.



[For biographical note regarding author, see page 141. The volume from
which this selection was taken is a compilation of the more significant por-
tions of President's Wilson's campaign speeches delivered previous to his
election the first time. Throughout the speeches there is a fine tone of
unselfish public service and of a new spirit of social justice in politics and
national life.]

No matter how often we think of it, the discovery of America
must each tune make a fresh appeal to our imaginations. For
centuries, indeed from the beginning, the face of Europe had
been turned toward the east. All the routes of trade, every im-
pulse and energy, ran from west to east. The Atlantic lay at the
world's back door. Then, suddenly, the conquest of Constanti-
nople by the Turk closed the route to the Orient. Europe had
either to face about or lack any outlet for her energies; the un-
known sea at the west at last was ventured upon, and the earth
learned that it was twice as big as it had thought. Columbus
did not find, as he had expected, the civilization of Cathay; he

iFrom The New Freedom. (Copyright, 1913, Doubleday, Page & Co.) Reprinted
by permission.


found an empty continent. In that part of the world, upon that
new-found half of the globe, mankind, late in its history, was
thus afforded an opportunity to set up a new civilization; here it
was strangely privileged to make a new human experiment.

Never can that moment of unique opportunity fail to excite
the emotion of all who consider its strangeness and richness; a
thousand fanciful histories of the earth might be contrived with-
out the imagination daring to conceive such a romance as the
hiding away of half the globe until the fulness of time had come
for a new start in civilization. A mere sea captain's ambition to
trace a new trade route gave way to a moral adventure for
humanity. The race was to found a new order here on this
delectable land, which no man approached without receiving,
as the old voyagers relate, you remember, sweet airs out of
woods aflame with flowers and murmurous with the sound of
pellucid waters. The hemisphere lay waiting to be touched with
life life from the old centers of living, surely, but cleansed of
defilement, and cured of weariness, so as to be fit for the virgin
purity of a new bride. The whole thing springs into the imagi-
nation like a wonderful vision, an exquisite marvel which once
only in all history could be vouchsafed.

One other thing only compares with it; only one other thing
touches the springs of emotion as does the picture of the ships
of Columbus drawing near the bright shores and that is the
thought of the choke in the throat of the immigrant of today as
he gazes from the steerage deck at the land where he has been
taught to believe he in his turn shall find an earthly paradise,
where, a free man, he shall forget the heartaches of the old life,
and enter into the fulfilment of the hope of the world. For has
not every ship that has pointed her prow westward borne hither
the hopes of generation after generation of the oppressed of
other lands? How always have men's hearts beat as they saw
the coast of America rise to their view ! How it has always seemed
to them that the dweller there would at last be rid of kings, of
privileged classes, and of all those bonds which had kept men
depressed and helpless, and would there realize the full fruition
of his sense of honest manhood, would there be one of a great


body of brothers, not seeking to defraud and deceive one another,
but seeking to accomplish the general good !

What was in the writings of the men who founded America
to serve the selfish interests of America? Do you find that in
their writings? No; to serve the cause of humanity, to bring
liberty to mankind. They set up their standards here in America
in the tenet of hope, as a beacon of encouragement to all the
nations of the world; and men came thronging to these shores
with an expectancy that never existed before, with a confidence
they never dared feel before, and found here for generations
together a haven of peace, of opportunity, of equality.

God send that in the complicated state of modern affairs we
may recover the standards and repeat the achievements of that
heroic age !

For life is no longer the comparatively simple thing it was.
Our relations one with another have been profoundly modified
by the new agencies of rapid communication and transporta-
tion, tending swiftly to concentrate life, widen communities,
fuse interests, and complicate all the processes of living. The
individual is dizzily swept about in a thousand new whirlpools
of activities. Tyranny has become more subtle, and has learned
to wear the guise of mere industry, and even of benevolence.
Freedom has become a somewhat different matter. It cannot,
eternal principle that it is, it cannot have altered, yet it shows
itself in new aspects. Perhaps it is only revealing its deeper

What is liberty?

I have long had an image in my mind of what constitutes
liberty. Suppose that I were building a great piece of powerful
machinery, and suppose that I should so awkwardly and unskil-
fully assemble the parts of it that every time one part tried to
move it would be interfered with by the others, and the whole
thing would buckle up and be checked. Liberty for the several
parts would consist in the best possible assembling and adjust-
ment of them all, would it not? If you want the great piston of
the engine to run with absolute freedom, give it absolutely per-
fect alignment and adjustment with the other parts of the


machine, so that it is free, not because it is let alone or isolated,
but because it has been associated most skilfully and carefully
with the other parts of the great structure.

What is liberty? You say of the locomotive that it runs free.
What do you mean? You mean that its parts are so assembled
and adjusted that friction is reduced to a minimum, and that it
has perfect adjustment. We say of a boat slamming the water
with light foot, "How free she runs," when we mean, how per-
fectly she is adjusted to the force of the wind, how perfectly she
obeys the great breath out of the heavens that fills her sails.
Throw her head up into the wind and see how she will halt and
stagger, how every sheet will shiver and her whole frame be

Online LibraryMaurice G. (Maurice Garland) FultonNational ideals and problems; essays for college English → online text (page 28 of 39)