Littell's Living Age/Volume 130/Issue 1677/Thoughts of an Outsider: International Prejudices
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Volume 130, Issue 1677 : Thoughts of an Outsider: International Prejudices
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|Originally published in Cornhill Magazine.|
When General Grant delivered an address the other day upon the opening of the Exhibition at Philadelphia, we courteously expressed our surprise that he had not talked greater nonsense. He indulged in pretty good common sense instead of soaring into the regions of bombast upon the wings of the American eagle. He even admitted that Americans might have something to learn from Europe; and that the inevitable struggle with material obstacles had distracted their attention from the pursuits more immediately interesting to the intellect and the imagination. This, doubtless, was all as it should be. A certain lowering of the old tone of patriotic bluster is perceptible just now throughout the world. It is curious to notice the great waves of sentiment which sweep at intervals across whole nations. Popular fits of depression and exultation seem to propagate themselves like the cholera. At one period in the life of a people everything seems to be rose-colored. A great chorus of self-satisfaction goes up from the whole civilized world. We believe — as people believed at the opening of the French Revolution — in the perfectibility of mankind: war was about to disappear; reason was then to take the place of blind prejudice; social wrongs were all to be redressed; man was about to become omnipotent over matter; and all human wants to be supplied by the labors of half an hour in every day. Then came a change in our anticipations. The dawn was overcast. The old spectres of tyranny, cruelty, and superstition stalked abroad; we learnt anew the old lesson that the cause of our evils lies deep in the hearts and heads of mankind; and that stupid heads cannot be cleared nor corrupt hearts purified by any political catastrophe. A gloom settled over our spirits, and instead of expecting the millennium, we sought for analogies to our position in the periods of decaying empires and declining faith.
The external causes of this revulsion of sentiment are sometimes palpable; sometimes they must be sought for in some obscure morbid tendency. They represent the dim forecasts of
- the prophetic soul
- Of the wide world dreaming on things to come.
Nobody can fully explain his own moods, and tell why one hour of his own life is tinged with a mystic glory and the next wrapped in darkness; and still less can we unravel all the symptoms of widespread social disquiet. The race, like the individual, has strange presentiments of coming good or evil, which help perhaps to fulfil themselves. Just now, it may be said the spiritual barometer is low. We are tormented by a vague unrest. The enigmas of life torment us more than usual; and we know not whether our constitutional twinges forbode a coming attack or are destined to pass away like a bad dream. Men are not disposed either in England or America to indulge in that extravagant exhilaration which greeted the first great show a quarter of a century ago; an exhilaration which, seen by the light of later history, looks almost like a judicial infatuation. Grave men in all seriousness declared that the opening of a large bazaar was equivalent to the proclamation of a gospel of peace. We cannot think of such utterances without a cynical smile. We are looking rather at the seamy side of things; we ask whether the old order has vitality enough to throw off its maladies, and whether the new order promised by the sanguine is anything but a skilful pretext for an attack upon the very bases of society. In such a mood, the pleasant old confident formulæ are out of place. We are tired of calculating the number of miles of railway and yards of cotton turned out of factories and looms; and we cannot speak of the boundless stores of mineral wealth in the American continent without thinking of some mining enterprises which have redistributed rather than augmented the aggregate wealth of mankind. Instead of purple and fine raiment we are disposed to fancy that sackcloth and ashes might be the most appropriate fashion of the day.
Why, indeed, should we not return to the good old custom of days of fasting and humiliation? The practice may have been wholesome in the main, when it did not mean that every man was lamenting his neighbor's sins. A Liberal would humble himself with great complacency for the shortcomings of a Conservative ministry; and the Conservative would groan over the long arrears of mischief bequeathed by the supremacy of his antagonists. But if for once we could make up our minds to apply the lash to our own backs heartily and sincerely, some good might be done. The press sometimes affects to discharge the duty; but the affectation is not very successful. When its lamentations get beyond mere party squabbling, they are apt to ring hollow. Even the platitudes about modern luxury and overexcitement — the most popular text of the would-be satirist — do not seem to imply sincere indignation so much as a thinly disguised satisfaction in dwelling upon the vicious splendors described. When a man really quarrels with the world and strikes with all his force at its vulnerable points, he soon finds as of old that the world takes him for a madman. We are melancholy just now; but we have not got so far as to admit that our sins are of a deep dye.
Englishmen indeed boast themselves to be grumblers by profession. We confess, it is said, and even exaggerate our own shortcomings. Surely of all our national boasts this is about the emptiest. I have known a sincerely religious person rather confounded by the discovery that somebody had taken in downright earnest his confession that he was a miserable sinner. He was forced to explain with some awkwardness that though, on proper occasions, he admitted the utter vileness of his heart, yet, as a matter of fact, he was not more in the habit of breaking the Ten Commandments than his most respectable neighbors. The admission that they do things better in France means just as much or as little as this confession of the ordinary Pharisee. Nations differ widely in their mode of expressing their self-satisfaction, but hardly in the degree of complacency. A German, perhaps, is the most priggish in his consciousness of merit. He expounds his theory of world-history with the airs of a professor, and lays down his superiority to all mankind as the latest discovery of scientific thought. French vanity is the most childlike and therefore at once the least offensive and the most extravagant. American brag is often the noisiest; but it has a certain frankness which is not without its attraction. If you meet an English and an American snob together in a picture-gallery, they may be equally indifferent to the fine arts; but the American will frankly confess that he never heard of Raphael before, and dislikes what he now sees whereas your true Briton puts on a sheepish affectation of good taste and hopes that you will mistake his stupidity for pride. If English patriotism is not pedantic, nor vain, nor bombastic, it has a tinge of sulkiness beneath its apparent self-depreciation which is almost peculiar to itself, and can therefore be more offensively vulgar than that of any other race.
There is, however, little to choose in reality between the varying manifestations of the feeling. A profound conviction that every one is a barbarian who does not wear clothes of our pattern is common to all mankind. Whether it takes this or that coloring, whether it is frank or reserved, directly or indirectly boastful, is a secondary consideration. And, moreover, the reason is obvious enough; namely, that the conviction does not, properly speaking, represent any intellectual conviction whatever, but is simply the reverse side of the universal instinct of self-satisfaction. When Johnson said, "Foreigners are fools," he expressed a belief as universal as the belief that two and two make four. Like that valuable proposition, it may be regarded as really an identical proposition. It means simply, foreigners are foreigners. A man is a foreigner in so far as he differs in some degree from my ways of thinking; that is, as I think that he thinks wrong; but thinking wrong is the mark of folly: therefore, I think that he is a fool. No mathematical demonstration can he more practically convincing, though, from the point of view of universal reason, it may be possible to detect some error in the chain of reasoning.
So long as we remain in generalities, most people will admit that there is an ugly side to all patriotism. Patriotism is one of the great virtues, and the mainspring of the noblest human actions; but a monstrous brood of mean and ugly prejudices shelters itself under this venerable name. The people of whom we are most ashamed naturally brag the most of our acquaintance; and, on the same principle, the least admirable of Britons are apt to flaunt the silliest British prejudices most annoyingly in the eyes of the civilized world. We often have to blush for the pride of our countrymen. If, however, we were to try to go a step farther and to settle which Britons are offensive and which British prejudices are silly, we should no longer meet with the same agreement. Some people, for example, would begin by condemning all our military self-glorification from the days of Crécy and Agincourt down to the Balaclava charge. At the outside, a battle should be remembered as long as we love to pay pensions to those who took part in it. But this doctrine is a little premature.
There is another question more relevant at the present moment, which will bear a few words — would that they could he the last ever devoted to it! Englishmen and Americans have had various uncomfortable relations and seem to he endowed with special power for irritating each other's vanity. The Americans, as we fancy, act like the perverse sailor who excited the boatswain's wrath. "A plague on thee!" exclaimed that official as he flourished the cat, "wherever I hit thee there is no pleasing thee!" We have laid on the lash in every possible way: sometimes it comes down with a stinging satire; sometimes with a lofty moral reproof; and sometimes with profound political reasoning. Then, to make things pleasant, we rub in a good unctuous compound of flattery and philanthropy, and to our surprise and disgust our attentions are scornfully rejected. If we condemn, we are prejudiced; if we praise, we are silly flatterers; if we speak calmly, we are treating our cousins like children; if warmly, like rivals; if we say nothing, we show a brutal indifference to their claims; if we say anything, we show our profound ignorance at every word. We are like people examining some queer chemical compound, which, for anything they can say, will explode if it is touched, or heated, or chilled, or rubbed, or taken up, or set down, or let alone. We only know that our words are pretty sure to be taken the wrong way and our silence to be misinterpreted. That the fault is not entirely our own may be guessed from the remarks of intelligent Americans; but there may be some force also in their statement that we have spoken of their countrymen in every way but one, namely, as ordinary human beings with much the same faults and virtues as ourselves. If we could manage to hit off the mean between the patronizing and the sycophantic attitude, we should perhaps succeed better. But it is not surprising that the failure of many attempts to make ourselves pleasant, and our signal success in attempts of the reverse kind, have produced a certain nervousness in our mutual relations.
After all, matters have improved. Americans have become more independent and less sensitive; and Englishmen perhaps have outlived some foolish prejudices. Let us reflect for a moment how a further advance of good feeling may be secured. A century of separation should have taught us to accept our mutual relations with a good grace. Why do, or why did, Americans and Englishmen dislike each other? One fact is plain. It was not because they knew anything of each other. If so, the question occurs whether it can be accurately said that they did in fact dislike each other. Each nation disliked a certain imaginary entity which it chose to label with the name of its antagonist, but which had of necessity the vaguest possible relation to realities. Suppose, to imagine an impossible case, that Guy Faux was still alive and living in some English village; suppose further that he was in reality one of those highly respectable and immaculate personages who have been made scapegoats by historians to be rehabilitated in later days; suppose that, so far from wishing to blow up the king and the Parliament, the true Guy Faux was really a devout Protestant, who occupied the vault for legitimate purposes of business, and that all the rest of the story was a lie contrived by politicians: if, then, the genuine Faux, being now some three hundred years ago, should walk abroad on November 5, and see a hideous image of himself paraded, with a turnip for a head, an old pipe in its mouth, and old rags on its back, and then assist at the conflagration of the said image amidst a discharge of crackers, general exultation, and vows to remember forever something that never happened, and in regard of which the performers had no conceivable means of judging whether it happened or not — would the respectable Faux be justified in saving that he was hated, or in resenting the hatred? He might be excusably annoyed at the reflection that his Christian name had been converted into a new term of abuse, and regret the fallibility of mankind; but, if he was of a logical turn, he would console himself by thinking that the true object of popular contempt was a mere figment, accidentally connected with his name, and he would admit that the rioters were not responsible for the illusion which they had no means of testing. He would have no more cause for wrath or for a sense of martyrdom than if one of his old hats had fallen into the hands of a tribe of savages and been converted by them into a fetish, which might be accidentally worshipped or regarded as a symbol of diabolical power.
Now the ideal John Bull or Brother Jonathan is to the real Englishman or American what the factitious dummy is to our supposed Guy Faux. He is made up of vague scraps and tatters which have somehow floated across the Atlantic. The steeple-crowned hat of Guy Faux is, perhaps, a traditional portrait of the genuine original; and so the top-boots and knee-breeches of John Bull, and the lantern-jaws and bowie-knife of Jonathan, as they figure in our conventional caricatures, have no doubt a foundation in fact. But what is the substance clothed in this external form? In the case of Guy, it may be supposed, if we are charitable, that the ceremonial partly reflects a horror of dark conspiracy, which is a respectable if not a virtuous sentiment; or a love of Protestantism, with which we may or may not sympathize, but which is at least not intrinsically a vicious sentiment; and whatever the ostensible pretext, the chief constituent of the popular emotion is clearly a love of noise. What are the analogous elements in the absurd fetish which we call by the name of a nation? He is made up partly of vague antipathy the dislike of a fat man for a thin, or of the man who shaves his chin instead of the upper lip for the man who shaves on the inverse principle; partly, again, of the pure spirit of combativeness — a very excellent ingredient in national character, though sometimes developed in excess; but chiefly, of course, of what we call patriotic feeling. To an American, John Bull represents simply the outside world; England being the only country with which he has sensibly come in contact. England meant little more than not America; and the hatred of England was merely the shadow cast by his own self-esteem. The English sentiment is, of course, a little more complex. We have been knocked about enough in the world to distinguish between foreigners and foreigners; and the American dummy might be chiefly the reflection of that most sensitive part of national feeling which was bound up with pride in the British empire. It is not simply dislike to the non-English world, but dislike to that part of it which had most humiliated England. That is to say, it is the reverse side of the vague but keen sentiment produced by a consciousness of our colonial greatness. To hate the foreign nation is, therefore, at bottom to think with complacency of ourselves. The feeling is of course natural. Not long ago I heard some farm-laborers chanting an old song which ended by a vigorous defiance hurled at "the pope and the king of Spain." How the poor king of Spain came in for this denunciation I knew not. Perhaps it was a tradition from the times of the Armada, or possibly from the more recent excitement in the days of Walpole. Anyhow it was highly probable that the singers did not know whether Spain was nearer to England or Australia, whether Spaniards talked Hebrew or Japanese, or worshipped Mumbo-jumbo or the Virgin Mary. They would doubtless have cheered the monarch whom they denounced if he had presented himself in flesh and blood. But, in any case, their hatred of Spaniards might just as well have been called hatred of the Chinese or love of ourselves. It implied no sort of opinion about the real Spain, bad or good. The ordinary English judgment of Americans is not much more valuable. In the lower classes it means a vague impression that America is the land of promise for laborers; in the higher a vague impression that America is a bad place for people of artistic tendencies or conservative politics. But in any case it would be ludicrous to consider it as a serious judgment formed upon sufficient evidence.
If, indeed, we consider for a moment what it implies to make any decently satisfactory judgment of thirty or forty millions of human beings; how difficult it is for the imagination to realize different conditions of country and climate and social development; what ludicrous mistakes are committed by the most acute and impartial foreign travellers; how little we know even of our own country; how little an ordinary cockney, for example, knows of the farm-laborer or of the factory-hand; how little he knows even of nine-tenths of his fellow-townsmen in this wilderness of brick and mortar; what miscalculations are made even by statesmen whose business in life is to understand their fellows as to the real currents of national sentiment on the most important matters; how hopelessly different are the estimates formed by intelligent persons as to the religion, the morality, the cultivation of classes with whom they are in daily contact; how confidently one man will decide, say, that intoxication is visibly increasing and another that it is diminishing, — we may form some estimate of the utter inadequacy of nine-tenths of our hasty verdicts about nations. We could easily mention writers of great ability who have studied English literature and English characteristics for years, and yet make errors in every page palpable to the most ordinary Englishmen. Our judgment of our neighbors is very unlikely to be as near the mark as (say) M. Taine's judgment of us. And yet what Englishman thinks that he can really learn from M. Taine? We think ourselves entitled, indeed, to form opinions by a very expeditious process. Most people reason by particular instances. An American ruffian plots the destruction of a ship, or a Frenchman cuts half-a-dozen throats, and we assume that they represent typical instances of national development. An international antipathy means a healthy instinct combined with a logical fallacy. The instinct flourishes in proportion as a nation is contented and happy. It is developed when the sentiments of which all the bonds of society are ultimately composed are in a thoroughly healthy state; its decay would mean the approach of revolution or national dissolution. Its vigor means that the social order is moulded upon the strongest popular convictions. But this most desirable passion gives strength incidentally to a mass of silly prejudices. It encourages us to hate or despise people of whom we know nothing but the name and the fact that they differ from ourselves. We should be ashamed in any matter of daily life to frame any opinion upon grounds so slight as those which determine our judgment of a foreign nation Those grounds are vague traditions, trifling observations of the external peculiarities of an infinitesimal fraction of the phenomena in question, or hasty surmises of incompetent judges passed through a dozen intermediate stages. But when a proposition falls in with a vigorous instinct, it acquires a strength utterly disproportionate to its logical value, and may produce serious mischief.
Does it really produce such mischief? Are these groundless prejudices really more than a harmless amusement? The mutual dislike of Americans and Englishmen has been lamented, but has it done much harm? So far as it has in fact envenomed diplomatic quarrels it has, of course, been objectionable. It may have made the preservation of peace more difficult, or produced discreditable diplomacy. Of that I can here say nothing but there is an allowance or two to be made before we can judge rightly. Nothing, in the first place, is so transitory as a sentiment of this kind. Nations behave to each other like a pair of fickle lovers. They kiss one day, and curse the next. When the Northern States were angry with us during the war, some of their papers vowed eternal vengeance. The eternity has not lasted for ten years. The vows were pretty well forgotten before the ink was dry; and the same writers are as ready to talk the regular series of "Anglo-Saxon" platitudes. The reason is, doubtless, that the antipathy lies on the surface of men's minds, and, owing nothing to logic, may disappear without logic. Washington told his countrymen very sensibly in his last message that the national policy could not be determined by sentimental considerations. It is a cardinal virtue in a nation to guide itself by an exclusive regard to its own interest short of absolute injury to others. The French government did not help the American patriots because it loved them, but because it thought that it could strike at its great rival with their help. Therefore the French had no real claims upon American gratitude. Sympathy or antipathy between two races does not bring them into alliance or collision, but is caused by their collision or alliance. Frenchmen and Germans hate each other because they have been opposed; they have been opposed by force of geography and by tangible religious or political considerations. The hatred is merely the heat developed by the friction of two neighboring powers. We hated the French as long as we were in the habit of fighting them. Since we have fortunately been at peace for two generations, the hatred has died out, and the desire to avenge Waterloo, which some people thought so dangerous, has calmly gone to sleep.
Men are foolish enough and wicked enough in all conscience. But, foolish and wicked as they may be, they are not generally so bad as to cut each other's throats simply because they dislike each other. Some mistaken view of very solid interests generally brings them into hostile contact, and then the hatred develops itself, and may sometimes pass itself off as the pretext. But the more we look at the history of past wars, the less force we shall be inclined to attribute to this superficial feeling, however ugly it may look and however awkward may be the complications which it sometimes introduces. Desire of wealth or of power, religious or political propagandism have caused innumerable wars, but when has a war been caused by antipathy?
Doubtless, it does not follow that the evil is a trifling one. A better mutual understanding would be an important step towards many good things. It would facilitate the disappearance of the countless fallacies arising from our narrow views of national greatness and our inclination to believe that the gain of one people must be the loss of another. It would, therefore, be desirable, if it were possible, to bring reason to bear upon some of the fallacies involved. What, for example, do we mean when we speak of the faults of rival people? Do we mean that the average American, or a Frenchman, is made of intrinsically worse materials than ourselves — that he belongs to a distinctly lower type of the race? Surely not, for then we should not hate him in any sense. Nobody despises a child because it cannot talk, or a woman because she has not the muscular strength of a man. We seldom hate a negro; and that is just because we sincerely hold him to belong to a lower order of development. We don't hate a monkey for his want of a moral sense. Many people have, it is true, a certain prejudice against the monkeys, just in so far as they seem to be caricatures of men. We can pardon the ill behavior of a pig, because he clearly belongs to a different genus from our own; but we are more or less offended when a beast of semi-human appearance behaves himself after a fashion totally inconsistent with human dignity. That is, our antipathies become strong just in proportion as we recognize the essential similarity of the offender to ourselves. We should feel the absurdity of hating an insect because it had six legs; but we should be disgusted by a creature, otherwise like ourselves, which so far diverged from the common style.
Thus, antipathy is avowedly based upon an admission of similarity. It is not proportioned to the difference between ourselves and its objects; but to the superficial difference, combined with underlying identity. We are startled by a kind of logical contradiction. Different conclusions seem to follow from the same premises. This man is just like me, yet he acts differently from me. That is the very cause and justification of my offence. To be reasonable, then, we must take account of the implied resemblance as much as of the observed difference. If we really thought that Americans had an inferior nature to our own, we should not blame them, but nature; or rather, we should regard them as an odd phenomenon, not as a standing insult. The very ground of our dislike is that they are about as good as ourselves.
The French, the Germans, and the other European races differ from our own. Nobody will dare to say that any one of these races is intrinsically inferior to its neighbors. Each has its own special aptitudes and deficiencies: but even in the height of national vanity, we don't explicitly hold that an Englishman differs from a Frenchman simply as a superior from an inferior. Americans, again, are descended — the majority within a generation or two — from the European races. Any differences which may appear must therefore be due, not to a radical difference of nature, but to circumstances of climate, social condition, religious persuasion, and so on. We may regard the whole nation, therefore, as the embodiment of a vast and most interesting experiment. We may trace back their characteristics to the circumstances which gave them birth. We have planted offshoots from our own stem in a new and vast territory within historical times. We have poured out these enormous masses of population of our own blood, or of blood closely allied to ours. The existing order of the United States represents the effect of the resulting processes carried on under conditions all of which are tolerably ascertainable. There cannot be a more interesting field of enquiry; and the philosophical remarks of such men as De Tocqueville, for example, are of the highest possible interest. Even De Tocqueville made many blunders, as a foreigner was certain to do; but his conclusions, though they may apply as much to France as to America, marked a distinct stage in political speculation, and indicate the true spirit of the enquirer. He began by admitting that American flesh and blood was like his own. Unluckily, very few writers have shown De Tocqueville's impartiality or acuteness. They have tried to justify their prejudices, good or bad, instead of trying to form their judgments; and it is here that Americans have some ground of complaint. If it should be proved that this vast operation in national chemistry has had an unfortunate result, we might be justified in disliking the race. If, for example, the Americans turned out to be rogues, the plea that their roguery was the result of natural causes would not be valid against our antipathy. I have a strong prejudice against the late Mr. Palmer, though I may hold that Palmer's wickedness was caused by temptations acting upon hereditary predispositions. Metaphysicians may settle the free-will question as they please; however they settle it, hatred of evil propensities will be as natural and rightful as before. If we suppose — purely for the sake of argument — that Americans are greater cheats than Europeans, I should take the liberty of disliking Americans in consequence, though it might be proved by the most invincible logic that their knavery was the inevitable result of their democracy, and that again of their social condition, and that of the conditions of their growth. Trace back the chain of cause and effect as far as you please, and a knave remains a knave, and ought to be a hateful person to the end of the chapter. Scientific observation may to some extent unravel the causes of moral deformity, and thereby teach us very useful lessons, but it certainly should not diminish our disgust at such deformity.
The fact, however, that American vices, whatever they may be, are thus traceable to assignable causes suggests some cautions, though it would not justify indifference. The first is that on which I have already insisted — namely, the utter futility of nine hundred and ninety-nine judgments out of a thousand. To say deliberately that the moral standard of a nation is distinctly lower or higher than that of its neighbors requires an amount of careful observation and candid reasoning which hardly anybody can give. It is said, for example, that American politicians are more corrupt than our own. What is the legitimate inference, supposing the fact to be proved? One man is content to infer that Americans generally have a low standard of honor. Another explains it as a general incident of democracy. A third excuses it by the universal excuse — which indeed asserts an undeniable fact — that America is a new country. A fourth sets it down to the unprecedented emigration of ignorant foreigners. A Roman Catholic, perhaps, traces it to the demoralizing influences of Protestantism. A Protestant retorts that it is due to the influence of priests upon an ignorant population. A profound philosopher shows his ingenuity by connecting it somehow with the influence of climate. A radical thinks that it is part of the legacy left by slavery. A constitution-monger considers it to be clearly produced by the absence of a system for representing minorities. A sound English constitutionalist remarks upon the want of a House of Lords. An educational reformer thinks that the school system is defective. A believer in race puts it down to Celtic or Teutonic tendencies. A lover of the past says it is caused by the growth of luxury. A "nihilist" says that it is owing to the growth of centralization. An historian says that we were once equally corrupt in England, and regards the disease as a kind of measles incident to all races in certain stages of development. Each of these and a dozen other causes may have something to do with the phenomenon. I only observe that to consider any one of them fully involves a whole series of complicated observations, and to allow to each its due share would be the work of a philosophic lifetime. The connection, for example, between the standard of honor accepted in private life and that recognized in political life suggests innumerable curious questions, upon which volumes might be written. In some cases, the morality of a nation is very high in particular directions — as, for example, in regard to domestic virtues — whilst it is very low in regard to politics ; whilst the reverse is constantly illustrated. One nation, like one man, is more given to drink than its neighbors, or more given to one particular form of drinking, and at the same time less inclined to crimes of violence or to offences against property. To sum up all the lines of inquiry which converge upon such problems is a task of the utmost nicety, for which, perhaps, nobody is fully competent. It implies a combination of the imagination which can see through the eyes of a strange race, with the power of accumulating knowledge which can swallow whole libraries of statistics, and the power of reasoning which can digest them.
When, therefore, a hasty traveller brings out his pet explanation, ascribes the evil to the influence which he happens to dislike, and then ascribes the influence to a natural defect in the character of the people, and, further, infers that we ought to hate them instead of pitying, he is guilty of a whole series of doubtful assumptions. So far from seeing this, he probably gives himself the airs of a philosopher, and henceforward takes his little theory for granted, as though it were a proposition in Euclid. The true moral is surely different. We should blame any vices and praise any virtues proved to exist as heartily as if they were our own. We should sympathize with efforts to reform and denounce the fallacies by which errors are defended. On all such matters we should speak without fear or favor. We are on safe ground, and may treat with contempt any resentment that we may excite. Unluckily, this is just the course which we generally decline. Either we make a show of shutting our eyes to evils, and are despised as insincere sycophants; or we proceed to make hasty inferences as to causes which are as obscure as the consequences are palpable. Bribery and corruption are abominable — that is an undeniable truth. A or B is convicted of corruption; that is often equally clear, and so is the inference that A or B ought to be punished. It is another and quite a different thing to assume that the forty millions of men represented by A or B must all share his faults, and are therefore corrupt by nature or perverted by that particular influence on which we happen to pitch as most offensive to our own tastes. It is by this error in logic and feeling that we give legitimate ground for complaint, and manage to oscillate dexterously between administering unworthy flattery and unprovable imputations.
This or that, we may most properly say, is bad. As to its causes, we can only form some general conjectures, entitled to more or less respect, but always requiring to be carefully tested by experience. Most of us have no right to any opinion whatever. Our rash conjectures about Americans have often little more claim to respect than a schoolboy's fancies about the ancient Trojans. They are founded upon evidence, so far as they have any connection with evidence at all, which is ludicrously insufficient to justify any distinct conclusion, favorable or the reverse. Conversely, we have no right to be angry when people form utterly absurd opinions about ourselves. They do not really hate us, but a figment which happens to be called by our name. Their error is not in judging wrongly, but in judging at all; but that offence is so universal that it does not deserve to be condemned severely. So long as we take advantage of the liberty common to all men of forming opinions without knowledge of the facts, we must not be angry if other people use the same privilege, and fall into similar blunders.
The argument, it may be replied, would justify a mischievous scepticism. Are we to admit that no judgment can be formed about national character? Are we to assume that all nations, or all civilized nations, are equally good? And are we therefore to love our neighbors as well as ourselves, and to regard patriotism as a vice instead of a virtue? None of these terrible conclusions really follow; but some things follow which we do not admit so willingly as we ought, because we find it hard to resign pretensions to supernatural sagacity. Judgments can be formed about national character, and certain conclusions established which are of the highest value in political and historical reasoning. We can assign with great confidence certain distinctions between the great varieties of the human race. We can define with some accuracy the peculiar qualities of temperament which separate the Teuton from the Celt, and the Englishman from the American. But what few people can do with any show of reason, and probably no one can do with any approach to certainty, is to effect a sound analysis of national character, to decide upon the intensity as well as the general tendency of the various constituent impulses, and then to determine the resultant value of the amazingly complex forces which result when these elements are brought together to form the whole which we call a nation. A few acute critics or political reasoners can say pretty accurately in what directions French modes of thought and action diverge from English, and can infer which is best on a given occasion. Even such men will be the first to confess their utter inability to say which type is on the whole the best. But as the overwhelming majority of the race are utterly incapable of taking the first steps in this difficult process ; as their hasty conclusions are not even based indirectly upon rational judgment, but reflect a number of utterly irrational prejudices, it may perhaps be said that modesty in expressing their opinions is distinctly desirable. Nor, again, need we assume that all nations, and still less the institutions of all nations, are equally good. To learn in what respects and why one is better than another is precisely the great problem of the philosophical observer. We should be foolish indeed not to take warning by the breakdown of some constitutions or be encouraged by the success of others. A national calamity should be a warning to others besides the persons directly affected. The objectionable practice in this case is the common tendency of jumping at the conclusions which flatter our preconceived prejudices. The action which takes place is so complex that every party has some excuse for attributing all the evils which arise to its own pet object of detestation. If you had all believed in my creed, we exclaim, this would not have happened and the retort is easy neither would it have happened if we had all disbelieved. Both remarks may be right. When two parties are struggling, many evils happen which would not occur if either had converted its antagonist; but that does not show which conversion is desirable. Nothing is easier than to devise taunts to vex your opponents from any historical incident that ever happened. You have only to read it by the light of your own theories. The true reason is that the extreme intricacy of all such problems makes all inferences precarious. Whether the ultra-montanes or the unbelievers, the absolutists or the democrats, are most to blame is a question which may be ultimately decided by experience, but can only be confused by these hasty snatches at an immediate conclusion. The great mass may be content with observing frequent illustrations of the great truth that moral enormities bring round their punishment in time. The old maxims that honesty is the best policy, and oppression an evil both to tyrant and slave, are worth hearing afresh because incessantly forgotten. When, not content with those simple truths, we try to pronounce specific verdicts upon the conduct of people of whose motives, designs, characters, and difficulties we know next to nothing, we are apt to make disgraceful blunders and indirectly to flatter our own faults. The chief use of these national prejudices is to blind ourselves to the reflection that, if we had been in the same position, we should probably have done the same thing. The epithet "French" or " American" is easily made to account for everything, and flatters us into the generally erroneous assumption that we are not as those publicans.
Is not this to preach a futile cosmopolitanism? We are proud of our English descent, and we won't admit that our pride can be wrong, for it is that pride which has made us do things to be proud of. But how can we be proud if we don't hold that we are better than our neighbors? This is, no doubt, the final difficulty which perplexes us, and yet the answer seems to be very simple. A man, for example, may respect himself without holding that he is of more value than his neighbors. He may take an honest pride in doing his duty and exerting his talents without holding that he ought to be prime minister, or that he is the intellectual equal of Shakespeare and Newton. Or, to come nearer to the point, a man may love his wife and children; he may be ready to fight for them to the death, to work himself to the bone, to prefer their society to that of the best people in the land, and may yet be quite ready to admit that they are not far removed from the average standard. Undoubtedly it is difficult to keep our affections from prejudicing our reason; to judge things by their intrinsic value, and yet to value them in practice by their importance to ourselves; and, in short, to refrain from declaring our own favorite geese to be swans. But that is just one of the lessons which we all have to learn in our private relations, on peril of hitter disappointment to ourselves and serious injury to those we love. A man who is capable of learning by experience finds out that the face of one whom he loves need not be the most beautiful in the world in order to be the most delightful to his eyes and that he may admit that the maternal instinct which proportions affection to the weakness of its object instead of to its abstract merit is so far from being irrational that it represents the great condition of domestic happiness. The paradox of patriotism is precisely the same. A man may hold that Frenchmen or Americans are every whit as good as Englishmen in all essentials; that virtue and wisdom are fortunately not confined by the four seas or the horizon visible from his parish steeple; and he may yet be as ready as his neighbors to die for his country, to do his best to carry the English flag to the North Pole or Timbuctoo, or to give his whole strength to remedy the many evils which threaten our social welfare. In this sense, indeed, the worse his country may be, the greater its demands upon him; and the more convinced he is that it is behind its neighbors, the greater should be his efforts to bring it up to their level.
The whole difficulty, in fact, lies in this persistent assumption that because I love a country or a person I must logically hold it to be the best of all countries or persons. That is the temptation, not the legitimate inference. My country is or ought to be dear to me, because I am tied down to it by a thousand bonds of birth, connection, and tradition; because it is that part of the world in which I can labor to most purpose; because my affections are governed by all kinds of associations which have no connection whatever with my intellectual estimate of its value. But this is just what people in general refuse to see. They insist upon my drawing an illogical inference. If I am forced to admit by evidence that another race is in any respect better than my own, they declare that I am unpatriotic. They do not condescend to enquire whether my recognition of that fault leads me to love my country less. That is taken for granted; and therefore the test of patriotism is taken to be my persuasion of the truth of certain conclusions about matters of which, in ninety-nine cases out of one hundred, I am an utterly incompetent judge. It is sought to make patriotism rational by insisting that my emotions shall have a logical basis which may or may not exist. The only result is that I make a factitious basis by inventing the proposition which gratifies my vicarious vanity, and then assuming that it is the cause instead of the effect of the vanity.
I must, for my part, decline to stake my patriotism upon any such test whatever. Something may prove to-morrow morning that another nation is better than mine, and then I must either believe a lie or cease to be patriotic. I claim the right, on the contrary, of expressing such opinions as I can form, with absolute freedom, and without admitting any inference as to my sentiment. I believe that Englishmen are in many and important respects at the rear instead of being in the van of civilized races. As a mere matter of taste, I generally prefer the society of intelligent Americans, because they are not hidebound by British prejudice. I never go to Paris or travel in Germany or Italy without being impressed by the great superiority of foreigners in many respects, intellectually, artistically, and socially. But, for all that, I may be just as patriotic as the Briton who makes his first trip to the Continent when he is already soaked to the core with native prejudices, and swears that all foreigners are filthy barbarians because he does not find soap by his basin in the first hotel. Why not? A man may love his children better than all the world, and yet know that they are short, ugly, stupid, and far from being models of all the Christian virtues.
And, therefore, I shall be perfectly happy on the next 4th of July. I shall admit most cheerfully that we made a dreadful mess of things a century ago, and that we shall probably make other messes for centuries to come. I shall admit that the United States have a larger territory than the British islands; that they have more coal and iron, and bigger rivers, mountains, and prairies; nay, I would admit, if it were proved, that their system of government is in some ways better than ours, that they have better schools, less intoxication, and a greater diffusion of general intelligence. On all these points, and many others, I am perfectly open to conviction. Only I shall look with extreme suspicion upon any attempt to sum up the merits of their national character, and proclaim, as examiners do after a competition, that England deserves only ninety-nine marks whilst America has earned one hundred, or vice versâ. I have a strong conviction that in such matters our confidence generally increases in proportion to our ignorance; and that the chief result of expressing it is to set up an irritation mischievous as far as it goes, though luckily it does not go so far as we think. And meanwhile I shall be quite content to be in ignorance about most of these problems, which nobody has yet solved, and shall, with Johnson and Savage, "stick by my country" so long as it does not insist upon my telling lies or doing dirty actions on its behalf.