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Trampling Upon Ideals

Epigraphs to Part 7

Patriotism having become one of our topics, Johnson suddenly uttered in a strong, determined tone, an apothegm at which many will start: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." But let it be considered that he did not mean real and genuine love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.
- Boswell's "Johnson"

Our country is the world - our countrymen are all mankind
- William Lloyd Garrison

Would we tread in the paths of tyranny,
Nor reckon the tyrant's cost?

Who taketh another's liberty,
His freedom is also lost.

Would we win as the strong have ever won?
Make ready to pay the debt.

For the God who reigned over Babylon
Is the God who is reigning yet.

The laws of right are eternal laws,
The judgments of truth are true

My greed-blind masters, I bid you pause
And look on the work you do.

You bind with shackles your fellow man;
Your hands with his blood are wet.

And the God who reigned over Babylon
Is the God who is reigning yet.
- J.A. Edgerton, in "Democratic Magazine."

Though your word shall run with power, and your arm reach overseas,

Yet the questing bolt shall find you if you keep not faith with these;

Lest you be at one with Egypt, lest you lie as Rome lies now

In the potter's field of empires, mint and cumin, keep the vow.

Keep the truth your fathers made,
Lest your children grow afraid,

Lest you hear the captives' mothers weeping sore -

There is little worth beside -
They are dead because they lied,

And the young men's feet are at the door.
- Mary Austin in "Land of Sunshine" for February, 1900

Toll for the death of the Empire! Through the gloom

Deep and vibrating, speaks the solemn bell

The last dread warning of the coming doom:

His body to the dust; his deeds to hell!

Toll for the death of Empire! Lift the head;

Take off the crown of tyranny and fear;
And let no man do honor at the bier.

Ring for the reign of Freedom.

Empire's dead!
- Bertrand Shadwell in The Public, for March 29, 1902

Louis F. Post
The Ethics of Democracy
Part 7, Patriotism

Chapter 3
Trampling Upon Patriotic Ideals


There come times in the history of nations when events compel them to bring their actions to the test of first principles. At such times the truly patriotic citizen is forced into a searching and momentous comparison of national ideals with immediate national purposes and policies. Upon the decisions at these crises measurably depends the fate of the nation - whether it shall rise farther toward its ideals, or sink away from them. Nor can the decisions be evaded. For better or worse, for good or evil, for growth or decay, for advance or retreat, in harmony with national ideals or in defiance of them, the decisions must be made.


Similar critical moments come also in the lives of individuals. There are times when they, too, brought face to face with some conflict between their momentary desires and their moral ideals, are forced to choose. These are the best periods of a good man's life. Well may such a one exclaim: "Thank God for sin!" Resisting temptation, he comes out of the struggle better and stronger. He is then nearer to his ideals, though not abreast of them.


No man is as good as his ideals, if he has ideals. Still, it is not to be inferred that all men are hypocrites. Given moral ideals, a man is to be judged not by the closeness with which he commonly lives up to them, but by the willingness with which he makes them his standard in times of temptation. If he then squares his purpose with his ideals, he grows toward his ideals; if he modifies his ideals to suit his purpose, he grows away from them.


To illustrate, let us imagine a born thief, who comes to accept as one of his moral ideals the eighth commandment. He now believes it wrong to steal, he tries not to steal, and on the whole he virtuously refrains from stealing. But now and again he awakes to a realization of the fact that acts which he had not before understood to be larcenous are larcenous. His decisions when tempted to repeat these acts will determine whether he is growing toward his ideal or away from it - whether he is becoming less of a thief or more of one. If, holding to the ideal, he struggles against the temptation, then he gains in moral strength and invites further moral enlightenment. But if, giving way to the temptation, he modifies his ideal - calls the eighth commandment a glittering generality, construes it in the light of the larcenous precedents he himself has made, and interprets out of it its moral force - then it were better for him never to have had an ideal.


As with an individual in this respect, so with a nation. When events bring its purposes into open collision with its moral ideals, and the necessity is admitted of altering the one or modifying the other, the decision of that nation determines the direction in which it is going. If it decides for its ideals, it is advancing; if it decides against them, it is receding.


Whether the nation has always been true to its moral ideals, is at such a time of minor importance. Whether it is even now true to them in many of its customs is, in connection with the crisis before it, of no importance at all. The vital question that confronts it is, Whether the new policy it is urged to adopt, the new customs it is asked to establish, the new national habits it is advised to form, are in harmony with its ideals. If they are not, then their adoption would be not merely inconsistent; it would be equivalent to a deliberate repudiation.


To illustrate with a recent great temptation of our own country: We have been passing through an experience in which we are obliged repeatedly to ask ourselves as a nation, not whether we shall struggle to throw off some ancient custom which is inconsistent with our ideals, not whether we shall make a further advance toward our ideals; but whether we shall adopt a new policy which denies, and is on all hands admitted to deny, those ideals flatly and affirmatively, positively and aggressively. We are asking ourselves whether we shall flout our ideals, and shall consciously and deliberately recede from them.


To make conquests and establish over the people we conquer a government which they do not voluntarily accept, and in the management of which they are to have no voice, a government that is under no constitutional obligations to protect their lives and liberties, but which according to those who advocate it could dispose of all their rights in its discretion, would be to deny the fundamental right of self-government in a new relationship. Thus we should not merely remain inconsistent with our ideals; we should be turning our backs upon them. This is perfectly well understood by the advocates of imperial colonialism, and they brazenly urge us to turn our backs upon those ideals, arguing that the ideals are illusory.


Their arguments for this new departure are most plausible, perhaps, when directed against the ballot as an inherent right. Men of common sense are not misled very readily by the pettifogger's plea of precedent. To them it is no argument against the right of all to the ballot, that in practice the ballot has been extensively withheld. As well argue against the right to life and to liberty because those rights have been withheld. That we have not realized our ideals is easily seen to be no sane reason for abandoning them. Because only some classes have in fact been allowed to vote, is clearly a weak excuse for denying the soundness of the American ideal that all are entitled to vote. To allow precedents thus to overrule principles, would be to make fetishes of precedents or to use them as bushels to put candles under, instead of lights to illumine the pathway.


But regardless of precedent, there are apparently inherent objections to the universal suffrage which is necessarily involved in the idea of self-government and is therefore negatived as a right by the policy of colonialism. Some of these objections have been considered in other connections in previous chapters, but they recur. It is asked: Who shall vote? What shall determine a man's right to vote? What about children, idiots, lunatics, convicts, Indians, Negroes? Children are too young; idiots and lunatics are incapables; convicts are social enemies; Indians are savages; Negroes, if permitted in the South to "express their wish through the ballot and to have it counted," to quote one objector, "would ruin the country." Are all these entitled to vote? If not, they are governed without their consent, and then what becomes of the American ideal? Such is the drift of the questions.


With children there is a debatable line. No one can say exactly when they mature. Each individual differs. But every normal person does mature at some time between his first day in the world and his thirtieth year; and if the voting age be fixed reasonably, none but a logic-chopper could persistently object that deprivation of the voting right prior to that age is essentially inconsistent with our national ideals.


As to idiots and lunatics, they are in abnormal states. Disease makes them incapable of performing any social function; and as consultation regarding government is a social function, it is their disease and not a legal discrimination as to social rights, that really excludes them from voting. Idiots and lunatics, like children during immaturity, are naturally - not through legal discrimination, but naturally - under guardianship. So long as their social rights are secured them upon their emerging naturally from that state, their equality of rights is not denied.


Convicts fall into a different class. By preying upon society they forfeit social rights. To outlaw a man for his crime, is not to deprive him of equal rights under the law. It is punishing him for depriving others of those rights.


As to Indians, if we regard them as savages, it will hardly be claimed that resistance to their aggressions amounts to governing them. A people may certainly defend themselves against savages without being seriously charged with attempting to govern without the consent of the governed. But the truth is that the Indian question was made by "civilized" whites, and not by "savage" Indians. Our race has wantonly insisted upon governing the Indian without his consent. And in so far as we have done this, what success have we had? Would either he or we be worse off if we had invested him with the suffrage, or left him alone to govern himself?


And then the Negro. We are told that if he had his ballot counted in the South he would ruin the country. What is meant by the country? White men, of course. Whether he would really ruin the white men of the South if he voted upon an equality with them, no one has any means of knowing. The experiment has not been fairly tried. But we do know as matter of history that the white men of the South, with all power in their hands, ruined the Negro - kept him a slave, which is about as near ruin as a live man can be driven to. Shall we, therefore, infer that the white men of the South are unfit to be trusted with the ballot? By no means. Yet upon the facts it is a more legitimate inference than the other.


Sweep away these hypercritical objections to the ballot right, and no plausible objections remain. When mature men and women are denied the ballot they are not only denied a fundamental right, but are prevented from performing a fundamental duty - that of advising and participating in government. All adverse arguments lead logically to monarchy, and if adopted as sound in principle will lead there practically. Not a single argument that has ever been put forward against voting by the poor, by the "unintelligent," by "inferior races," by women, by any social class, but is a legitimate corollary of the argument for "divine right." Grant the premises of those who argue for a restricted suffrage, and the prerogatives of the Czar of Russia become as unassailable logically as they are legally.


This is true not alone of the right of voting among ourselves, but also of the principle of government by consent of the governed in that broader sense in which we use the words when we refer to the policy of imperial colonialism. We cannot impose our government upon alien peoples against their will, without lining up our government alongside of the autocratic powers of the earth. It is only by assuming some fanciful divine right in derogation of their obvious natural rights that we can make them our "subjects."


Nor is it any answer to say that the alien peoples are incapable of self-government. No one is capable of self-government, in the eyes of those who wish to govern him. What is our warrant for declaring a people incapable of self-government? Any people are far better able to govern themselves than are any other people to govern them. Super-imposed government may exterminate a people; it cannot elevate them.


One of the greatest as well as most delightful of American writers, who in the guise of a humorist has given us much sound philosophy, satirizes the assumption of superior ability to govern, and then moralizes in this admirable way:


There is a phrase which has grown so common in the world's mouth that it has come to seem to have sense and meaning - the sense and meaning implied when it is used; that is the phrase which refers to this or that or the other nation as possibly being 'capable of self-government'; and the implied sense of it is, that there has been a nation somewhere, sometime or other, which wasn't capable of it - wasn't as able to govern itself as some self-appointed specialists were or would be to govern it. The master-minds of all nations, in all ages, have sprung in affluent multitude from the mass of the nation, and from the mass of the nation only - not from its privileged classes; and so, no matter what the nation's intellectual grade was, whether high or low, the bulk of its ability was in the long ranks of its nameless and its poor, and so it never saw the day that it had not the material in abundance whereby to govern itself. Which is to assert an always self-proven fact: that even the best governed and most free and most enlightened monarchy is still behind the best condition attainable by its people; and that the same is true of kindred governments of lower grades, all the way down to the lowest.*

Neither is it an answer to the objection to American imperial colonialism to cite American precedents in its favor. As already suggested, they prove nothing at the worst but that we have been at times indifferent to our ideals. The best use of bad precedents is to show, by those we have set aside, how far we have advanced toward our ideals.


It is not now with our country a question of indifferently allowing old national customs or laws to resist advances toward national ideals, nor even of clinging stubbornly to those antiquated customs and laws. We are proceeding with knowledge, with deliberation, with intention, to set up a new policy which is confessedly hostile; and in doing so we seek justification not in an attempt to elevate the policy to the level of the ideals, but in an attempt to pull down the ideals to the level of the policy.


Although it is true that heretofore we have permitted government by consent of only some of the governed, while asserting the broad principle of government by consent of all the governed, we are now amending the principle itself, and establishing government by consent of some of the governed as the American polity. This is also the Russian polity.


We cannot make that decision under existing circumstances without trampling upon our national ideals; and with a nation, as with an individual, it were better that it have no ideals than that having them it should deliberately cast them aside. Let us in this crisis but choose to substitute the Russian ideal of government for the American, and we shall not be long in descending to the Russian mode. It is not only the liberties of our "subjects" that are at stake; the liberties of our citizens also hang in the balance.


But if we decide for our ideals instead of against them, if at this long-drawn-out crisis we determine to be true to the principle of self-government, we may then be grateful for the temptation which will have made it possible for us to become stronger in our love of liberty and to draw closer to our national ideals. For we may be sure that just as truly as by disregarding the liberties of others we imperil our own, we shall by recognizing theirs make ours more secure and perfect.

* "A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur," published in 1889.

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