Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/March 1882/Editor's Table
IT would be hard to name two subjects which, in the general apprehension, are further removed from each other than those associated in this title. That science may in some way have possible relations with government and politics is vaguely believed by many, because they often hear the expressions "science of government," "political science," etc. But, as nothing is ever heard of any such thing as "party science," political partisans naturally conclude that, whoever else may be disturbed by this intrusive influence, they, at all events, may give themselves no trouble about having to reckon with it. But they repose in a false security As civilization goes on and the laws of its progress are better understood, it will be found that science has more and more to do with government, and, therefore, with the methods and practices by which government is administered.
This matter is dealt with incidentally in the able article of Professor Goldwin Smith, on "The Machinery of Elective Government," herewith reprinted, and which will repay attentive perusal. The writer has familiarized himself with the workings of the elective system, in various conditions and in its most advanced forms, as illustrated in England, Canada, and the United States, and he discusses it with the discrimination of a critical observer, and the freedom of an independent student of public affairs, who is but little trammeled by patriotic prejudice. The import of the question at the present time is thus stated: "The era of elective government has come, and in the wise ordering of it so as to give public reason the upper hand, and to reduce, as far as possible, the influence of passion, class interest, selfish ambition, faction, and corruption, lies the political hope of the world."
But Professor Smith then proceeds to show that, though the era has arrived, the thing it has brought is very different from the thing expected. It was long believed that if the rule of monarchs could be got rid of, and the rule of the people established, all the evils of bad government would be swept away. But experience has not justified this pleasing anticipation. The king has disappeared, and the people are assumed to be sovereign, but misgovernment continues, with even an aggravation of some of its worst vices. Our country revolted against hereditary rule, and put in its place elective government by the people; but, instead of a true elective system, giving fair expression to the popular will, we have got party government ruling systematically by caucus machinery, and defeating both the will of the people and the proper objects for which government exists.
Professor Smith characterizes government by party as a vicious agency, and enforces his view by convincing illustrations of its working in different circumstances; he also points out the policy which he thinks will have to be adopted if the evils of the system are to be abated or remedied. Of this policy we express no opinion: what most concern us here are the defenses that are offered for the continuance of party government; and our interest in these defenses is chiefly because of the scientific considerations they involve.
We are told that political parties are the necessary means of carrying on free popular government, and that they are but combinations of men united to achieve important measures of national policy. The vindication of party by Edmund Burke has become classical, and Professor Smith quotes him as thus defining it: "Party is a body united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon some particular principle on which all are agreed." 1 But this ideal of a political party is far enough from corresponding to the present reality; and it is an ideal now becoming increasingly impossible of realization. Instead of rallying around principles and carrying them out to victorious application, our parties eliminate them as incumbrances and impediments to success. In popular politics, questions of principle have been found simply "unavailable." Questions of political principle are never raised except to be settled, reduced to practice, and passed by. Conflicts of this kind must be ever coming to an end; but the end of conflict is the death of the parties to it. By the instinct of self-preservation, therefore, political parties will not identify themselves with transient measures the success of which destroys them. Politicians want perpetual power, and, although they talk principles abundantly in their convention-platforms, it is only for effect—they are not to be hampered by them.
But there are other and deeper reasons why questions of principle can not be made the basis of party government, and reasons to which every succeeding year lends additional force. The theory implies that there are, and will always continue to be, great issues of practical moment on which the people will so divide as to perpetuate the party system. But there is by no means an interminable supply of such fundamental questions as will serve the purpose; and as we have seen, under an honest pursuit of the policy, they become fewer and fewer. Professor Smith assures us that in Canada the stock of serious political issues is already exhausted, and that consequently "the two parties there are simply two factions fighting for place with the usual weapons, and poisoning the political character of the people in the process." But, if we have similar results in this country, it is certainly not from lack of paramount questions of public interest not yet settled. The difficulty is, that the community can not be bisected on such questions, as required by practical partisanship. That system demands that the people shall be divided, and remain divided into proximately equal parts that shall be totally opposed to each other, one half denying all that the other half affirms. It is founded upon disagreement, and implies that radical and comprehensive disagreement shall be the normal and permanent thing.
But it is no longer possible to constitute political parties on this basis. The whole tendency of modern ideas is in the opposite direction. The scientific spirit of the age is a force to be here counted on, and it is an agency that leads men to agreement. The increase of knowledge and the progress of intelligence, by settling principles and harmonizing opinions, must more and more disconcert party arrangements. As men learn to think for themselves, and prize truth as the object of honest thought, they will not range themselves on questions of principle in ways to suit party manipulators. No man can study political and social principles in the true scientific spirit without acquiring earnest and conscientious convictions, which will make him more and more revolt against the insincerity and utter hollowness of our partisan politics. There may be scientific men who are also party politicians; but it will generally be found that in such cases their science is far removed from the sphere of political thought.
The scientific spirit is, therefore, in broad and clear antagonism to the partisan spirit in politic-, and, as the law of science is progress, who shall assure us that this is not the agency that may ultimately destroy the pernicious system now so widely deplored, but from which escape is generally held to be most hopeless? Professor Smith well observes: "Such an agreement as would be fatal to the standing organization of civil discord is by no means out of the question; to it tends the advance of political science and the scientific spirit generally, which, gradually making its way in all spheres, is not likely to leave politics untouched. . . . In fine, as has been already said, the best and indeed the only possible form of government, if the advocates of party are to be believed, is one, the foundation of which must inevitably be weakened by every advance of the public intelligence, and which the attainment of truth on the great political questions will bring utterly to the ground."
In that great work of popular education to which the present age is committed, the importance of books and libraries is sufficiently recognized, although the practical measures for making these instrumentalities available are, as yet, far from being perfected. The object has hitherto been, rather to get together extensive collections of books, with as many as possible that are rare and expensive, and place them in monumental buildings, that may be at the same time ornaments to the town and memorials of the munificence of founders and donors. Such institutions are invaluable, but they are by no means adequate to do the most important work which libraries are capable of accomplishing. They meet the wants of scholars, of people of leisure and cultivation, and they are also generally available to all classes who prize books sufficiently to take a certain amount of trouble in obtaining them. But there is a very large portion of the population in cities who from various causes are practically hindered from making use of these large libraries. To multitudes the expense of membership is a serious objection, and there are other multitudes who are both capable of reading and willing to read, but who do not care enough about it to make the little effort necessary to render such libraries useful to them. They are indifferent, perhaps dull, and can only be reached by removing every possible impediment to the procurement of books; and it is this class, moreover, which most needs the improvement that may be obtained by habitual reading. Of our common school system this, at any rate, may be said, that it teaches the mass of the people to read, and thus brings them to a point where further cultivation is possible; but if it has been necessary to resort to compulsory education to overcome the disinclination for even learning to read, it is surely a matter of moment to make the utmost possible provision for the general encouragement of the habit of reading as a means of continued mental cultivation.
Influenced by such considerations, a few persons have recently combined, in New York, to take an efficient step in this direction. They began in a small and experimental way, but the results of the trial they have made have been in a high degree satisfactory and promising. Rooms were taken in Bond Street, and a few books collected—some by purchase and some by donations—to be lent out free of expense to anybody and everybody who wished them, the only requirement being that some reference should be given, to satisfy the librarian that the borrower had a fixed residence. It was no sooner known that books were thus obtainable, than the applications for them increased until they met the full measure of the supply, and the effort was proved in every respect successful. In the report of the trustees, recently issued, it is said:
So unexpected and so encouraging are these results that they have naturally created a desire to extend the benefits of the undertaking, and it has accordingly been proposed to carry out the plan systematically by the establishment of free circulating libraries in various parts of the city, so as to make them readily accessible to all the population. In regard to this project, it is further remarked in the report:
In furtherance of this idea, a public meeting was recently held in the ball of the Union League Club, presided over by the mayor, in which several of our most eminent public men made interesting addresses upon the subject. Dr. Hall gave the project his cordial approbation, and spoke ably and impressively of the need there is to carry out, on a liberal scale, an enterprise that will be productive of great good and of good alone. He referred to the discontent and agitation among the poorer and laboring classes which are liable to take a dangerous form under the misguiding influence of visionary social theorists, and for which the only remedy is the wider diffusion of sound information among the people. Mr. Joseph Choate also spoke effectively in behalf of the enterprise. He called emphatic attention to the destitution of wholesome reading-matter on the part of the great mass of the city population, and which is but very partially realized by people who have been brought up in the midst of a superfluous abundance of books. He showed how inadequate, and impracticable for popular use, are our present library facilities, and he made a vigorous appeal for the opening of the free circulating libraries on Sunday—the only leisure day of the working-classes, and the day on which they are most exposed to the temptation of questionable places of resort. Other speakers followed, urging the claims of this popular library system upon the attention of men of wealth, and asking for it so generous a support that the trustees will be able to carry out their plan promptly and effectively.
The death of Dr. Bellows, so unexpected, and while yet apparently in the full vigor of his remarkable powers, is not only a painful shock to his numerous friends, but will he widely felt as a public calamity. He has been for many years prominent and influential in the management of important philanthropic movements, and he has also been the virtual head of perhaps the most cultivated, and certainly the most liberal, of the religious denominations of the country. We have no design here to give any account of his life and labors, the task having been already well performed by the newspaper press. But there was one aspect of his mental character to which it may be proper for us to bear testimony.
Dr. Bellows was a man of great independence of thought, and, though practically the leader of a religious sect, and profoundly interested in maintaining and extending its organizations, he was yet deeply interested in the most radical tendencies of inquiry. He sympathized with the spirit of thorough-going research in every field of investigation, with an assured faith that, so long as truth is earnestly sought, the results must always be beneficent and valuable. In a very recent conversation with him, he spoke of having read with great pleasure, and a very considerable degree of accord, the new work of Renan, "Marcus Aurelius," the last of that author's series on the "Origins of Christianity." He also referred to Spencer's "Data of Ethics," which he had carefully read at the time of its appearance, and expressed much interest in the author's further elucidation of the subject. He said, in substance: "I accept that work as a very important contribution to ethical science, and I am fundamentally in agreement with it. There are parts of it that need further clearing up, and that I could better appreciate if I were more familiar with the scientific evidence of the doctrine of evolution. But Spencer's main position, that morality must be grounded in nature, and its principles confirmed by an extending knowledge of nature, it seems to me, is impregnable; and he has certainly gone far toward constructing a stable basis of ethical doctrine."
We mention these facts to show that Dr. Bellows did not share the alarm felt by many at the progress of rationalism; that he was hospitable to advanced opinions, even in his own sphere of thought, and welcomed and prized them as hopeful indications of a sound and healthful progress in the higher departments of philosophic inquiry.