Ethics of Democracy

Part 6, Democratic Government
Chap. 2, Universal Suffrage

Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

- Speech at Gettysburg; by Abraham Lincoln

Many politicians of our time are in the habit of laying it down as a self-evident proposition, that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story who resolved not to go into the water till he had learnt to swim.

- Essay on Milton by Macaulay

I will have never a noble,
No lineage counted great;

Fishers and choppers and ploughmen
Shall constitute a state.

"Boston Hymn," by Ralph Waldo Emerson

So long as a single one amongst your brothers has no vote to represent him in the development of the national life, so long as there is one left to vegetate in ignorance where others are educated, so long as a single man, able and willing to work, languishes in poverty through want of work to do, you have no country in the sense in which country ought to exist - the country of all and for all.

- On the Duties of Man by Mazzini

I charge thee, Love, set not my aim too low;
If through the cycling ages I have been
A partner in thy ignorance and sin,

So through the centuries that ebb and flow

I must, with thee, God's secrets seek to know.
Whate'er the conflict, I will help to win
Our conquest over foes without - within -

And where thou goest, beloved, I will go.

Set no dividing line between the twain
Whose aim and end are manifestly one;

Whate'er my loss, it cannot be thy gain
Wedded the light and heat that make Life's sun.

Not thine the glory and not mine the shame.

We build the world together in one Name.

'The New Eve to the Old Adam," by - Annie L. Muzzey, in Harper's Magazine

O blood of the people! changeless tide, through century, creed and race!

Still one as the sweet salt sea is one, though tempered by sun and

The same in the ocean currents, and the same in the sheltered

Forever the fountain of common hopes and kindly sympathies;

Indian and Negro, Saxon and Celt, Teuton and Latin and Gaul-

Mere surface shadow and sunshine; while the sounding unifies all!

One love, one hope, one duty theirs! No matter the time or ken,

There never was separate heart-beat in all the races of men!

But alien is one - of class, not race - he has drawn the line for himself;

His roots drink life from inhuman soil, from garbage of pomp and pelf;

His heart beats not with the common beat, he has changed his life-stream's hue;

He deems his flesh to be finer flesh, he boasts that his blood is blue:

Patrician, aristocrat, tory - whatever his age or name,

To the people's rights and liberties, a traitor ever the same.

The natural crowd is a mob to him, their prayer a vulgar rhyme;

The freeman's speech is sedition, and the patriot's deed a crime.

Wherever the race, the law, the land, - whatever the time, or throne,

The tory is always a traitor to every class but his own.

Thank God for a land where pride is clipped, where arrogance stalks apart;

Where law and song and loathing of wrong are words of the common heart;

Where the masses honor straightforward strength, and know, when veins are bled,

That the bluest blood is putrid blood - that the people's blood is red.

- "Crispus Attucks," by John Boyle O'Reilley

Patricians and plebeians, aristocrats and democrats, have alike stained their hands with blood in the working out of the problem of politics. But impartial history declares also that the crimes of the popular party have in all ages been the lighter in degree, while in themselves they have more to excuse them; and if the violent acts of revolutionists have been held up more conspicuously for condemnation, it has been only because the fate of noblemen and gentlemen has been more impressive to the imagination than the fate of the peasant or the artisan.

- Froude's Caesar, Ch. VIII.

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The Ethics of Democracy

by Louis F. Post

Part 6, Democratic Government
Chapter 2, Universal Suffrage

GOVERNMENT by all the governed, commonly designated self-government, can be administered only by universal suffrage. All the people do not govern unless all have a potential voice in the government. Universal suffrage may indeed fail to secure government by all, but there is no such thing as government by all without it. The question, then, of whether or not suffrage is a natural right is determined by the question of whether government by all or government by superior force is the natural kind of government.

It may well be objected that a majority under universal suffrage is in no wise different from an oligarchy under restricted suffrage, for it is true that majorities are often autocratic. But this is chargeable to defective methods. In essential principle, and to a very high degree in actual practice, majorities are radically different from oligarchies.

Majorities proceed upon the principle that rights to life and liberty are natural and equal; oligarchies proceed upon the theory that these rights are neither equal nor natural, but are gifts from superiors. In actual practice an oligarchy, which is a stable class placed over other classes, is unresponsive to their demands; whereas a majority, a shifting quantity in only one class but that a class which embraces the whole community, is affected by all. With these distinctions clear, all rational objections to government by majority are removed, if we conceive of government as confined to its legitimate functions. When government is conceived of as possessing power to regulate private concerns, government by majority is as intolerable as any other species of tyranny. But when it is conceived of merely as the agent for protecting natural rights and administering common property, government by majority commends itself as fair and natural. It is the only method of securing in common concerns common action in accordance with common agreement.

The same distinction also makes the naturalness of the right of suffrage self-evident. To have a voice in the management of the organization which is charged with the protection of everyone's life and liberty and the administration of everyone's interest in common property, is a natural right if anything can be.

Objections to universal suffrage as a right, which rest upon the absurdity of extending the suffrage to minors, to convicted criminals and to the insane, assuming that universal suffrage logically demands that extension, are the veriest pettifogging.

There is a period in everyone's life when he is concededly incompetent to participate in government. This is indubitably true of an infant in arms. Later there comes a period when, if of sane mind, he is competent. This is certainly true of the man or woman of 30. But as no general rule can be formulated for determining as to each person when he crosses the line between the incompetency of childhood and the competency of manhood, it is customary to fix an age period of general application arbitrarily. If the period fixed be reasonable, it involves in no rational sense a denial of the suffrage.

A similar principle applies to the insane. Men who are adjudged incompetent from insanity to manage their own affairs, may be denied the suffrage without the slightest prejudice to the principle of suffrage as a natural right. And as to convicts, the same principle that justifies the denial to them of life or liberty consistently with the theory of natural rights to life and liberty, may deny them the suffrage without raising any question of inconsistency with reference to the suffrage as a natural right.

In other words, to withhold the suffrage from persons incapable of performing ordinary obligations is not inconsistent with the principle that suffrage is a natural right. Liberty is a natural right. But consistently with that right children are held in tutelage. Consistently with that right any one who is "non compos" is restrained. Consistently with that right again convicts are imprisoned. To argue that the suffrage is not a natural right because it is properly withheld from immature individuals, from individuals adjudged "non compotes," and from criminal convicts, is to argue that liberty itself is not a natural right. And if liberty be not a natural right, then the only basis for natural right is superior force, which is a moral absurdity.*

Self-government has been defined as not a right at all but a capacity; and the right to exercise a capacity, as depending on the possession of it. That is a queer inversion. Without enjoyment of the right, the capacity can never be acquired. It is experience in governing himself that gives strength of character to the individual ; it is the experience of their members participating in public affairs that gives strength of character to communities. Even if that were not so, the anti-suffrage contention falsely assumes that some people can govern other people and some communities other communities better than the others can govern themselves. If this were true, it would lead straight to universal monarchy. For there must, in that case, be at any given time some man who can govern all the rest better than they can govern themselves; and in accordance with the contention he ought to be enthroned. At any rate, that contention is the essential principle of monarchism, which derives all its force from the theory that the masses cannot govern themselves, but must be governed, both with reference to their individual and their communal rights, by others.

Though we admitted this principle, we should still have to ask how the governing nations or classes are to be selected. If they were selected by the governed, that would be government by consent of the governed. But they never are so selected. They select themselves. And they do so selfishly. No nation or class has ever forced its dominion upon another for the good of the latter, and none ever will. The desire for mastership is the most evil of all passions; and however it may mask its designs in philanthropic pretensions, the nation or class that seeks to govern others does so for its own aggrandizement. "It is not for my breakfast that you invite me down," said the goat in the fable to the wolf who had urged him to descend to the foot of the cliff where rich grass would give him a better breakfast, "but for your own."

The mob that blows up a factory with dynamite is not to be let alone, it is objected; as if the right of its members to self-government demanded that it should be let alone. The objection is not pertinent. In such a case the mob is restrained because it is denying the right of self-government to others. If the mob could harm no one but its own members, and not disturb or jeopardize the public peace, there would be no right of interference on the part of the community. Again, the hypothesis of government of physicians and keepers in a lunatic asylum by the insane inmates, is gravely advanced as an illustration of the unsoundness of government by majorities. This is on a par with the familiar and oft-answered objection to universal suffrage, that infants in arms would under that doctrine have the right to vote. To make exceptional conditions like these the basis for an argument against self-government and universal suffrage is to expose the weakness of the cause in behalf of which it is made.

No such plea would be offered by any candid man who had analyzed the principle of self-government by universal suffrage before attacking it. Let it be clearly understood that the principle of self-government has a twofold application - in its relation to the individual, and in its relation to the community; that in its relation to the individual, it implies that his freedom shall be limited only by the equal freedom of everyone else; that in its relation to the community, it implies that each ordinary person of maturity shall have an equal voice with every other in affecting the majority which determines the current management of affairs that are common to all let these simple and self-commendatory propositions be apprehended, and all the frivolous talk about voting in lunatic asylums, about voting by babies, about majority government not being self-government, will sound as puerile as in fact it is. And as to the common assertion that the end of all good government is self-government, that will sound as empty as the same sentiment applied to an individual, thus: "The end of all good conduct is self-conduct." As the individual's conduct cannot be good unless it is self-controlled, neither can government be good unless it is self-government. Despotism may preserve the peace, but despotism cannot make men peaceable. Self-government by universal suffrage, and this alone, can do that. It may not do it at once, for character is not made in a day. But it is the only kind of government that can do it ultimately.

* Same subject further considered in Part VII, Chapter II, "Patriotic Ideals" and Chapter III, "Trampling Upon Patriotic Ideals."

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