Free Institutions on Trial
New-York Daily Tribune, March 20, 1861
The remarks of Mr. Russell, well known as the Crimean correspondent of The London Times, made at the Astor House dinner on Monday evening, afford a clear illustration of the mistaken idea prevailing in England concerning the nature of the present American national difficulties.
It should be borne in mind that a journalist has better opportunities of gaining correct notions of the world's affairs than most other men, and that a journalist who, like Mr. Russell, has had large experience in dealing with great questions, must be supposed to be in advance of most of his readers, the public. Therefore, when we find a fundamental error in the political diagnosis of such a journalist, we can but be confirmed in the opinion we have before had, that the English people do not justly comprehend the character of the struggle now going on in this country.
Mr. Russell speaks of "the opposition of the two great parties" here, as producing our troubles and hindering the cause of progress—evidently referring to political parties; he speaks of the "counter voice from America," which will say to those abroad who labor for free suffrage that their arguments are false, and that "the great experiment of self-government has reached its end in dissolution, smoke and ashes." He says again, "I cannot believe that you are about to cast to the winds and whistle down, a prey to fortune, the great national heritage that has been bequeathed to you."
His ruling idea is, and it is an idea which has found repeated expression, that free political institutions, a republican form of government, the application of democratic principles to the direction of a nation, are now on their trial in the court of last appeal; that by the decision of this year these great matters will forever be settled, so far as America is concerned; and that, in fine, the single question at this time to be answered is this: Is republicanism a failure?
But the conflict now going on cannot be so stated with truth. The two great armies in the field are not political parties, and there has never been a question concerning our national affairs, since the century opened, with which political parties, as such, have had less to do. The conflict is simply between Freedom and Slavery; the latter is the aggressor, the former is on the defensive.
Nor does the contest arise from the weakness or foreshadow the failure of republican institutions. Had republican institutions and principles been allowed to spread over the whole of our country and to have free course everywhere, the conflict would not now have arisen. We at the North live and flourish under republican institutions; but at the line which separates us from Slavery they die, or, at best, live only a partial and restricted life. The army of Slavery in the present conflict is fighting to prevent the spread of republican institutions which, in an unbroken, never-wavering phalanx, preserve their front and show no symptom of treachery, or weakness, or decay. The North lives under a democracy; the South under the worst form of an oligarchy—and the conflict is not a civil war among the members of a republic, but an assault upon the united, consistent fabric by an enemy, every movement of whose nature is antagonistic, incompatible with it. Republicanism, democracy in its best sense, was never stronger, more vigorous, more hopeful than now; and the very severity of the contest upon which we are just entering gives encouraging proof of the vigor and convincing promise of the immortality of the great principle of Freedom which finds expression in American institutions. The struggle which, ninety years ago, resulted in our independence was the effort of Freedom to develop itself in the form of republican government; the struggle now going on is the effort of this same principle of Freedom to maintain itself in the same form. With just as much truth as now could it then have been said that self-government was failing as an experiment.
But though in the sense intended by those who declare the present crisis to be the final trial of republican institutions, their words are not true, yet in another sense they have a most significant truthfulness of meaning. Republican institutions are on their trial, but the trial is not of their cohesive power; it is of their strength to withstand the assaults of an unscrupulous, malignant, and desperate foe. If the American Union is broken, say those who look on from abroad, it is an evidence of the failure of self-government. It is not so; if in the course of events the Union is dissolved, the catastrophe may be the final proof that self-government is not a failure, and that republican institutions have a vital force sufficient to sustain them against the violent attack of an oligarchy reenforced by the sentiment of Union—a sentiment born at a time when Union was a synonym for Freedom alone—a sentiment still clinging to the name after the nature is sadly changed. Republican institutions are on trial, say those who watch the progress of passing events; and if the sky grows clear again, and the vessel is once more seen sailing on a prosperous sea, they will say that these institutions have well withstood the trial. Yet it may be that this seeming prosperity would prove only the melancholy truth that Freedom had gone under, flung overboard to lighten the ship. The concessions and compromises which certain men have clamored for as sure to save the country would, if allowed and if successful, show to the world that free institutions and self-government had indeed failed—failed to stand by their own strength, but had been reduced to the shame of succumbing to the meanest aristocracy that the world has ever seen.