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From The Nineteenth Century. A WORD MORE ABOUT AMERICA.
WHEN I was at Chicago last year, I was asked whether Lord Coleridge would not write a book about America. I ventured to answer confidently for him that he would do nothing of the kind. Not at Chicago only, but almost wherever I went, I was asked whether I myself did not intend to write a book about America. For oneself one can answer yet more confidently than for one's friends, and I always replied that most assuredly I had no such intention. To write a book about America, on the strength of having made merely such a tour there as mine was, and with no fuller equipment of preparatory stud ies and of local observations than I possess, would seem to me an impertinence.
It is now a long while since I read M. de Tocqueville's famous work on democracy in America. I have the highest respect for M. de Tocqueville; but my remembrance of his book is that it deals too much in abstractions for my taste, and that it is written, moreover, in a style which many French writers adopt, but which I find trying-a style cut into short paragraphs and wearing an air of rigorous scientific deduction without the reality. Very likely, however, I do M. de Tocqueville injustice. My debility in high speculation is well known, and I mean to attempt his book on democracy again when I have seen America once more, and when years may have brought to me, perhaps, more of the philosophic mind. Meanwhile, however, it will be evident how serious a matter I think it to write a worthy book about the United States, when I am not entirely satisfied with even M. de Tocqueville's.
But before I went to America, and when I had no expectation of ever going there, I published, under the title of "A Word about America," not indeed a book, but a few modest remarks on what I thought civilization in the United States might probably be like. I had before me a Boston newspaper article which said that if I ever visited America I should find there such and such things; and taking this article for my text I observed, that from all I had read and all I could judge, I
should for my part expect to find there rather such and such other things, which I mentioned. I said that of aristocracy, as we know it here, I should expect to find, of course, in the United States the total absence; that our lower class I should expect to find absent in a great degree, while my old familiar friend, the middle class, I should expect to find in full possession of the land. And then betak. ing myself to those playful phrases which a little relieve, perhaps, the tedium of grave disquisitions of this sort, I said that I imagined one would just have in America our Philistines, with our aristocracy quite left out and our populace very nearly.
An acute and singularly candid American, whose name I will on no account betray to his countrymen, read these observations of mine, and he made a remark upon them to me which struck me a good deal. Yes, he said, you are right, and your supposition is just. In general, what you would find over there would be the Philistines, as you call them, without your aristocracy and without your populace. Only this, too, I say at the same time: you would find over there something besides, something more, something which you do not bring out, which you cannot know and bring out, perhaps, without actually visiting the United States, but which you would recognize if you saw it.
My friend was a true prophet. When I saw the United States I recognized that the general account which I had hazarded of them was, indeed, not erroneous, but that it required to have something added to supplement it. I should not like either my friends in America or my countrymen here at home to think that my "Word about America" gave my full and final thoughts respecting the people of the United States. The new and modifying impressions brought by experience I shall communicate, as I did my original expectations, with all good faith, and as simply and plainly as possible. Perhaps when I have yet again visited America, have seen the great West, and have had a second reading of M. de Tocqueville's classical work on democracy, my mind may be enlarged and my present impressions still
further modified by new ideas. If so, I claimers suppose, and that the merit of promise to make my confession duly; not the Americans was not that of oppressed indeed to make it, even then, in a book men rising against tyrants, but rather of about America, but to make it in a brief sensible young people getting rid of stu"Last Word" on that great subject -apid and overweening guardians who misword, like its predecessors, of open-heart- understood and mismanaged them. ed and free conversation with the readers of this review.
I suppose I am not by nature disposed to think so much as most people do of "institutions." The Americans think and talk very much of their "institutions;" I am by nature inclined to call all this sort of thing machinery, and to regard rather men and their characters. But the more I saw of America, the more I found myself led to treat "institutions" with increased respect. Until I went to the United States I had never seen a people with institutions which seemed expressly and thoroughly suited to it. I had not properly appreciated the benefits proceeding from this cause.
Sir Henry Maine, in an admirable essay which, though not signed, betrays him for its author by its rare and characteristic qualities of mind and style Henry Maine in the Quarterly Review adopts and often reiterates a phrase of M. Scherer, to the effect that "democracy is only a form of government." He holds up to ridicule a sentence of Mr. Bancroft's history, in which the American democracy is told that its ascent to power "proceeded as uniformly and majestically as the laws of being, and was as certain as the decrees of eternity." Let us be willing to give Sir Henry Maine his way, and to allow no magnificent claim of this kind on behalf of the American democracy. Let us treat as not more solid the assertion in the Declaration of Independence, that "all men are created equal, are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Let us concede that these natural rights are a figment; that chance and circumstance, as much as deliberate foresight and design, have brought the United States into their present condition, that moreover the British rule which they threw off was not the rule of oppressors and tyrants which de
All this let us concede, if we will; but in conceding it let us not lose sight of the really important point, which is this: that their institutions do in fact suit the people of the United States so well, and that from this suitableness they do derive so much actual benefit. As one watches the play of their institutions, the image sug gests itself to one's mind of a man in a suit of clothes which fits him to perfection, leaving all his movements unimpeded and easy. It is loose where it ought to be loose, and it sits close where its sitting close is an advantage. The central gov ernment of the United States keeps in its own hands those functions which, if the nation is to have real unity, ought to be kept there; those functions it takes to itself and no others. The State governments and the municipal governments provide people with the fullest liberty of managing their own affairs, and afford, besides, a constant and invaluable school of practical experience. This wonderful suit of clothes, again (to recur to our image), is found also to adapt itself naturally to the wearer's growth, and to admit of all enlargements as they succes sively arise. I speak of the state of things since the suppression of slavery, of the state of things which meets a spectator's eye at the present time in America. There are points in which the institutions of the United States may call forth criticism. One observer may think that it would be well if the president's term of office were longer, if his ministers sate in Congress or must possess the confidence of Congress. Another observer may say that the marriage laws for the whole nation ought to be fixed by Congress, and not to vary at the will of the legislatures of the several States. I myself was much struck with the inconvenience of not allowing a man to sit in Congress except for his own district; a man like Wendell Phillips was thus excluded, because Boston would not return him. It is as if Mr. Bright could
have no other constituency open to him if | half a dozen politicians whom in England Rochdale would not send him to Parlia- we should pronounce to be members of ment. But all these are really questions of machinery (to use my own term), and ought not so to engage our attention as to prevent our seeing that the capital fact as to the institutions of the United States is this: their suitableness to the American people, and their natural and easy working. If we are not to be allowed to say, with Mr. Beecher, that this people has " genius for the organization of States," then at all events we must admit that in its own organization it has enjoyed the most signal good fortune.
Yes; what is called, in the jargon of the publicists, the political problem and the social problem, the people of the United States does appear to me to have solved, or fortune has solved it for them, with undeniable success. Against invasion and conquest from without they are impregnably strong. As to domestic concerns, the first thing to remember is, that the people over there is at bottom the same people as ourselves, a people with a strong sense for conduct. But there is said to be great corruption among their politicians and in the public service, in municipal administration, and in the administration of justice. Sir Lepel Griffin would lead us to think that the administration of justice, in particular, is so thoroughly corrupt, that a man with a lawsuit has only to provide his lawyer with the necessary funds for bribing the officials, and he can make sure of winning his suit. The Americans themselves use such strong language in describing the corruption prevalent amongst them that they cannot be surprised if strangers believe them. For myself, I had heard and read so much to the discredit of American political life, how all the best men kept aloof from it, and those who gave themselves to it were unworthy, that I ended by supposing that the thing must actually be so, and the good Americans must be looked for elsewhere than in politics. Then I had the pleasure of dining with Mr. Bancroft in Washington; and however he may, in Sir Henry Maine's opinion, overlaud the preestablished harmony of American democracy, he had at any rate invited to meet me
Parliament of the highest class, in bearing, manners, tone of feeling, intelligence, information. I discovered that in truth the practice, so common in America, of calling a politician "a thief," does not mean so very much more than is meant in England when we have heard Lord Beaconsfield called "a liar" and Mr. Gladstone a madman." It means, that the speaker disagrees with the politician in question and dislikes him. Not that I assent, on the other hand, to the thick-and-thin American patriots, who will tell you that there is no more corruption in the politics and administration of the United States than in those of England. I believe there is more, and that the tone of both is lower there; and this from a cause on which I shall have to touch hereafter. But the corruption is exaggerated; it is not the wide and deep disease it is often represented; it is such that the good elements in the nation may, and I believe will, perfectly work it off; and even now the truth of what I have been saying as to the suitableness and successful working of American institutions is not really in the least affected by it.
Furthermore, American society is not in danger from revolution. Here, again, I do not mean that the United States are exempt from the operation of every one of the causes such a cause as the division between rich and poor, for instance which may lead to revolution. But I mean that comparatively with the old countries of Europe they are free from the danger of revolution; and I believe that the good elements in them will make a way for them to escape out of what they really have of this danger also, to escape in the future as well as now the future for which some observers announce this danger as so certain and so formidable. Lord Macaulay predicted that the United States must come in time to just the same state of things which we witness in England; that the cities would fill up and the lands become occupied, and then, he said, the division between rich and poor would establish itself on the same scale as with us, and be just as embarrassing. He for
got that the United States are without what certainly fixes and accentuates the division between rich and poor the distinction of classes. Not only have they not the distinction between noble and bourgeois, between aristocracy and middle class; they have not even the distinction between bourgeois and peasant or artisan, between middle and lower class. They have nothing to create it and compel their recognition of it. Their domestic service is done for them by Irish, Germans, Swedes, negroes. Outside domestic service, within the range of conditions which an American may in fact be called upon to traverse, he passes easily from one sort of occupation to another, from poverty to riches, and from riches to poverty. No one of his possible occupations appears degrading to him or makes him lose caste; and poverty itself appears to him as inconvenient and disagreeable rather than as humiliating. When the immigrant from Europe strikes root in his new home, he becomes as the American.
It may be said that the Americans, when they attained their independence, had not the elements for a division into classes, and that they deserve no praise for not having invented one. But I am not now contending that they deserve praise for their institutions, I am saying how well their institutions work. Considering, indeed, how rife are distinctions of rank and class in the world, how prone men in general are to adopt them, how much the Americans themselves, beyond doubt, are capable of feeling their attraction, it shows, I think, at least strong good sense in the Americans to have forborne from all attempt to invent them at the outset, and to have escaped or resisted any fancy for inventing them since. But evidently the United States constituted themselves, not amid the circumstances of a feudal age, but in a modern age; not under the conditions of an epoch favorable to subordination, but under those of an epoch of expansion. Their institutions did but comply with the form and pressure of the circumstances and conditions then present. A feudal age, an epoch of war, defence, and concentration, needs centres of power and property, and it reinforces property by joining distinctions of rank and class with it. Property becomes more honorable, more solid. And in feudal ages this is well, for its changing hands easily would be a source of weakness. But in ages of expansion, where men are bent that every one shall have his chance, the more readily property changes hands
the better. The envy with which its holder is regarded diminishes, society is safer. I think whatever may be said of the worship of the almighty dollar in America, it is indubitable that rich men are regarded there with less envy and hatred than rich men are in Europe. Why is this? Because their condition is less fixed, because government and legislation do not take them more seriously than other people, make grandees of them, aid them to found families and endure. With us, the chief holders of property are grandees already, and every rich man aspires to become a grandee if possible. And therefore an English country gentleman regards himself as part of the system of nature; government and legislation have invited him so to do. If the price of wheat falls so low that his means of expenditure are greatly reduced, he tells you that if this lasts he cannot possibly go on as a country gentleman; and every well-bred person amongst us looks sympathizing and shocked. An American would say: "Why should he?" The Conservative newspapers are fond of giving us, as an argument for the game-laws, the plea that without them a country gentleman could not be induced to live on his estate. An American would say: "What does it matter?" Perhaps to an English ear this will sound brutal; but the point is that the American does not take his rich man so seriously as we do ours, does not make him into a grandee; the thing, if proposed to him, would strike him as an absurdity. I suspect that Mr. Winans himself, the American millionaire who adds deer-forest to deer-forest, and will not suffer a cottier to keep a pet lamb, regards his own performance as a colossal stroke of American humor, illustrating the absurdities of the British system of property and privilege. Ask Mr. Winans if he would promote the introduction of the British game-laws into the United States, and he would tell you with a merry laugh that the idea is ridiculous, and that these British follies are for home consumption.
The example of France must not mislead us. There the institutions, an objector may say, are republican, and yet the division and hatred between rich and poor is intense. True; but in France, though the institutions may be republican, the ideas and morals are not republican. In America not only are the institutions republican, but the ideas and morals prevailingly republican also. They are those of a plain, decent middle class. The ideal of those who are the public instruc
tors of the people is the ideal of such a class. In France the ideal of the mass of popular journalists and popular writers of fiction, who are now practically the public instructors there, is, if you could see their hearts, a Pompadour or Du Barry régime, with themselves for the part of Faublas. With this ideal prevailing, this vision of the objects for which wealth is desirable, the possessors of wealth become hateful to the multitude which toils and endures, and society is undermined. This is one of the many inconveniences which the French have to suffer from that worship of the great goddess Lubricity to which they are at present vowed. Wealth excites the most savage enmity there, because it is conceived as a means for gratifying appetites of the most selfish and vile kind. But in America Faublas is no more the ideal than Coriolanus. Wealth is no more conceived as the minister to the pleasures of a class of rakes, than as the minister to the magnificence of a class of nobles. It is conceived as a thing which almost any American may attain, and which almost every American will use respectably. Its possession, therefore, does not inspire hatred, and so I return to the thesis with which I started America is not in danger of revolution. The division between rich and poor is alleged to us as a cause of revolution which presently, if not now, must operate there, as elsewhere; and yet we see that this cause has not there, in truth, the characters to which we are elsewhere ac customed.
A people homogeneous, a people which had to constitute itself in a modern age, an epoch of expansion, and which has given to itself institutions entirely fitted for such an age and epoch, and which suit it perfectly a people not in danger of war from without, not in danger of revolution from within such is the people of the United States. The political and social problem, then, we must surely allow that they solve successfully. There remains, I know, the human problem also; the solution of that too has to be considered; but I shall come to that hereafter. My point at present is, that politically and socially the United States are a community living in a natural condition, and conscious of living in a natural condition. And being in this healthy case, and having this healthy consciousness, the commu nity there uses its understanding with the soundness of health; it in general sees its political and social concerns straight, and sees them clear. So that when Sir Henry
Maine and M. Scherer tell us that democracy is "merely a form of government," we may observe to them that it is in the United States a form of govern. ment in which the community feels itself in a natural condition and at ease; in which, consequently, it sees things straight and sees them clear.
More than half one's interest in watching the English people of the United States comes, of course, from the bearing of what one finds there upon things at home, amongst us English people ourselves in these islands. I have frankly recorded what struck me and came as most new to me in the condition of the English race in the United States. I had said beforehand, indeed, that I supposed the American Philistine was a livelier sort of Philistine than ours, because he had not that pressure of the barbarians to stunt and distort him which befalls his English brother here. But I did not foresee how far his superior liveliness and naturalness of condition, in the absence of that pressure, would carry the American Philistine. I still use my old name Philistine, because it does in fact seem to me as yet to suit the bulk of the community over there, as it suits the strong central body of the community here. But in my mouth the name is hardly a reproach,. so clearly do I see the Philistine's necessity, so willingly I own his merits, so much I find of him in myself. The American Philistine, however, is certainly far more different from his English brother than I had beforehand supposed. And on that difference we English of the old country may with great profit turn our regards for a while, and I am now going. to speak of it.
Surely if there is one thing more than another which all the world is saying of our community at present, and of which the truth cannot well be disputed, it is this: that we act like people who do not think straight and see clear. I know that the Liberal newspapers used to be fond of saying that what characterized our middle class was its “clear, manly intelligence, penetrating through sophisms, ignoring commonplaces, and giving to conventional illusions their true value." Many years ago I took alarm at seeing the Daily News and the Morning Star, like Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah, thus making horns of iron for the middle class and bidding it “Go up and prosper !" and my first efforts as a writer on public matters were prompted by a desire to utter, like Micaiah the son of Imlah, my pro