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.
Our country is the world - our
countrymen are all mankind
Would we tread in the paths of
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
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.
- Bertrand Shadwell in The
Public, for March 29, 1902
Louis F. Post
The Ethics of Democracy
Part 7, Patriotism
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
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
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
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
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
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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