The American Republic
THE ancients summed up the whole of human wisdom in the maxim, Know Thyself, and certainly there is for an individual no more important as there is no more difficult knowledge, than knowledge of himself, whence ho conies, whither he goes, what be is, what he is for, what he can do, what he ought to do, and what are his means of doing it.
Nations are only individuals on a larger scale. They have a life, an individuality, a reason, a conscience, and instincts of their own, and have the same general laws of development and growth, and, perhaps, of decay, as the individual man. Equally important, and no less difficult than for the individual, is it for a nation to know itself, understand its own existence, its own powers and faculties, lights and duties, constitution, instincts, tendencies, and destiny. A nation has a spiritual as well as a material, a moral as well as a physical existence, and is subjected to internal as well as external conditions of health and virtue, greatness and grandeur, which it must in some measure understand and observe, or become weak and infirm, stunted in its growth, and end in premature decay and death.
Among nations, no one has more need of full knowledge of itself than the United States, and no one has hitherto had less. It has hardly had a distinct consciousness of its own national existence, and has lived the irreflective life of the child, with no severe trial, till the recent rebellion, to throw it back on itself and compel it to reflect on its own constitution, its own separate existence, individuality, tendencies, and end. The defection of the slaveholding States, and the fearful struggle that has followed for national unity and integrity, have brought it at once to a distinct recognition of itself, and forced it to pass from thoughtless, careless, heedless, reckless adolescence to grave and reflecting manhood. The nation has been suddenly compelled to study itself, and henceforth must act from reflection, understanding, science, statesmanship, not from instinct, impulse, passion, or caprice, knowing well what it does, and wherefore it does it The change which four years of civil war have wrought in the nation is great, and is sure to give it the seriousness, the gravity, the dignity, the manliness it has heretofore lacked.
Though the nation has been brought to a consciousness of its own existence, it has not, even yet, attained to a full and clear understanding of its own national constitution. Its vision is still obscured by the floating mists of its earlier morning, and its judgment rendered indistinct and indecisive by the wild theories and fancies of its childhood. The national mind has been quickened, the national heart has been opened, the national disposition prepared, but there remains the important work of dissipating the mists that still linger, of brushing away these wild theories and fancies, and of enabling it to form a clear and intelligent judgment of itself, and a true and just appreciation of its own constitution, tendencies, and destiny; or, in other words, of enabling the nation to understand its own idea, and the means of its actualization in space and time.
Every living nation has an idea given it by Providence to realize, and whose realization is its special work, mission, or destiny. Every nation is, in some sense, a chosen people of God. The Jews were the chosen people of God, through whom the primitive traditions were to be preserved in their purity and integrity, and the Messiah was to come. The Greets were the chosen people of God, for the development and realization of the beautiful or the divine splendor in art, and of the true in science and philosophy; and the Romans, for the development of the state, law, and jurisprudence. The great despotic nations of Asia were never properly nations; or if they were nations with a mission, they proved false to it, and count for nothing in the progressive development of the human race. History has not recorded their mission, and as far as they are known they have contributed only to the abnormal development or corruption of religion and civilization. Despotism is barbaric and abnormal.
The United States, or the American Republic, has a mission, and is chosen of God for the realization of a great idea. It has been chosen not only to continue the work assigned to Greece and Rome, but to accomplish a greater work than was assigned to either. In art, it will prove false to its mission if it do not rival Greece; and in science and philosophy, if it do not surpass it. In the state, in law, in jurisprudence, it must continue and surpass Rome. Its idea is liberty, indeed, but liberty with law, and law with liberty. Yet its mission is not so much the realization of liberty as the realization of the true idea of the state, which secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual ó the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy. In other words, its mission is to bring out in its life the dialectic union of authority and liberty, of the natural rights of man and those of society. The Greek and Roman republics asserted the state to the detriment of individual freedom; modern republics either do the same, or assert individual freedom to the detriment of the state, The American republic has been instituted by Providence to realize the freedom of each with advantage to the other.
The real mission of the United States is to introduce and establish a political constitution, which, while it retains all the advantages of the constitutions of states thus far known, is unlike any of them, and secures advantages which none of them did or could possess. The American constitution has no prototype in any prior constitution. The American form of government can be classed throughout with none of the forms of government described by Aristotle, or even by later authorities. Aristotle knew only four forms of government: Monarchy, Aristocracy, Democracy, and Mixed Governments. The American form is none of these, nor any combination of them. It is original, a new contribution to political science, and seeks to attain the end of all wise and just government by means unknown or forbidden to the ancients, and which have been but imperfectly comprehended even by American political writers themselves. The originality of the American constitution has been overlooked by the great majority even of our own statesmen, who seek to explain it by analogies borrowed from the constitutions of other states rather than by a profound study of its own principles. They have taken too low a view of it, and have rarely, if ever, appreciated its distinctive and peculiar merits.
As the United States have vindicated their national unity and integrity, and are preparing to take a new start in history, nothing is more important than that they should take that now start with a clear and definite view of their national constitution, and with a distinct understanding of their political mission in the future of the world. The citizen who can help his countrymen to do this will render them an important service and deserve well of his country, though he may have been unable to serve in her armies and defend her on the battle-field. The work now to be done by American statesmen is even more difficult and more delicate than that which has been accomplished by our brave armies. As yet the people are hardly better prepared for the political work to be done than they were at the outbreak of the civil war for the military work they have so nobly achieved. But, with time, patience, and good-will, the difficulties may be overcome, the errors of the past corrected, and the Government placed on the right track for the future.
It will hardly be questioned that either the constitution of the United States is very defective or it has been very grossly misinterpreted by all parties. If the slave States had not held that the States are severally sovereign, and the Constitution of the United States a simple agreement or compact, they would never have seceded; and if the Free States had not confounded the Union with the General government, and shown a tendency to make it the entire national government, no occasion or pretext for secession would have been given. The great problem of our statesmen has been from the first, How to assert union without consolidation, and State rights without disintegration? Have they, as yet, solved that problem? The war has silenced the State sovereignty doctrine, indeed, but has it done so without lesion to State rights? Has it done it without asserting the General government as the supreme, central, or national government? Has it done it without striking a dangerous blow at the federal element of the constitution? In suppressing by armed force the doctrine that the States are severally sovereign, what barrier is left against consolidation? Has not one danger been removed only to give place to another?
But perhaps the constitution itself, if rightly understood, solves the problem; and perhaps the problem itself is raised precisely through misunderstanding of the constitution. Our statesmen have recognized no constitution of the American people themselves; they have confined their views to the written constitution, as if that constituted the American people a state or nation, instead of being, as it is, only a law ordained by the nation already existing and constituted. Perhaps, if they had recognized and studied the constitution which preceded that drawn up by the Convention of 1787, and which is intrinsic, inherent in the republic itself, they would have seen that it solves the problem, and asserts national unity without consolidation, and the rights of the several States without danger of disintegration. The whole controversy, possibly, has originated in a misunderstanding of the real constitution of the United States, and that misunderstanding itself in the misunderstanding of the origin and constitution of government in general The constitution, as will appear in the course of this essay, is not defective; land all that is necessary to guard against either danger is to discard all our theories of the constitution, and return and adhere to the constitution itself, as it really is and always has been.
There is no doubt that the question of Slavery had much to do with the rebellion, but it was not its sole cause. The real cause must be sought in the progress that had been made, especially in the States themselves, in forming and administering their respective governments, as well as the General government, in accordance with political theories borrowed from European speculators on government, the so-called Liberals and Revolutionists, which have and can have no legitimate application in the United States, The tendency of American politics, for the last thirty or forty years, has been, within the several States themselves, in the direction of centralized democracy, as if the American people had for their mission only the reproduction of ancient Athens. The American system is not that of any of the simple forms of government, nor any combination of them. The attempt to bring it under any of the simple or mixed forms of government recognized by political writers, is an attempt to clothe the future in the cast-off garments of the past. The American system, wherever practicable, is better than monarchy, better than aristocracy, better than simple democracy, better than any possible combination of these several forms, because it accords more nearly with the principles of things, the real order of the universe.
But American statesmen have studied the constitutions of other states more than that of their own, and have succeeded in obscuring the American system in the minds of the people, and giving them in its place pure and simple democracy, which is its false development or corruption. Under the influence of this false development, the people were fast losing sight of the political truth that, though the people are sovereign, it is the organic, not the inorganic people, the territorial people, not the people as simple population, and were beginning to assert the absolute God-given right of the majority to govern. All the changes made in the bosom of the States themselves have consisted in removing all obstacles to the irresponsible will of the majority, leaving minorities and individuals at their mercy. This tendency to a centralized democracy had more to do with provoking secession and rebellion than the anti-slavery sentiments of the Northern, Central, and Western States.
The failure of secession and the triumph of the National cause, in spite of the short-sightedness and blundering of the Administration, have proved the vitality and strength of the national constitution, and the greatness of the American people. They say nothing for or against the democratic theory of our demagogues, but every thing in favor of the American system or constitution of government, which has found a firmer support in American instincts than in American statesmanship. In spite of all that had been done by theorists, radicals, and revolutionists, no-government men, non-resistants, humanitarians, and sickly sentimentalists to corrupt the American people in mind, heart, and body, the native vigor of their national constitution has enabled them to come forth triumphant from the trial. Every American patriot has reason to be proud of bis countrymen, and every American lover of freedom to be satisfied with the institutions of his country. But there is danger that the politicians and demagogues will ascribe the merit, not to the real and living national constitution, but to their miserable theories of that constitution, and labor to aggravate the several evils and corrupt tendencies which caused the rebellion it has cost so much to suppress. What is now wanted is, that the people, whose instincts are right, should understand the American constitution as it is, and so understand it as to render it impossible for political theorists, no matter of what school or party, to deceive them again as to its real import, or induce them to depart from it in their political action.
A work written with temper, without passion or sectional prejudice, in a philosophical spirit, explaining to the American people their own national constitution, and the mutual relations of the General government and the State governments, cannot, at this important crisis in our affairs, be inopportune, and, if properly executed, can hardly fail to be of real service. Such a work is now attempted ó would it were by another and abler hand – which, imperfect as it is, may at least offer some useful suggestions, give a right direction to political thought, although it should fail to satisfy the mind of the reader.
This much the author may say in favor of his own work, that it sets forth no theory of government in general, or of the United States in particular. The author is not a monarchist, an aristocrat, a democrat, a feudalist, nor an advocate of what are called mixed governments like the English, at least for his own country; but is simply an American, devoted to the real, living, and energizing constitution of the American republic as it is, not as some may fancy it might be, or are striving to make it. It is, in his judgment, what it ought to be, and he has no other ambition than to present it as it is to the understanding and love of his countrymen. Perhaps simple artistic unity and propriety would require the author to commence his essay directly with the United States; but while the constitution of the United States is original and peculiar, the government of the United States has necessarily something in common with all legitimate governments, and he has thought it best to precede his discussion of the American republic, its constitution, tendencies, and destiny, by some considerations on government in general. He does this because he believes, whether rightly or not, that while the American people have received from Providence a most truly profound and admirable system of government, they are more or less infected with the false theories of government which have been broached during the last two centuries. In attempting to realize these theories, they have already provoked or rendered practicable a rebellion which has seriously threatened the national existence, and come very near putting an end to the American order of civilization itself. These theories have received already a shock in the minds of all serious and thinking men; but the men who think are in every nation a small minority, and it is necessary to give these theories a public refutation, and bring back those who do not think, as well as those who do, from the world of dreams to the world of reality. It is hoped, therefore, that any apparent want of artistic unity or symmetry in the essay will be pardoned for the sake of the end the author has had in view.