Lippincott's Monthly Magazine/Volume 92/July 1913/When History Repeats

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By Willard French

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We have been accustomed to revere the Constitution of the United States as the great instrument to which we owe our national stability and integrity, at home and abroad. Safe-guarded by its restrictions, we have developed, in a little more than a century, from three million struggling colonists to a nation of ninety millions of the most peaceful and prosperous people on earth. But for a while past certain politicians have been proclaiming that whatever is is wrong; that every evil which has crept into our system, every failure of legislative or judicial representative to maintain the highest standard, is the result of our adherence to an inadequate and obsolete Constitution, hampering and retarding our national progress.

Since the dawn of history, popular agitation has been a remunerative occupation; and increasing throngs of followers have in turn inspired the leaders, till their claims and promises have overtaken and outstripped even Nihilists and Socialists; drawing them into the new faith that the initiative, the referendum, the recall, placing us in direct control of every function of government will make us kings and princes all.

There are many seductive features in their arguments, especially tempting to those who have not yet learned by bitter experience to doubt the too obvious. Very few of us ever studied the Constitution. Probably not one in ten thousand of the legal voters of the United States ever read the document intelligently or has more than the vaguest notion of how it came to be and what it really is. And when we are told that it is only a set of regulations prepared for three million simple farm-folk, long before steam and electricity and other modern notions were heard of, it seems reasonable to believe that it can hardly be minutely applicable and helpful to ninety millions of people in the midst of the twentieth century. Yet we should be slow to admit that "Thou shalt not kill," and "Thou shalt not steal," are inapplicable, because the Ten Commandments were prepared for a handful of ignorant Hebrews wandering in a wilderness, four thousand years ago.

The science of human duty does not change, and the better we study the new proposition, the more sinister its features seem; while the more we consider the Constitution, the better we are convinced that it was more than a temporary prop to federate a few colonies of victorious revolutionists; that it is, indeed, the concrete ethics evolved from the governmental wisdom of all past ages; from the experience of all the other nations, which came slowly from barbarism, through periods of despotic tyranny, solving their problems as they presented themselves, till they eventually developed the systems of to-day—systems of monarchies so set about with restrictions that more than one sovereign has materially less power than the President of the United States.

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That a nation cannot exist without some kind of a sovereign head, even Socialists and Anarchists must admit. But unless the sovereign head is so restricted that it must be subservient to the welfare of the whole people, it is pure and simple despotism. That, too, we all admit. Americans understand this perfectly in its application to foreign nations. We approve the necessity and appreciate the value of every law curbing the power of kings. If we could only understand the application of the same principle at home, we should realize the cause, the quality, and the value of the Constitution.

We had no past. We did not develop from barbarism. In modern times we sprang suddenly into being—a sovereign nation, of automatic necessity possessing a sovereign head. In repudiating all semblance of monarchy and establishing a republic, we, the people, all of the people, jointly and equally became the sovereign head of the nation. We are this to-day, and always have been, irrespective of the Constitution; and such we shall be until we surrender our individual rights through a representative government to the direct autocratic domination of a majority of votes cast into ballot-boxes.

The Constitution did not make us. We made the Constitution—and we can unmake it. We made it because it was self-evident that, even more than a king, the people—the sovereign head of a republic—must be restrained from the abuse of power or inevitably fall into the worst of all forms of despotic tyranny—the spasmodic dictatorship of fluctuating majorities.

Even if a majority was always right—which is so far from true that it is often a misguided mob—the minority still has some rights; and by all that is just in heaven and on earth that minority, though but a single individual, the poorest, most unpopular mortal in the land, should be protected in those rights, against the despotic tyranny of any imaginable majority. Else why do we disapprove of lynching? It is only the initiative and referendum—the autocratic rule of the majority.

Therefore the Constitution.

The Constitution is a declaration of general principles, mutually agreed upon, and of the method by which the will of the whole people shall be deliberately crystallized into law, and the law be impartially enforced. It is a pledge which we made with one another at the start, that, whatever happens, the lives, the liberty, and the possessions of the whole people and the rights of every individual shall be sacred, under law. It is a curb which we voluntarily placed upon ourselves, directly intended to preclude a temporary majority from abusing the sovereign power which is equally vested in us all. It is an arrangement of governmental machinery devised for the express purpose of preventing impulsive, ill-considered, hasty action from overruling the real will of the people and ignoring the rights of the minority. It is a compact made in advance, by which we agree that when moments of passion come, moments of excitement, moments of bitter prejudices, we will then restrain ourselves, ignoring the temptation which will always present itself to the party numerically in power to indulge in drastic measures for the benefit of the majority.

It is not difficult to appreciate the desirability of such a compact, either for three millions or for ninety millions, whether in the eighteenth or the twentieth century. The basic principle of international arbitration is precisely the same. We earnestly advocate such a compact between nations, because we know that the result will be world-peace, in perpetuity; yet we are deliberately abrogating the theory among ourselves when, just as surely, the result can be only disorder and chaos.

We repudiate the Constitution—the whole theory of deliberation, judicial and legislative, upon which the Constitution is founded—when, like Phaeton, we grasp the reins of government, demanding direct control, through initiative, referendum, and recall. We forget that for more than a century we have lived in security, hardly even conscious of the great governmental agencies protecting us; enjoying "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," subject only to such restrictions as enabled others to do the same. Yielding to the exhortations of agitators, we demand that a majority of voters at the polls shall have the power of enacting and repealing laws and manipulating judges and judicial decisions.

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It is reasonable to believe that we never should have thought of it had we not been prodded by the thrilling tongues and pens of politicians; and it is reasonable to believe that they would not have done the prodding had there not been behind their eloquence the consciousness that in "downing the bosses," for example, they were really establishing a more sinister and effective machine for the manufacture of apparent public opinion; that "Let the people rule!" meant the creation of a condition in which the whole country could be easily ruled by a few—by the small number constituting the difference between a majority and a minority—whom those at the helm could manipulate to their own advantage. It is a reasonable conclusion because no other result of unlimited initiative, referendum, and recall was ever possible.

The Constitution already provides for the initiative, the referendum, and the recall, only under restrictions which insure deliberation and tend to secure justice. The direct result of the new method is to obliterate these safeguards of the minority. Every evil which has crept into our system can be eradicated under the Constitution as it stands, or if it is desirable to change it, there is but one clause of the Constitution which is not itself subject to recall or amendment, if it is the concerted and deliberate wish of the people. Restrained and protected by its limitations, the people rule to-day more truly, more justly, and much more wisely than can be possible in a direct government by majorities disclosed by the ballot-box.

Our hearts have been filled with hopes of an impossible Utopia. These vaunted remedial measures are a denial of ages of human experience. All of them have been tested, over and again, in the past. They have always failed, and their failures have carried nations to destruction. Every one of them is and always has been at war with all that is best and sound and preservative in every governmental policy on earth. There is nothing new in them. They are older than Christianity, and every effort to introduce them has resulted—as it will result with us—in the unrestrainable despotism of any temporary majority which can be roused by the strident voice of a successful agitator. It means nothing less than anarchy. It means that instead of being a free and independent people, we shall be hopelessly ignored, without even a court of justice to defend us in our human rights, whenever we happen to be in the minority.

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And right here we must not fail to realize our great mass of alien voters, poorly able to speak any language, who take advantage of our dangerously generous suffrage laws. Under the new system, especially in large cities, they will frequently be the effective power at the polls—the sovereign power, by producing a majority—making and administering our laws and regulating our courts by their ballots; cast according to the commands of those who touch their tempers or fill their pockets. The sovereign power will no longer be the people, but any and every apparent majority at the polls. The ballot will no longer be restricted to the selection of representatives upon whom must rest the responsibility of legislation, but it will be in absolute command, making and repealing laws, freed even from the possibility of veto or appeal.

The door is opened wide. Observing a few preliminary regulations, any one who will may present to the people any problem which the ingenuity and ambition of interested individuals may devise, or any complicated question which shrewd politicians can construct. In Congress such questions are proposed in the shape of bills and referred to appropriate committees. There they are carefully discussed, considered from various angles, amended and guarded, and finally reported to the House, favorably or adversely, to be debated and voted upon. If the vote is favorable the bill is then sent to the Senate, where it is again referred to a committee for further investigation and amendment, before it comes before the Senate for more debate, changes, eliminations, and amendments; till in the deliberate judgement of both bodies it is the best expression possible of the wish of the whole people. Then it is voted upon by the Senate, and after that it must go to the President for his veto or signature. The sins are legion which can secrete themselves under the robes of righteous-looking little bills. The shrewdest and best of our statesmen sometimes fail to find them all. But under the new system the bill is presented directly to the people, and with no better preparation than they can obtain from paid articles in newspapers and paid orators on the stump, with no power or opportunity to qualify or amend, they must go to the polls and solve the problem by answering with a direct "yes" or "no" upon a secret ballot, overruling legislatures and making and repealing laws with a verdict from which there is no appeal.

For example: in one State, during the first year after the adoption of the initiative and referendum, every law which the legislature passed was referred to the people and repealed by a majority vote; while every law which the legislature refused to pass was referred to the people and passed, over the head of the legislature—a legislature elected by the votes of those same people and generally reëlected by them the following year. In another State, a statesman opposed to the new system was addressing a large political gathering. He said: "In a few days you are to vote upon five important amendments to your State constitution. I will not ask you to explain those amendments, but if there is one man in this audience who can simply tell me, now, what those five amendments are, I will withdraw my opposition." He waited in vain. There was not a single man present who could even name the five constitutional amendments upon which he was to cast his vote within the next few days.

Few people are interested in many public questions. They have not the time or inclination to study them. How can they? We may, in pardonable egotism, consider ourselves capable of solving some problems offhand, but few would declare themselves able to answer all questions. Under this new system, however, we must be ready to trust every man who is able to slip through our lax registration laws to answer every question which can be proposed; and we must abide by a majority of one, without the power of appeal. Many questions can be and will be put which it will be utterly impossible for an honest, intelligent man to answer with an unqualified yes or no. And yet the ballot-box is the supreme legislative instrument wherever unrestricted initiative, referendum, and recall are introduced. It is appalling.

Why do stockholders in banks and large corporations meet once a year and elect high-salaried officials to conduct the business, and a board of directors to sit in oversight, then drop the matter, satisfied that they have done their best for good dividends? That is representative government. It is the only way in which the affairs of a corporation or a nation can be successfully conducted.

Imagine the impossible. A great corporation, doing an intricate and complicated business all over the world, with thousands of stockholders scattered over the entire country, the great majority, numerically, being very small investors, from among the poor and illiterate. This corporation announces that every shareholder is to have one vote, irrespective of the amount of this holding; that any one has the privilege, whenever he will, of proposing any change in existing methods of doing business, or new regulations, or what he will; that in thirty days all the stockholders who care to can vote yes or no to the proposition, and that the majority of votes thus cast shall render the proposition an absolute law of the corporation, though in direct defiance of the best judgment of every officer and member of the board of directors, and though not a quarter of the stockholders took the trouble to vote at all, and the great majority of those who did vote knew absolutely nothing about the business of the corporation beyond the fact that they held a share of the stock and were entitled to a vote.

Who would invest large sums of money in such a corporation? Who would not know that no matter how colossal its business and substantial its credit had become previous to the new order, only chaos and ruin could be before it under such management? That would be government by initiative and referendum, and no nation or corporation could long exist under the system.

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In the United States Senate a Senator of great wealth, chairman of an important committee, a man of quick insight and clear comprehension, during the last two sessions was officially asked by a member of the Cabinet to permit a bill of possibly twenty words to go before the Senate for consideration, from his committee. It was the simplest proposition which English words could frame, entailing no expense, but permitting the Department to afford a valuable public facility. For a year this Senator was importuned to give the matter attention, but he replied to every one that while he was not opposed to the measure and should probably favor it when he could give it due consideration, he was not willing to place the proposition before the Senate for debate and discussion until he had taken ample time to consider and investigate and carefully assure himself concerning it.

Therein he was probably correct and properly guarding the interests of the country; but the curious thing about it is this: He was among the charter advocates and is, and always has been, one of the most vigorous supporters of the initiative, the referendum, etc. He believes—or professes to believe—that if that same proposition, or one infinitely more complex, sinister, and serious, were presented to his constituents, without any opportunity to discuss, debate, change, or investigate, they are every one of them capable of replying within thirty days, with an unqualified yes or no, which shall be unalterable and imperative; while a year has been too short a time for him, with nothing else to do but to consider such matters, and with every facility, to be willing even to present the question to the Senate for further consideration. He is not alone in this inconsistency. Between the preaching and the practice of many leaders of the new system there is a great gulf.

Wherever the system has been tested, thus far, the results show that those interested in the legislation will secure the mass of ignorant votes, and that those not interested will simply remain away from the polls, leaving those who are opposed in a small minority. Exceptional questions—broad questions of prohibition, for example—questions in which people generally are interested and upon which most people have a preconceived opinion, have secured fairly large votes. But the great majority of matters referred to the people has met a response from only a decided minority of the people for whom they speak. The condition will not improve as the novelty wears off; but a small majority of a constantly dwindling minority of the registered voters will govern this country, absolutely in the interests of those in a position to instigate legislation—in the interests of bosses and machines improved and perfected by the new system.

Illusive hope was held out to us that the preferential primaries would give us also the direct power to nominate candidates of our choice; but on entering the voting booth we find a list of names, as usual; only that before they were the names of men who had at least some claim to public attention, while now they simply represent men who want the office, who have paid certain fees and secured a certain number of names on a petition to put themselves up for nomination, regardless of personal fitness or even of personal popularity. For instances are abundant of men who have failed to secure as many votes at the polls as they had obtained names on their preliminary petitions.

But the worst phase of this feature of the new system is that its requirements of would-be candidates are so obnoxious to self-respecting men that the names of those best fitted for public offices will soon disappear entirely from primary ballots. Already, whenever the new system has been tested, it is reported that the percentage of voters has decreased and the personnel of candidates deteriorated. It is inevitable.

There was truth in the old adage that the office should seek the man. Men worthy of office will not stump for themselves through a preferential primary campaign, begging the populace to put their names in nomination. It is reasonable when a man has been nominated by his party and has the obligation thrown upon him to defend its interests; but it is repugnant to any man worthy of public respect to enter the arena with a lot of self-named office-seekers to plead for votes just to get himself nominated.

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We are accustomed to feel that we have demonstrated to the world that self-government is practical and productive of unparalleled prosperity. As a matter of fact, with the phenomenal surface riches of her vicinage, up to the present our country would have been phenominally prosperous under any reasonable form of government. But it is to the Constitution, preventing our becoming a despotism of fluctuating majorities, that we owe our dignity abroad, and the fact that at home we have remained "one and inseparable." If the cry is true that the people are deprived of their rights, then we have not demonstrated it. If it is a fact that the Constitution is inadequate and oppressive, we have almost demonstrated the contrary. If we are ready to throw off the restrictions and make the temporary majority the sovereign head of the nation, then we have not only failed in the demonstration, but we are riding to our fall as did the republics of Greece and Rome when they inaugurated the same system, centuries before Christ. Shall we turn from the way we have been following so successfully into a bypath which through all history has led only to anarchy and chaos? Shall we barter a birthright for a mess of pottage? Shall we permit History to repeat its saddest pages to pamper a few personal ambitions?

There have always been those who, with Alexander Hamilton, doubted the invulnerable stability of a republican form of government, for the simple reason that the people, being the sovereign power, could unmake as easily as they made the saving compact, surrendering their sovereignty to the unrestricted tyranny of majorities, thereby signing their own death-warrant.

Is it possible that instead of demonstrating to the world that a republic is possible, we are really demonstrating that Alexander Hamilton was right?

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.