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If it be true that we may judge of a nation's wisdom by its hope, America is to be credited with having, in her hope, if not in all her doings, laid the foundations for her solution of the human problem on the eternal necessities of man's nature. Her declaration that all were created equal — that is, each with the natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — has such fundamental basis. That the fathers were here building better than they knew may or may not be the fact. Certain it is that it has required the agitation of a century to reveal to their descendants that all really meant all. In the supreme moment of their separation from the mother country, the words of universal significance came from their lips as eternal verities. They saw, and yet they did not. There was an analogy in their condition, perhaps, to the artist before his clear unpainted canvas. Of him it may be said, he sees, yet he does not see. In his mind there is a vision, but, as we are told our earth was at the beginning of creation, it is formless and void. Gradually the water and the dry land appear, and the heavens are lifted over them, and one after another the several details are determined, and the first praise of the work is exhilarating enough. But, as he works on, many things are wrong in their proportion, in color, and some may have to be left out altogether, in order to bring the picture into harmony, or, in the commonly-used expressive phrase, "to make it hang together." If you get at the bottom of this business of making it hang together, you find that it has been achieved by the artist's developing a scientific as well as an artistic conception. He thus may say, even of his own creation, "Behold, it is very good," because he knows he is stating a fact. He is not exclaiming in the exuberance of his vanity, "I did it," but taking, as he has a right to do, a deep satisfaction in the thought that the thing is well done. He may have struggled months, he may have struggled years. George Fuller lived and wrought in hope to produce his marvelous creations of beauty, giving to each years of love; did this with a patience that was infinite enough to proclaim his genius, at last.
In like manner, adopting Pascal's thought that the human race is as one man who never dies, but is always growing on toward perfection, we may think of America evolving in all these years her ideal of freedom into tangible, visible form which at the start may indeed be said to have been formless and void. I think this a better solution of all manifest inconsistency and lack of proportion and harmony in our institutions than to say, " The fathers lied, and the children have stuck to it."
Out of the Revolution rose the fair ideal of self-government. What more natural than that it should be interpreted at the outset in the light of, and in deference to, traditional authority. The Declaration of Independence was rather a declaration of intention, not an accomplished fact. The men of '70 battled for eight years to give their declared purpose a physical reality. It is yet an open question how far our new world has gone in giving to its affirmed independence an intellectual and ethical basis. Self-government, rightly speaking, is the control the individual exercises over himself and what belongs to him. Any other attempt for his government must be, as Mr. Spencer declares, born of aggression. I do not now raise the question whether such aggression may not find its apology in the exigencies of the occasion. I notice only that it is a departure from the ideal of a people trained to self-government, and take for granted that separation from ideals, though it may be excused, is never declared by rational beings to be endless. The formless vision of the fathers took form, but did they evolve, have we evolved, for it the perfect form, or made the nearest possible approach thereto ?
Mr. Spencer says the oil of anointing ran off the head of the one on to the heads of the many. It was a natural movement. At the time it was not so much a question of what the king did as of his right to do it. He was no longer hedged about by "divinity." He was simply one man whom force of circumstances had given a place of power. The people had thrown off the superstition of his being God-anointed, and they challenged his right to be there. They defied him on our New England shore, and cast his authority into Boston harbor. The throne was vacant. But it must be occupied. Who should ascend into the place of the Most High? The response came irresistibly,— the people. The voice of the people is the voice of God. And so was established, as Mr. Lincoln phrased it at Gettysburg, quoting Theodore Parker, "a government of the people, by the people, for the people." And why should we not be satisfied? What is the good of eternally kicking ? None, if such elevation of your heels is only the outward and visible sign of some ill-working gastric juice of the stomach,—that is, of no use, except it may be to yourself. But if it be the earnest desire to still fashion and finish a great and beneficent work, a work well undertaken, but not yet constructed "on a scale of proportion to the majesty of nature," a work to which you are at least accessory and so responsible, why, your simple duty is to declare, in whatever most convincing manner, your sense of dissatisfaction.
Let us notice, therefore, that the vacant throne of the king taken possession of by the people in the name of self-government is a throne from which edicts still proceed very much after the old king's fashion.
Says De Tocqueville in his "Democracy in America":
A majority taken collectively may be regarded as a being whose opinions, and most frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another being which is styled a minority. If It be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should a majority not be liable to the same reproach? Men are not apt to change their characters by agglomeration; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with the consciousness of their strength. And for these reasons I can never willingly invest any number of my fellow-creatures with that unlimited authority which I should refuse to any one of them When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny, and I journey onward to a laud of more hopeful institutions.
It is for us to journey on to more hopeful institutions in our own land. H.
- Sidney H. Morse, “Political Evolution,” Liberty 3, no. 14 (September 12, 1885): 4.