George F. Hoar
President of the Association, 1895
Presidential address published in the Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1895, 21–53.
Popular Discontent with Representative Government
I congratulate this society upon the auspicious beginning of the twelfth year of its useful and patriotic work. We can claim our full share of the credit for the interest in American history which is growing up all over the whole country. The researches to which the members of this society devote themselves if they are to be of any value, must deserve the strict and austere epithet “Study.” Certainly no study can be nobler. In the natural sciences there is more and more a division of labor. Students in every locality gather the natural productions of the place into museums and cabinets ready for examination and comparison by the master who discovers and makes clear the general laws which embrace all places. Agassiz had in that way a thousand helpers and disciples. Something much like this is going on all over the country in the established societies for antiquarian and historical research, which supply the material for the writers of national history. These men gather the facts for the investigator on a larger scale, as a quarryman or hodman collects the material for the builder of the palace. They gather local traditions, rescue manuscripts and old pamphlets from destruction, and chronicle the events of municipal and local history. They discover facts by minute investigation.
Next to them comes the historical student who extracts from local histories the material which is important to national history, and performs a like function on a larger scale.
Both these men perform a service of great importance and dignity, not to be undervalued anywhere, least of all to be undervalued here. But the great historian must be a genius of a far higher order. He must be capable of seeing clearly the great forces which determine the current of human affairs. He must have the profound judgment and insight of the philosopher. He must have the imagination of the poet, not exaggerating or distorting, or falsifying or clouding, but at the same time idealizing the national history with which he deals. He must have the artist’s gift of portraiture. He must be himself great enough to comprehend greatness of personal character, heroic enough to comprehend heroism, and must be so penetrated with the sentiments of honor and duty as to recognize them when they are the governing forces in national or in personal conduct. It has been said—I know not whether truly or no—that no portrait painter can put into the face of his subject a loftier character than his own. But I am sure that no biographer or writer of history will ever do justice to a great character of whose quality he does not himself partake.
Now to the historian, to whichever of these two classes he may belong, from the compiler of the genealogy of the Smith family to Thucydides or Tacitus, truth, inexorable truth, is the first essential and requisite. It can not be for the advantage of any people to substitute romance or fiction for veritable history, or to bring up its youth on pleasant self-delusions.
But surely there is as much of falsehood in the spirit of detraction as in the spirit of indiscriminate eulogy. The judgment of contemporaries, of friends, of associates, is of very high value indeed. The judgment which, after the first burst of public sorrow for the death of an eminent man and after those tributes in which censure, however deserved, does not find a place, is commonly of the highest value, and expresses what usually turns out to be the permanent judgment of history. Sometimes, though rarely, records leap to light which reverse that judgment and overthrow the ill-placed statue. But there seems to be an unusual fondness of late for overthrowing reputations of dead men, by reviving the obscure calumnies which were despised by their contemporaries when they were living. Some single copy of a forgotten newspaper or the letter of some enemy is exhumed. The writer of history exults in his discovery of what was probably the invention of contemporary and despised malice as if it had been his own. A single such example is enough to deface the brightest page. But what shall be said of a history that is made up of them?
In what I have to say this evening I wish to be distinctly understood that I am pleading for no departure from absolute verity anywhere. But I wish to protest against what I deem a prevalent and most pestilent form of historic falsehood to which some writers in this modern time seem to me specially addicted, that of undervaluing, underestimating, falsifying, and belittling the history of their country and the characters of the men who have had a large share in making it.
There is an inscription on the beautiful monument of our first president, George Bancroft, in the city where I dwell, which declares:
“He made it the high purpose of a life
Which nearly spanned a century,
To trace the origin of his country,
To show her part in the advancement of man,
And from the rare resources
Of his genius, his learning, and his labor,
To ennoble the story of her birth.”
Mr. Bancroft well deserved this eulogy, which he would have himself preferred to any other.
The first duty of the historian, as I have said, as the first duty of every man in every relation of life, is to absolute truth. Yet if in anything the love of country or a lofty enthusiasm may have led him to paint her in too favorable colors, the sober judgment of time will correct the mistake. No serious harm will have been done. Certainly no youth was ever yet spoiled by reverencing too much the memory of his parents. If anything is to be pardoned to human infirmity, it is surely better to err on the side of ennobling the country’s history than to err on the side of degrading it. It is certainly better to have deserved the epitaph I have repeated; it is on the whole more to be desired than to have it said of him that he spent his century in showing that his country’s part had been to set men backward, to exert an evil influence on mankind, and that he had written her history standing at the mouths of her sewers, and had spent “the rare resources of his genius, his learning, and his labor” to preserve the memory and the example of whatever of evil he could find in her.
There are few instances in which the dilettante spirit is more mischievous than in historical pursuits. There are few sciences whose votaries are more likely to deceive themselves by convincing themselves that they are engaged in a serious occupation when they are little better than idling. There is no study in which the devotion of a trained intellect, inspired by the love of excellence, is more likely to be of service to the country and to mankind. The preservation of history is an honorable achievement; the preservation of a great history is a great benefit to mankind. Everywhere, the loftiest stimulant of the child is the example of the father. There is scarcely a record left of heroic action which was not inspired by the memory of the heroism of ancestors. It is this that it is the true function of the historian to preserve. It is the memory of virtue that should be immortal, and it is best that the memory and example of evil should perish.
The man who presumes to write the annals of a great, brave, and free people should himself have a soul penetrated by the lofty spirit of courage and freedom. He must be accustomed to the vocabulary, he must be stirred with the emotions, which belong to liberty. When we read Tacitus, or Thucydides, or Xenophon, or Clarendon, or Macaulay, we feel instantly that men are narrating great actions who are capable of great actions. The love of truth is the first condition. But the power to comprehend, to understand, and to see truth is equally indispensable. No great poet can be translated adequately if the translator’s language have but a mean and petty vocabulary. Milton’s lofty note, “Hail, horrors, hail!” may perhaps have been translated faithfully enough by the Comme vous portez-vous, mes horreurs, in the French version. Certainly the translator did quite as well as some of our modern writers of American history who have undertaken to narrate some of the great transactions in our history or draw the portraiture of the men who have conducted them.
I wish to speak to-night of one or two causes of popular discontent with our representative Government. I suppose that the flame of patriotism never burned brighter nor clearer anywhere than it does in the bosom of the youth of America to-day. This is not only true of those who are born and bred on American soil, but, with the exception I am about to state, men of other races and other blood seem to catch the American spirit as soon as they breathe the American air.
Yet when I consider the tone of the press, of men of letters, and even some writers of history when they describe her, I am sometimes astonished that any American youth can love his country at all. Every morning, Sunday and week day, there comes from the press by the million, by the hundred million, what constitutes the staple reading of nearly all of our people who can read at all. These publications are largely the organs of one or another political party. They represent the party to which they are opposed, as base, selfish, intriguing, or at least narrow and wrong headed. Yet it is unquestionably true that nearly all the voting population of the country belongs to one or the other of these political organizations. If those political organizations be base, the American people are base. If the trusted leaders of those political organizations are base and mean, then the country is base and mean.
We are restive under foreign criticism; we resent, angrily, the common speech of the Englishman; we are disturbed by the bitter, contemptuous utterances of English magazines like the Saturday Review, and newspapers like the Times.
Is it strange that the papers of foreign countries should adopt the opinions that are constantly uttered by our metropolitan press? Is there any offense of this sort in London which can not be matched in New York?
Some of our men of letters are not much better. When they speak of the country in the abstract, they adorn her with graces and virtues proportioned to their own poetic fancy; but when they come to speak of what she does, of what she is, and of the men to whom she gives her confidence, whom she commissions to act for her, who are picked and chosen for the great transactions by which alone her character can be made to appear, it is curious what a Setebos or Caliban they make of her. Indeed, there could not possibly be written a more curious chapter in the history of human mistakes and delusions than one which would record the opinions of men of letters of their contemporaries and of their times—men from whom come to us the great inspirations to courage and to duty, whose noble trumpet blasts stir the soul to its depths, who, in the time of trial, nerve us to great deeds, and to great sacrifices, who console us in great sorrows and great suffering—it would be ludicrous, were it not pitiful, to see how at fault is their judgment of the men with whom they are living, and the transactions which are passing under their own eyes!
How often the best men are pursued with their scorn, and the vilest crowned with their praise! How they seem, sometimes, to accept everything that is base at its pretenses, and judge everything that is excellent by its defects!
Wordsworth’s Essay on the Convention at Cintra is one whose power and genius Edmund Burke himself might have envied; yet in it he demands the recall of Wellington from the command of the English army and his humiliation in the eyes of Europe. It was when the great soldier was bravely standing at bay, in Spain, against the conqueror of Europe, and performing the greatest actions of the career which culminated at Waterloo.
Robert Browning’s “Lost Leader”—
“Just for a handful of silver, he left us,
Just for a ribbon to stick in his coat.
We shall march prospering, not through his presence;
Sons may inspirit us, not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done, while he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire.
Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
One task more declined, one more foot-path untrod,
One more triumph for devils, and sorrow for angels,
One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!”—
which our poetic youths still like to quote whenever anybody who is entrusted with any share in the conduct of this Government fails to take their sage advice, was written of William Wordsworth.
Carlyle describes his countrymen in the nineteenth century as “twenty million of people, principally fools.” He has a passing word of contempt for George Washington. He finds nothing that was not contemptible in the spirit that animated our youth in the civil war. Then he holds his pistol to our heads and demands that we should fall down and worship Frederick and Napoleon, and proposes to himself, if he should find time in his old age, the deification of George III. Even Carlyle, when he speaks of his “twenty million fools,” is rather more amiable than Tennyson with his “many-headed beast.”
The men who despise humanity most, take its worst examples for their heroes. This tone, of the cynic has spread from the newspaper and the poet, to the grave and serious writers of history.
It is not merely that men of foreign birth, whose hearts were never stirred in their boyhood by the stimulant traditions of the early history of America, are taking a considerable share in contemporary literary work. The intellectual habit of which they set the example is infecting men of native birth. It seems to be thought, in some quarters, that a sober and trustworthy history of the United States must only be a chronicle of the discarded and rejected scandals of all past generations; that the men whom their own times deemed most worthy are to be counted unworthy, and that the men whom their own times rejected are now to be accepted.
The story of the growth of this country from a little space by the seaside, until its temple covers a continent and its portals are on both the seas; of the settlement of the West, of the acquisition of Florida, of the purchase of Louisiana, of the exploration of the Rocky Mountains and of the Columbia River, is only the story of a generation of horse-jockies and swindlers, who covered the continent and drifted aimlessly into empire. John Adams was hot-headed, quarrelsome, vain, and egotistical; Jefferson was a poor, impractical philosopher, timid and dissimulating; Madison was a poltroon and coward; Clay was profligate and a gambler; Monroe was feeble and insignificant; and Jackson an unscrupulous, reckless, fighting frontiersman.
In what I have said of the habit of our great poets and scholars to disparage the public life of their own generation let me not be misunderstood. We shall make a graver mistake than they do if we discard them as leaders and teachers. I believe no men need them more; and there are no men more thoroughly inspired by them in the warfare of life than the men they so much and so mistakenly revile.
John Stuart Mill records that the English Radicals used to be very angry with him for loving Wordsworth. “I used to tell them,” he said, “Wordsworth is against you, there is no doubt, in the battle which you are now waging, but after you have won, the world will need, more than ever, the qualities which Wordsworth has kept alive and flourishing.”
That man is to be pitied, however far removed may be his calling from the domain of poetry, however close to the ground may be the daily duty of his life, however sober or prosaic may be the field of his studies, who shall fail to keep his soul in full communication with the electric current which comes from those to whom belongs the blessing and the eternal praise:
“They give us nobler loves and nobler cares,
The poets, who on earth, have made us heirs
Of truth and pure delight, by heavenly lays.”
We will still look to the scholar for our abstract truth; we will still look to the poet for our ideal of virtue; but, in estimating the character of practical men, we will respect the opinion of practical men.
In forming our opinions of those who have conducted nations through great trial and peril, we will accept as best of all the judgment of those who went through great trials and perils with them. We will preserve the independence of our own judgment; we will rather trust our own practical experience when we are dealing with current and contemporary history.
I believe that the conduct of public affairs is growing better, purer, and wiser from generation to generation. I believe that, in the main, the motives by which our public men are governed in the administration of national, State, and local affairs are honest and upright.
I think that you should distrust the shallow philosophy that would ever attribute base motives to the great actions of human history, or teach that its mighty currents are determined by greed, selfishness, avarice, ambition, or revenge.
The pure and lofty emotions are ever the great and overmastering emotions. It is a maxim of the criminal law that evidence of previous good character is of little account in trials of murder. The temptation which will lead a man to that extremity of crime which violates the sanctity of human life and incurs the curse of Cain and risks the extreme penalty of the law, sweeps away the ordinary restraints of morality as the avalanche of the mountain sweeps before it the hedges of the peasantry in the valley. So, we are glad to believe, the love of country, the supremest passion of the human soul, possesses equally the men who are noble and the men who are ignoble in the conduct of ordinary life.
A famous general of the late war told me that he found among the papers of a distinguished officer who had been terribly wounded and lost a limb in battle, and who, before he recovered from his wound, went to the front again and gave up his life as cheerfully as he would have gone to his bridal, this charge against his father’s estate, of which his mother, the widow, was then the representative:
em>The estate of ________, To _________, Dr.
To making fire 17 mornings, at three cents a morning, _____________ 51c.
I like to believe, as I have said, that when the country utters its voice it is something higher and nobler than the voice of the individual citizen. When that lofty harmony is heard, the little discords are silent. The Middlesex farmer had his ignoble traits. I know, in my boyhood, some survivors of the generation that opened the Revolution. I was familiar with their children. They were sharp at a bargain. I am afraid that, if you had bought a load of wood of some of them, you might have found some crooked and rotten sticks under the foreboard. But they were up before the sun, at Concord. They were not thinking of a bargain when they sold their lives at Lexington and Bunker Hill.
Tennyson saw the same thing when he fancied the common people of England rising against the French invasion.
“For I think if an enemy’s fleet came yonder round by the hill,
And the rushing battle-bolt sang from the three-decker out of the foam,
That the smooth-faced, snub-nosed rogue would leap front his counter and till,
And strike, if he could, but a blow with his cheating yardwand, home.”
If the critical and fault-finding temper to which I have referred be not justified by the truth, you will agree with me that its effect must be infinitely mischievous and pestilent.
I do not see how the love of country can long abide toward a country which is altogether unlovely. No man can feel a noble pride in a base history. I can not understand why these fault-finders, who can not find ten righteous men in our Sodom or Gomorrah, do not get out of it before the fire from heaven comes down.
I think every historical investigator will perform a useful service if he shall help satisfy the American people, especially the coming generation, that these men are mistaken.
It is time for the American youth to settle for himself whether there be any substantial truth in these stories. Is this the true portraiture of our country? Are these the true features of her whom we have conceived as
“The glorious lady with the eyes of light,
And laurels clustering ’round her lofty brow?”
Is the being we love with the supremest passion of our souls altogether unlovely? Is the being we would gladly die for unfit to live with? Is the being we have imagined to ourselves a thing of beauty and of joy, simply an aggregate of all falseness, and greed, and meanness?
Did the Pilgrim at Plymouth—did the great-hearted Puritan of Salem and New Haven—did the liberty-loving enthusiast of Rhode Island, the sturdy founders of New York, the Quaker of Pennsylvania, the Catholic of Baltimore, the adventurous cavalier of Jamestown, the woodsmen who, in later generations, struck their axes into the forests of this continent, the sailors who followed their prey in the Arctic and Antarctic seas—did the men of the Revolution, and the men who fought the great sea fights of the war of 1812—did the men who conducted the great debates, in the Senate and in the forum—did the judges who pronounced the great judgments which fixed the limits of constitutional authority and of public liberty—did the splendid youth of 1861 devote themselves—did Washington live—and did Lincoln die—only in order to build and to preserve this noble and stately palace for a den of thieves?
I can not go very deeply into the subject in the time which is at my command. I can only touch one or two matters; but I hope we may be satisfied that a great deal of the public impatience with our representative government is ill-founded, and that some of our more plausible complaints are hasty and inconsiderate.
There are two classes of complaints which I think are likely to make an impression on good men, and especially upon young men, which, if not altogether without foundation, are at least greatly exaggerated.
First, the complaint of what is called “Party spirit;” and second, the impatience of the slowness, fickleness, and inefficiency of legislative bodies.
Perhaps the charge against the conduct of public affairs in free States to-day, which makes most impression upon conscientious men, comes from the existence of political parties. It is said that we substitute party government for popular government, party spirit for public spirit, and the interests and advantage of party for public well-being. Under these malign influences, we no longer vote for the best men for places of honor and trust, but take the candidates of our party, regardless of character or capacity.
Now let us see, if we may, what is the principle on which the just authority of party rests. What is the true dividing fine, which separates the domain of party from that of independent action? If we can find it, I think we shall see that the general instinct of the people in our day is sound and true, and that our government by party instrumentalities is not only the best, but the only government consistent with freedom or practicable under existing circumstances.
An unorganized government is nothing but a mob, and it makes little difference whether it be a mob of ruffians or of archangels.
“If every Athenian citizen had been a Socrates,” said one of the authors of The Federalist, “every Athenian assembly would have been a mob.”
I conceive that the man who conscientiously acts with his party is as truly independent in politics as the man who, according to Lord Dundreary’s proverb, “flocks by himself.”
The man who surrenders his opinion, either as to measures or to candidates, to that of the organization or association to which he belongs, honestly believing that in that way, on the whole, he can best serve the public welfare, acts in so doing according to his own conscience and judgment as thoroughly as the man who refuses to combine with other people for the promotion of public ends.
What are political parties? A political party is an organization of men for the purpose of securing the executive and legislative power in the State, that it may carry into effect in the government of the State certain principles upon which it is agreed.
No principles, sound or unsound, can be carried into effect in government without previous concert on the part of the men who hold them.
No candidate, good or bad can be chosen to office without a previous arrangement to support him.
The government can not be committed to any man, or organization or class of men, unless some organization precede the action of the people from whom they derive their power.
Political parties are the instruments by which such principles are carried into effect, such candidates are nominated and chosen, or such organizations placed in power.
Now, the question, On what conditions and tinder what circumstances can a man be independent in politics? is, in substance, this: On what conditions and tinder what circumstances can an honest and patriotic man accept and act upon the judgment of a political party, instead of acting on what, but for that judgment, would have, been his own?
Under what circumstances ought I to vote for the man I most prefer for Governor or Representative, instead of voting for the man selected for that office by the majority of the political party with whose principles I agree?
You will agree with me, I think, that this is not a ten-minute or a sixty-minute question. It is one of the most difficult, as it is one of the most important, questions that can come to an American citizen in the course of his life.
My statement must be very brief. But I wish to precede what I have to say about it to-day with saying something about another subject which will seem to you, perhaps, quite remote from what we are talking about, but which seems to me to have a very intimate and near connection with it.
That subject is the true conception of a country or State. Now, I hold the country and the State to be a moral being to which may be ascribed the qualities of wisdom, conscience, justice, courage, good faith, reason, nobility, or the reverse, as much as to any man or woman. These qualities are very different from the mere aggregation of such traits in the individuals that make up the country or State.
The words Switzerland, France, England, Rome, Athens, Massachusetts, America, convey to your mind a distinct and individual meaning, and suggest an image of distinct moral quality and moral being as clearly as do the words Washington, Wellington, or Napoleon. I believe it is, and I thank God that I believe it is, something much higher than the average of the qualities of the men who make it up. We think of Switzerland as something better than the individual Swiss, and of France as something better than the individual Frenchman, and of America as something better than the individual American. In great and heroic individual actions we often seem to feel that it is the country, of which the man is but an instrument that gives expression to its quality in doing the deed.
It was Switzerland who gathered into her breast at Sempach, the sheaf of fatal Austrian spears. It was the hereditary spirit of New England that gave the word of command by the voice of Buttrick, at Concord, and was in the bosom of Parker, at Lexington.
The citizen on great occasions knows and obeys the voice of his country as he knows and obeys an individual voice, whether it appeal to a base or ignoble, or to a generous or noble, passion.
“Sons of France, awake to glory,” told the French youth what was the dominant passion, in the bosom of France, and it awoke a corresponding sentiment in his own. Under its spell he marched through Europe and overthrew her kingdoms and empires, and felt in Egypt that forty centuries were looking down on him from the pyramids. But, at last, on June morning in Trafalgar Bay there was another utterance, more quiet in its tone, but speaking also with a personal and individual voice—
“England expects every man to do his duty.”
At the sight of Nelson’s immortal signal, duty-loving England and glory-loving France met as they have met on many an historic battlefield before and since, and the lover of duty proved the stronger. The England that expected every man to do his duty was as real a being to the humblest sailor in Nelson’s fleet as the mother that bore him.
It is this personal quality in States and nations, as individual, moral beings—objects of love, and fear, and approbation, and condemnation having a personal, moral quality, separate purposes, separate interests, different public objects, separate fashions of behavior and of public conduct—which justifies the arrangement in the Constitution of the United States for an equal representation of States in the upper legislative chamber, and explains its admirable success.
The separate entity and the absolute freedom (except for the necessary restraints of the Constitution) of our different States is the cause alike of the greatness and the security of the country.
It is one of the most wonderful things in our history that the separate States, having so much in common, have preserved so completely, even to the present time, their original and individual characteristics.
Rhode Island, held in the hollow of the hand of Massachusetts; Connecticut, so placed that one would think it would become a province of New York; Delaware, whose chief city is but 25 miles front Philadelphia, yet preserve their distinctive characteristics, as if they were States of the continent of Europe, whose people speak a different language.
This shows how perfectly State rights and State freedom are preserved in spite of our national union; how little the power at the center interferes with the important things that affect the character of the people.
Why is it that little Delaware remains Delaware in spite of Pennsylvania, and little Rhode Island remains Rhode Island notwithstanding her neighbor, Massachusetts?
“What makes the meadow flower its bloom unfold?
Because the lovely little flower is free
Down to its roots, and in that freedom bold.
And so the grandeur of the forest tree
Comes not from casting in a formal mold,
But from its own divine vitality.”
And so it is that little Delaware or little Rhode Island is as much the political equal of giant New York or Pennsylvania as little Wendell Holmes was the political equal of Daniel Lambert or Daniel Webster.
Now, I have made this preface of mine a good deal longer than the body of the discourse. There are certain political actions of the individual or citizen which do not in the least affect the action of his country as a moral being. There are other actions which have no moral quality or significance of their own, except as they enter into and affect the moral conduct or the character of the country or State. Now, as it seems to me, the question of the propriety of independent action is to be resolved by this test and touchstone.
Take the matter of supporting candidates for office. I hold it to be a good thing to narrow and not to widen the field of controversy between different political parties, and that their controversies should, so far as possible, be confined to the principles about which they differ. There is a large class of officers whose duties are purely executive, which require only honesty, fidelity, and executive capacity for their performance. The political opinion of the official has nothing more to do with the discharge of his duties than his religious opinion or the color of his eyes or hair.
I hold that it is desirable to remove these offices from the domain of party conflict, and that a man, in recommending a person or supporting a person for such office, is not bound to surrender his own judgment as to the superior fitness of the candidate to the political party with whose principles he agrees. I think, further, that the making of political opinion a condition of holding such office is of evil effect, as tending to inspire political activity by the hope of such rewards, and so as bribing the people with the offices created to serve them.
Next, I do not see how an honest and patriotic citizen can support measures, or ought to support measures, which he thinks of evil influence, merely because the political party with which he generally acts declares itself in favor of them. Of course, in matter of detail, matter of seasonableness as to time, there is room for compromise, and there is room for such a deference. But for it a political party, organized and associated for the purpose of causing certain principles to take effect in legislation, never could accomplish its purposes, and a majority would be without value or power. So that I hold to the largest independence of the individual conscience and judgment in the matter of those measures of legislation or executive action which are to affect the interests of the people, and still more as to those which are to determine the moral quality and character of the State or nation.
We must also all agree that no party obligation can compel a man to do, or to help to do, an action which he deems unjust, or to refrain from doing in action, or helping to do an action, which is required by justice. But, in regard to the executive officers of whom I have just spoken, I do not see why an independent citizen is not justified in doing what he can to place in those offices the men whom, after the best reflection and investigation, he thinks the best fitted for them, having only that reasonable deference to the opinion of his party which is due from all of us to the opinion of other men whom we respect. I do not see why he may not, in that way, if he choose, honor so far as be can the men whom he chiefly delighteth to honor.
But there is a class of public officials, such as Presidents, Governors, Members of either House of Congress, and Members of the State legislature, who are chosen not for what they themselves are, not to honor or decorate, or crown the brows of individual men, but for what the country, or State, as a moral being, is to do through their votes.
In regard to that class of officials, I have never been able to approve or to respect the opinion of the man who classes himself as an independent in politics. I do not approve or respect the notion, as applied to that class of officials, of the man who says he is going to vote for the best man without regard to party. It seems to me that in so doing he is indulging his preference for an individual at the cost of dishonoring his country.
If in what I said a little while ago there be any truth, and if there be any difference between right and wrong in the conduct of the State—if there be such a thing as the attribute of righteousness, justice, honor, virtue, courage, generosity, heroism, as applied to this being whom we call our country, and for whose good name and honor, if need be, we are ready to die, how is it possible that we are justified in making her unrighteous, unjust, cowardly, mean, and impure, because of something in the personal quality which we like or dislike in the character of the man whom we commission to do it.
Let us take an illustration from current politics. There are men who believe as I do, that the most valuable, most precious right of property that belongs to an American citizen is his citizenship; that its crowning attribute is the elective franchise; who believe that the worst socialism, the most dangerous radicalism, the most wicked attack on vested rights, is that which deprives a man of his franchise or the fruit of his franchise by fraud or crime, or debauches it by a bribe; who believe that the blended and mingled wickedness of all anarchy, all socialism, all disorder, all disorganization is contained in crimes against the ballot.
The question whether I like or approve the law which has vested these rights in the poorer or less educated classes of our citizens is a question I have nothing more to do with, while they remain vested, than the question whether I like the law of descent or the title to property under which our wealthy men own their real estate. It is the law of the land. Every good citizen is bound to maintain and defend it whether he like it or no.
Am I to put in a place of power the man who approves these things, who sympathizes with them, by whose vote my country is to crush out with its armed heel the rights of citizens, because he is a man more amiable or more faultless in his private life than the man by whose vote the country will do what is righteous and just in the matter? Some of you think, as I do not, that the protective tariff is a policy of gross injustice; that it plunders the poor for the rich; that it plunders one part of the country for the benefit of another; that it is organized monopoly, robbery, and plunder; and that the country that enacts it is the servant of monopoly, and plunder, and private greed.
Can I ask you to support a man who does not think so, and who is an accomplice himself and makes his country an accomplice in all these things, because he is a man more agreeable or more free from the faults which disgrace, or possesses more of the virtues which adorn private citizens, than a competitor who is sound in this matter? Your vote for governor, or President, or legislator, national or State, means simply, I desire that my country shall pursue the path of honesty or of dishonesty, of prosperity or adversity, as I see it.
The question of the individual quality of the person so commissioned is, compared with this, a secondary, subordinate, and trivial matter.
Let me not be misunderstood. I do not mean that you should vote for a man if you can not trust him; I do not mean that yon should vote for a man who is rotten, or corrupt, or base. You can not have honesty in the country with rulers who are venal and corrupt and profligate in their private conduct. You will not often have such men proposed to you by any party in the country for high public offices. When they are, the time has arrived for the independent in politics.
Every man who comes into the national legislative service will, I think, confirm what I say. He meets, perhaps for the first time, men who have been represented by the partisan, or so called independent, press as corrupt and self-seeking schemers, men who disgrace their country and their constituency, seeking public office to gratify selfish ambition, and using it after it is obtained to promote their personal fortunes. He finds them faithful, industrious, seeking the public good—men with many faults and foibles and, rarely, vices, but men to whom the suggestion of a corrupt motive would be received with as swift indignation as would have been a proposition to George Washington to pick a pocket; but, I believe, if you will reflect, you will find a large majority acting upon these principles, and that they have acted on them in the main from the beginning of our constitutional history. You will find, if you penetrate below the anger, and heat, and excitement of political discussion, and the misrepresentation and misjudgment which attend political controversies, that an honest desire for the public good and also a wise comprehension of what is for the public good have been the prevalent forces in guiding the great currents of our history.
I suppose you have heard all your lives, and will hear all your lives, constant complaints of the, slowness, dullness, fickleness, and inefficiency of representative bodies of Congress, State legislatures, and municipal councils. The press is full of it. Writers of history who agree in nothing else agree in that. It is the burden of common speech everywhere. Nobody ever praises them except the men who belong to them. Yet the legislation of a free people alike determines and records their history. You can not separate the character of the people from the character of the men whom they deliberately, from year to year, and from generation to generation, elect to represent them. Men whose blood would fly to their checks at a charge of baseness, or wickedness, or cowardice, made against their country, or their State, or their city, will constantly in discourse attribute these qualities to the chosen bodies by which, and by which alone, their country, or State, or city speaks or acts.
Now, I think there are several things to be borne in mind in considering the justice of such criticism. The nation is the largest business organization that exists. It has more than 100,000 employees. It must not only provide for managing the Army and Navy, Post-Office, tax collections, custom-houses, courts of justice, light-houses, Life-Saving Service, Land Office Patent Office, Indian tribes, pensions, Territories, elections, currency, and foreign affairs, but it must enact the laws by which all these are to be governed, and provide the executive officers by which they are to be administered. It must also determine the laws, and keep abreast of the age in enacting them, by which every great concern of a national or international character is regulated. Commerce between the different States, commerce with foreign nations, railroads, telegraphs, telephones, inventions, manufactures depend not only for their security, but for their prosperity, on the constant supervision and control exercised by the National Congress.
Would you think it strange if a board of directors having in charge the least of these vast subjects had to sit all the year round and toil from morning till sundown and from sundown far into the small hours of the morning? Would you think it strange that they took a good while for discussion and decision of that?
Consider how our National Congress is made up. Its members represent a constituency covering a territory and having interests as various as all Europe with all its empires and kingdoms and republics. Suppose that there were a convocation or conference representing all the States of Europe, called together for the single purpose of conferring upon this difficult and subtle question of using gold and silver as a currency and a standard of value. The question has taxed the resources of the profoundest intellect among mankind from the earliest dawnings of civilization. Suppose such a body were to confer even without authority to decide. We should think six months a pretty brief period for the discussions of such a body.
But, it is said: “Your Representatives and Senators come together with their minds made up, and the wishes of their constituents well known. Why don’t you take a vote and the majority decide the matter and put a stop to the public anxiety?” But, suppose it happens that among the men representing 44 States and 70,000,000 people, there be more than two opinions on a question concerning which there are one hundred opinions among the people and among scholars and scientific men, and that neither of these opinions happen in the first instance to be found with a clear majority. You have got, in that case, to discuss and reflect and have experimental votes, and committees and compromises till you find some common ground for harmony—not perhaps the best solution, but a practicable solution of your difficulty.
Consider, in the next place, that the mischief of a mistake is irreparable. The individual, the business corporation can change its mind in the light of experiments, and can retrace a step as easily as it took it. But there is no such possibility to a body clothed with the functions of national legislation.
Next you are to consider that these periods of time which to individuals and to common men seem so long are really brief, compared with the duration of the mighty national life. The mushroom grows in a night to perish in a day. But this oak of ours adds ring to ring, slowly and imperceptibly. Years, sessions of legislative bodies, terms of Presidential office, generations of men count but as minutes, are but the pulsations of an artery in the mighty national life. This mighty being, an aggregation of 70,000,000 lives, may well take twelve mouths to draw its breath.
The processes, whether of nature or history, are slow, or they have led to nothing permanent. Do you not suppose that the mushroom, if it could think, would look with infinite impatience and scorn at the unchanged appearance of the oak under whose shadow it had sprung up in an hour?
You remember when the lawyers who had come from the ordinary courts of justice to take part in the impeachment of Warren Hastings before the British Parliament cited some of their precedents and attempted to hurry the august proceeding, Burke told them that it was as if the rabbit which breeds four times a year should attempt to prescribe the period of gestation of an elephant.
I am willing to take any period in the legislative history of any free people—England, the United States, the Netherlands—and compare it with any period that may be selected under the most prosperous and flourishing despotism and see which has done most for human happiness or human progress.
Take our Continental Congress, which existed as a body clothed with political power for the fourteen years from its assembling in 1775 to the inauguration of Washington in 1789, or indeed, it would be more proper to speak of it as lasting only until the formation of the Constitution in 1787, when its functions practically ended. It is a habit into which intelligent and patriotic historians have fallen to speak with contempt of that body as “sluggish, hesitating, timid, and inefficient.”
But just think for a moment of the difficulties under which they labored. They were the representatives of thirteen colonies independent and separated governments, having as little intercourse with each other and as little knowledge of each other as we have with and of the nations of Asia to-day. They had no power to levy taxes, but only to recommend them; no power to pass a vote without the consent of nine States, and no power to make a law to which any penalty could be attached for its enforcement. It was a difficult, three days’ journey from New York to Philadelphia. My grandfather, who lived in New Haven, and was a member of the Continental Congress, used to ride horseback from Philadelphia to Perth Amboy, and then take a sloop to New York and another sloop from New York to get home to New Haven. I have a letter of his in my possession to his wife in which he says that he hopes to leave Philadelphia the next Monday morning and, if he has a favorable journey, to get to New Haven on Saturday night.
There were a few newspapers, published weekly, uncertain post-office service between a few of the large towns, and their communications during a great part of the way interrupted by the British possession of New York and the Hudson River below West Point, of New Jersey, of Philadelphia, of York River, of parts of North Carolina, and of Charlestown at different parts of the war, while British men-of-war were hovering on the coast.
There was a feeling of distrust by an agricultural people of new measures and of all legislation in which strangers were, to have a share.
Now, in those twelve years not only did our fathers maintain, except as to the parts of the country which were debatable ground between two contending armies, peaceable and orderly government, the administration of justice, punishment of crime, the collection of debts, which were State matters, but in the Continental Congress they wrote a chapter of political history of which their children may well be proud.
They produced at the outset those, great State papers—the Address to the King, the Address to the People of Ireland, the Declaration of Independence—which commanded the administration of Lord Chatham, who said, “When your lordships look at the papers transmitted its from America, when you consider their decency, firmness, and wisdom, you can not but respect their cause and wish to make it your own. For myself, I must avow that, in all my reading—and I have read Thucydides, and have studied and admired the master states of the world—for solidity of reason, force of sagacity, and wisdom of conclusion under a complication of difficult circumstances, no nation or body of men could stand in preference to the general Congress at Philadelphia. The histories of Greece and Rome give us nothing equal to it, and all attempts to impose servitude upon such a mighty continental nation must be vain.”
They summoned Washington to the command of the armies; they stood firm amid every discouragement; they resisted alike the power and the blandishments of Great Britain; there was scarcely a Tory or a traitor among them. Those stout hearts never flinched. They put on the seas, with the help of individual enterprise, a warlike power which, before the French alliance, sent the rate of marine insurance tip to 28 per cent and made a long continuance of the war an impossibility. They selected Franklin and John Adams as their diplomatic agents abroad, and through them negotiated the alliance with France and Spain. They won in the contest for Independence. They enacted the Ordinance of 1787. They called the convention which framed the Constitution, most of whose members had been members of the Congress, and took steps for inaugurating and setting it in motion.
Now, I would like to have some of our historical critics tell us what twelve years of legislative history anywhere they can produce in which such results were, accomplished with such instrumentalities.
Daniel Webster, whose, historic sense was almost unerring, and who certainly had a lofty standard of excellence, says:
The first Congress, for the ability which it manifested, the principles which it proclaimed, and the characters of those who composed it, makes an illustrious chapter in our American history. Its members should be regarded not only individually, but as in a group; they should be viewed as living pictures, exhibiting young America as it then was and when the seeds of its public destiny were beginning to start into life, well described by our early motto, as a being full of energy and prospered by heaven: “Non sine Dis, animosus infans.”
The detractors of popular representative government are apt to point at the Shays rebellion in Massachusetts early in 1787, as indicating the feebleness of the State and national authority. Well, it is true that, after eight years of war, the people were poor and suffering, and that the due process of debt collecting was interfered with for a short time. But Shays’s rebellion ended, I believe, with only two or three men slain and the life of no single rebel taken by the authorities after it ended. There was little property destroyed beyond a hen roost. There, was scarcely a woman frightened.
Compare that with the Gordon riot in London, in 1780, with its vast conflagration of property, with its destruction of life, and the terrible vengeance of the British law. Compare it with what was going on in France in that year and the years that followed, of the drama in which the old monarchy of France went down.
I am willing to compare our representative Government at its worst with any monarchic government under which the authority of the monarchy is really felt in supremacy over the expression of a represented and controlling popular will at its best, and risk everything that I hold dear and precious on the result of the comparison.
Now, my friends, I hope you do not think I have come up here to ask you to listen to a few generalities and boastful utterances. It is a very serious question to any American whether his love for his country is a sentiment which has its root and its foundation in a solid respect and honor. If it be true, as the critics of the London Saturday Review and of the London Times and their New York imitators are telling its from day to day and from week to week, that these representative governments of ours are but an aggregation of base men, seeking base, personal ends, governed by low and sordid motives, and that this condition of things is growing from year to year worse and not better, then your country is not a fit object of your love. You can not be grateful to the fathers who have bequeathed to you these institutions, and you can have no rational hope for the children to whom you hope to deliver them.
But it is not true. My life for thirty years has been given, in a humble way, to the public service. I have known intimately, through and through, the men whom the people from all the States of the country have intrusted with the conduct of public affairs.
You can not be one of sixty or eighty men, shut up together in the same room for twenty years to debate and deal with the most exciting subjects of human interest, without knowing pretty well the temper and character and quality of your associates. There is a good deal of human nature in all of them. They are subject to the passions of anger, to the infirmities of impatience and of ambition. They meet each other under circumstances tending to excite rivalry, jealousy, distrust, and often hasty and passionate judgment and speech.
And yet, I am sure that among the men of all parties and of all shades of opinion on public questions, of all sections of the country, the men who are not governed in their public conduct by an honorable love of country and an honorable desire to do their best for the highest interest of the people are the rare exceptions and not the rule. And, in this respect, there has been a steady and constant and certain improvement. There are a few exceptions. But the men in this country who are clothed with legislative powers lead frugal, temperate, simple lives; the hours of the day and the days of the year are occupied by honest, hard work in the public service.
The faults which pertain to humanity are theirs. The faults which pertain to men coming from the humblest places and raising themselves to places of honor and confidence and power are also, in large measure, theirs; but, in the main, they have given their country their best service, and the beneficent institutions they have received from those who went before them, they will hand down unimpaired for a larger beneficence to the generations that are to come.
George Frisbe Hoar served as senator from Massachusetts from 1877 to 1907, and sponsored the Association’s Congressional Charter.