The Promise of American Life/Chapter II

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The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly
Chapter II

THE FEDERALISTS AND THE REPUBLICANS[edit]

The purpose of the following review of American political ideas and practices is, it must be premised, critical rather than narrative or expository. I am not seeking to justify a political and economic theory by an appeal to historical facts. I am seeking, on the contrary, to place some kind of an estimate and interpretation upon American political ideas and achievements; and this estimate and interpretation is determined chiefly by a preconceived ideal. The acceptability of such an estimate and interpretation will, of course, depend at bottom upon the number of important facts which it explains and the number which it either neglects or distorts. No doubt, certain omissions and distortions are inevitable in an attempt of this kind; but I need scarcely add that the greatest care has been taken to avoid them. In case the proposed conception of the Promise of American life cannot be applied to our political and economic history without essential perversion, it must obviously fall to the ground; and as a matter of fact, the ideal itself has been sensibly modified during the course of this attempt to give it an historical application. In spite of all these modifications it remains, however, an extremely controversial review. Our political and economic past is, in a measure, challenged in order to justify our political and social future. The values placed upon many political ideas, tendencies, and achievements differ radically from the values placed upon them either by their originators and partisans or in some cases by the majority of American historians. The review, consequently, will meet with a far larger portion of instinctive opposition and distrust than it will of acquiescence. The whole traditional set of values which it criticises is almost as much alive to-day as it was two generations ago, and it forms a background to the political faith of the great majority of Americans. Whatever favor a radical criticism can obtain, it must win on its merits both as an adequate interpretation of our political past and as an outlook towards the solution of our present and future political and economic problems.

The material for this critical estimate must be sought, not so much in the events of our national career, as in the ideas which have influenced its course. Closely as these ideas are associated with the actual course of American development, their meaning and their remoter tendencies have not been wholly realized therein, because beyond a certain point no attempt was made to think out these ideas candidly and consistently. For one generation American statesmen were vigorous and fruitful political thinkers; but the time soon came when Americans ceased to criticise their own ideas, and since that time the meaning of many of our fundamental national conceptions has been partly obscured, as well as partly expressed, by the facts of our national growth. Consequently we must go behind these facts and scrutinize, with more caution than is usually considered necessary, the adequacy and consistency of the underlying ideas. And I believe that the results of such a scrutiny will be very illuminating. It will be found that from the start there has been one group of principles at work which have made for American national fulfillment, and another group of principles which has made for American national distraction; and that these principles are as much alive to-day as they were when Jefferson wrote the Kentucky resolutions or when Jackson, at the dinner of the Jefferson Club, toasted the preservation of the Union. But while these warring principles always have been, and still are, alive, they have never, in my opinion, been properly discriminated one from another; and until such a discrimination is made, the lesson cannot be profitably applied to the solution of our contemporary national problems.

All our histories recognize, of course, the existence from the very beginning of our national career of two different and, in some respects, antagonistic groups of political ideas,—the ideas which were represented by Jefferson, and the ideas which were represented by Hamilton. It is very generally understood, also, that neither the Jeffersonian nor the Hamiltonian doctrine was entirely adequate, and that in order to reach a correct understanding of the really formative constituent in the complex of American national life, a combination must be made of both Republicanism and Federalism. But while the necessity of such a combination is fully realized, I do not believe that it has ever been mixed in just the proper proportions. We are content to say with Webster that the prosperity of American institutions depends upon the unity and inseparability of individual and local liberties and a national union. We are content to declare that the United States must remain somehow a free and a united country, because there can be no complete unity without liberty and no salutary liberty outside of a Union. But the difficulties with this phrase, its implications and consequences, we do not sufficiently consider. It is enough that we have found an optimistic formula wherewith to unite the divergent aspects of the Republican, and Federalist doctrines.

We must begin, consequently, with critical accounts of the ideas both of Jefferson and of Hamilton; and we must seek to discover wherein each of these sets of ideas was right, and wherein each was wrong; in what proportions they were subsequently combined in order to form "our noble national theory," and what were the advantages, the limitations, and the effects of this combination. I shall not disguise the fact that, on the whole, my own preferences are on the side of Hamilton rather than of Jefferson. He was the sound thinker, the constructive statesman, the candid and honorable, if erring, gentleman; while Jefferson was the amiable enthusiast, who understood his fellow-countrymen better and trusted them more than his rival, but who was incapable either of uniting with his fine phrases a habit of candid and honorable private dealing or of embodying those phrases in a set of efficient institutions. But although Hamilton is much the finer man and much the sounder thinker and statesman, there were certain limitations in his ideas and sympathies the effects of which have been almost as baleful as the effects of Jefferson's intellectual superficiality and insincerity. He perverted the American national idea almost as much as Jefferson perverted the American democratic idea, and the proper relation of these two fundamental conceptions one to another cannot be completely understood until this double perversion is corrected.

To make Hamilton and Jefferson exclusively responsible for this double perversion is, however, by no means fair. The germs of it are to be found in the political ideas and prejudices with which the American people emerged from their successful Revolutionary War. At that time, indeed, the opposition between the Republican and the Federalist doctrines had not become definite and acute; and it is fortunate that such was the case, because if the opponents of an efficient Federal constitution had been organized and had been possessed of the full courage and consciousness of their convictions, that instrument would never have been accepted, or it would have been accepted only in a much more mutilated and enfeebled condition. Nevertheless, the different political points of view which afterwards developed into Hamiltonian Federalism and Jeffersonian Republicanism were latent in the interests and opinions of the friends and of the opponents of an efficient Federal government; and these interests and opinions were the natural product of contemporary American economic and political conditions.

Both Federalism and anti-Federalism were the mixed issue of an interest and a theory. The interest which lay behind Federalism was that of well-to-do citizens in a stable political and social order, and this interest aroused them to favor and to seek some form of political organization which was capable of protecting their property and promoting its interest. They were the friends of liberty because they were in a position to benefit largely by the possession of liberty; and they wanted a strong central government because only by such means could their liberties, which consisted fundamentally in the ability to enjoy and increase their property, be guaranteed. Their interests were threatened by the disorganized state governments in two different but connected respects. These governments did not seem able to secure either internal order or external peace. In their domestic policy the states threatened to become the prey of a factious radical democracy, and their relations one to another were by way of being constantly embroiled. Unless something could be done, it looked as if they would drift in a condition either of internecine warfare without profit or, at best, of peace without security. A centralized and efficient government would do away with both of these threats. It would prevent or curb all but the most serious sectional disputes, while at the same time it would provide a much stronger guarantee for internal political order and social stability. An equally strong interest lay at the roots of anti-Federalism and it had its theory, though this theory was less mature and definite. Behind the opposition to a centralized government were the interests and the prejudices of the mass of the American people,—the people who were, comparatively speaking, lacking in money, in education, and in experience. The Revolutionary War, while not exclusively the work of the popular element in the community, had undoubtedly increased considerably its power and influence. A large proportion of the well-to-do colonial Americans had been active or passive Tories, and had either been ruined or politically disqualified by the Revolution. Their successful opponents reorganized the state governments in a radical democratic spirit. The power of the state was usually concentrated in the hands of a single assembly, to whom both the executive and the courts were subservient; and this method of organization was undoubtedly designed to give immediate and complete effect to the will of a popular majority. The temper of the local democracies, which, for the most part, controlled the state governments, was insubordinate, factious, and extremely independent. They disliked the idea of a centralized Federal government because a supreme power would be thereby constituted which could interfere with the freedom of local public opinion and thwart its will. No less than the Federalists, they believed in freedom; but the kind of freedom they wanted, was freedom from anything but local interference. The ordinary American democrat felt that the power of his personality and his point of view would be diminished by the efficient centralization of political authority. He had no definite intention of using the democratic state governments for anti-social or revolutionary purposes, but he was self-willed and unruly in temper; and his savage treatment of the Tories during and after the Revolution had given him a taste of the sweets of confiscation. The spirit of his democracy was self-reliant, undisciplined, suspicious of authority, equalitarian, and individualistic.

With all their differences, however, the Federalists and their opponents had certain common opinions and interests, and it was these common opinions and interests which prevented the split from becoming irremediable. The men of both parties were individualist in spirit, and they were chiefly interested in the great American task of improving their own condition in this world. They both wanted a government which would secure them freedom of action for this purpose. The difference between them was really less a difference of purpose than of the means whereby a purpose should be accomplished. The Federalists, representing as they did chiefly the people of wealth and education, demanded a government adequate to protect existing propertied rights; but they were not seeking any exceptional privileges—except those traditionally associated with the ownership of private property. The anti-Federalists, on the other hand, having less to protect and more to acquire, insisted rather upon being let alone than in being protected. They expressed themselves sometimes in such an extremely insubordinate manner as almost to threaten social disorder, but were very far from being fundamentally anti-social in interest or opinion. They were all by way of being property-owners, and they all expected to benefit by freedom from interference in the acquisition of wealth. It was this community of interest and point of view which prepared the way, not only for the adoption of the Constitution, but for the loyalty it subsequently inspired in the average American.

It remains none the less true, however, that the division of interest and the controversy thereby provoked was sharp and brought about certain very unfortunate consequences. Inasmuch as the anti-Federalists were unruly democrats and were suspicious of any efficient political authority, the Federalists came, justly or unjustly, to identify both anti-Federalism and democracy with political disorder and social instability. They came, that is, to have much the same opinion of radical democracy as an English peer might have had at the time of the French Revolution; and this prejudice, which was unjust but not unnatural, was very influential in determining the character of the Federal Constitution. That instrument was framed, not as the expression of a democratic creed, but partly as a legal fortress against the possible errors and failings of democracy. The federalist point of view resembled that of the later constitutional liberals in France. The political ideal and benefit which they prized most highly was that of liberty, and the Constitution was framed chiefly for the purpose of securing liberty from any possible dangers. Popular liberty must be protected against possible administrative or executive tyranny by free representative institutions. Individual liberty must be protected against the action of an unjust majority by the strongest possible legal guarantees. And above all the general liberties of the community must not be endangered by any inefficiency of the government as a whole. The only method whereby these complicated and, in a measure, conflicting ends could be attained was by a system of checks and balances, which would make the executive, legislative, and judicial departments of the government independent of one another, while at the same time endowing each department with all the essentials of efficient action within its own sphere. But such a method of political organization was calculated to thwart the popular will, just in so far as that will did not conform to what the Federalists believed to be the essentials of a stable political and social order. It was antagonistic to democracy as that word was then, and is still to a large extent, understood.

The extent of this antagonism to democracy, if not in intention at least in effect, is frequently over-rated. The antagonism depends upon the identification of democracy with a political organization for expressing immediately and completely the will of the majority—whatever that will may be; and such a conception of democracy contains only part of the truth. Nevertheless the founders of the Constitution did succeed in giving some effect to their distrust of the democratic principle, no matter how conservatively defined; and this was at once a grave error on their part and a grave misfortune for the American state. Founded as the national government is, partly on a distrust of the American democracy, it has always tended to make the democracy somewhat suspicious of the national government. This mutual suspicion, while it has been limited in scope and diminished by the action of time, constitutes a manifest impediment to the efficient action of the American political system. The great lesson of American political experience, as we shall see, is rather that of interdependence than of incompatibility between an efficient national organization and a group of radical democratic institutions and ideals; and the meaning of this lesson has been obscured, because the Federal organization has not been constituted in a sufficiently democratic spirit, and because, consequently, it has tended to provoke distrust on the part of good democrats. At every stage in the history of American political ideas and practice we shall meet with the unfortunate effects of this partial antagonism.

The error of the Federalists can, however, be excused by many extenuating circumstances. Democracy as an ideal was misunderstood in 1786, and it was possessed of little or no standing in theory or tradition. Moreover, the radical American democrats were doing much to deserve the misgivings of the Federalists. Their ideas were narrow, impracticable, and hazardous; and they were opposed to the essential political need of the time—viz. the constitution of an efficient Federal government. The Federalists may have misinterpreted and perverted the proper purpose of American national organization, but they could have avoided such misinterpretation only by an extraordinary display of political insight and a heroic superiority to natural prejudice. Their error sinks into insignificance compared with the enormous service which they rendered to the American people and the American cause. Without their help there might not have been any American nation at all, or it might have been born under a far darker cloud of political suspicion and animosity. The instrument which they created, with all its faults, proved capable of becoming both the organ of an efficient national government and the fundamental law of a potentially democratic state. It has proved capable of flexible development both in function and in purpose, and it has been developed in both these directions without any sacrifice of integrity.

Its success has been due to the fact that its makers, with all their apprehensions about democracy, were possessed of a wise and positive political faith. They believed in liberty. They believed that the essential condition of fruitful liberty was an efficient central government. They knew that no government could be efficient unless its powers equaled its responsibilities. They were willing to trust to such a government the security and the welfare of the American people. The Constitution has proved capable of development chiefly as the instrument of these positive political ideas. Thanks to the theory of implied powers, to the liberal construction of the Supreme Court during the first forty years of its existence, and to the results of the Civil War the Federal government has, on the whole, become more rather than less efficient as the national political organ of the American people. Almost from the start American life has grown more and more national in substance, in such wise that a rigid constitution which could not have been developed in a national direction would have been an increasing source of irritation and protest. But this reënforcement of the substance of American national life has, until recently, found an adequate expression in the increasing scope and efficiency of the Federal government. The Federalists had the insight to anticipate the kind of government which their country needed; and this was a great and a rare achievement—all the more so because they were obliged in a measure to impose it on their fellow-countrymen.

There is, however, another face to the shield. The Constitution was the expression not only of a political faith, but also of political fears. It was wrought both as the organ of the national interest and as the bulwark of certain individual and local rights. The Federalists sought to surround private property, freedom of contract, and personal liberty with an impregnable legal fortress; and they were forced by their opponents to amend the original draft of the Constitution in order to include a still more stringent bill of individual and state rights. Now I am far from pretending that these legal restrictions have not had their value in American national history, and were not the expression of an essential element in the composition and the ideal of the American nation. The security of private property and personal liberty, and a proper distribution of activity between the local and the central governments, demanded at that time, and within limits still demand, adequate legal guarantees. It remains none the less true, however, that every popular government should in the end, and after a necessarily prolonged deliberation, possess the power of taking any action, which, in the opinion of a decisive majority of the people, is demanded by the public welfare. Such is not the case with the government organized under the Federal Constitution. In respect to certain fundamental provisions, which necessarily receive the most rigid interpretation on the part of the courts, it is practically unmodifiable. A very small percentage of the American people can in this respect permanently thwart the will of an enormous majority, and there can be no justification for such a condition on any possible theory of popular Sovereignty. This defect has not hitherto had very many practical inconveniences, but it is an absolute violation of the theory and the spirit of American democratic institutions. The time may come when the fulfillment of a justifiable democratic purpose may demand the limitation of certain rights, to which the Constitution affords such absolute guarantees; and in that case the American democracy might be forced to seek by revolutionary means the accomplishment of a result which should be attainable under the law.

It was, none the less, a great good thing that the Union under the new Constitution triumphed. Americans have more reason to be proud of its triumph than of any other event in their national history. The formation of an effective nation out of the thirteen original colonies was a political achievement for which there was no historical precedent. Up to that time large countries had been brought, if not held, together by military force or by a long process of gradually closer historical association. Small and partly independent communities had combined one with another only on compulsion. The necessities of joint defense might occasionally drive them into temporary union, but they would not stay united. They preferred a precarious and tumultuous independence to a combination with neighboring communities, which brought security at the price of partial subordination and loyal coöperation. Even the provinces which composed the United Netherlands never submitted to an effective political union during the active and vital period of their history. The small American states had apparently quite as many reasons for separation as the small Grecian and Italian states. The military necessities of the Revolution had welded them only into a loose and feeble confederation, and a successful revolution does not constitute a very good precedent for political subordination. The colonies were divided from one another by difficulties of communication, by variations in economic conditions and social customs, by divergent interests, and above all by a rampant provincial and separatist spirit. On the other hand, they were united by a common language, by a common political and legal tradition, and by the fact that none of them had ever been really independent sovereign states. Nobody dared or cared to object to union in the abstract; nobody advocated the alternative of complete separation; it was only a strong efficient union which aroused the opposition of the Clintons and the Patrick Henrys. Nevertheless, the conditions making for separation have the appearance of being more insistent and powerful than the conditions making for an effective union. Disunion was so easy. Union was so difficult. If the states had only kept on drifting a little longer, they would, at least for a while, inevitably have drifted apart. They were saved from such a fate chiefly by the insight and energy of a few unionist leaders—of whom Washington and Hamilton were the most important.

Perhaps American conditions were such that eventually some kind of a national government was sure to come; but the important point is that when it came, it came as the result of forethought and will rather than of compulsion. "It seems to have been reserved," says Hamilton in the very first number of the Federalist, "to the people of this country by their conduct and example, to decide the important question whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force." Americans deliberately selected the better part. It is true that the evil effects of a loose union were only too apparent, and that public safety, order, and private property were obviously endangered by the feeble machinery of Federal government. Nevertheless, conditions had not become intolerable. The terrible cost of disunion in money, blood, humiliation, and hatred had not actually been paid. It might well have seemed cheaper to most Americans to drift on a little longer than to make the sacrifices and to undertake the labor demanded by the formation of an effective union. There were plenty of arguments by which a policy of letting things alone could be plausibly defended, and the precedents were all in its favor. Other people had acquired such political experience as they were capable of assimilating, first by drifting into some intolerable excess or some distressing error, and then by undergoing some violent process of purgation or reform. But it is the distinction of our own country that at the critical moment of its history, the policy of drift was stopped before a virulent disease had necessitated a violent and exhausting remedy.

This result was achieved chiefly by virtue of capable, energetic, and patriotic leadership. It is stated that if the Constitution had been subjected to a popular vote as soon as the labors of the Convention terminated, it would probably have been rejected in almost every state in the Union. That it was finally adopted, particularly by certain important states, was distinctly due to the conversion of public opinion, by means of powerful and convincing argument. The American people steered the proper course because their leaders convinced them of the proper course to steer; and the behavior of the many who followed behind is as exemplary as is that of the few who pointed the way. A better example could not be asked of the successful operation of the democratic institutions, and it would be as difficult to find its parallel in the history of our own as in the history of European countries.

FEDERALISM AND REPUBLICANISM AS OPPONENTS[edit]

Fortunately for the American nation the unionists, who wrought the Constitution, were substantially the same body of men as the Federalist party who organized under its provisions an efficient national government. The work of Washington, Hamilton, and their associates during the first two administrations was characterized by the same admirable qualities as the work of the makers of the Constitution, and it is of similar importance. A vigorous, positive, constructive national policy was outlined and carried substantially into effect,—a policy that implied a faith in the powers of an efficient government to advance the national interest, and which justified the faith by actually meeting the critical problems of the time with a series of wise legislative measures. Hamilton's part in this constructive legislation was, of course, more important than it had been in the framing of the Constitution. During Washington's two administrations the United States was governed practically by his ideas, if not by his will; and the sound and unsound parts of his political creed can consequently be more definitely disentangled than they can be during the years when the Constitution was being wrought. The Constitution was in many respects a compromise, whereas the ensuing constructive legislation was a tolerably pure example of Hamiltonian Federalism. It will be instructive, consequently, to examine the trend of this Hamiltonian policy, and seek to discover wherein it started the country on the right path, and wherein it sought to commit the national government to a more dubious line of action.

Hamilton's great object as Secretary of the Treasury was that of making the organization of the national finances serve the cause of a constructive national policy. He wished to strengthen the Federal government by a striking exhibition of its serviceability, and by creating both a strong sentiment and an influential interest in its favor. To this end he committed the nation to a policy of scrupulous financial honesty, which has helped to make it ever since the mainstay of sound American finance. He secured the consent of Congress to the recognition at their face value of the debts incurred during the war both by the Confederacy and by the individual states. He created in the National Bank an efficient fiscal agent for the Treasury Department and a means whereby it could give stability to the banking system of the country. Finally he sought by means of his proposed fiscal and commercial policy to make the central government the effective promoter of a wholesome and many-sided national development. He detected the danger to political stability and self-control which would result from the continued growth of the United States as a merely agricultural and trading community, and he saw that it was necessary to cultivate manufacturing industries and technical knowledge and training, because diversified activity and a well-rounded social and economic life brings with it national balance and security.

Underlying the several aspects of Hamilton's policy can be discerned a definite theory of governmental functions. The central government is to be used, not merely to maintain the Constitution, but to promote the national interest and to consolidate the national organization. Hamilton saw clearly that the American Union was far from being achieved when the Constitution was accepted by the states and the machinery of the Federal government set in motion. A good start had been made, but the way in which to keep what had been gained was to seek for more. Unionism must be converted into a positive policy which labored to strengthen the national interest and organization, discredit possible or actual disunionist ideas and forces, and increase the national spirit. All this implied an active interference with the natural course of American economic and political business and its regulation and guidance in the national direction. It implied a conscious and indefatigable attempt on the part of the national leaders to promote the national welfare. It implied the predominance in American political life of the men who had the energy and the insight to discriminate between those ideas and tendencies which promoted the national welfare, and those ideas and tendencies whereby it was imperiled. It implied, in fine, the perpetuation of the same kind of leadership which had guided the country safely through the dangers of the critical period, and the perpetuation of the purposes which inspired that leadership.

So far I, at least, have no fault to find with implications of Hamilton's Federalism, but unfortunately his policy was in certain other respects tainted with a more doubtful tendency. On the persistent vitality of Hamilton's national principle depends the safety of the American republic and the fertility of the American idea, but he did not seek a sufficiently broad, popular basis for the realization of those ideas. He was betrayed by his fears and by his lack of faith. Believing as he did, and far more than he had any right to believe, that he was still fighting for the cause of social stability and political order against the seven devils of anarchy and dissolution, he thought it necessary to bestow upon the central government the support of a strong special interest. During the Constitutional Convention he had failed to secure the adoption of certain institutions which in his opinion would have established as the guardian of the Constitution an aristocracy of ability; and he now insisted all the more upon the plan of attaching to the Federal government the support of well-to-do people. As we have seen, the Constitution had been framed and its adoption secured chiefly by citizens of education and means; and the way had been prepared, consequently, for the attempt of Hamilton to rally this class as a class more than ever to the support of the Federal government. They were the people who had most to lose by political instability or inefficiency, and they must be brought to lend their influence to the perpetuation of a centralized political authority. Hence he believed a considerable national debt to be a good thing for the Federal national interest, and he insisted strenuously upon the assumption by the Federal government of the state war-debts. He conceived the Constitution and the Union as a valley of peace and plenty which had to be fortified against the marauders by the heavy ramparts of borrowed money and the big guns of a propertied interest.

In so doing Hamilton believed that he was (to vary the metaphor) loading the ship of state with a necessary ballast, whereas in truth he was disturbing its balance and preventing it from sailing free. He succeeded in imbuing both men of property and the mass of the "plain people" with the idea that the well-to-do were the peculiar beneficiaries of the American Federal organization, the result being that the rising democracy came more than ever to distrust the national government. Instead of seeking to base the perpetuation of the Union upon the interested motives of a minority of well-to-do citizens, he would have been far wiser to have frankly intrusted its welfare to the good-will of the whole people. But unfortunately he was prevented from so doing by the limitation both of his sympathies and ideas. He was possessed by the English conception of a national state, based on the domination of special privileged orders and interests; and he failed to understand that the permanent support of the American national organization could not be found in anything less than the whole American democracy. The American Union was a novel and a promising political creation, not because it was a democracy, for there had been plenty of previous democracies, and not because it was a nation, for there had been plenty of previous nations, but precisely and entirely because it was a democratic nation,—a nation committed by its institutions and aspirations to realize the democratic idea.

Much, consequently, as we may value Hamilton's work and for the most part his ideas, it must be admitted that the popular disfavor with which he came to be regarded had its measure of justice. This disfavor was indeed partly the result of his resolute adherence to a wise but an unpopular foreign policy; and the way in which this policy was carried through by Washington, Hamilton, and their followers, in spite of the general dislike which it inspired, deserves the warmest praise. But Hamilton's unpopularity was fundamentally due to deeper causes. He and his fellow-Federalists did not understand their fellow-countrymen and sympathize with their purposes, and naturally they were repaid with misunderstanding and suspicion. He ceased, after Washington's retirement, to be a national leader, and became the leader of a faction; and before his death his party ceased to be the national party, and came to represent only a section and a class. In this way it irretrievably lost public support, and not even the miserable failure of Jefferson's policy of embargo could persuade the American people to restore the Federalists to power. As a party organization they disappeared entirely after the second English war, and unfortunately much that was good in Hamilton's political point of view disappeared with the bad. But by its failure one good result was finally established. For better or worse the United States had become a democracy as well as a nation, and its national task was not that of escaping the dangers of democracy, but of realizing its responsibilities and opportunities.

It did not take Hamilton's opponents long to discover that his ideas and plans were in some respects inimical to democracy; and the consequence was that Hamilton was soon confronted by one of the most implacable and unscrupulous oppositions which ever abused a faithful and useful public servant. This opposition was led by Jefferson, and while it most unfortunately lacked Hamilton's statesmanship and sound constructive ideas, it possessed the one saving quality which Hamilton himself lacked: Jefferson was filled with a sincere, indiscriminate, and unlimited faith in the American people. He was according to his own lights a radical and unqualified democrat, and as a democrat he fought most bitterly what he considered to be the aristocratic or even monarchic tendency of Hamilton's policy. Much of the denunciation which he and his followers lavished upon Hamilton was unjust, and much of the fight which they put up against his measures was contrary to the public welfare. They absolutely failed to give him credit for the patriotism of his intentions or for the merit of his achievements, and their unscrupulous and unfair tactics established a baleful tradition in American party warfare. But Jefferson was wholly right in believing that his country was nothing, if not a democracy, and that any tendency to impair the integrity of the democratic idea could be productive only of disaster.

Unfortunately Jefferson's conception of democracy was meager, narrow, and self-contradictory; and just because his ideas prevailed, while Hamilton toward the end of his life lost his influence, the consequences of Jefferson's imperfect conception of democracy have been much more serious than the consequences of Hamilton's inadequate conception of American nationality. In Jefferson's mind democracy was tantamount to extreme individualism. He conceived a democratic society to be composed of a collection of individuals, fundamentally alike in their abilities and deserts; and in organizing such a society, politically, the prime object was to provide for the greatest satisfaction of its individual members. The good things of life which had formerly been monopolized by the privileged few, were now to be distributed among all the people. It was unnecessary, moreover, to make any very artful arrangements, in order to effect an equitable distribution. Such distribution would take care of itself, provided nobody enjoyed any special privileges and everybody had equal opportunities. Once these conditions were secured, the motto of a democratic government should simply be "Hands Off." There should be as little government as possible, because persistent governmental interference implied distrust in popular efficiency and good-will; and what government there was, should be so far as possible confided to local authorities. The vitality of a democracy resided in its extremities, and it would be diminished rather than increased by specialized or centralized guidance. Its individual members needed merely to be protected against privileges and to be let alone, whereafter the native goodness of human nature would accomplish the perfect consummation.

Thus Jefferson sought an essentially equalitarian and even socialistic result by means of an essentially individualistic machinery. His theory implied a complete harmony both in logic and in effect between the idea of liberty and the idea of equality; and just in so far as there is any antagonism between those ideas, his whole political system becomes unsound and impracticable. Neither is there any doubt as to which of these ideas Jefferson and his followers really attached the more importance. Their mouths have always been full of the praise of liberty; and unquestionably they have really believed it to be the corner-stone of their political and social structure. None the less, however, is it true that in so far as any antagonism has developed in American life between liberty and equality, the Jeffersonian Democrats have been found on the side of equality. Representing as they did the democratic principle, it is perfectly natural and desirable that they should fight the battle of equality in a democratic state; and their error has been, not their devotion to equality, but their inability to discern wherein any antagonism existed between liberty and equality, and the extent to which they were sacrificing a desirable liberty to an undesirable equality.

On this, as on so many other points, Hamilton's political philosophy was much more clearly thought out than that of Jefferson. He has been accused by his opponents of being the enemy of liberty; whereas in point of fact, he wished, like the Englishman he was, to protect and encourage liberty, just as far as such encouragement was compatible with good order, because he realized that genuine liberty would inevitably issue in fruitful social and economic inequalities. But he also realized that genuine liberty was not merely a matter of a constitutional declaration of rights. It could be protected only by an energetic and clear-sighted central government, and it could be fertilized only by the efficient national organization of American activities. For national organization demands in relation to individuals a certain amount of selection, and a certain classification of these individuals according to their abilities and deserts. It is just this kind or effect of liberty which Jefferson and his followers have always disliked and discouraged. They have been loud in their praise of legally constituted rights; but they have shown an instinctive and an implacable distrust of intellectual and moral independence, and have always sought to suppress it in favor of intellectual and moral conformity. They have, that is, stood for the sacrifice of liberty—in so far as liberty meant positive intellectual and moral achievement—to a certain kind of equality.

I do not mean to imply by the preceding statement that either Jefferson or his followers were the conscious enemies of moral and intellectual achievement. On the contrary, they appeared to themselves in their amiable credulity to be the friends and guardians of everything admirable in human life; but their good intentions did not prevent them from actively or passively opposing positive intellectual and moral achievement, directed either towards social or individual ends. The effect of their whole state of mind was negative and fatalistic. They approved in general of everything approvable; but the things of which they actively approved were the things which everybody in general was doing. Their point of view implied that society and individuals could be made better without actually planning the improvement or building up an organization for the purpose; and this assertion brings me to the deepest-lying difference between Hamilton and Jefferson. Jefferson's policy was at bottom the old fatal policy of drift, whose distorted body was concealed by fair-seeming clothes, and whose ugly face was covered by a mask of good intentions. Hamilton's policy was one of energetic and intelligent assertion of the national good. He knew that the only method whereby the good could prevail either in individual or social life was by persistently willing that it should prevail and by the adoption of intelligent means to that end. His vision of the national good was limited; but he was absolutely right about the way in which it was to be achieved.

Hamilton was not afraid to exhibit in his own life moral and intellectual independence. He was not afraid to incur unpopularity for pursuing what he believed to be a wise public policy, and the general disapprobation under which he suffered during the last years of his life, while it was chiefly due, as we have seen, to his distrust of the American democracy, was also partly due to his high conception of the duties of leadership. Jefferson, on the other hand, afforded an equally impressive example of the statesman who assiduously and intentionally courted popular favor. It was, of course, easy for him to court popular favor, because he understood the American people extremely well and really sympathized with them; but he never used the influence which he thereby obtained for the realization of any positive or formative purpose, which might be unpopular. His policy, while in office, was one of fine phrases and temporary expedients, some of which necessarily incurred odium, but none of which were pursued by him or his followers with any persistence. Whatever the people demanded, their leaders should perform, including, if necessary, a declaration of war against England. It was to be a government of and by the people, not a government for the people by popular but responsible leaders; and the leaders to whom the people delegated their authority had in theory no right to pursue an unpopular policy. The people were to guide their leaders, not their leaders the people; and any intellectual or moral independence and initiative on the part of the leaders in a democracy was to be condemned as undemocratic. The representatives of a Sovereign people were in the same position as the courtiers of an absolute monarch. It was their business to flatter and obey.

FEDERALISM AND REPUBLICANISM AS ALLIES[edit]

It is not surprising, consequently, that Jefferson, who had been a lion in opposition, was transformed by the assumption of power into a lamb. Inasmuch as he had been denouncing every act of the Federalists since the consummation of the Union as dangerous to American liberties or as inimical to the public welfare, it was to be anticipated, when he and his party assumed office, that they would seek both to tear down the Federalist structure and rear in its place a temple of the true Republican faith. Not only did nothing of the kind follow, but nothing of the kind was even attempted. Considering the fulminations of the Republicans during the last ten years of Federalist domination, Jefferson's first Inaugural is a bewildering document. The recent past, which had but lately been so full of dangers, was ignored; and the future, the dangers of which were much more real, was not for the moment considered. Jefferson was sworn in with his head encircled by a halo of beautiful phrases; and he and his followers were so well satisfied with this beatific vision that they entirely overlooked the desirability of redeeming their own past or of providing for their country's future. Sufficient unto the day was the popularity thereof. The Federalists themselves must be conciliated, and the national organization achieved by them is by implication accepted. The Federalist structure, so recently the prison of the free American spirit, becomes itself a large part of the temple of democracy. The Union is no longer inimical to liberty. For the first time we begin to hear from good Republican mouths, some sacred words about the necessary connection of liberty and union. Jefferson celebrated his triumph by adopting the work, if not the creed, of his adversaries.

The adoption by Jefferson and the Republicans of the political structure of their opponents is of an importance hardly inferior to that of the adoption of the Constitution by the states. It was the first practical indication that democracy and Federalism were not as radically antagonistic as their extreme partisans had believed; and it was also the first indication that the interests which were concealed behind the phrases of the two parties were not irreconcilable. When the democracy rallied to the national organization, the American state began to be a democratic nation. The alliance was as yet both fragile and superficial. It was founded on a sacrifice by the two parties, not merely of certain errors and misconceptions, but also of certain convictions, which had been considered essential. The Republicans tacitly admitted the substantial falsity of their attacks upon the Federal organization. The many Federalists who joined their opponents abandoned without scruple the whole spirit and purpose of the Hamiltonian national policy. But at any rate the reconciliation was accomplished. The newly founded American state was for the time being saved from the danger of being torn asunder by two rival factions, each representing irreconcilable ideas and interests. The Union, which had been celebrated in 1789, was consummated in 1801. Its fertility was still to be proved.

When Jefferson and the Republicans rallied to the Union and to the existing Federalist organization, the fabric of traditional American democracy was almost completely woven. Thereafter the American people had only to wear it and keep it in repair. The policy announced in Jefferson's first Inaugural was in all important respects merely a policy of conservatism. The American people were possessed of a set of political institutions, which deprived them of any legitimate grievances and supplied them with every reasonable opportunity; and their political duty was confined to the administration of these institutions in a faithful spirit and their preservation from harm. The future contained only one serious danger. Such liberties were always open to attack, and there would always be designing men whose interest it was to attack them. The great political responsibility of the American democracy was to guard itself against such assaults; and should they succeed in this task they need have no further concern about their future. Their political salvation was secure. They had placed it, as it were, in a good sound bank. It would be sure to draw interest provided the bank were conservatively managed—that is, provided it were managed by loyal Republicans. There was no room or need for any increase in the fund, because it already satisfied every reasonable purpose. But it must not be diminished; and it must not be exposed to any risk of diminution by hazardous speculative investments.

During the next fifty years, the American democracy accepted almost literally this Jeffersonian tradition. Until the question of slavery became acute, they ceased to think seriously about political problems. The lawyers were preoccupied with certain important questions of constitutional interpretation, which had their political implications; but the purpose of these expositions of our fundamental law was the affirmation, the consolidation, and towards the end, the partial restriction of the existing Federalist organization. In this as in other respects the Americans of the second and third generations were merely preserving what their fathers had wrought. Their political institutions were good, in so far as they were not disturbed. They might become bad, only in case they were perverted. The way to guard against such perversion was, of course, to secure the election of righteous democrats. From the traditional American point of view, it was far more important to get the safe candidates elected than it was to use the power so obtained for any useful political achievement. In the hands of unsafe men,—that is, one's political opponents,—the government might be perverted to dangerous uses, whereas in the hands of safe men, it could at best merely be preserved in safety. Misgovernment was a greater danger than good government was a benefit, because good government, particularly on the part of Federal officials, consisted, apart from routine business, in letting things alone. Thus the furious interest, which the good American took in getting himself and his associates elected, could be justified by reasons founded on the essential nature of the traditional political system.

The good American democrat had, of course, another political duty besides that of securing the election of himself and his friends. His political system was designed, not merely to deprive him of grievances, but to offer him superlative opportunities. In taking the utmost advantage of those opportunities, he was not only fulfilling his duty to himself, but he was helping to realize the substantial purpose of democracy. Just as it was the function of the national organization to keep itself undefiled and not to interfere, so it was his personal function to make hay while the sun was shining. The triumph of Jefferson and the defeat of Hamilton enabled the natural individualism of the American people free play. The democratic political system was considered tantamount in practice to a species of vigorous, licensed, and purified selfishness. The responsibilities of the government were negative; those of the individual were positive. And it is no wonder that in the course of time his positive responsibilities began to look larger and larger. This licensed selfishness became more domineering in proportion as it became more successful. If a political question arose, which in any way interfered with his opportunities, the good American began to believe that his democratic political machine was out of gear. Did Abolitionism create a condition of political unrest, and interfere with good business, then Abolitionists were wicked men, who were tampering with the ark of the Constitution; and in much the same way the modern reformer, who proposes policies looking toward a restriction in the activity of corporations and stands in the way of the immediate transaction of the largest possible volume of business, is denounced as un-American. These were merely crude ways of expressing the spirit of traditional American democracy,—which was that of a rampant individualism, checked only by a system of legally constituted rights. The test of American national success was the comfort and prosperity of the individual; and the means to that end,—a system of unrestricted individual aggrandizement and collective irresponsibility.

The alliance between Federalism and democracy on which this traditional system was based, was excellent in many of its effects; but unfortunately it implied on the part of both the allies a sacrifice of political sincerity and conviction. And this sacrifice was more demoralizing to the Republicans than to the Federalists, because they were the victorious party. A central government, constructed on the basis of their democratic creed, would have been a government whose powers were smaller, more rigid, and more inefficiently distributed than those granted under our Federal Constitution—as may be seen from the various state constitutions subsequently written under Jeffersonian influence. When they obtained power either they should have been faithful to their convictions and tried to modify the Federal machinery in accordance therewith, or they should have modified their ideas in order to make them square with their behavior. But instead of seriously and candidly considering the meaning of their own actions, they opened their mouths wide enough to swallow their own past and then deliberately shut their eyes. They accepted the national organization as a fact and as a condition of national safety; but they rejected it as a lesson in political wisdom, and as an implicit principle of political action. By so doing they began that career of intellectual lethargy, superficiality, and insincerity which ever since has been characteristic of official American political thought.

This lack of intellectual integrity on the part of the American democracy both falsified the spirit in which our institutions had originated, and seriously compromised their future success. The Union had been wrought by virtue of vigorous, responsible, and enterprising leadership, and of sound and consistent political thinking. It was to be perpetuated by a company of men, who disbelieved in enterprising and responsible leadership, and who had abandoned and tended to disparage anything but the most routine political ideas. The American people, after passing through a period of positive achievement, distinguished in all history for the powerful application of brains to the solution of an organic political problem—the American people, after this almost unprecedented exhibition of good-will and good judgment, proceeded to put a wholly false interpretation on their remarkable triumph. They proceeded, also, to cultivate a state of mind which has kept them peculiarly liable to intellectual ineptitude and conformity. The mixture of optimism, conservatism, and superficiality, which has until recently characterized their political point of view, has made them almost blind to the true lessons of their own national experience.

The best that can be said on behalf of this traditional American system of political ideas is that it contained the germ of better things. The combination of Federalism and Republicanism which formed the substance of the system, did not constitute a progressive and formative political principle, but it pointed in the direction of a constructive formula. The political leaders of the "era of good feeling" who began to use with some degree of conviction certain comely phrases about the eternal and inseparable alliance between "liberty and union" were looking towards the promised land of American democratic fulfillment. As we shall see, the kind of liberty and the kind of union which they had in mind were by no means indissolubly and inseparably united; and both of these words had to be transformed from a negative and legal into a positive moral and social meaning before the boasted alliance could be anything but precarious and sterile. But if for liberty we substitute the word democracy, which means something more than liberty, and if for union, we substitute the phrase American nationality, which means so much more than a legal union, we shall be looking in the direction of a fruitful alliance between two supplementary principles. It can, I believe, be stated without qualification that wherever the nationalist idea and tendency has been divided from democracy, its achievements have been limited and partially sterilized. It can also be stated that the separation of the democratic idea from the national principle and organization has issued not merely in sterility, but in moral and political mischief. All this must remain mere assertion for the present; but I shall hope gradually to justify these assertions by an examination of the subsequent course of American political development.