Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/December 1891/Editor's Table
FORTY years ago or less the apostle of the hour was Carlyle, the fashionable gospel was the gospel of force, and the hope of the world was supposed to lie in the advent of certain heroes, strong, resolute men, who were to heal our social and other diseases by the prescriptions of a benevolent despotism. The gospel of force and all its accompanying ideas have somewhat fallen into discredit to-day. These latter times have proved very unfavorable to strong men, or at least to those who have tried to pose in that character.
Louis Napoleon was a strong man: he greatly dared on a certain 2d of December just forty years ago, and for a time he seemed to be a living justification of Carlylism; but the sage of Chelsea lived to see the Man of Destiny cast down from his high pre-eminence and every vestige of his rule obliterated by an indignant people. Bismarck was a strong man, full of an almost reckless courage and utterly impatient of criticism and opposition; yet how sudden and complete was his fall! Thiers wished to play the part of the strong man in France, and so did Marshal McMahon after Lira; but the country put both of them aside and passed on to policies of which they disapproved. Later Boulanger pranced across the scene in the assumed character of a savior of society; but as soon as the firm hand of lawful authority was laid on him he slunk into exile and dwindled into insignificance; finally, wrecked alike in character and estate, he sought death at his own hand. Balmaceda was another would-be strong man, and he too fills a suicide's grave. Lastly, we have Parnell, a man whose courage was indomitable, whose fortitude could not be shaken, who by the sheer force of his personality baffled the plans and confused the policies of the ablest statesmen of Great Britain; yet who, trusting to his strength to win him a personal triumph after he had violated the essential conditions of successful struggle, ended his career in failure and disgrace.
Evidently there is something wrong with the gospel of force. Heaven sends the strong men in fairly liberal supply, men who are quite prepared to fill the Carlylean requirements in the matter of doing and daring, despising small scruples and trampling on rights; but their success is short lived, and their failure points a moral which is hardly to be found in the Carlylean philosophy. That moral is that, while strength is a good thing in itself, and courage and resolution are virtues, they need to be guided by knowledge and a careful study of conditions, if they are not to rush on to disaster. Nay, more, we see that individual strength is only weakness unless it vibrates in unison with the greater strength of true principles of action, the strength that resides in the play of great social forces. No man to-day can win any great triumph except by being in the right, and this is the great political lesson which we should strive to impress on the rising generation. To be sure, there are many false lights—mostly, however, of a minor kind—shining in the world and alluring men to a career of selfish adventure. There are men who have climbed to business or political success by means that will not bear criticism. But the examples afforded by those who have tried such means to their own ruin are more striking and impressive, if not more numerous, than any that can bo quoted on the other side.
Hero-worship is well if it simply means sincere admiration for noble qualities; but it is misleading in the highest degree if it causes us to trust for great results to the action of this or that masterful individuality. To-day the "common sense of most" is the most potent factor in all social and political progress, and no man is wise who does not bear this in mind. There is ample scope still for the exercise of the highest moral and intellectual qualities, and the true hero may yet win the admiration and gratitude of society; only, what is required is that he should know the structure and laws of the society in which he lives, and seek rather to give the best expression to the tendencies of the time than to impose his own individuality on his contemporaries. Only he who, in a profound sense, obeys possesses the secret of rule.
The times are favorable, we think, for the presentation of new political ideals. Strong men of the old type, iron-handed warriors, and stern legislators, are out of date; on the other hand, the want of firmness and principle in connection with political affairs was never more conspicuous. We want a new race of strong men in whom the gamester element shall be wholly absent, and who shall aim to accomplish their ends not by personal tours de force, nor yet by craft and flattery, but by steady adherence to principle, and patient efforts to awaken the public to a sense of their true interests. The strong man of the future will be strong in knowledge and in social sympathy; and his strength will be spent, not in efforts to perpetuate his personal ascendency, but in efforts to develop all that is best in the society of the time. The true strong man as we conceive him will have no greed for power; his greed, if such it may be called, will be for usefulness; and he will show his strength by his willingness to retire at any moment from a public to a private position rather than prove unfaithful to his convictions or do anything unworthy of a man of honor. Strictly speaking, a man who with adequate knowledge and intelligence tries faithfully to serve the public can never be obscure, though offices should not seek him nor caucuses make mention of his name. The public at large will recognize and honor his efforts, and his influence may be greater in a private station than that of a score of average legislators. We do not, however, look to our educational institutions to do much to develop this new type of citizen; we trust rather to general educative influences that are abroad in the world. We trust, we may say, in a considerable degree to such writings as those of Mr. Spencer, instinct as they are with noble views of liberty and of justice, and conveying at the same time clear and enlightened ideas regarding the nature and functions of the state. It is possible that private associations for the purpose of causing more intelligent views of citizenship and its duties to prevail might accomplish very good work; and we hope that something may be attempted in this way in connection with the University Extension movement which is now making so satisfactory progress. We certainly do not at this moment know of any more useful work in which an intelligent man could engage, than this of introducing a scientific element, however feeble at first, into the chaotic welter of our State and national politics.
It is singular what difficulty many intelligent persons experience in entertaining the idea that in a democracy there can be political injustice. "What possible means can you suggest," we are often asked, "of deciding political questions save the vote of the majority? And what ground can any one have to complain so long as he exercises the franchise with the rest? The minority can not expect to rule, can it?" These questions all proceed upon the assumption that there can not be a moral element in any political question; whereas, in point of fact, there is a moral element in every political question. If two partners were trying to arrange the terms of a separation, and each in the most shameless manner were to set at naught all considerations of equity, and strive only to get the largest possible amount out of the business for himself, we should scarcely approve of the proceeding. Every one feels that equity has something to say in such a matter. If any property whatever had to be divided, and if, instead of bringing considerations of right to bear, the parties were at once to plunge into a squabble with no guiding principle whatever save individual greed, we should think as meanly of their intelligence as of their honesty. We all feel instinctively that wherever moral principle can furnish a guide it should furnish a guide—in other words, that to decide any question without reference to moral grounds which admits of being settled on moral grounds is a gross offense against both morality and common sense. Supposing, then, that some one who had banded himself with others to carry by force a decision involving injustice to a minority—say of stockholders—should impudently say, "We had the votes and we used them"—our only conclusion would be that he was a hardy and cynical villain. Things of this kind have sometimes been done; but for the most part vice has at least paid to virtue the tribute of hypocrisy.
To bring this home to the question before us, the nation is a great corporation and the citizens are shareholders. A general election is a meeting of the shareholders. There is an opportunity for honest and well-meaning citizens to consult and act for the benefit of the great national corporation. There is also an opportunity for others to plot and plan for their private benefit, to be secured at the cost and to the injury of the corporation. A combination may be formed to elect a corrupt directorate or executive with the expectation that it will be the submissive creature of those who invested it with power. Some will be prepared to imperil the very existence of the nation in order that they may carry certain selfish purposes of their own into effect. Thus every general election and, indeed, every phase of political action affords an opportunity for the practice of political justice or of political injustice; and to say that any particular determination of the electors or of a legislative body is just because it commanded a majority of votes is as absurd as to say that in a physical encounter right must rest with the conqueror.
"What are yon going to do about it," say some, "if the people manifest a complete indifference to these considerations?" We can do nothing about it, we reply, but uphold the true principle, and trust that the apparent "foolishness of preaching "may in the end prove wiser than the wisdom of our practical politicians who wield votes precisely as they might wield clubs. It is all a question of the moral growth of the people; and we can not but hope that the time will come when even the average citizen will understand that right is not made by majorities, but that majorities are happy when they are able to discover what right is, and pay it the homage of their support.
There appears to be an epidemic of schemes for reforming shiftless people by wholesale. The latest reported is a proposal by a Mr. Heller, of Newark, N. J., to establish seven colonies, in as many States, for the benefit of old and unemployed people and tramps. The chief feature of the scheme is to be the reformation of tramps. Work is to be provided for those who will work, and Mr. Heller evidently expects that a large part of them will. He doubtless actually believes what the tramps say of themselves, and accepts the familiar "can't get work" whine for absolute truth. This belief is squarely contradicted by well-known facts. Plenty of work can be had now, without any colony machinery, by those who will work. During the past summer workers have been called for all over the United States, to gather in this year's bountiful harvest. No tramp could extend his travels to twenty miles outside any largo city without coming across farmers who would be glad to give him fifteen or twenty dollars a month and board for faithful work. In a recent book on Crime and its Causes, the author, William Douglas Morrison, who is an English prison official, puts the number of vagrants who are willing to work at not much over two per cent. To confirm his view he quotes the following striking testimony from M. Monod of the Ministry of the Interior in France:
The idea of forming a community with such material for its citizens is absurd in the extreme. The tramp will not work so long as he can find soft hearted and softer headed people who will give him a subsistence in idleness. These self-satisfied charitable persons, who give indiscriminately to save themselves the trouble of helping judiciously, really entice more unfortunates into beggary than they raise out of it.