The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Louisa S. M'Cord/The Right to Labour

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We are not ultra reformists;—far from it;—and yet we are of those who see, in the present condition of the world, the waking up of a new era. We are of those who believe in,—if not the perfectibility of man, at least his great, lasting, and boundless improvement. Thought is roused, mind is awakened, which never again can sleep. Vainly are we told that preceding ages have shown equal civilization and similar improvement. Vainly is our attention directed to the great Nineveh, to Egypt, to Greece, and to Rome. These certainly do show—these have shown—progression and retrogression, rise and fall, as the great pulse of humanity has throbbed in its breathing of ages; but never has the world-soul been roused, as now, by the expansion of thought, circulating to distant points of our globe, whose very existence was not dreamed of by the wise of ancient days. Never has the great heart of civilization cast, as now, by its every pulsation, its life-blood to the farthest extremes of a universe, rousing itself from unconscious infancy to the full action of a reasoning being. Great as were the efforts of the ancients—great as were the results of those efforts—they were confined to little corners of a world, which now basks under the full radiance of extended and extending light. And yet, even of these efforts, nothing has been lost. The soul of their civilization, as each sank in its ruins, was breathed into the survivor, until at last, in the great crash of Roman power, the shattered remnants of its pride and its knowledge, scattering through Europe, laid the basis of modern civilization. This can never die—this can never be crushed. If driven from the East it would seek the West; crushed in the West still could it breathe in the East. A civilized state may fall back into barbarism; a civilized world—never! The diffusive spirit of Christianity, the wonderful invention of letters, the discovery of our Western world, the wide-spread power of steam, and now Heaven’s lightning, by science tamed to be man’s messenger—these put us on a pinnacle which Greece and Rome could never dream of. And yet the world is young! We look not into its future; veiled to us are its glories. But through the mist and mystery of forthcoming ages, interpreted by the awakening beam of the past, may we not read the one great hope,—the one bright truth,—man is improving, improvable, ceaselessly and boundlessly!

Yet not for this, alas! are we now exempt from the wildest follies, the grossest vices. France, in her present struggles, shows a mingling chaos of all that is best and wisest, of all that is maddest and worst. Among the most rampant of her run-mad fancies is this wild dream of “fraternity” and socialism, with their Icarias and Utopian worlds. Would that these were confined to France alone! Unfortunately, we see their extravagant madness striding the Atlantic and stamping its too plainly marked foot-tracks on our own shores. That terrible fallacy compacted in the words, “The right to labour,” is rapidly working its mischief. “The right of man to labour, and of land whereon to labour,”—what is it, as our communists interpret it, but the right to rob? They would not labour for nothing, nor yet for such compensation as the true value of their labour, given where it is wanted and paid for as it is needed, will produce. They have the right to labour, be it for good or for ill. They have the right to be paid for that labour, let the capital they force into their use be theirs or another’s. You do not want my work,—it matters not,—“I have a right to work, and you, having capital, must pay me for such work, be it to your detriment or your benefit. I have the right to labour!”

Within this specious formula—“the right to labour”—lie concentrated the greater number of those terrible fallacies which now threaten to overrun and devastate civilized society. The hydra of communism holds struggling in its deadly folds the Hercules of truth. That the latter conquers, who can doubt? Man’s nature, his soul, and instinct, alike lead him to the light. The world is progressive. The past shows, the present hopes for, and the future promises this; but fearful are the doubts, the despondencies, and the agonies, through which society must pass to attain its highest tone! Around each great truth is gathered a crowd of errors—deceitful reflections of its beauty—giving to the mischievous a pretext for ill, and often, with ignis fatuus light, misleading even the true-hearted and the good.

There are crises in the world’s course, when, rousing from temporary lethargy, reason seems more than usually wide awake to the influence of truth and light. But, in this very waking, is she also more subject to the misleading influence of error. The craving heart—the longing, seeking, hungering for truth—is roused; and, in its eager search, how often, alas! is the will-o-the-wisp mistaken for the star-beam! Through one of these crises are we now struggling. The world is in labour of a great truth, but its sick fancy is cheated with the bewildering dazzle of its own delirious dreams.

One of society’s closest guards—a kind of shepherd’s dog, as it were, of the flock—stands political economy. Watching, barking, wrangling at every intruder, suspicious of outward show, nor satisfied with skin-deep inspection, it examines, before admitting all pretenders as true prophets, and strips many a wolf of his sheep’s clothing. The evil-inclined, thus, naturally, hoot and revile it. The ignorant mistrust it. What do we, its advocates, ask in its defence? Simply nothing, but that the world should learn to know it. We wish no law for its imposition—no tax for its protection. Let truth be but heard: there is in the heart of man an instinct to know and to seize it. Error is simply negative; like shadow, it is only want of light. Heaven’s sunbeam on the material world—reason’s effulgence on the thinking soul—alone suffice to work God’s purposes. Man, his humble instrument, cannot make the light; he can but strive to remove the obstacles which intercept its abundant flow.

We ask, then, only to be heard. Let the world know us. Let the people know us. Let political economy be the science of the crowd. It is neither incomprehensible nor abstruse. It requires but that each individual man should think,—think—not imagine, not dream, not utopianize—but think, study, and understand for himself. Where the masses are ignorant, what more natural than that they stumble into wrong? Mind must act; and more and more, as the world advances, does it call for the right of exerting and developing its power. In earlier ages, learning, information, thought, being limited to the few, the masses took the word from these high-priests of reason, whose veiled holy of holies was sacred from the intrusion of the crowd. But, now, the veil is rent asunder. Not you, nor we, nor he—nor any chosen one—nor ten, nor twenty—but man,—now claims the right to think for himself. He claims it; he will have it; he ought to have it. Let but those who are ahead in the race of knowledge give to those who need; guide those who stumble in the dark; and each, thus putting in his mite of well doing in the cause, ward off, as much as possible, the calamities which necessarily hover round the great and progressive change through which the world is passing. Great changes are oftenest wrought out only through great convulsions. It is a man’s work, and man’s heart is in it, when the humblest individual, with shoulder to the wheel, stands boldly and honestly forth, to raise his hand in warding off the avalanche of evil.

France, which now stands before the world, in the agonies of her struggles—great alike in truth and in error—France has experimented, and written for us, in her sufferings, a mighty lesson. May we but read and learn it! Revelling in the madness of newly-gained freedom, her people not knowing the use of what they had seized, for them it became the synonyme of license. Rushing from extreme to extreme, they forgot that liberty was but enfranchisement, and, with “democracy” for their watchword, exercised a despotism much more fearful than that of the single tyrant, because its power, like its name, was “legion.”

And what is the result? Credit dead; industry paralyzed; commerce annihilated; her starving people now sinking despondent under their difficulties—now driven to the madness of revolt, against they know not whom—asking, they know not what. France, terrified at her own acts, calls out for succour, and on every side resound the answers of her best and wisest citizens: “Step back from your errors; give truth its way”—“laissez passer”—“laissez faire.”

Amidst the throng of confused theories, each of which burns into the very vitals of the suffering State, its brand of crime and folly,

“While lean-looked prophets whisper fearful change,”

political economy alone, with its great and simple truths, seems to hold forth some hope of a real regeneration. It alone enjoins upon its disciples to follow, step by step—to sift to the bottom its theories and their remotest effects—before launching the world upon untried experiments. It alone gropes patiently its way, grappling with doubts and difficulties, making sure and clear its footing, before calling upon society to follow. Its opponents—socialists of every grade—leaping blindfold to their conclusions, and taking impulse for inspiration, recklessly drag on their devotees from one wild dream to another, until

 “Contention, like a horse,
Full of high feeding, madly doth break loose,
And bears down all before him.”

They do not mean the evil which they do. Very possibly, their hearts are of the purest—but their ideas, unfortunately, not of the clearest. Without examining into the practicability of their own schemes, they give way to a misty vision of goodness—a kind of foggy virtue—which, often but the rush-light of their own unregulated fancy—too indolent or too cowardly to probe to its source, and follow to its end—they imagine an inward light, a transmitted beam of heaven, and so dream on!