''All sail and no anchor"
0 comment Saturday, November 15, 2014 |
In recent threads here, the subject of social class has come up, and of the relative merits of our political system. Most Americans of course believe that ''democracy'' or more correctly, our representative Republic, is the best possible political system. Along with that belief, many Americans also believe that there should be no class distinctions or hierarchies; everybody is as 'good as' the next man, and thus it it good that everyone has a vote and (theoretically) an equal voice in government.
These subjects turn up in a letter written in 1857 by British historian and statesman Thomas Babington Macaulay. The letter was written to American writer H.S. Randall who had written Life of Thomas Jefferson, and sent a copy to Macaulay.
Macaulay responded with a lengthy letter spelling out his doubts about the future of 'democracy' in America, and about the perils of democracy in any country. He specifically referred to the then-recent establishment of democracy in France, pointing out that the result was a looming crisis in France, which appeared to be leading to ''general spoliation, a national bankruptcy, a new partition of the soil, a maximum of prices, a ruinous load of taxation on the rich for the purpose of supporting the poor in idleness.'' But, happily, he says, the danger was averted -- though at the cost of a loss of liberty. It was a choice, he says between civilization and liberty. Macaulay said that the result of such a situation would be the same in Britain, and in the United States.
America, he says, has remained immune from such disturbances because of the smaller population and lower population density. When the United States became more populous, this country too would not be exempt from disturbances in economic hard times, with greater numbers of unemployed and discontented people at the lower end of the economic ladder. Such people would be fodder for demagogues stoking class envy, and promising an equitable redistribution of wealth. The presence of a ruling class would be a protection against such situations, because when the have-nots have sufficient political power, they will vote for their own immediate self-interest and not for the good of the people as a whole.
Macaulay says:
"I seriously apprehend that you will, in some such season of adversity as I have described, do things which will prevent prosperity from returning; that you will act like people who should in a year of scarcity, devour all the seed corn, and thus make the next year a year, not of scarcity, but of absolute famine. There will be, I fear, spoliation. The spoliation will increase the distress. The distress will produce fresh spoliation. There is nothing to stop you. Your Constitution is all sail and no anchor. As I said before, when a society has entered on this downward progress, either civilisation of liberty must perish. Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of government with a strong hand; or your republic will be fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the twentieth century as the Roman Empire was in the fifth; -- with this difference, that the Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your own institutions."
Some sixteen years later, James A. Garfield offered a response to Macaulay's words in a speech called ''The Future of the Republic." Of course Garfield took some exception to Macaulay's rather grim predictions, and to his arguments. He first chides Macaulay for his focus on social class, and being a good American, boasts that we in America recognize no such thing as social class:
"Our society resembles rather the waves of the ocean, whose every drop may move freely among its fellows, and may rise toward the light until it flashes on the crest of the highest wave."
Garfield then moves on to note that Macaulay did not take into account one factor, which Garfield calls ''the great counterbalancing force" -- universal education. Granted, back in 1873 when Garfield's remarks were written, education in this country had not been subverted, gutted, and rendered an absolute detriment as it has been since. In Garfield's day, this country had attained very high levels of literacy, and the immigrants who had begun pouring in from all over Europe were taught English, and Americanized.
In retrospect we can see that too much faith has been placed in our educational system, or universal literacy. If that is our only protection from the social crises that Macaulay warned of, then we are leaning on a very slender reed.
But here, Garfield unexpectedly offers warnings of his own:
"And here is a real peril, -- the danger that we shall rely upon the more extent of the suffrage as a national safeguard. We cannot safely, even for a moment, lose sight of the quality of the suffrage, which is more important than its quantity.
We are apt to be deluded into false security by political catch-words, devised to flatter rather than instruct. We have happily escaped the dogma of the divine right of kings. Let us not fall into the equally pernicious error that multitude is divine because it is a multitude.''
In mentioning the Latin maxim, ''Vox populi, vox Dei", the voice of the people is the voice of God, he says
''It is only when the people speak truth and justice that their voice can be called "the voice of God." Our faith in the democratic principle rests upon the belief that intelligent men will see that their highest political good is in liberty, regulated by just and equal laws; and that, in the distribution of political power, it is safe to follow the maxim, 'Each for all, and all for each." We confront the dangers of suffrage by the blessings of universal education.
Hence, as popular suffrage is the broadest base, so, when coupled with intelligence and virtue, it becomes the strongest, the most enduring base on which we build the superstructure of government..."
We are now living in a time when Macaulay's warnings are being validated, and when reading Garfield's words, we can see where this country went wrong in extending the suffrage, while at the same time corrupting our educational system and our media.
The colossal mistake of undermining national cohesion and identity by opening our borders to ever more disparate peoples was yet one more nail in the coffin of our republic.
I will give Macaulay the last word here by quoting from one of his essays:
''Our rulers will best promote the improvement of the nation by strictly confining themselves to their own legitimate duties, by leaving capital to find its most lucrative course, commodities their fair price, industry and intelligence their natural reward, idleness and folly their natural punishment, by maintaining peace, by defending property, by diminishing the price of law, and by observing strict economy in every department of the state. Let the Government do this: the People will assuredly do the rest.''

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