Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXXVIII: the beginnings of democracy in north america - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER XXXVIII: the beginnings of democracy in north america - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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the beginnings of democracy in north america
Of all modern countries the United States supplies the most abundant data for the study of popular government. It has been a democracy for a century and a quarter, and is now by far the largest of the nations that live under self-governing institutions. It shows the working of these institutions, on a great scale in its Federal Government and in the governments of the most populous States, on a smaller scale in the lesser States, as well as in counties, townships, and cities, some of which latter have a frame of government that makes them resemble autonomous republics. It has exerted an immense influence on other countries, for its example fired the French people at the outbreak of the Revolution of 1789, and its constitution has been taken as a model by the new republics of the Western hemisphere. Since Tocqueville published in 1832 his memorable book on American democracy, the United States has stood before the minds of European thinkers and statesmen not only as the land to which the races of the Old World are drawn by hopes of happiness and freedom, but also as the type of what the rule of the people means when the people are left to themselves, and as the pattern of what other peoples are likely to become as they in their turn move along the fateful path to democratic institutions. Whoever in Europe has wished to commend or to disparage those institutions has pointed to the United States, and has found plenty of facts to warrant either praise or blame.
No nation ever embarked on its career with happier auguries for the success of popular government. The friends of liberty in Europe indulged the highest hopes of what Liberty could accomplish in a new land, exempt from the evils which the folly or selfishness of monarchs and nobles had inflicted on the countries of Europe. The Americans themselves, although the Revolutionary War left them impoverished as well as vexed by local jealousies, were full of pride and confidence. There was much to justify this confidence. Their own racial quality and the traditions they inherited, the favouring features of their physical environment and the security from external dangers which isolation promised, made up, taken in conjunction, a body of conditions for a peaceful and prosperous political life such as no other people had ever enjoyed. Those who settled Spanish America had an equally vast and rich territory open before them. Those who settled Australia and New Zealand had an equally noble inheritance of freedom behind them. But in neither of these cases were the gifts of Nature and those of a splendid Past bestowed together in such ample measure on the founders of a State.
Let us pass these gifts in brief review.
Temperate North America was a vast country fit to be the home of a North European race, and a practically unoccupied country, for the aboriginal tribes, though most of them fierce and brave, were too few to constitute an obstacle to settlement. There was land for everybody; and nearly all of it, as far as the Rocky Mountains, available for cultivation. It is only to-day, three centuries after the first English colonists settled in Virginia and on the shores of Massachusetts Bay, nearly a century and a half after the Declaration of Independence, that the unappropriated arable areas have become scarce. Besides the immense stretches of rich soil, there were superb forests and mineral deposits it will take many centuries to exhaust.
In such a country everybody could find means of sustenance. Among the earlier settlers and almost down to our own time there was no economic distress, no pauperism nor ground for apprehending it. Nobody was rich, nobody very poor. Neither were there any class antagonisms. Though the conditions of colonial life had created a kind of equality unknown to old countries, certain distinctions of rank existed, but they were not resented, and caused no friction, either social or political. The people were nearly all of English or (in the Middle States) of Dutch or Scoto-Irish stock, stocks that had already approved themselves industrious in peace, valiant in war, adventurous at sea. All were practically English in their ways of thinking, their beliefs, their social usages, yet with an added adaptability and resourcefulness such as the simple or rougher life in a new country is fitted to implant. In the northern colonies they were well educated, as education was understood in those days, and mentally alert. The habit of independent thinking and a general interest in public affairs had been fostered both by the share which the laity of the northern colonies took in the management of the Congregational churches and by the practice of civil self-government, brought from England, while the principles of the English Common Law, exact yet flexible, had formed the minds of their leading men. Respect for law and order, a recognition both of the rights of the individual and of the authority of the duly appointed magistrate, were to them the foundations of civic duty.
Though there were wide economic and social differences between the Northern colonies, where the farmers and seafaring men constituted the great bulk of the population1 and the Southern, in which large plantations were worked by slave labour, these differences did not yet substantially affect the unity of the nation: for the racial distinctions were negligible, and no language but English was spoken, except by some Germans in Pennsylvania. Such divergences in religious doctrine and church government as existed were too slight to be a basis for parties or to create political acrimony. Finally, it was their good fortune to be safe from any external dangers. The power of France had, since 1759, ceased to threaten them on the side of Canada, and on the south neither from Florida nor from Louisiana, both then in the hands of Spain, was there anything to fear.
With conditions so favourable to peace only a small navy and still smaller army were needed, circumstances which promised security against the growth of a military caste or the ascendancy of a successful general.2 These fortunate conditions continued to exist for many years. Once, however, the unity of the nation was imperilled. The maintenance of negro slavery, which wise statesmen had hoped to see disappear naturally, and the attempt to extend its area so as to retain for the Slave States an equal power in the government, led to a long struggle between the Free and the Slave States which ended in the War of Secession, a war that retarded the progress of the South and has left behind it a still unsolved internal problem. Nevertheless, the cohesive forces proved strong enough to reassert themselves when the fight was over. The present generation knows no animosities, and honours alike those who, between 1860 and 1865, fought on one or other side. The old Slavery issues belong to a dead past, and need seldom be referred to in the pages that follow, for the tendencies that characterize popular government have developed themselves upon lines with which slavery had little to do, so the phenomena which we have to-day to study would (except as respects the suffrage in, and the political attitude of, the Southern States) have been much the same if no slave-ship had ever brought a negro from Africa.
What were the tendencies of thought and feeling wherewith the nation started on its course and which constituted the main lines of its political character? Some were inherited, some the outcome of colonial conditions.
There was a strong religious sense, present everywhere, but strongest in New England, and there fostering a somewhat stern and almost grim view of duty. This has continued to be a feature which sharply distinguishes native American thought and conduct from all revolutionary and socialistic movements on the European continent. There has never been any anti-Christian or anti-clerical sentiment, such as has embittered politics and disrupted parties in France, Italy, Spain, and Mexico.
There was a vehement passion for liberty, dating, in embryo, from the early Puritan settlements in New England and keen also among the Scoto-Irish of Virginia, the Carolinas and Pennsylvania, who had fled from the oppressions suffered by the Presbyterians of Ulster. Intensified by the long struggle against King George III., this passion ran to excess when it induced the belief that with Liberty in the van all other good things would follow. During the War of Independence the men of conservative opinions, branded as enemies of freedom, had been mostly silenced or expelled. The victory of the People over arbitrary power had glorified both Liberty and the People. It was natural to assume that the one would be always victorious and the other always wise.
With the love of Liberty there went a spirit of individualistic self-reliance and self-help, not indeed excluding associated action, for that they possessed in their town meetings and colonial assemblies, but averse to official control or supervision. In the great majority of the people these tendencies co-existed with a respect for law and a sense of the value of public order. But there were, especially in the wilder districts, restive elements which gave trouble to the Federal Government in its early days and obliged it to use military force to overcome resistance to the enforcement of revenue statutes. Lawlessness has never been extinguished in the mountainous regions of East Kentucky and East Tennessee.
Neither did the respect for constituted authority, general in the older and best-settled parts of the country, prevent a suspicious attitude towards officials, including even members of the legislatures. Here the individualism characteristic of the Puritan and of the settler asserted itself. Any assumption of power was watched with a jealousy which kept strictly within the range of their functions those whom the people had chosen for public service.
Lastly, there was a spirit of localism which showed itself in the desire to retain as much public business as possible under local control and entrust as little as possible to a central authority. The attachment to self-government in each small community was rooted, not in any theory, but rather in instinct and habit. Nobody thought of choosing any one but a neighbour to represent him in an elected body. This showed itself especially in the northern colonies which had grown up out of little rural Towns. The Town was not a mere electoral area but a community, which thought that no one but a member of the community could represent it or deal with its affairs.
These tendencies were fundamentally English, though more fully developed in America, as an orchard tree grown for centuries in one country may, when placed in a new soil under a new sun, put forth more abundant foliage and fruit of richer flavour. The Americans, however, began soon after the Revolution to think of themselves, and the less instructed sections among them have continued so to think, as a new people. They fancied their history to have begun from 1776, or at earliest from 1607 and 1620, forgetting, in the pride of their new nationalism, that both their character and their institutions were due to causes that had been at work centuries before, as far back as Magna Charta and even as the Folk Mots of their primitive ancestors in the days of Ecghbert and Alfred. Rather were they an old people, the heirs of many ages, though under the stimulus of a new nature and an independent life renewing their youth even as the age of an eagle.
Such was the land and such the people in which the greatest of modern democracies began to build up its frame of government. On what foundations of doctrine was the structure made to rest?
The Americans of the Revolution started from two fundamental principles or dogmas. One was Popular Sovereignty. From the People all power came: at their pleasure and under their watchful supervision it was held: for their benefit and theirs alone was it to be exercised. The other principle was Equality. This had from the first covered the whole field of private civil rights with no distinctions of privilege. Equality of political rights was for a time incomplete, voting power being in some States withheld from the poorest as not having a permanent stake in the community, but in course of time all the States placed all their citizens on the same footing.
Along with these two principles certain other doctrines were so generally assumed as true that men did not stop to examine, much less to prove them. Nearly all believed that the possession of political rights, since it gives self-respect and imposes responsibility, does, of itself make men fit to exercise those rights, so that citizens who enjoy liberty will be sure to value it and guard it. Their faith in this power of liberty, coupled with their love of equality, further disposed them to regard the differences between one citizen and another as so slight that almost any public functions may be assigned to any honest man, while fairness requires that such functions should go round and be enjoyed by each in turn. These doctrines, however, did not exclude the belief that in the interest of the people no one chosen to any office must enjoy it long or be allowed much discretion in its exercise, for they held that though the private citizen may be good while he remains the equal of others, power is a corrupting thing, so the temptation to exceed or misuse functions must be as far as possible removed.
There were very few negroes in the North, though slavery existed in 1783 in all States except Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and possibly (for the point seems doubtful) in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
The European Wars, which began in 1792 and ended in 1814, raised controversies with Britain which culminated in the war of 1812–14, but thereafter questions of foreign policy affected but slightly the politics and general constitutional development of America down till our own time.