Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter xxvii.: effects and uses of institutional self-government. - On Civil Liberty and Self-Government
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chapter xxvii.: effects and uses of institutional self-government. - Francis Lieber, On Civil Liberty and Self-Government 
On Civil Liberty and Self-Government, 3rd revised edition, ed. Theodore D. Woolsey (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1883).
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effects and uses of institutional self-government.
In order fully to appreciate institutional self-government, and not unconsciously to enjoy its blessings, as most of us enjoy the breath of life without reflecting on the organ of respiration and the atmosphere we inhale, it is necessary to present to our minds clearly what effects it produces on the individual, on society, and on whole periods, and how it acts far beyond the limits of the country where it prevails.
The advantages of institutional liberty and organized self-government, diffused over a whole country or state, and penetrating with its quickening power all the branches of government, may be briefly summed up in the following way:
Institutional self-government trains the mind and nourishes the character for a dependence upon law and a habit of liberty, as well as of a law-abiding acknowledgment of authority. It educates for freedom. It cultivates civil dignity in all the partakers, and teaches to respect the rights of others. It has thus a gentlemanly character. It brings home palpable liberty to all, and gives a consciousness of freedom, rights, and corresponding obligations such as no other system does. It is the only self-government which is a real government of self, as well as by self, and indeed is the only real self-government, of which all other governments assuming the name of self-government are but semblances, because they are at most the unrestricted rule of accidentally dominating parties, which do not even necessarily consist of the majorities. For it is a truth that what is called a majority in uninstitutional countries, which struggle nevertheless for liberty, is generally a minority, and often even a small minority.
Institutional self-government incarnates, if the expression may pass, the idea of a free country, and makes it palpable, as the jury is nobly called the country for the prisoner. It seems that as long as institutions exist in full vigor, and no actual revolution takes place, that odious and very stale part of a successful general who uses the wreaths he has gained abroad, as a means of stifling liberty at home, is unknown. Rome had her Syllas and Marius, with their long line of successors, only from the time when the institutional character of Rome had begun to fade. A French writer of ability1 mentions as a fact worthy of note, that the Duke of Wellington never carried his ambition higher than that of a distinguished subject, although Napoleon expected the contrary; and General Scott, in his account of the offer which was made to him in Mexico, to take the reins of that country into his own hands and rule it with his army, twice mentions the love of his country's institutions, which induced him to decline a ruler's chaplet.2
Institutional self-government is of great importance regarding the obedience of the citizen.
Obedience is one of the elements of all society, and consequently of the state. Without it political society cannot hold together. This is plain to every one. Yet there exists this great distinction, that there may be obedience demanded on the sole ground of authority; such is the obedience expected by the parent. The authority of the parent comes from a source not within the circle of the obeyers. And there may be obedience which has its very source within the circle of the obeyers. Such is the source of obedience due to authority in that society the component members of which live in jural relations—in one word, in the state. The freeman obeys, not because the government exists before the people and makes them, but because man is a being destined to live in a political state—because he must have laws and a government. It is his privilege, and distinguishes him from the brute creation. Yet, the government existing as a consequence of the jural nature of society and of man, it is unworthy of a freeman to obey any individual as individual, to follow his commands merely because issued by him, while the citizen of a free country acknowledges it as a prerogative to obey laws.
The obedience of a loyal free citizen is an act of self-directing compliance with a rule of action; and it becomes a triumph of reason and freedom when self-directing obedience is thus paid to laws which the obeyer considers erroneous, yet knows to be the laws of the land, rules of action legitimately prescribed by a body of which he forms a constituent part. This noble attribute of man is never politically developed except by institutions. To obey institutions of self-government has nothing galling in it on the ground of submission. We do not obey a person whom as individual we know to be no more than ourselves, but we obey the institution of which we know ourselves to be as integral a part as the superior, clothed with authority. The religious duty of obeying for conscience' sake is not excluded from this obedience. On the contrary, it forms an important element. The term “law-abiding people” could never have become so favorite an expression with us, and would not be inscribed even on the banners of some who defy the law, were we not an institutional people under the authority of institutional self-government.
Rulers over thirty millions of people, like our presidents, could not be easily changed, without shock or convulsion, were not the thirty millions trained by institutional self-government, were not the ousted minority conscious that, in the spontaneous act of submitting, they obey an institution of which they form as important a portion as the ruling party, and did not their own obedience foreshadow the obedience which the others must yield when their turn comes. The “principle of authority” has become for the time being as popular, at least as often-repeated, a phrase, in France, as “abiding by the law” is with us. Pamphlets are written on it, the journals descant on it. If the object of these writings is to prove that there must be authority where there is society, it would prove that the writers must consider the opinion of some communists, that all government is to be done away with, far more serious and disseminated than people at a distance can believe, to whom such absurdity appears as a mere paper and opposition fanaticism. If, however, all those discourses are intended to establish the principle of authority in politics as an independent principle, such as we find it in the church, because its institutor gave divine commandments, it would only show that the ruling party plainly desires absolutism.1
Institutional self-government distinguishes itself above all others for tenacity and a formative, assimilative, and transmissible character.
Its tenacity is shown by the surviving of many institutions even in the most violent changes, although little of a self-governing character may be left in them. In no period is this truth more strikingly illustrated than in the conquest of the Roman empire by the Northern races. The Gothic sword took lands and scaled towns, but it could not scale institutions, and Theodoric assimilated his Germanic hosts to the remnants of Roman institutions, rather than the Italians to the conquerors. It has been so wherever the conqueror met with institutions and did not in turn oppose institutions of his own, as, in a great measure, the Visigoths did in Spain. The military despotism which swept over the whole continent of Europe left England unscathed; even in spite of Cromwell's military and organized absolutism, the institutions survived Cromwell's vigor and the prostitution of England under Charles II.
Lord Macaulay says that it was probably better that the English allowed Charles II. to return without insisting upon distinct and written guarantees of their liberties. This may be a disputable point, for we see that the English were after all obliged to resort to them in the Declaration of Rights and Settlement; but it will hardly be disputed that the reigns of Charles II. and James II. would have been fatal to England had she not been eminently institutional in her character.
The tenacious life of institutional liberty is proved perhaps best in times of political mediocrity and material well-being. Gloomy, or ardent, and bold times may try men's souls, but periods of material prosperity and public depression try a country's institutions. They are the most difficult times, and liberty is lost at least as often by stranding on pleasant shores as by wrecking on boiling breakers.
The formative character of institutional self-government is shown in such cases as the formation of the Oregon government, mentioned before. So does the extensive British empire in the East show the formative and vital character of self-government. No absolute government could have established or held such an empire at such a distance, and yet an absolute ruler would consider it indicative of feebleness and not of strength in a government, that a board of shareholders could recall a governor-general, and that a man like Sir Robert Peel, as premier, acquiesced in it.
Even the Liberians may be mentioned here. People who, while with us, belonged to a degraded class, many of whom were actual slaves, and the rest socially unfree, nevertheless have carried with them an amount of institutionalism which had percolated even down to them; and a government has been established by them which enjoys internal peace, and seems to grow in strength and character every day, at the same time that hundreds of attempts in Europe have sadly miscarried. And, again, people of the same race, but having originally lived under a government without the element of institutional self-rule—the inhabitants of St. Domingo—resemble their former masters in the rapid succession of different governments destitute of self-government and peace.
The words of Mr. Everett are doubtless true, that “the French, though excelling all other nations of the world in the art of communicating for temporary purposes with savage tribes, seem, still more than the Spaniards, to be destitute of the august skill required to found new states. I do not know that there is such a thing in the world as a colony of France growing up into a prosperous commonwealth. A half a million of French peasants in Lower Canada, tenaciously adhering to the manners and customs which their fathers brought from Normandy two centuries ago, and a third part of that number of planters of French descent in Louisiana, are all that is left to bear living witness to the amazing fact that not a century ago France was the mistress of the better half of North America.”1 Are they succeeding in establishing a vigorous colony in Algeria? It seems not; and the question presents itself, what is the reason of this inability of so intelligent a nation as the French to establish flourishing colonies? I believe that the chief reason is this: The French are thoroughly wedded to centralism, and eminently uninstitutional in their character. They want government to do everything for them. They are peculiarly destitute of self-reliance in all public and communal matters. They do not know self-government; they cannot impart it. Every Frenchman's mental home is Paris, even while residing in France; as to a colonial life, he always considers it a mere exile.1
The assimilative power and transmissible character of the institution are closely connected with its tenacity and formative character. Few things in all history seem to me more striking, and, if analyzed, more instructive, than the fact that Great Britain, though monarchical in name, and aristocratic in many points, plants freedom wherever she sends colonies, and becomes thus the great mother of republics; while France, with all her democratic tendencies, her worship of equality and repeated proclamations of a republic, has never approached nearer to the republic than setting aside a ruling dynasty; her colonies are, politically speaking, barren dependencies. They do not bloom into empires. The colonies of Spain also teach a grave lesson on this subject.2
The power by which institutional self-government assimilates various and originally discordant elements is forcibly shown in the United States, where every year several hundred thousand emigrants arrive from countries under different governments. The institutions of our country soon absorb and assimilate them as integral parts of our polity. In no other political system of which liberty forms any part, could this be done. Imagine an influx of foreigners in a country like France when she called herself republican, and the danger of so large a body of foreigners would soon be perceived. It would be an evil day indeed for the United States and for the emigrants, if our institutions were to be broken up and popular absolutism erected on the ruins of our institutional liberty. We, of all nations on earth, are most interested in the vigorous life and healthful development of institutional self-government. No nation has so much reason to shun mere inarticulated equality and barren centralization as ourselves.
On the other hand, it may be observed that the Turks to this day are little more than they were on the day of their conquest—isolated rulers, unassimilated and unassimilating, having for centuries been in possession of the finest country in Europe, whence in the fifteenth century our civilization received a new impulse. So unidentified are the Turks with the country or its population that the idea of their expulsion from Europe has in it nothing strange, or difficult to imagine. The reasons cannot lie in their race, for they are no longer Mongolians; they cannot lie in their religion, for Mohammedans have flourished. They have no political institutions, carrying life and action within them, nor did they find institutions, which might have absorbed the conquerors. The Byzantine empire had become a mere court government long before the Turks conquered it, and the worst court government that ever existed in Europe.1
The stability obtained by an institutional government is closely connected with the tenacity which has been mentioned; but it is necessary to observe that an institutional self-government seems to be the only one which unites the two necessary elements of continuity and progression, or applicability to changing conditions. Asia, with its retrospective and traditional character, and without political mutations proper, offers the sight of stagnation. France, with her ardently prospective and intellectual character, but without political institutions proper, lacks continuity and political development. There is a succession of violent changes, which made Napoleon I. exclaim, observing the fact but not perceiving the cause, “Poor nations! in spite of all your enlightening men,2 of all your wisdom, you remain subject to the caprices of fashion like individuals.” Now, it is pre-eminently institutional self-government which prevents the rule of political fashion, because, on the one hand, it furnishes a proper organism by which public opinion is elaborated, and may be distinguished from mere transitory general opinion,1 from acclamation or panic; and, on the other hand, it seems to be the only government strong enough to resist momentary excitement and a sweeping turn of the popular mind. Absolute popular governments are liable to be influenced by every change of general passion or desire, and monarchical concentrated absolutism is as much exposed to the mutations of passions or theories. The difference is only that single men—ministers or rulers—may effect the sudden changes according to the views which may happen to prevail. The English government, with all its essential changes and reforms, and the lead it has taken in many of the latter, during this century, has proved itself stable and continuous in the same degree in which it is popular and institutional, compared to the chief governments of the European continent. The history of a people, longing for liberty but destitute of institutional self-government, will always present a succession of alternating tonic and clonic spasms. Many of the Italian cities in the middle ages furnish us with additional and impressive examples.
Liberty is a thing that grows, and institutions are its very garden beds. There is no liberty which as a national blessing has leaped into existence in full armor like Minerva from the head of Jove. Liberty is crescive in its nature. It takes time, and is difficult, like all noble things. Things noble are hard,1 was the favorite saying of Socrates, and liberty is the noblest of all things. It must be defended, developed, conquered, and bled for. It can never be added, like a mere capital on a column; it must pervade the whole body. If the Emperor of China were to promulgate one of the charters of our states for his empire, it would be like hanging a gold collar around the neck of a camel.
Liberty must grow up with the whole system; therefore we must begin at once, where it does not exist, knowing that it will take time for perfection, and not indeed discard it, because it has not yet been commenced. That would be like giving up the preparation of a meal, because it has not been commenced in time. Let institutions grow, and sow them at once
We see, then, how unphilosophical were the words of the present Emperor of the French to the assembled bodies of state in February, 1853, when he said: “Liberty has never aided in founding a durable edifice; liberty crowns it when it has been consolidated by time.”
History denies it; political philosophy and common sense alike contradict it. Liberty may be planted where despotism has reigned, but it can be done only by much undoing, and breaking down; by a great deal of rough ploughing. We cannot prepare a people for liberty by centralized despotism, any more than we can prepare for light by destroying the means of vision. Nowhere can liberty develop itself out of despotism. It can only chronologically follow the rule of absolutism; and if it does so, it must begin with eliminating its antagonistic government. Every return to concentrated despotism, therefore, creates an additional necessity of revolution, and throws an increased difficulty in the way of obtaining freedom.
[1.]Mr. Lemoisne, Wellington from a French Point of View.
[2.]General Scott has given an account of this affair in some remarks he made at a public dinner at Sandusky, in the year 1852. The generals of most countries would probably charge the victorious general with niaiserie, for declining so tempting an offer. We delight in the dutiful and plain citizen who did not hesitate, and, as the occurrence possesses historical importance, the entire statement of the general is here given. I have it in my power to say, from the best information, that the following account is “substantially correct,” and as authentic as reports of speeches can well be made:
[1.]There is no doubt in my mind that the institutional government is the real school of civil obedience. Whether the following remarkable passage, which I found in Baron Müffling's Memoirs of the Campaign of 1813 and 1814, edited by Col Philip Yorke, London, 1853, must be in part explained by the general self-government of England, and by the fact that every English gentleman is accustomed to political self-government and consequently to obedience, I shall not decide, but I strongly incline to believe that we must do so. General Müffling was the Prussian officer in the staff of the Duke of Wellington who served as an official link between the two armies. He was, therefore, in constant personal intercourse with the English commander, and had the very best opportunity of observing that which he reports.
[1.]Mr. Everett's Address before the New York Historical Society, 1853.
[1.]There are doubtless many causes operating together, and one of these may be that the French are not inherently fond of agriculture, as the Germanic races are. The English are eminently so.
[2.]The reader has a right to ask here, why then did not the Netherlands, to institutional in their character, establish prosperous self-governments in foreign parts, as England did? I believe the answer which must be given is this:
[1.]The same is said of the Manchous in China. The ruling soldier tribe has not assimilated itself with the Chinese, and the expulsion of the dynasty seems no incredible occurrence, even though the present rebellion should not be successful. In the case of China, the conquered race had many firmly-established laws and civil institutions, to which the conquering race continued strangers, at least so far as to remain chiefly soldiers. No reliance is weaker than that which rests mainly on the army, even if the army is in fighting-order, which the Chinese is not.
[2.]The word reported to have been used by Napoleon is lumières, which may mean men who enlighten, or the light which is given. The passage is found in the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, by Las Cases. Napoleon was speaking of the clergy, and the whole passage runs thus:
[1.]Public Opinion and General Opinion have been discussed in the first volume of Political Ethics.
[1.]χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά. May we not add καὶ καλὰ τὰ χαλεπά?