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chapter 81: Classes as Influencing Opinion - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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Classes as Influencing Opinion
These are some of the characteristics of American opinion in general, and may, if I am right in the description given, be discovered in all classes of the native white population. They exist, however, in different measure in different classes, and the above account of them needs to be supplemented by some remarks on the habits and tendencies of each class. I do not, of course, propose to describe the present opinions of classes, for that would require an account of current political questions: my aim is merely to state such general class characters as go to affect the quality and vigour of opinion. Classes are in America by no means the same thing as the greater nations of Europe. One must not, for political purposes, divide them as upper and lower, richer and poorer, but rather according to the occupations they respectively follow and the conditions of life that constitute their environment. Their specific characters, as a naturalist would say, are less marked even in typical individuals than would be the case in Europe, and are in many individuals scarcely recognizable. Nevertheless, the differences between one class and another are sufficient to produce distinctly traceable influences on the political opinion of the nation, and to colour the opinions, perhaps even to determine the political attitude, of the district where a particular class predominates.
I begin with the farmers, because they are, if not numerically the largest class, at least the class whose importance is most widely felt. As a rule they are owners of their land; and as a rule the farms are small, running from forty or fifty up to three hundred acres. In a few places, especially in the West, large landowners let farms to tenants, and in some parts of the South one finds big plantations cultivated by small tenants, often Negroes. But far more frequently the owner tills the land and the tiller owns it. The proportion of hired labourers to farmers is therefore very much smaller than in England, partly because farms are usually of a size permitting the farmer and his family to do much of the work by themselves, partly because machinery is more extensively used, especially in the level regions of the West. The labourers, or, as they are called, the “hired men,” do not, taking the country as a whole, form a social stratum distinct from the farmers, and there is so little distinction in education or rank between them that one may practically treat employer and employed as belonging to the same class.
The farmer is a keener and more enterprising man than in Europe, with more of that commercial character which one observes in Americans, far less anchored to a particular spot, and of course subject to no such influences of territorial magnates as prevail in England, Germany, or Italy. He has now, in such states as Illinois and Wisconsin, realized what applied science can do for agriculture. He is so far a businessman as sometimes to speculate in grain or bacon. Yet he is not free from the usual defects of agriculturists. He is obstinate, tenacious of his habits, not readily accessible to argument. His way of life is plain and simple, and he prides himself on its simplicity, holding the class he belongs to to be the mainstay of the country, and regarding city folk with a mixture of suspicion and jealousy, because he deems them as inferior to himself in virtue as they are superior in adroitness, and likely to outwit him. Sparing rather than stingy in his outlays, and living largely on the produce of his own fields, he has so little ready money that small sums appear large to him; and as he fails to see why everybody cannot thrive and be happy on $1,500 a year, he thinks that figure a sufficient salary for a county or district official, and regulates his notions of payment for all other officials, judges included, by the same standard. To belong to a party and support it by his vote, seems to him part of a citizen’s duty, but his interests in national politics are secondary to those he feels in agriculturists’ questions, particularly in the great war against monopolies and capitalists, which the power and in some cases the tyranny of the railroad companies has provoked in the West. Naturally a grumbler, as are his brethren everywhere, finding his isolated life dull, and often unable to follow the causes which depress the price of produce, he is the more easily persuaded that his grievances are due to the combinations of designing speculators. The agricultural newspaper to which he subscribes is of course written up to his prejudices, and its adulation of the farming class confirms his belief that he who makes the wealth of the country is tricked out of his proper share in its prosperity. Thus he now and then makes desperate attempts to right himself by legislation, lending too ready an ear to politicians who promise him redress by measures possibly unjust and usually unwise. In his impatience with the regular parties, he has been apt to vote for those who call themselves a people’s or farmer’s party, and who dangled before him the hope of getting “cheap money,” of reducing the expenses of legal proceedings, and of compelling the railroads to carry his produce at unremunerative rates. However, after all said and done, he is an honest, kindly sort of man, hospitable, religious, patriotic: the man whose hard work has made the West what it is. It is chiefly in the West that one must now look for the well-marked type I have tried to draw, yet not always in the newer West; for, in regions like northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Dakota, the farming population is mainly foreign—Scandinavian and German—while the native Americans occupy themselves with trading and railroad management. However, the Scandinavians and Germans acquire in a few years many of the characteristics of the native farmer, and follow the political lead given by the latter. In the early days of the Republic, the agriculturists were, especially in the middle and the newer parts of the Southern states, the backbone of the Democratic party, sturdy supporters of Jefferson, and afterwards of Andrew Jackson. When the opposition of North and South began to develop itself and population grew up beyond the Ohio, the pioneers from New England who settled in that country gave their allegiance to the Whig party; and in the famous “log cabin and hard cider” campaign, which carried the election of General Harrison as president, that worthy, taken as a type of the hardy backwoodsman, made the Western farmer for the first time a noble and poetical figure to the popular imagination. Nowadays he is less romantic, yet still one of the best elements in the country. He stood by the Union during the war, and gave his life freely for it. For many years afterwards his vote now carried the Western, and especially the Northwestern states for the Republican party, which is to him still the party which saved the Union and protected the Negro.
The shopkeepers and small manufacturers may be said to form a second class, though in the smaller towns, of the West especially, their interests are so closely interwoven with those of the cultivators, and their way of life so similar, that there is little special to remark about them. In the larger towns they are sharper and more alive to what is passing than the rural population, but their intellectual horizon is not much wider. A sort of natural selection carries the more ambitious and eager spirits into the towns, for the native American dislikes the monotony and isolation of a farm life with its slender prospect of wealth. To keep a store in a “corner lot” is the ambition of the keen-witted lad. The American shopkeeper, it need hardly be said, has not the obsequiousness of his European congener, and is far from fancying that retail trade has anything degrading about it. He is apt to take more part in local politics than the farmer, but less apt to become a member of a state legislature, because he can seldom leave his store as the farmer can at certain seasons leave his land. He reads more newspapers than the farmer does, and of course learns more from current talk. His education has been better, because city schools are superior to country ones. He is perhaps not so certain to go solid for his party. He has less ground of quarrel with the railroads, but if connected with a manufacturing industry, is of course more likely to be interested in tariff questions, or, in other words, to be a Protectionist. His occupation, however, seldom gives him any direct personal motive for supporting one party more than another, and he has less of that political timidity which Europeans take to be the note of the typical bourgeois than the retail dealer of France or England.
The working men, by which I mean those who toil with their hands for wages, form a less well-marked class than is the case in most parts of Europe, and have not so many subclasses within their own body, though of course the distinction between skilled and unskilled labour makes itself felt, and one may say, speaking generally, that all unskilled labourers are comparatively recent immigrants. The native workpeople are of course fairly educated; they read the daily newspapers, while their women may take a weekly religious journal and a weekly or monthly magazine; many of them, especially in the smaller cities, belong to a congregation in whose concerns they are generally interested. Many are total abstainers. Their wives have probably had a longer schooling and read more widely than they do themselves. In the smaller towns both in New England and the West, and even in some of the large cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago, the better part of them own the houses they live in, wooden houses in the suburbs with a little verandah and a bit of garden, and thus feel themselves to have a stake in the country. Their womankind dress with so much taste that on Sunday, or when you meet them in the steam cars, you would take them for persons in easy circumstances. Till the latter part of last century, strikes were less frequent than in England, nor, in spite of the troubles of recent years, has there hitherto existed any general sense of hostility to employers. This is due partly to the better circumstances of the workmen, partly to the fact that the passage from the one class to the other is easy and frequent. Thus, notwithstanding the existence of so-called Labour parties, and the recent creation of a vast organization embracing all trades over the whole Union, there has been less of collective class feeling and class action among workmen than in England,1 certainly much less than in France or Germany. Politicians have of late years begun to pose as the special friends of the working man. Although in a country where the popular vote is omnipotent there seems something absurd in assuming that the working man is weak and stands in need of special protection, still the great power of capital, the illegitimate means by which that power acts upon legislatures, the growing disparities of fortune, and the fact that rich men bear less than their due share of taxation, have furnished a basis for labour agitation. While contributing as many recruits to the army of professional politicians as do the other classes, the wage-earning class is no more active in political work than they are, and furnishes few candidates for state or federal office. Till recently little demand was made for the representation of labour as labour either in Congress or in state legislatures. There are of course many members who have begun life as operatives; but very few in Congress (though some in the state legislatures) whose special function or claim it is to be the advocates of their whilom class. Such progress as Communistic or Socialistic movements have made has been chiefly among the immigrants from Central Europe, Germans, Slavs, and Italians, with a smaller contingent of Irish and Swedish support, but it is not easy to say how great this progress is, for the educated classes had known and cared very little about the growth of new doctrines among the workers until the recent outbreak of Anarchist violence at Chicago in 1886 turned all eyes upon a new source of peril to civilization. One question, however, which never fails to excite the workmen is the introduction of cheap foreign labour, and the bringing in of workmen to fill the place of strikers. A statute forbids the landing in the country of persons coming under a contract to work. In the Pacific states the feeling against the Chinese, who took lower wages, often one-half of what whites obtain, was for a time not merely the prime factor in Californian state politics, but induced the Senate to ratify treaties and Congress to pass acts, the last one extremely stringent, forbidding their entry. One trade, however, the Chinese are permitted to follow, and have now almost monopolized, that of washermen—one cannot say, washerwomen. Even a small city rarely wants its Chinese laundry. The entry, early in the present century, of a large number of Japanese, roused similar antagonism, and led to negotiations with the government of Japan by which the influx was stopped.
It will be gathered from what I have said that there is no want of intelligence or acuteness among the working people. For political purposes, and setting apart what are specifically called labour questions, there is really little difference between them and other classes. Their lights are as good as those of farmers or traders, their modes of thinking similar. They are, however, somewhat more excitable and more easily fascinated by a vigorous personality, as the success of General Benjamin F. Butler among the shoemakers of his Massachusetts district proved. A powerful speaker with a flow of humour and audacity will go farther with them than with the more commercially minded shopkeeper, or the more stolid agriculturist, if indeed one can call any American stolid.
The ignorant masses of such great cities as New York, Cincinnati, Chicago, San Francisco, together with the dangerously large “tramp” class, are hardly to be reckoned with the working class I have been describing, but answer better to what is called in England “the residuum.” They are no longer Irish and Germans, for these races have moved upward in the social scale, but chiefly Poles and other Slavs, Italians, Negroes, and such native Americans as have fallen from their first estate into drink and penury. The most recent immigrants can hardly be said to possess political opinions, for they have not had time to learn to know the institutions of their new country. But as to the earlier incomers, and especially the Irish, Germans, and Scandinavians, one may note three sentiments which have affected them, besides adhesion to the party which snapped them up when they landed, or which manipulates them by leaders of their own race. One of these sentiments is religious sympathy. Such of them as are Roman Catholics are ready to stand by whichever party may obtain the favour, or be readiest to serve the interests, of their church.2 Another is the protection of the liquor traffic. The German loves his beer, and deems a land where this most familiar of pleasures is unattainable no land of freedom, while the Irishman stands by a trade in which his countrymen are largely engaged. And, thirdly, the American-Irish were for a time largely swayed by dislike of England, which has made them desire to annoy her, and if possible to stir up a quarrel between her and the land of their adoption. This feeling began to decline after 1886, and is now confined to a comparatively small part of the population of Irish origin.
The European reader must not suppose that this lowest section of the labouring class is wholly composed of immigrants, nor that all of the city-dwelling immigrants belong to it, for there are many foreigners whose education and skill places them at once on a level with the native American workmen.3 Its importance in politics arises less from its number, than from the cohesion, in every great city, of so much of it as is massed there. Being comparatively ignorant, and for the most part not yet absorbed into the American population, it is not moved by the ordinary political forces, nor amenable to the ordinary intellectual and moral influences, but “goes solid” as its leaders direct it, a fact which gives these leaders exceptional weight, and may enable them, when parties are nearly balanced, to dictate their terms to statesmen. The disposition to truckle to the forces of disorder, and to misuse the power of pardoning offenders, which prominent state officials have sometimes evinced, is due to the fear of the so-called “Labour vote,” a vote which would have much less power were the suffrage restricted to persons who have resided fifteen or twenty years in the country. Nevertheless the immigrants are not so largely answerable for the faults of American politics as the stranger might be led by the language of many Americans to believe. There is a disposition in the United States to use the immigrants, and especially the Irish, much as the cat is used in the kitchen to account for broken plates and food which disappears. The cities have no doubt suffered from the immigrant vote. But New York was not an Eden before the Irish came; and would not become an Eden were they all return to green Erin, or move on to arid Arizona.
The capitalist class consists of large merchants, manufacturers, bankers, and railroad men, with a few great land speculators and directors of trading or carrying companies. How much capacity and energy, how much wealth and influence there is in this small class everybody knows. It includes the best executive ability of the country, and far more ability than is devoted to the public service of the state. Though such persons do not, and hardly could, hold aloof from politics—some of them are indeed zealous party men—their interest lies chiefly in using politics for their own purposes, and especially in resisting the attacks with which they are threatened, sometimes by the popular movement against monopolists and great corporations, sometimes by men anxious to reduce the present high tariff which the manufacturers declare to be essential to their industries. One-half of the capitalists are occupied in preaching laissez faire as regards railroad control, the other half in resisting it in railroad rate matters, in order to have their goods carried more cheaply, and in tariff matters in order to protect industries threatened with foreign competition. Yet they manage to hold well together. Their practical talent does not necessarily imply political insight, any more than moral elevation, nor have they generally the taste or leisure to think seriously about the needs of the state. In no country does one find so many men of eminent capacity for business, shrewd, inventive, forcible, and daring, who have so few interests and so little to say outside the sphere of their business knowledge.
But the wealthy have many ways of influencing opinion and the course of events. Some of them own, others find means of inspiring, newspapers. Many are liberal supporters of universities and colleges, and it is alleged that they occasionally discourage the promulgation, by college teachers, of opinions they dislike. Presidents of great corporations have armies of officials under their orders, who cannot indeed be intimidated, for public opinion would resent that, yet may be suffered to know what their superior thinks and expects. Cities, districts of country, even states or territories, have much to hope or fear from the management of a railway, and good reason to conciliate its president. Moreover, as the finance of the country is in the hands of these men and every trader is affected by financial changes, as they control enormous joint-stock enterprises whose shares are held and speculated in by hosts of private persons of all ranks, their policy and utterances are watched with anxious curiosity, and the line they take determines the conduct of thousands not directly connected with them. A word from several of the great financiers would go a long way with leading statesmen. They are for the most part a steadying influence in politics, being opposed to sudden changes which might disturb the money market or depress trade, and especially opposed to complications with foreign states. They are therefore par excellence the peace party in America, for though some might like to fish in troubled waters, the majority would have far more to lose than to gain.
There remains the group of classes loosely called professional men, of whom we may dismiss the physicians as neither bringing any distinctive element into politics, nor often taking an active interest therein, and the journalists, because they have been considered in treating of the organs of opinion, and the clergy as inhibited by public feeling from direct immixture in political strife. In the antislavery and Free Soil struggles, ministers of religion were prominent, as they are now in the temperance movement, and indeed will always be when a distinctly moral issue is placed before the country. But in ordinary times, and as regards most questions, they find it prudent to rest content with inculcating such sound principles as will elevate their hearers’ views and lead them to vote for the best men. Some few, however, of exceptional zeal or unusually well-assured position do appear on political platforms, and, like the late Mr. Henry Ward Beecher, justify their courage by their success. The Roman Catholic prelates have great influence with their flocks, but are so sensible of the displeasure which its exercise would cause among the native Americans as to be guarded in political action, allowing themselves a freer hand in promoting temperance or other moral causes. Some of them have been among the most prominent and influential figures in the country.
The lawyers, who are both barristers and attorneys in one, there being no such distinction of the profession into two branches as exists in Britain and France, are of all classes that which has most to do with politics.4 From their ranks comes a large part, probably a half, and apparently the better half, of the professional politicians. Those who do not make politics a business have usually something to do with it, and even those who have little to do with it enjoy opportunities of looking behind the scenes. The necessities of their practice oblige them to study the federal Constitution and the constitution of their own state, as well as to watch current legislation. It is therefore from the legal profession that most of the leading statesmen have been drawn, from the days of Patrick Henry, John Jay, and John Adams down to those of Abraham Lincoln and the presidential candidates of the last generation. Hence both in great cities and in small ones the lawyer is favourably placed for influencing opinion. If he be a man of parts, he is apt to be the centre of local opinion, as Lincoln was in Springfield, where he practised law and made his reputation.5 When in some great community like New York or Boston a demonstration is organized, some distinguished advocate, such as Charles O’Conor was in New York, such as Rufus Choate was in Boston, used to be selected for the oration of the day, because he had the power of speech, and because everybody knew him. Thus the lawyers, if less powerful in proportion to their numbers than the capitalists, are perhaps equally powerful as a whole, since more numerous and more locally active. Of course it is only on a very few professional questions that they act together as a class. Their function is to educate opinion from the technical side, and to put things in a telling way before the people. Whether the individual lawyer is or is not a better citizen than his neighbours, he is likely to be a shrewder one, knowing more about government and public business than most of them do, and able at least to perceive the mischiefs of bad legislation, which farmers or shopkeepers may faintly realize. Thus on the whole the influence of the profession makes for good, and though it is often the instrument by which harm is wrought, it is as often the means of revealing and defeating the tricks of politicians, and of keeping the wholesome principles of the Constitution before the eyes of the nation. Its action in political life may be compared with its function in judicial proceedings. Advocacy is at the service of the just and the unjust equally, and sometimes makes the worse appear the better cause, yet experience shows that the sifting of evidence and the arguing of points of law tend on the whole to make justice prevail.
There remain the men of letters and artists, an extremely small class outside a few Eastern cities, and the teachers, especially those in colleges and universities. The influence of literary men has been felt more through magazines than through books, for native authorship suffered severely, till the enactment of the Copyright Act of 1891, from the deluge of cheap English reprints. That of the teachers tells primarily on their pupils and indirectly on the circles to which those pupils belong, or in which they work when they have left college. For a long time, and especially during the struggle between free trade and protection and in the earlier days of the municipal reform movement in the latter part of last century, “college professors” used to be denounced by the professional politicians as unpractical, visionary, pharisaical, “kid-gloved,”“high-toned,”“un-American,” the fact being that an impulse towards the improvement of party methods, civil service reform and tariff reform, was coming from the universities, and was felt in the increased political activity of the better educated youth. The new generation of lawyers, clergymen, and journalists, of teachers in the higher schools and indeed of businessmen also, many of whom now receive a university education, have been inspired by the universities, at first chiefly by the older and more highly developed institutions of the Eastern states, but latterly by the universities of the West also, with a more serious and earnest view of politics than has prevailed among the richer classes since the strain of the Civil War passed away. Their horizon has been enlarged, their patriotism tempered by a sense of national shortcomings, and quickened by a higher ideal of national well-being. The confidence that all other prosperity will accompany material prosperity, the belief that good instincts are enough to guide nations through practical difficulties, errors which led astray so many worthy people in the last generation, are being dispelled, and a juster view of the great problems of democratic government presented. The seats of learning and education are at present among the most potent forces making for progress and the formation of sound opinion in the United States, and they increase daily in the excellence of their teachers no less than in the number of their students.
Before quitting this part of the subject a few general observations are needed to supplement or sum up the results of the foregoing inquiry.
There is in the United States no such general opposition as in continental Europe of richer and poorer classes, no such jealousy or hostility as one finds in France between the bourgeoisie and the operatives, not even that touch of antagonism which may now be noted in Australia. Class distinctions do exist for the purposes of social intercourse. But it is only in the larger cities that the line is sharply drawn between those who call themselves gentlemen and those others to whom, in talk among themselves, the former set would refuse this epithet.
There is no one class or set of men whose special function it is to form and lead opinion. The politicians certainly do not. Public opinion leads them.
Still less is there any governing class. The class whence most officeholders come corresponds, as respects education and refinement, to what would be called the lower middle class in Europe. But officeholders are not governors.
Such class issues as now exist or have recently existed, seldom, or to a small extent, coincide with issues between the two great parties. They are usually toyed with by both parties alike, or if such a question becomes strong enough to be made the basis of a new party, such a party will usually stand by itself apart from the two old and regular organizations.
In Europe, classes have become factors in politics either from interest or from passion. Legislation or administration may have pressed hardly on a class, and the class has sought to defend and emancipate itself. Or its feelings may have been wounded by past injury or insult, and it may seek occasions for revenge. In America the latter cause has never existed, and till recently neither was the former apparent, though of late years complaints have been made that the law deals unfairly with labour unions.6 Hence classes are not prime factors in American politics or in the formation of native political opinion. In the main, political questions proper have held the first place in a voter’s mind, and questions affecting his class the second.7 The great strikes which have of late years convulsed large sections of the country, and the labour agitation which has accompanied them, have brought new elements of class passion and class interest upon the scene.
The nation is not an aggregate of classes. They exist within it, but they do not make it up. You are not struck by their political significance as you would be in any European country. The people is one people, although it occupies a wider territory than any other nation, and is composed of elements from many quarters.
Even education makes less difference between various sections of the community than might be expected. One finds among the better instructed many of those prejudices and fallacies to which the European middle classes are supposed peculiarly liable. Among the less instructed of the native Americans, on the other hand, there is a comprehension of public affairs, a shrewdness of judgment, and a generally diffused interest in national welfare, exceeding that of the humbler classes in Europe. They have shown, and notably on several occasions within the present century, a power of responding to the appeals made to them by a highminded and courageous leader which has startled and quelled the machine politicians, and cheered the hearts of those who have faith in popular government.
This is the strong point of the nation. This is what gives buoyancy to the vessel of the state, enabling her to carry with apparent ease the dead weight of ignorance which European immigration continues to throw upon her decks.
 An experienced American friend writes me: “Although immigrants from Great Britain are the best of all our immigrants, English workmen are more apt to stir up trouble with their employers than those of any other race. Employers say that they fear their English workmen, because they are generally suspicious, and disbelieve in the possibility of anything but hostility between men and masters.”
 Those of the German immigrants who remain in the great cities instead of going West, seem to be mostly Catholics, at least in name; as are also the Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks.
 As to the recent emigrants, see Chapter 92 post.
 An account of the American bar will be found in a later chapter.
 I have heard townsmen of the great president describe how the front of his house used to be a sort of gathering place on summer evenings where his racy talk helped to mould the opinion of the place.
 Those who argue that legislation is unjust to the working man have usually blamed it less for what it did than for what it omitted or did not prevent. Any statute which bore harshly on any class as a class would in America be repealed forthwith. There is at present in some states an agitation for altering the law which restrains what is called coercive “picketing” or molestation in labour disputes, and also for providing some more complete compensation for accidents.
 There are exceptions—e.g., tariff questions are foremost in the minds of manufacturers, the exclusion of Oriental labourers in those of California working men, transportation grievances often in those of farmers.