Front Page Titles (by Subject) XVI: THE AMERICAN COMMONWEALTH. By James Bryce - The History of Freedom and Other Essays
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XVI: THE AMERICAN COMMONWEALTH. By James Bryce - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays 
The History of Freedom and Other Essays, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907).
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THE AMERICAN COMMONWEALTH. By James Bryce1
The American Commonwealth cancels that sentence of Scaliger which Bacon amplifies in his warning against bookish politicians: “Nec ego nec alius doctus possumus scribere in politicis.” The distinctive import of the book is its power of impressing American readers. Mr. Bryce is in a better position than the philosopher who said of another, “Ich hoffe, wir werden uns recht gut verständigen können; und wenn auch keiner den andern ganz versteht, wird doch jeder dem andern dazu helfen, dass er sich selbst besser verstehe.” He writes with so much familiarity and feeling—the national, political, social sympathy is so spontaneous and sincere—as to carry a very large measure indeed of quiet reproach. The perfect tone is enough to sweeten and lubricate a medicine such as no traveller since Hippocrates has administered to contrite natives. Facts, not comments, convey the lesson; and I know no better illustration of a recent saying: “Si un livre porte un enseignement, ce doit être malgré son auteur, par la force même des faits qu’il raconte.”
If our countryman has not the chill sententiousness of his great French predecessor, his portable wisdom and detached thoughts, he has made a far deeper study of real life, apart from comparative politics and the European investment of transatlantic experience. One of the very few propositions which he has taken straight from Tocqueville is also one of the few which a determined fault-finder would be able to contest. For they both say that the need for two chambers has become an axiom of political science. I will admit that the doctrine of Paine and Franklin and Samuel Adams, which the Pennsylvanian example and the authority of Turgot made so popular in France, is confuted by the argument of Laboulaye: “La division du corps législatif est une condition essentielle de la liberté. C’est la seule garantie qui assure la nation contre l’usurpation de ses mandataires.” But it may be urged that a truth which is disputed is not an axiom; and serious men still imagine a state of things in which an undivided legislature is necessary to resist a too powerful executive, whilst two chambers can be made to curb and neutralise each other. Both Tocqueville and Turgot are said to have wavered on this point.
It has been said that Tocqueville never understood the federal constitution. He believed, to his last edition, that the opening words of the first section, “all legislative powers herein granted,” meant “tous les pouvoirs législatifs déterminés par les représentants.” Story thought that he “has borrowed the greater part of his reflections from American works [meaning his own and Lieber’s] and little from his own observation.” The French minister at Washington described his book as “intéressant mais fort peu exact”; and even the Nation calls it “brilliant, superficial, and attractive.” Mr. Bryce can never be accused of imperfect knowledge or penetration, of undue dependence upon others, or of writing up to a purpose. His fault is elsewhere. This scholar, distinguished not only as a successful writer of history, which is said to be frequent, but as a trained and professed historian, which is rare, altogether declines the jurisdiction of the Historical Review. His contumacy is in gross black and white: “I have had to resist another temptation, that of straying off into history.” Three stout volumes tell how things are, without telling how they came about. I should have no title to bring them before this tribunal, if it were not for an occasional glimpse at the past; if it were not for a strongly marked and personal philosophy of American history which looms behind the Boss and the Boom, the Hoodlum and the Mugwump.
There is a valid excuse for preferring to address the unhistoric mind. The process of development by which the America of Tocqueville became the America of Lincoln has been lately described with a fulness of knowledge which no European can rival. Readers who thirst for the running stream can plunge and struggle through several thousand pages of Holst’s Verfassungsgeschichte, and it is better to accept the division of labour than to take up ground so recently covered by a work which, if not very well designed or well composed, is, by the prodigious digestion of material, the most instructive ever written on the natural history of federal democracy. The author, who has spent twenty years on American debates and newspapers, began during the pause between Sadowa and Wörth, when Germany was in the throes of political concentration that made the empire. He explains with complacency how another irrepressible conflict between centre and circumference came and went, and how the welfare of mankind is better served by the gathering than by the balance or dispersion of forces. Like Gneist and Tocqueville, he thinks of one country while he speaks of another; he knows nothing of reticence or economy in the revelation of private opinion; and he has none of Mr. Bryce’s cheery indulgence for folly and error. But when the British author refuses to devote six months to the files of Californian journalism, he leaves the German master of his allotted field.
The actual predominates so much with Mr. Bryce that he has hardly a word on that extraordinary aspect of democracy, the union in time of war; and gives no more than a passing glance at the confederate scheme of government, of which a northern writer said: “The invaluable reforms enumerated should be adopted by the United States, with or without a reunion of the seceded States, and as soon as possible.” There are points on which some additional light could be drawn from the roaring loom of time. In the chapter on Spoils it is not stated that the idea belongs to the ministers of George III. Hamilton’s argument against removals is mentioned, but not the New York edition of The Federalist with the marginal note that “Mr. H. had changed his view of the constitution on that point.” The French wars of speculation and plunder are spoken of; but, to give honour where honour is due, it should be added that they were an American suggestion. In May 1790, Morris wrote to two of his friends at Paris: “I see no means of extricating you from your troubles, but that which most men would consider as the means of plunging you into greater—I mean a war. And you should make it to yourselves a war of men, to your neighbours a war of money. . . . I hear you cry out that the finances are in a deplorable situation. This should be no obstacle. I think that they may be restored during war better than in peace. You want also something to turn men’s attention from their present discontents.” There is a long and impartial inquiry into parliamentary corruption as practised now; but one wishes to hear so good a judge on the report that money prevailed at some of the turning-points of American history; on the imputations cast by the younger Adams upon his ablest contemporaries; on the story told by another president, of 223 representatives who received accommodation from the bank, at the rate of a thousand pounds apiece, during its struggle with Jackson.
America as known to the man in the cars, and America observed in the roll of the ages, do not always give the same totals. We learn that the best capacity of the country is withheld from politics, that there is what Emerson calls a gradual withdrawal of tender consciences from the social organisation, so that the representatives approach the level of the constituents. Yet it is in political science only that America occupies the first rank. There are six Americans on a level with the foremost Europeans, with Smith and Turgot, Mill and Humboldt. Five of these were secretaries of state, and one was secretary of the treasury. We are told also that the American of to-day regards the national institutions with a confidence sometimes grotesque. But this is a sentiment which comes down, not from Washington and Jefferson, but from Grant and Sherman. The illustrious founders were not proud of their accomplished work; and men like Clay and Adams persisted in desponding to the second and third generation. We have to distinguish what the nation owes to Madison and Marshall, and what to the army of the Potomac; for men’s minds misgave them as to the constitution until it was cemented by the ordeal and the sacrifice of civil war. Even the claim put forward for Americans as the providers of humour for mankind seems to me subject to the same limitation. People used to know how often, or how seldom, Washington laughed during the war; but who has numbered the jokes of Lincoln?
Although Mr. Bryce has too much tact to speak as freely as the Americans themselves in the criticism of their government, he insists that there is one defect which they insufficiently acknowledge. By law or custom no man can represent any district but the one he resides in. If ten statesmen live in the same street, nine will be thrown out of work. It is worth while to point out (though this may not be the right place for a purely political problem) that even in that piece of censure in which he believes himself unsupported by his friends in the States, Mr. Bryce says no more than intelligent Americans have said before him. It chances that several of them have discussed this matter with me. One was governor of his State, and another is among the compurgators cited in the preface. Both were strongly persuaded that the usage in question is an urgent evil; others, I am bound to add, judged differently, deeming it valuable as a security against Boulangism—an object which can be attained by restricting the number of constituencies to be addressed by the same candidate. The two American presidents who agreed in saying that Whig and Tory belong to natural history, proposed a dilemma which Mr. Bryce wishes to elude. He prefers to stand halfway between the two, and to resolve general principles into questions of expediency, probability, and degree: “The wisest statesman is he who best holds the balance between liberty and order.” The sentiment is nearly that of Croker and De Quincey, and it is plain that the author would discard the vulgar definition that liberty is the end of government, and that in politics things are to be valued as they minister to its security. He writes in the spirit of John Adams when he said that the French and the American Revolution had nothing in common, and of that eulogy of 1688 as the true Restoration, on which Burke and Macaulay spent their finest prose. A sentence which he takes from Judge Cooley contains the brief abstract of his book: “America is not so much an example in her liberty as in the covenanted and enduring securities which are intended to prevent liberty degenerating into licence, and to establish a feeling of trust and repose under a beneficent government, whose excellence, so obvious in its freedom, is still more conspicuous in its careful provision for permanence and stability.” Mr. Bryce declares his own point of view in the following significant terms: “The spirit of 1787 was an English spirit, and therefore a conservative spirit. . . . The American constitution is no exception to the rule that everything which has power to win the obedience and respect of men must have its roots deep in the past, and that the more slowly every institution has grown, so much the more enduring is it likely to prove. . . . There is a hearty puritanism in the view of human nature which pervades the instrument of 1787. . . . No men were less revolutionary in spirit than the heroes of the American Revolution. They made a revolution in the name of Magna Charta and the Bill of Rights.” I descry a bewildered Whig emerging from the third volume with a reverent appreciation of ancestral wisdom, Burke’s Reflections, and the eighteen Canons of Dort, and a growing belief in the function of ghosts to make laws for the quick.
When the last Valois consulted his dying mother, she advised him that anybody can cut off, but that the sewing on is an acquired art. Mr. Bryce feels strongly for the men who practised what Catharine thought so difficult, and he stops for a moment in the midst of his very impersonal treatise to deliver a panegyric on Alexander Hamilton. Tanto nomini nullum par elogium. His merits can hardly be overstated. Talleyrand assured Ticknor that he had never known his equal; Seward calls him “the ablest and most effective statesman engaged in organising and establishing the union”; Macmaster, the iconoclast, and Holst, poorly endowed with the gift of praise, unite in saying that he was the foremost genius among public men in the new world; Guizot told Rush that The Federalist was the greatest work known to him, in the application of elementary principles of government to practical administration; his paradox in support of political corruption, so hard to reconcile with the character of an honest man, was repeated to the letter by Niebuhr. In estimating Hamilton we have to remember that he was in no sense the author of the constitution. In the convention he was isolated, and his plan was rejected. In The Federalist, written before he was thirty, he pleaded for a form of government which he distrusted and disliked. He was out of sympathy with the spirit that prevailed, and was not the true representative of the cause, like Madison, who said of him, “If his theory of government deviated from the republican standard, he had the candour to avow it, and the greater merit of co-operating faithfully in maturing and supporting a system which was not his choice.” The development of the constitution, so far as it continued on his lines, was the work of Marshall, barely known to us by the extracts in late editions of the Commentaries. “The Federalist,” says Story, “could do little more than state the objects and general bearing of these powers and functions. The masterly reasoning of the chief-justice has followed them out to their ultimate results and boundaries with a precision and clearness approaching, as near as may be, to mathematical demonstration.” Morris, who was as strong as Hamilton on the side of federalism, testifies heavily against him as a leader: “More a theoretic than a practical man, he was not sufficiently convinced that a system may be good in itself, and bad in relation to particular circumstances. He well knew that his favourite form was inadmissible, unless as the result of civil war; and I suspect that his belief in that which he called an approaching crisis arose from a conviction that the kind of government most suitable, in his opinion, to this extensive country, could be established in no other way. . . . He trusted, moreover, that in the changes and chances of time we should be involved in some war, which might strengthen our union and nerve the executive. He was of all men the most indiscreet. He knew that a limited monarchy, even if established, could not preserve itself in this country. . . . He never failed, on every occasion, to advocate the excellence of, and avow his attachment to, monarchical government. . . . Thus, meaning very well, he acted very ill, and approached the evils he apprehended by his very solicitude to keep them at a distance.” The language of Adams is more severe; but Adams was an enemy. It has been justly said that “he wished good men, as he termed them, to rule; meaning the wealthy, the well-born, the socially eminent.” The federalists have suffered somewhat from this imputation; for a prejudice against any group claiming to serve under that flag is among the bequests of the French Revolution. “Les honnêtes gens ont toujours peur: c’est leur nature,” is a maxim of Chateaubriand. A man most divergent and unlike him, Menou, had drawn the same conclusion: “En révolution il ne faut jamais se mettre du côté des honnêtes gens: ils sont toujours balayés.” And Royer Collard, with the candour one shows in describing friends, said: “C’est le parti des honnêtes gens qui est le moins honnête de tous les partis. Tout le monde, même dans ses erreurs, était honnête à l’assemblée constituante, excepté le côté droit.” Hamilton stands higher as a political philosopher than as an American partisan. Europeans are generally liberal for the sake of something that is not liberty, and conservative for an object to be conserved; and in a jungle of other motives besides the reason of state we cannot often eliminate unadulterated or disinterested conservatism. We think of land and capital, tradition and custom, the aristocracy and the services, the crown and the altar. It is the singular superiority of Hamilton that he is really anxious about nothing but the exceeding difficulty of quelling the centrifugal forces, and that no kindred and coequal powers divide his attachment or intercept his view. Therefore he is the most scientific of conservative thinkers, and there is not one in whom the doctrine that prefers the ship to the crew can be so profitably studied.
In his scruple to do justice to conservative doctrine Mr. Bryce extracts a passage from a letter of Canning to Croker which, by itself, does not adequately represent that minister’s views. “Am I to understand, then, that you consider the king as completely in the hands of the Tory aristocracy as his father, or rather as George II. was in the hands of the Whigs? If so, George III. reigned, and Mr. Pitt (both father and son) administered the government, in vain. I have a better opinion of the real vigour of the crown when it chooses to put forth its own strength, and I am not without some reliance on the body of the people.” The finest mind reared by many generations of English conservatism was not always so faithful to monarchical traditions, and in addressing the incessant polemist of Toryism Canning made himself out a trifle better than he really was. His intercourse with Marcellus in 1823 exhibits a diluted orthodoxy: “Le système britannique n’est que le butin des longues victoires remportées par les sujets contre le monarque. Oubliez-vous que les rois ne doivent pas donner des institutions, mais que les institutions seules doivent donner des rois? . . . Connaissez-vous un roi qui mérite d’être libre, dans le sens implicite du mot? . . . Et George IV., croyez-vous que je serais son ministre, s’il avait été libre de choisir? . . Quand un roi dénie au peuple les institutions dont le peuple a besoin, quel est le procédé de l’Angleterre? Elle expulse ce roi, et met à sa place un roi d’une famille alliée sans doute, mais qui se trouve ainsi, non plus un fils de la royauté, confiant dans le droit de ses ancêtres, mais le fils des institutions nationales, tirant tous ses droits de cette seule origine. . . . Le gouvernement représentatif est encore bon à une chose que sa majesté a oubliée. Il fait que des ministres essuient sans répliquer les épigrammes d’un roi qui cherche à se venger ainsi de son impuissance.”
Mr. Bryce’s work has received a hearty welcome in its proper hemisphere, and I know not that any critic has doubted whether the pious founder, with the dogma of unbroken continuity, strikes the just note or covers all the ground. At another angle, the origin of the greatest power and the grandest polity in the annals of mankind emits a different ray. It was a favourite doctrine with Webster and Tocqueville that the beliefs of the pilgrims inspired the Revolution, which others deem a triumph of pelagianism; while J. Q. Adams affirms that “not one of the motives which stimulated the puritans of 1643 had the slightest influence in actuating the confederacy of 1774.” The Dutch statesman Hogendorp, returning from the United States in 1784, had the following dialogue with the stadtholder: “La religion, monseigneur, a moins d’influence que jamais sur les esprits. . . . Il y a toute une province de quakers? . . . Depuis la révolution il semble que ces sortes de différences s’évanouissent. . . . Les Bostoniens ne sont-ils pas fort dévots? . . . Ils l’étaient, monseigneur, mais à lire les descriptions faites il y a vingt ou même dix ans, on ne les reconnaît pas de ce côté-là.” It is an old story that the federal constitution, unlike that of Hérault de Séchelles, makes no allusion to the Deity; that there is none in the president’s oath; and that in 1796 it was stated officially that the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion. No three men had more to do with the new order than Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson. Franklin’s irreligious tone was such that his manuscripts, like Bentham’s, were suppressed, to the present year. Adams called the Christian faith a horrid blasphemy. Of Jefferson we are assured that, if not an absolute atheist, he had no belief in a future existence; and he hoped that the French arms “would bring at length kings, nobles, and priests to the scaffolds which they have been so long deluging with human blood.” If Calvin prompted the Revolution, it was after he had suffered from contact with Tom Paine; and we must make room for other influences which, in that generation, swayed the world from the rising to the setting sun. It was an age of faith in the secular sense described by Guizot: “C’était un siècle ardent et sincère, un siècle plein de foi et d’enthousiasme. Il a eu foi dans la vérité, car il lui a reconnu le droit de régner.”
In point both of principle and policy, Mr. Bryce does well to load the scale that is not his own, and to let the jurist within him sometimes mask the philosophic politician. I have to speak of him not as a political reasoner or as an observer of life in motion, but only in the character which he assiduously lays aside. If he had guarded less against his own historic faculty, and had allowed space to take up neglected threads, he would have had to expose the boundless innovation, the unfathomed gulf produced by American independence, and there would be no opening to back the Jeffersonian shears against the darning-needle of the great chief-justice. My misgiving lies in the line of thought of Riehl and the elder Cherbuliez. The first of those eminent conservatives writes: “Die Extreme, nicht deren Vermittelungen und Abschwächungen, deuten die Zukunft vor.” The Genevese has just the same remark: “Les idées n’ont jamais plus de puissance que sous leur forme la plus abstraite. Les idées abstraites ont plus remué le monde, elles ont causé plus de révolutions et laissé plus de traces durables que les idées pratiques.” Lassalle says, “Kein Einzelner denkt mit der Consequenz eines Volksgeistes.” Schelling may help us over the parting ways: “Der erzeugte Gedanke ist eine unabhängige Macht, für sich fortwirkend, ja, in der menschlichen Seele, so anwachsend, dass er seine eigene Mutter bezwingt und unterwirft.” After the philosopher, let us conclude with a divine: “C’est de révolte en révolte, si l’on veut employer ce mot, que les sociétés se perfectionnent, que la civilisation s’établit, que la justice règne, que la vérité fleurit.”
The anti-revolutionary temper of the Revolution belongs to 1787, not to 1776. Another element was at work, and it is the other element that is new, effective, characteristic, and added permanently to the experience of the world. The story of the revolted colonies impresses us first and most distinctly as the supreme manifestation of the law of resistance, as the abstract revolution in its purest and most perfect shape. No people was so free as the insurgents; no government less oppressive than the government which they overthrew. Those who deem Washington and Hamilton honest can apply the term to few European statesmen. Their example presents a thorn, not a cushion, and threatens all existing political forms, with the doubtful exception of the federal constitution of 1874. It teaches that men ought to be in arms even against a remote and constructive danger to their freedom; that even if the cloud is no bigger than a man’s hand, it is their right and duty to stake the national existence, to sacrifice lives and fortunes, to cover the country with a lake of blood, to shatter crowns and sceptres and fling parliaments into the sea. On this principle of subversion they erected their commonwealth, and by its virtue lifted the world out of its orbit and assigned a new course to history. Here or nowhere we have the broken chain, the rejected past, precedent and statute superseded by unwritten law, sons wiser than their fathers, ideas rooted in the future, reason cutting as clean as Atropos. The wisest philosopher of the old world instructs us to take things as they are, and to adore God in the event: “Il faut toujours être content de l’ordre du passé, parce qu’il est conforme à la volonté de Dieu absolue, qu’on connoît par l’évènement.” The contrary is the text of Emerson: “Institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born. They are not superior to the citizen. Every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case. We may make as good; we may make better.” More to the present point is the language of Seward: “The rights asserted by our forefathers were not peculiar to themselves, they were the common rights of mankind. The basis of the constitution was laid broader by far than the superstructure which the conflicting interests and prejudices of the day suffered to be erected. The constitution and laws of the federal government did not practically extend those principles throughout the new system of government; but they were plainly promulgated in the declaration of independence. Their complete development and reduction to practical operation constitute the progress which all liberal statesmen desire to promote, and the end of that progress will be complete political equality among ourselves, and the extension and perfection of institutions similar to our own throughout the world.” A passage which Hamilton’s editor selects as the keynote of his system expresses well enough the spirit of the Revolution: “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power. I consider civil liberty, in a genuine, unadulterated sense, as the greatest of terrestrial blessings. I am convinced that the whole human race is entitled to it, and that it can be wrested from no part of them without the blackest and most aggravated guilt.” Those were the days when a philosopher divided governments into two kinds, the bad and the good, that is, those which exist and those which do not exist; and when Burke, in the fervour of early liberalism, proclaimed that a revolution was the only thing that could do the world any good: “Nothing less than a convulsion that will shake the globe to its centre can ever restore the European nations to that liberty by which they were once so much distinguished.”
[1 ]English Historical Review, 1889.