Placing Responsibility

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Sidney H. Morse

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Placing Responsibility.

The discussions on the new charter for the city of Boston developed opinions which, taken as a sign of this tune, it will be well to note. For instance, one member of the House related his experience on some board of education or charity, where the one whose business it was to act in certain directions, did so always under dictation of the majority, and so was always able to shirk the responsibility of any business that miscarried or went wrong. Such a state of affairs the member thought disastrous, demoralizing, and contrary to the genius of free institutions. In a word, he did not see but a Republic so conducted was the foe rather than the friend of the people. For, if any principle could be established beyond peradventure, it was that individual freedom and responsibility went hand in hand. So he favored the new charter giving the mayor large increase of power, in order that in all cases when he would be virtually held responsible he should be the sole directing agent. He should be a free man clothed with authority. The idea seemed to produce a favorable impression. Others were of the opinion that a man, to assume responsibility for his deeds,-must not be subject to whatever outward authority. He must find his urgent command in reason and justice as he was able to comprehend them. He must be able to say: "I think so, I act so; mine be the responsibility." Thus the saying of Louis XIV., "I am the State," in ways he did not dream of, touched liberty at a nearer point than does our modern belief that "The State is the majority, no one of whom can be caught or is responsible." Let civilization unfold the truth that every man is the "State," just as Swedenborg proclaimed every soul to be a church. As church, he is his own pope, priest, or bishop; as State, he is sovereign, chief magistrate, lawgiver. This is the quality of his freedom,—that it imposes upon him full responsibility.

Of course the legislators on Beacon hill have no realizing sense of the peril they invoke on their own heads by the endorsement of such doctrines. Their function to "make laws" for other people is at once discredited by the fact that their whole business is an invasion of the liberty and responsibility of sovereign citizens. It is just as important that John Smith or James Henry should be protected against majority dictation as it can possibly be for Boston's mayor,—that is, if it is important that society should be the expression of freemen responsible for their own acts.

This doctrine, so old, is yet so new or unfamiliar to the majority of even the so-called scholars, philosophers, ministers, statesmen, of the Republic, that they listen to its announcement with wonder, and, shaking their heads, do not understand how otherwise rational minds can entertain it. They can understand freedom applied to religion, but what America could do without the all-powerful despotic State they cannot conceive. In other words, they have no faith in Liberty. They believe only in masquerading, in shamming. They are as thoroughly wedded to the idea of despotic government as a divine system as the czar of all the Russias. Liberty in America has an impetus and headway which it cannot boast in Russia, but the foes it encounters are of the same pattern here as there. As a man the czar is no better and no worse than the majority of Americans. But he has the same divine " distrust of Liberty that they have, and they have the same misgivings that he has.

Now and forever the first requisite for the success of any cause is faith in it. Not lip-service, words, protestations; but works! "Let your faith be seen in your works, to the glory of God," said the apostle. "To the glory of Liberty," say we in this particular case. For so only is illustrated what Liberty really is.

Now it seems a superfluous thing to say that a people professing to be the first in the world ought to give freedom a full and fair trial. Yet it is a saying to be repeated not only seven times a week, but seven times

a day; yea, seventy times seven. Americans have hardly begun to consider the question from the standpoint of absolute fact: What does freedom demand? Our boasted Revolution has not been a Revolution. "When," said Proudhon, "our ideas on any subject, material, intellectual, or social, undergo a thorough change in consequence of new observations, I call that movement of the mind revolution. If the ideas are simply extended or modified, there is only progress. Thus the system of Ptolemy was a step in astronomical progress, that of Copernicus was a revolution. So in 1789 there was struggle and progress; revolution there was none." To prove this statement he examines the reforms attempted, and asks: "What is monarchy? The sovereignty of one man. What is democracy? The sovereignty of the nation, or, rather, of the national majority. But it is, in both cases, the sovereignty of man instead of the sovereignty of the law, the sovereignty of the will instead of the sovereignty of the reason; in one word, the passions instead of justice."

But have we gained nothing either in France or America? Some one is sure to ask this question. Let Proudhon's answer suffice—"Undoubtedly, when a nation passes from the monarchical to the democratic state, there is progress, because in multiplying the sovereigns we increase the opportunities of the reason to substitute itself for the will; but in reality there is no revolution in the government, since the principle remains the same. We have the proof today that with the most perfect democracy we cannot be free. . . . . . I ask what has this pretended revolution revolutionized?"

What we are to understand by this is that Liberty requires, not progress, improvement in despotic methods, but the substitution therefor of her own method,—the method of Liberty for the method of force, compulsion.

That would be our Revolution accomplished.

But who has faith in the method of Liberty?

Few, very few; and yet the idea prevails, the confession in some form or other is heard in all civilized countries. Mr. Chamberlain, the cable reports, "attributes the pacific state of Ireland today, not to coercion, but to the land laws and the removal of deep-seated agrarian grievances." Indeed, the world, by manifold illustrations from day to day, owns up that force is abortive. Justice satisfies. Freedom, to the extent it prevails, quiets, reassures, establishes order. The art of governing others is not to govern', but to persuade them, stimulate them to govern themselves.

It is in this direction that education is now demanded.

In every way possible put Liberty on trial, and hold her accountable for order, peace, prosperity. Place in every case the responsibility of choice and decision back where it belongs, upon the free individual.

We have need daily to dismiss our fears, and believe that people as a rule will act wisely and well, if you give them a chance. If they can be allowed to learn by actual experience, they will find the demands of Liberty are a constant restraint upon all disturbance of the social harmony.


  • Sidney H. Morse, “Placing Responsibility,” Liberty 3, no. 1 (June 20, 1885): 4-5.