Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter xxxiv.: centralization.—influence of capital cities. - On Civil Liberty and Self-Government
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chapter xxxiv.: centralization.—influence of capital cities. - 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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centralization.—influence of capital cities.
We have seen in how great a degree French centralism has produced an incapacity for self-rule, according to one of the most distinguished statesmen of France herself. This centralism, in conjunction with imperatorial sovereignty, has produced some peculiar effects upon a nation so intelligent, ardent, and wedded to system as the French are. Before I conclude this treatise, therefore, I beg leave to offer a few remarks, which naturally suggest themselves, in connection with centralism and imperatorial sovereignty; both so prominent at this moment in France.
Centralism has given to Paris an importance which no capital possesses in any other country. The French themselves often say Paris is France; foreigners always say so; and to them as well as to those French people who desire to enjoy, at one round, as much as possible of all that French civilization produces, this is, doubtless, very agreeable and instructive. Paris is brilliant, as centralism frequently is; Paris naturally flatters the vanity of the French; Paris stands with many people for France, because they see nothing of France but Paris. Centralization appears most imposing in Paris—in the buildings, in demonstrations, in rapidity of execution, and in an æsthetical point of view. Upon a close examination of history, however, we shall find that it has been not only a natural effect of centralism, but an object of all absolute rulers over intelligent races, to beautify the capital and raise its activity to the highest point The effect is remarkable. The government of King Jerome, of Westphalia—now again prince of France—was one of the most ruinous that has ever existed, and yet long after the downfall of that ephemeral kingdom, every disapproval of it was answered by a reference to the embellishment of Cassel, the capital.1
Capital cities and residences of kings, and even of petty princes, have in this respect the same effect which single large fortunes or single busy places have on the minds of the superficial, in point of political economy. They are palpable, and strike the mind, yet they prove nothing of themselves. There is not a war, however ruinous, that does not produce gigantic gains for some bankers, contractors, and able speculators. They are often pointed out to prove that a certain war has not been fatal to general prosperity. There have never existed greater fortunes than those of some princely Roman senators, with their latifundia, in the very worst periods of the Roman empire, amidst universal ruin, and when the country was fast declining to that state in which the tillers of the soil abandoned their farms, because unable to pay the taxes, and in which Italy, with the utmost exertion of the government, was not able to raise an army against invading hordes.
Whenever we shall have executed our railway to the Pacific, nothing of it will be seen at one moment and by the physical eye, that differs from the rails of any other road, and the vulgar will be struck far more by a palace at Versailles, or a column of Trajan; unless, indeed, a pointing hand were hewn in granite, at San Francisco, with the words, To the Atlantic, and another at some Atlantic city, with the words, To the Pacific; and even then the grandeur of the road would not be perceived by the physical eye.1
We live in an age which has justly been called the age of large cities.2 Populous cities are indispensable to civilization, and even to liberty, though I own that one of the problems we have yet to solve is, how to unite in large cities the highest degree of individual liberty and order.
But absorbing cities, cities on which monarchs are allowed to lavish millions of the national wealth, always belong to a low state of general national life, often to effete empires. The vast cities of Asia, Byzantium, imperial Rome, and many other cities prove it. On the other hand, it is an unfortunate state of things in which one city rules supreme, either by an overwhelming population, as Naples, or by concentration, as Paris. Constant changes of governments seem almost inevitable, whether they are produced by the people, as in the case of Paris, or by foreigners, as was formerly the case in Naples.
A comparison between Paris and London, in this respect, is instructive. London, far more populous, has far less influence than Paris; and London, incomparably richer, is far less brilliant than Paris. Monarchical absolutism and centralism strike the eye and strive to do so; liberty is brilliant indeed, but it is brilliant in history, and must be studied in her institutions.3
Great as the influence of Paris has been ever since the reign of the Valois, it has steadily increased, and those who strove for liberty were by no means behind the others in their worship of the capital. This singular idolatry was actually acknowledged by several resolutions of the representatives of the people, during the late republic.
The intense influence of Paris, together with the wide-spread system of government, every single thread of which centres in Paris, is such that, in 1848, the republic was literally telegraphed to the departments, and adopted without any resistance from any quarter, civil or military, which cannot be explained by the often-avowed horror of the French at shedding French blood, since blood was readily shed to elevate Louis Napoleon. The same causes made it possible for the republic, so readily and unanimously adopted, to be with equal readiness changed by eight millions of votes into a monarchy.
It has already been admitted that centralism, by the very fact that it concentrates great power, can produce many striking results which it is not in the power of governments on a different principle to exhibit. These effects please and often popularize a government; but there is another fact to be taken into consideration. Symmetry is one of the elements of humanity; systematizing is one of man's constant actions. It captivates and becomes dangerous, if other elements and activities equally important are neglected, or if it is carried into spheres in which it ought not to prevail. The regularity and consistent symmetry, together with the principle of unity, which pervade the whole French government, charm many a beholder, and afford pleasure not unlike that which many persons derive from looking at a plan of a mathematically regular city, or upon gardens architectonically trimmed. But freedom is life, and wherever we find life it is marked, indeed, by agreement of principles and harmony of development, but also by variety of form and phenomenon, and by a subordinate exactness of symmetry. The centralist, it might be said, mistakes lineal and angular exactness, formal symmetry, and mathematical proportions, for harmonious evolution and profuse vitality. He prefers an angular garden of the times of Louis XIV. to an umbrageous grove.
Centralism, and the desire to bring everything under the influence of government, or to effect as far as possible everything by government, has fearfully increased from the moment that the imperatorial absolutism was declared:1 while, at the same time, a degree of man-worship has developed itself, which makes people at a distance almost stand aghast The same hyperbolical, and, in many cases, blasphemous flattery, which reminded the observer, in the times of Napoleon I., of imperial Rome, has been repeated since. No one who has attentively followed the events of our times stands in need of instances; they were offered by hundreds,2 and of a character that would make the most inveterate former tory-worship of the crowned person appear as an innocent blundering; but we cannot pass over the fact that an infatuated yet large part of a nation have for the first time in history, so far as we know, called ideas after a man of action. “Napoleonic ideas” has become a favorite expression. Not only newspapers use this term—a late one condemned free-trade because “free-trade is no Napoleonic idea”—but men whom we have been accustomed to look upon with respect1 have fallen into this infatuation. All of us have heard of Christian ethics, Christian ideas and sentiments, but we have never heard of Carlovingian, Frederician, Julian, Alexandrian, Gregorian or Lutheran ideas. It is a submission to a name, an individual—and an individual, too, be it observed, who distinguished himself as a man of action, which seems to indicate a singular want of self-reliance and self-respect.
Centralized government scan effect certain brilliant acts, but they are on this account seriously liable to fall into a method of carrying on public affairs which, in the language of stage managers, is significantly called starring, and which has the serious inconvenience of leading popular attention from solid actions to that which dazzles, from wholesome reality to mere brilliant ideas.
The elevation of Napoleon III. may be referred in a measure to this error. Huzzaing crowds are never substantial indications of any opinion, whether the crowds are voluntary or subpoenaed. “Where are my enemies?” said Charles II. when he re-entered London and passed through the crowd of his subjects. He had enough. Prince de Ligne tells us that, when Catharine travelled through Crimea, distant populations were carried to the roadside of the imperial traveller, to wait on her, in costumes delivered to them by the government, and to personate the inhabitants of show villages which had been erected in the background. These sham villages are typical.
Still, we can believe that many persons rushed to see the present emperor when he travelled through France, before he made himself emperor, because they really believed that which had been so often repeated—that Louis Napoleon “had saved society and civilization.” Now, this is exactly an idea which belongs to the order that has been indicated.
It is in the first place founded upon the belief that if civilization perishes in France it is necessarily lost for the entire world. It would certainly produce a very serious shock; but the French idea of one leading nation is an anachronism. It belongs to ancient times; the French easily fall into this error, because Paris really leads France. Civilization, however, would not be wholly lost even for France, should Paris be destroyed; or, if it were so, what must we think of the whole country?
Secondly, those who assert that Napoleon III. saved society mean, it must be supposed, that had he not taken the reins of absolute power the socialists would have destroyed property, industry, and individuality.
The fear which the socialists have inspired must have been very great, and doubtless the power in every individual of doing mischief is immense, compared to that of doing good. Even an insect can cause a leak to a man-of-war; but to say that a single man—such a man, and by such means—has been the savior of society, is at once so monstrous an exaggeration, and such an avowal of inability to act, and want of self-reliance, that this hyperbole, if it be not altogether an error, would have led to no such results with any nation less accustomed to centralism, absolutism, and an absorbing government. These were necessary to make a nation so rapidly, and apparently with so much good-humor, bend to all the exorbitant and insulting demands of absolutism, to which, unfortunately, at this moment the French nation seems to bow with a peculiar grace.
[1.]There are psychological processes which indicate suspicious intentions—the adoption of a new and scientifically sounding term for an old and common offence, as Repudiation for declining to pay what is due; and of mystifying, high-sounding abstractions in statesmanship. The latter is carried to a degree, in the following address of Napoleon, which is rare even in France. Louis XIV., according to the present emperor of the French, the great representative of French unity and glory, when he had ruined France by the building of Versailles, warned, on his death-bed, his successor to beware of wars and of building. There are so many points of French politics tersely put in the speech of Napoleon III., when in September of 1857 he opened the Louvre, that its record may be considered a historical document. We give it therefore entire.
[1.]No one will charge the author, he trusts, with political iconoclasm, that has read his chapter on monuments in his Political Ethics.
[2.]The Age of Great Cities, or Modern Society viewed in its Relation to Intelligence, Morals and Religion, by Robert Vaughn, D.D., London, 1843.
[3.]This manifests itself in all spheres. Paris leads in fashion, art, science, language, etc. England has her Oxford and Cambridge.
[1.]According to the latest news, even the dead are under the control of government, not in the sense of Sydney Smith, by paying taxes, but no one can any longer be buried in Paris except by a chartered company, standing under the close inspection of the police department.
[2.]Churchmen and laymen, as is well known, vie with each other on such occasions. The blasphemous flattery offered by some dignitaries of the church to Napoleon I. was revolting. We have seen the same when there seemed to be a question who could bid highest in burning incense to the present new Cæsar. The Lord's Prayer was travestied. The following “proclamation” is taken from the “Concorde de Seine et Oise,” of October, 1852, for the very reason that it is not one of the worst: