Is Democracy a Failure?

Quincy Daily Whig and Republican, May 3, 1861

English cynics and American misanthropes affect to read in the pregnant events of the day the complete and irremediable failure of Democracy. Because the clanger of a disruption of our government seems somewhat imminent, because there appears to be an irreconcilable conflict between two portions of a people professing to be a republican democracy and known as such, the impracticability of the fundamen[t]al idea is assumed. We think the assumption is entirely gratuitous. We find no warrent for it in the present circumstance of our country, or any which are likely to develop themselves in its prospective history.—Even were our government hopelessly dissevered—even were two distinct nations with no other bonds than those of commerce and international comity connecting us—even were the immediate experiment of our government a signal failure—these facts would not justify the conclusion that democracy is a failure unsustained by any obstacle exclusively presented to a democracy in the laws of nature or the Constitution of human society, they would simply show that our government embraced elements which prevented that relation of interest and concurrence in principles essential to true and permanent nationality. Disunion under such circumstances, however much to be deprecated, would be nothing more than an intensified repetition of many acts in history.

It is true, ours is the best democracy which the world has witnessed. The antecedent causes of its existence, the propitiousness of the time, the character and intelligence of the people, have all contributed to its greatness and glory. But none of these can be radically affect the circumstances which have brought about the present state of affairs. If these circumstances are not adventitious and exceptional, they certainly are universal. Nowhere else do they find a precise parallel.

In no other nation are two systems working so antagonistic in their natures and so divergent in their ways. It would be a sufficient answer to cavillers to say that one-half of our nation—add particularly the seceded States—is not a democracy, but an oligarchy; and an oligarchy of the most proscriptive kind. Yet we need not plead this pertinent argument. We are content to rest our position upon the significant fact that we have two systems of labor, founded upon entirely different theories of human rights and necessitating where they exist together, a conflict for supremacy. This fact shows that our government is peculiar in its elements so its destruction would not prove the principle upon which it professedly rests—the great principle of popular power—a failure. The restoration of the States did not prove the doctrine of Milton a fallacy; it did not even prove their realization impracticable. These are experiments which show the fallacy of the idea they are intended to illustrate. But that they may be conclusive, they demand a propitiousness of circumstances not always attainable. Nationality is practicable—it is one of the plainest facts on the pages of history—and the absurdity of declaring it impracticable because an attempt to constitute a nation of hostile elements had failed, would be palpable. Surely it is not less absurd to pronounce Democracy a failure because our experiment, though the most satisfactory yet made, is vitiated by unfavorable circumstances.