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chapter 87: Wherein Public Opinion Succeeds - 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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Wherein Public Opinion Succeeds
In the examination of the actualities of politics as well as of forms of government, faults are more readily perceived than merits. Everybody is struck by the mistakes which a ruler makes, or by evils which a constitution fails to avert, while less praise than is due may be bestowed in respect of the temptations that have been resisted, or the prudence with which the framers of the government have avoided defects from which other countries suffer. Thus the general prosperity of the United States and the success of their people in all kinds of private enterprises, philanthropic as well as gainful, throws into relief the blemishes of their government, and makes it the more necessary to point out in what respects the power of public opinion overcomes those blemishes, and maintains a high level of good feeling and well-being in the nation.
The European observer of the working of American institutions is apt to sum up his conclusions in two contrasts. One is between the excellence of the Constitution and the vices of the party system that has laid hold of it, discovered its weak points, and brought in a swarm of evils. The Fathers, he says, created the Constitution good, but their successors have sought out many inventions.1 The other contrast is between the faults of the political class and the merits of the people at large. The men who work the machine are often selfish and unscrupulous. The people, for whose behoof it purports to be worked, and who suffer themselves to be “run” by the politicians, are honest, intelligent, fair-minded. No such contrast exists anywhere else in the world. Either the politicians are better than they are in America, or the people are worse.
The causes of this contrast, which to many observers has seemed the capital fact of American politics, have been already explained. It brings out the truth, on which too much stress cannot be laid, that the strong point of the American system, the dominant fact of the situation, is the healthiness of public opinion, and the control which it exerts. As Abraham Lincoln said in his famous contest with Douglas, “With public sentiment on its side, everything succeeds; with public sentiment against it, nothing succeeds.”
The conscience and common sense of the nation as a whole keep down the evils which have crept into the working of the Constitution, and may in time extinguish them. Public opinion is a sort of atmosphere, fresh, keen, and full of sunlight, like that of the American cities, and this sunlight kills many of those noxious germs which are hatched where politicians congregate. That which, varying a once famous phrase, we may call the genius of universal publicity, has some disagreeable results, but the wholesome ones are greater and more numerous. Selfishness, injustice, cruelty, tricks, and jobs of all sorts shun the light; to expose them is to defeat them. No serious evils, no rankling sore in the body politic, can remain long concealed, and when disclosed, it is half destroyed. So long as the opinion of a nation is sound, the main lines of its policy cannot go far wrong, whatever waste of time and money may be incurred in carrying them out. It was observed in the last chapter that opinion is too vague and indeterminate a thing to be capable of considering and selecting the best means for the end on which it has determined. The counterpart of that remark is that the opinion of a whole nation, a united and tolerably homogeneous nation, is, when at last it does express itself, the most competent authority to determine the ends of national policy.2 In European countries, legislatures and cabinets sometimes take decisions which the nation, which had scarcely thought of the matter till the decision has been taken, is ultimately found to disapprove. In America, men feel that the nation is the only power entitled to say what it wants, and that, till it has manifested its wishes, nothing must be done to commit it. It may sometimes be long in speaking, but when it speaks, it speaks with a weight which the wisest governing class cannot claim.
The frame of the American government has assumed and trusted to the activity of public opinion, not only as the power which must correct and remove the difficulties due to the restrictions imposed on each department, and to possible collisions between them, but as the influence which must supply the defects incidental to a system which works entirely by the machinery of popular elections. Under a system of elections one man’s vote is as good as another, the vicious and ignorant have as much weight as the wise and good. A system of elections might be imagined which would provide no security for due deliberation or full discussion, a system which, while democratic in name, recognizing no privilege, and referring everything to the vote of the majority, would in practice be hasty, violent, tyrannical. It is with such a possible democracy that one has to contrast the rule of public opinion as it exists in the United States. Opinion declares itself legally through elections. But opinion is at work at other times also, and has other methods of declaring itself. It secures full discussion of issues of policy and of the characters of men. It suffers nothing to be concealed. It listens patiently to all the arguments that are addressed to it. Eloquence, education, wisdom, the authority derived from experience and high character, tell upon it in the long run, and have, perhaps not always their due influence, but yet a great and growing influence. Thus a democracy governing itself through a constantly active public opinion, and not solely by its intermittent mechanism of elections, tends to become patient, tolerant, reasonable, and is more likely to be unembittered and unvexed by class divisions.
It is the existence of such a public opinion as this, the practice of freely and constantly reading, talking, and judging of public affairs with a view to voting thereon, rather than the mere possession of political rights, that gives to popular government that educative and stimulative power which is so frequently claimed as its highest merit. Those who, in the last generation, were forced to argue for democratic government against oligarchies or despots, were perhaps inclined, if not to exaggerate the value of extended suffrage and a powerful legislature, at least to pass too lightly over the concomitant conditions by whose help such institutions train men to use liberty well. History does not support the doctrine that the mere enjoyment of power fits large masses of men, any more than individuals or classes, for its exercise. Along with that enjoyment there must be found some one or more of various auspicious conditions, such as a direct and fairly equal interest in the common welfare, the presence of a class or group of persons respected and competent to guide, an absence of religious or race hatreds, a high level of education, or at least of intelligence, old habits of local self-government, the practice of unlimited free discussion. In America it is not simply the habit of voting but the briskness and breeziness of the whole atmosphere of public life, and the process of obtaining information and discussing it, of hearing and judging each side, that form the citizen’s intelligence. True it is that he would not gain much from this process did it not lead up to the exercise of voting power: he would not learn so much on the road did not the polling booth stand at the end of it. But if it were his lot, as it is that of the masses in some European countries, to exercise his right of suffrage under few of these favouring conditions, the educational value of the vote would become comparatively small. It is the habit of breathing as well as helping to form public opinion that cultivates, develops, trains the average American. It gives him a sense of personal responsibility stronger, because more constant, than exists in those free countries of Europe where he commits his power to a legislature. Sensible that his eye ought to be always fixed on the conduct of affairs, he grows accustomed to read and judge, not indeed profoundly, sometimes erroneously, usually under party influences, but yet with a feeling that the judgment is his own. He has a sense of ownership in the government, and therewith a kind of independence of manner as well as of mind very different from the demissness of the humbler classes of the Old World. And the consciousness of responsibility which goes along with this laudable pride, brings forth the peaceable fruits of moderation. As the Greeks thought that the old families ruled their households more gently than upstarts did, so citizens who have been born to power, born into an atmosphere of legal right and constitutional authority, are sobered by their privileges. Despite their natural quickness and eagerness, the native Americans are politically patient. They are disposed to try soft means first, to expect others to bow to that force of opinion which they themselves recognize. Opposition does not incense them; danger does not, by making them lose their heads, hurry them into precipitate courses. In no country does a beaten minority take a defeat so well. Admitting that the blood of the race counts for something in producing that peculiar coolness and self-control in the midst of an external effervescence of enthusiasm, which is the most distinctive feature of the American masses, the habit of ruling by public opinion and obeying it counts for even more. It was far otherwise in the South before the war, but the South was not a democracy, and its public opinion was that of a passionate class.
The best evidence for this view is to be found in the educative influence of opinion on newcomers. Anyone can see how severe a strain is put on democratic institutions by the influx every year of nearly a million of untrained Europeans. Being in most states admitted to full civic rights before they have come to shake off European notions and habits, these strangers enjoy political power before they either share or are amenable to American opinion.3 They follow blindly leaders of their own race, are not moved by discussion, exercise no judgment of their own. This lasts for some years, probably for the rest of life with those who are middle-aged when they arrive. It lasts also with those who, belonging to the more backward races, remain herded together in large masses, and makes them a dangerous element in manufacturing and mining districts. But the younger sort, when, if they be foreigners, they have learnt English, and when, dispersed among Americans so as to be able to learn from them, they have imbibed the sentiments and assimilated the ideas of the country, are thenceforth scarcely to be distinguished from the native population. They are more American than the Americans in their desire to put on the character of their new country. This peculiar gift which the Republic possesses of quickly dissolving and assimilating the foreign bodies that are poured into her, imparting to them her own qualities of orderliness, good sense, and a willingness to bow to the will of the majority, is mainly due to the all-pervading force of opinion, which the newcomer, so soon as he has formed social and business relations with the natives, breathes in daily till it insensibly transmutes him. Their faith, and a sentiment of resentment against England, long kept among the Irish a body of separate opinion, which for a time resisted the solvent power of its American environment. But the public schools finished the work of the factory and the newspapers. The Irish immigrant’s son is now an American citizen for all purposes.
It is chiefly the faith in publicity that gives to the American public their peculiar buoyancy, and what one may call their airy hopefulness in discussing even the weak points of their system. They are always telling you that they have no skeleton closets, nothing to keep back. They know, and are content that all the world should know, the worst as well as the best of themselves. They have a boundless faith in free inquiry and full discussion. They admit the possibility of any number of temporary errors and delusions. But to suppose that a vast nation should, after hearing everything, canvassing everything, and trying all the preliminary experiments it has a mind to, ultimately go wrong by mistaking its own true interests, seems to them a sort of blasphemy against the human intelligence and its Creator.
They claim for opinion that its immense power enables them to get on with but little government. Some evils which the law and its officers are in other countries required to deal with are here averted or cured by the mere force of opinion, which shrivels them up when its rays fall on them. As it is not the product of any one class, and is unwilling to recognize classes at all, for it would stand self-condemned as un-American if it did, it discourages anything in the nature of class legislation. Where a particular section of the people, such, for instance, as the Western farmers or the Eastern operatives, think themselves aggrieved, they clamour for the measures thought likely to help them. The farmers legislated against the railroads, the labour party asks an eight-hour law. But whereas on the European continent such a class would think and act as a class, hostile to other classes, and might resolve to pursue its own objects at whatever risk to the nation, in America national opinion, which everyone recognizes as the arbiter, mitigates these feelings, and puts the advocates of the legislation which any class demands upon showing that their schemes are compatible with the paramount interest of the whole community. To say that there is no legislation in America which, like the class legislation of Europe, has thrown undue burdens on the poor, while jealously guarding the pleasures and pockets of the rich, is to say little, because where the poorer citizens have long been a numerical majority, invested with political power, they will evidently take care of themselves. But the opposite danger might have been feared, that the poor would have turned the tables on the rich, thrown the whole burden of taxation upon them, and disregarded in the supposed interest of the masses what are called the rights of property. Not only has this not been attempted—it has been scarcely even suggested (except, of course, by professed Collectivists as part of a reconstruction of society), and it excites no serious apprehension. Thee is nothing in the machinery of government that could do more than delay it for a time, did the masses desire it. What prevents it is the honesty and common sense of the citizens generally, who are convinced that the interests of all classes are substantially the same, and that justice is the highest of those interests. Equality, open competition, a fair field to everybody, every stimulus to industry, and every security for its fruits, these they hold to be the self-evident principles of national prosperity.
If public opinion is heedless in small things, it usually checks measures which, even if not oppressive, are palpably selfish or unwise. If before a mischievous bill passes, its opponents can get the attention of the people fixed upon it, its chances are slight. All sorts of corrupt or pernicious schemes which are hatched at Washington or in the state legislatures are abandoned because it is felt that the people will not stand them, although they could be easily pushed through those not too scrupulous assemblies. There have been instances of proposals which took people at first by their plausibility, but which the criticism of opinion riddled with its unceasing fire till at last they were quietly dropped. It was in this way that President Grant’s attempt to annex San Domingo failed. He had made a treaty for the purpose, which fell through for want of the requisite two-thirds majority in the Senate, but he persisted in the scheme until at last the disapproval of the general public, which had grown stronger by degrees and found expression through the leading newspapers, warned him to desist. After the war, there was at first in many quarters a desire to punish the Southern leaders for what they had made the North suffer. But by degrees the feeling died away, the sober sense of the whole North restraining the passions of those who had counselled vengeance; and, as everyone knows, there was never a civil war or rebellion, whichever one is to call it, followed by so few severities.
Public opinion often fails to secure the appointment of the best men to places, but where undivided responsibility can be fixed on the appointing authority, it prevents, as those who are behind the scenes know, countless bad appointments for which politicians intrigue. Considering the power of party managers over the federal executive, and the low sense of honour and public duty as regards patronage among politicians, the leading posts are filled, if not by the most capable men, yet seldom by bad ones. The judges of the Supreme Court, for instance, are, and have always been, men of high professional standing and stainless character. The same may be, though less generally, said of the upper federal officials in the North and West. That no similar praise can be bestowed on the exercise of federal patronage in the Southern states since the war, is an illustration of the view I am stating. As the public opinion of the South (that is to say, of the whites who make opinion there) was steadily hostile to the Republican party, which commanded the executive during the twenty years from 1865 to 1885, the Republican party managers were indifferent to it, because they had nothing to gain or to lose from it. Hence they made appointments without regard to it. Northern opinion knows comparatively little of the details of Southern politics and the character of officials who act there, so that they might hope to escape the censure of their supporters in the North. Hence they jobbed their patronage in the South with unblushing cynicism, using federal posts there as a means not merely of rewarding party services, but also of providing local white leaders and organizers to the coloured Southern Republicans. Their different behaviour there and in the North therefore showed that it was not public virtue, but the fear of public opinion, that was making their Northern appointments on the whole respectable, while those in the South were at that time so much the reverse. The same phenomenon has been noticed in Great Britain. Jobs are frequent and scandalous in the inverse ratio of the notice they are likely to attract.4
In questions of foreign policy, opinion is a valuable reserve force. When demonstrations are made by party leaders intended to capture the vote of some particular section, the native Americans only smile. But they watch keenly the language held and acts done by the State Department (Foreign Office), and, while determined to support the president in vindicating the rights of American citizens, would be found ready to check any demand or act going beyond their legal rights which could tend to embroil them with a foreign power. There is still a touch of spread-eagleism and an occasional want of courtesy and taste among public speakers and journalists when they refer to other countries; and there is a determination in all classes to keep European interference at a distance. But among the ordinary native citizens one finds (I think) less obtrusive selfishness, less chauvinism, less cynicism in declaring one’s own national interests to be paramount to those of other states, than in any of the great states of Europe. Justice and equity are more generally recognized as binding upon nations no less than on individuals. Whenever humanity comes into question, the heart of the people is sound. The treatment of the Indians reflects little credit on the Western settlers who have come in contact with them, and almost as little on the federal government, whose efforts to protect them have been often foiled by the faults of its own agents, or by its own want of promptitude and foresight. But the wish of the people at large has always been to deal generously with the aborigines, nor have appeals on their behalf, such as those made by the late Mrs. Helen Jackson, ever failed to command the sympathy and assent of the country.
Throughout these chapters I have been speaking chiefly of the Northern states and chiefly of recent years, for America is a country which changes fast. But the conduct of the Southern people, since their defeat in 1865, illustrates the tendency of underlying national traits to reassert themselves when disturbing conditions have passed away. Before the war the public opinion of the slave states, and especially of the planting states, was practically the opinion of a class—the small and comparatively rich landowning aristocracy. The struggle for the defence of their institution had made this opinion fierce and intolerant. To a hatred of the Abolitionists, whom it thought actuated by the wish to rob and humiliate the South, it joined a misplaced contempt for what it deemed the moneygrubbing and peace-at-any-price spirit of the Northern people generally. So long as the subjugated states were ruled by arms, and the former “rebels” excluded by disfranchisement from the government of their states, this bitterness remained. When the restoration of self-government, following upon the liberation of the Confederate prisoners and the amnesty, had shown the magnanimity of the North, its clemency, its wish to forget and forgive, its assumption that both sides would shake hands and do their best for their common country, the hearts of the Southern men were conquered. Opinion went round. Frankly, one might almost say cheerfully, it recognized the inevitable. It stopped those outrages on the Negroes which the law had been unable to repress. It began to regain “touch” of, it has now almost fused itself with, the opinion of the North and West. No one Southern leader or group can be credited with this; it was the general sentiment of the people that brought it about. Still less do the Northern politicians deserve the praise of the peacemakers, for many among them tried for political purposes to fan or to rekindle the flame of suspicion in the North. It was the opinion of the North generally, more liberal than its guides, wich dictated not merely forgiveness, but the restoration of equal civic rights. Nor is this the only case in which the people have proved themselves to have a higher and a truer inspiration than the politicians.
It has been observed that the all-subduing power of the popular voice may tell against the appearance of great statesmen by dwarfing aspiring individualities, by teaching men to discover and obey the tendencies of their age rather than rise above them and direct them. If this happens in America, it is not because the American people fail to appreciate and follow and exalt such eminent men as fortune bestows upon it. It has a great capacity for loyalty, even for hero worship. “Our people,” said an experienced American publicist to me, “are in reality hungering for great men, and the warmth with which even pinchbeck geniuses, men who have anything showy or taking about them, anything that is deemed to betoken a strong individuality, are followed and glorified in spite of intellectual emptiness, and perhaps even moral shortcomings, is the best proof of the fact.” Henry Clay was the darling of his party for many years, as Jefferson, with less of personal fascination, had been in the preceding generation. Daniel Webster retained the devotion of New England long after it had become clear that his splendid intellect was mated to a far from noble character. A kind of dictatorship was yielded to Abraham Lincoln, whose memory is cherished almost like that of Washington himself. Whenever a man appears with something taking or forcible about him, he becomes the object of so much popular interest and admiration that those cooler heads who perceive his faults, and perhaps dread his laxity of principle, reproach the proneness of their less discerning countrymen to make an idol out of wood or clay. The career of Andrew Jackson is a case in point, though it may be hoped that the intelligence of the people would estimate such a character more truly today than it did in his own day. I doubt if there be any country where a really brilliant man, confident in his own strength, and adding the charm of a striking personality to the gift of popular eloquence, would find an easier path to fame and power, and would exert more influence over the minds and emotions of the multitude. Such a man, speaking to the people with the independence of conscious strength, would find himself appreciated and respected.
Controversy is still bitter, more profuse in personal imputations than one expects to find it where there are no grave issues to excuse excitement. But in this respect also there is an improvement. Partisans are reckless, but the mass of the people lends itself less to acrid partisanship than it did in the times just before the Civil War, or in those first days of the Republic which were so long looked back to as a sort of heroic age. Public opinion grows more temperate, more mellow, and assuredly more tolerant. Its very strength disposes it to bear with opposition or remonstrance. It respects itself too much to wish to silence any voice.
Illustrations & Reflections
[This Part contains some illustrations, drawn from recent American history, of the working of political institutions and public opinion, together with observations on several political questions for which no suitable place could be found in the preceding Parts.]
 Though some at least of the faults of the party system are directly due to the structure of the Constitution.
 The distinction between means and ends is, of course, one which it is hard to draw in practice, because most ends are means to some larger end which embraces them. Still if we understand by ends the main and leading objects of national policy, including the spirit in which the government ought to be administered, we shall find that these are, if sometimes slowly, yet more clearly apprehended in America than in Europe, and less frequently confounded with subordinate and transitory issues.
 As to recent immigrants, see further in Chapter 92.
 It has often been remarked that posts of the same class are more jobbed by the British executive in Scotland than in England, and in Ireland than in Scotland, because it is harder to rouse Parliament, which in Great Britain discharges much of the function which public opinion discharges in America, to any interest in an appointment made in one of the smaller countries. In Great Britain a minister making a bad appointment has to fear a hostile motion (though Parliament is overlenient to jobs) which may displace him; in the United States a president is under no such apprehension. It is only to opinion that he is responsible.