The American Experiment
New-York Daily Tribune, November 27, 1860
The social, and especially the political institutions of the United States, have, for the whole of the current century, been the subject in Europe, not merely of curious speculation, but of the deepest interest. We have been regarded as engaged in trying a great experiment, involving not merely the future fate and welfare of this Western continent, but the hopes and prospects of the whole human race. Is it possible for a Government to be permanently maintained without privileged classes, without a standing army, and without either hereditary or self-appointed rulers? Is the democratic principle of equal rights, general suffrage, and government by a majority, capable of being carried into practical operation, and that, too, over a large extent of country?
The more populous and wealthy the United States have become, and the higher the position to which they have risen in the scale of national importance, with the greater confidence has it been maintained, on the one hand, that our institutions rest on a solid and permanent basis, and on the other, that they are destitute of inherent strength and cohesion, and that the time of explosion and disruption is rapidly approaching.
It cannot be doubted that the news of the present extraordinary position of affairs in the Southern States, consequent upon the result of the late Presidential election, will produce among the European advocates of democratic government and popular rights very serious alarms as to what is to become of us; while, among the advocates of monarchy and aristocracy, the threatened secession of the Cotton, if not of the entire body of the Slaveholding States, will be regarded as the first step toward the entire breakdown of our whole system of republican government.
It ought, however, to be borne in mind that the threatened disruption of the Union does not originate at all from the democratic element of our politics or social condition. It is the element of negro slavery, confined exclusively to a portion only, and that the smaller portion, of the States, that has given occasion to all the existing trouble. This element of negro slavery not only conflicts with the democratic idea by stripping the negro population of all rights whatsoever; at the same time it paralyzes and degrades the great mass of the white population; so that, whatever may be the letter of constitutions and laws, it creates a narrow aristocracy, which, in the local affairs of the Slaveholding States, has everything its own way. Not content to rule at home, this slaveholding aristocracy now undertakes to dictate to the other States also, not merely their laws and their Presidential candidates, but even their opinions on questions of religion and morals, so far, at least, as the question of slaveholding is concerned. It is not the development of democratic ideas or institutions that has brought on the present difficulties; it is the collision which has taken place between democracy on the one hand, and this foreign element and doubly aristocratical institution of negro slavery on the other. Suppose it should turn out that, under these circumstances, the Slaveholding States should determine to separate from the Union. That might prove the incompatibility of Slavery with the well-working of a Government based on democratic principles, but it would be very far from proving, or even indicating, the failure of our American experiment. Whatever happened to the Slaveholding States after this separation, in the broad extent of the Free Labor States the experiment of republican government on democratic principles would still go on; nor is there anything in our past history or present position to induce serious misgivings as to the result.
It has often been urged that with the increase of wealth and population our existing popular system of government would become impracticable, and that a great class would arise, of mere laborers, destitute of property, to whom the right of suffrage could not be safely entrusted. Our experience thus far does not give any countenance to this view. Take the State of Massachusetts, for instance: With a constant increase in population and wealth, her institutions and government have conformed more and more to the democratic idea; nor does there seem any danger to her existing political institutions, even if that increase should continue indefinitely.