Our Political Idolatry.
Delivered in the First Church in Roxbury,
On Fast Day, April 6, 1843
By George Putnam,
Minister of that Church
Published by Request of the Parish.
William Crosby and Co.
Shall I not, as I have done unto Samaria and her idols, so do to Jerusalem and her idols?
These are words of warning. The application to be made of them is obvious. They related to a proud and self-confident nation, a people who, regarding themselves as in some sense the chosen people of God, their city as the religious center of the world, with a temple in which they said all men ought to worship, a favored people, highly privileged and exalted, imagined that on this account their national existence and welfare would be shielded for ever by a peculiar Providence, irrespective of national character. But they were woefully mistaken. The moral law of God makes no exceptions. They sinned, and their sins were visited rigorously upon them as upon others. They fell, as they had been warned, into captivity and ruin, like other nations that had in like manner corrupted their ways.
Our own country needs the same warning; and would that we might give better heed to it than they did whom the prophet had in his mind!
Our Fast day is not a Sabbath. It derives its appointment from the civil authorities. We come up hither today as citizens of the State, in obedience to the call of the magistrate. It seems, therefore, as much in accordance with propriety as with usage, that the observance should be as peculiar as the occasion; that, omitting the usual Sabbath-day topics, we should consider, in some of their more moral aspects, our public condition and civil relations,—not as to the details of the political expedients and measures of the day, but those principles which underlie them all, and the tendencies that direct them,—not party politics, but the elements of our social system. And inasmuch as this is professedly not a day for congratulations and rejoicing, but a day of humiliation, it is not a fit time to take flattering views, or prophesy smooth things; but to look upon the darker side,—the side of error and danger,—and see wherein we should take shame or take warning, for evils committed, or evils to be apprehended. If we meet here for any one definite object more than another, it is to contemplated and mourn for our public sins, mistakes, calamities, and dangers, and to be humble before God on account of them.
Our text leads us to this remark, namely, that our nation is liable to the same errors and sins which have in all ages brought distress or ruin on other nations, and that, greatly favored as we are in some respects, if we do as other nations have done, we shall suffer as they have suffered. Jerusalem and her idols must fare as Samaria and her idols.
Our people think otherwise. They seem to imagine that our free institutions, universal suffrage, and the establishment of what are called popular rights, are in absolute pledge and infallible means of national welfare; as if, by avoiding privileged orders and monarchical power, we had turned out of the only path, and must needs be safe. This is a great delusion, and it is high time to awake from it. We flatter ourselves that we are free indeed, and absolutely, and always must be, if we keep on as we are going on,—free, in a sense in which people, under different forms of government, never were, nor can be. No such thing; we have a sovereign, and on that threatens to become, if he be not yet, as absolute, as arbitrary, as uncontrolled, and as capricious too, as ever sat upon a throne. That sovereign is the majority, a dominant party. Out of seventeen millions, the nine millions constitute the sovereign, and the eight are subjects. We are never under any rule but that of a party,—a party,—a sovereign always rendered vindictive and oppressive by the bitter struggle through which alone he ever gets into power. The sovereign people means, of course, a sovereign majority. And this mighty sovereign is subject to dangerous tendencies and misleading influences, similar to those which have made individual monarchs unscrupulous and tyrannical. As, for instance,—the one thing that perhaps more than any other has perverted and made insupportable the absolute monarchies of the Old World,—the system of courtiership,—that is, a few persons, of little principle and great address, besetting the sovereign, and, by insinuating flatteries, and professions of unbounded devotion to his person and service, securing the honors and emoluments in his gift, and the fatal powers that accrue to court favorites. They get their places by flattery, and use them for their own aggrandizement, and in disregard of the subject’s welfare.
And now is not our sovereign monarch beset just so? As a general rule, those who aspire to favor with our king, Majority, pursue the same course; they fawn upon him, flatter him, assure him of his unparalleled wisdom, his universal and astonishing intelligence, his incorruptible virtue, of his perfectly cool and passionless judgment; above all, (and this is always the most agreeable incense to the ear of monarchs,) they tell him of the rightful extent of his prerogative, how he ought to rule with absolute sway, how certain checks to his power ought to be removed an shall be, and nothing stand between him and the exercise of his divine instinct of right, his unerring wisdom and good pleasure. They are careful not to tell him, that to err is human, that he is liable to passion and may do wrong, to mistakes of judgment and may err, and that therefore he ought, for his own safety and the welfare of his subjects, to surround himself, and keep himself surrounded, with regular checks against his own mistakes and caprices. O, no! if he ever did do wrong for a moment, it was because he was innocently misled by this or that false friend and bad adviser, who has squandered his money, or disparaged his wisdom, and must be put away.
Never was there a sovereign more courtier-ridden than ours, more easily duped by flatteries, or intoxicated by the sweets of power and the pride of dominion. Our public men, and would-be public men, are of the genus Courtier, to as great an extent as any set of men that ever surrounded an absolute throne; and they do—as why should they not?—corrupt the sovereign as much, and do as much to blind him to his faults, and to make him a reckless and conceited tyrant. A demoralized sovereign must be as pernicious here as elsewhere.
The downfall of liberty and the decline of states has generally been brought about by the sovereign’s gradually engrossing into his own hands all the powers of the state, and ruling with the unrestrained sway of pure despotism. That sovereign may be an aristocracy, as in Venice, and in Rome at one period; or an individual man, as in France before the first revolution; or the mass of the people, as in France after that revolution, and in some of the states of ancient Greece; in either and every case of unrestrained, unbalanced power, whether of monarchy, an aristocracy, or a democracy,—no matter which,—the liberty and safety of the individual and the good order of the state have been the sacrifice.
Our fathers seem to have understood perfectly this fearful lesson of history, and, in establishing a republic and framing our system of polity, they appear to have been as anxious to guard against an unmitigated democracy as against an unmitigated monarchy; they designed the one as little as the other; they designed neither. They placed the sovereignty in its most rightful and proper depository, the people; but they were careful to set up all the checks against its despotism that were compatible with such a sovereignty; they desired to have, and they provided, as many guards as possible against the ambition, the rashness, the vindictiveness, the destructiveness of excited numbers, victorious majorities, and headlong party.
This is not the place, and I am not the person, to show in detail how wisely our fathers managed this matter, teaching the young sovereign that he must set and maintain salutary restraints upon himself, and keep himself from doing wrong in the coming day of his pride and passion. I will only refer to one of these checks,—the judicial system. Here is one great branch of power, the administration of justice, taken away from the sovereign, removed as far as possible from his control, not intended to be subject to any vote of his, he himself even being made amenable to its decisions. Our fathers designed that the rampant monarch, the major party of the day, should never assume, nor indirectly approach, this department of government,—the judiciary. They put the appointing and the removing power of this branch, as far as practicable, out of the reach of party cabal and popular caprice, that it might be as much as possible independent of the sovereign, a barrier between the monarch, Majority, and the individual subject. Experience has proved how wise they were. The judiciary has been unapproachably the highest in character, the purest in its administration, of all the departments of the government. Uninfluenced by party spirit, uncontrolled by this or that ruling faction, not obliged to court the smiles and bespeak the sweet voices, of the fickle multitude, it has stood aloof and incorrupt,—independent in its dignified and beneficent function. It has fearlessly asserted the majesty of law. It stands in its place, the calm and passionless organ of individual right and eternal justice, the curb of the strong, the defense of the weak, and the impartial guardian of all. Here, as everywhere, where its independence is secured, it is the bulwark of liberty against the encroachments of arbitrary power, in its insidious pretensions, or its open violence.
This provision for and independent judiciary, as well as many others, shows that our fathers dreaded and would avert despotism, that is, concentrated power, whether lodged in a king or a multitude. They never designed and unmixed democracy. But here, as everywhere, the grasping sovereign makes constant efforts after absolute power. It is ever of the nature of a sovereign to do so. He always chases at the restraints put upon him. Now conflicting parties contend which shall best secure and deserve the name of Democracy; and whichever can most firmly fix the title on its banners is nearly sure of triumph. Here, as everywhere, whoever can most flatter and exalt the sovereign, and raise him into unfettered absolutism, will, of course, win his smiles and sit at his right hand. And men seem to be seeking how they shall outdo one another in professions of unlimited loyalty to the monarch, and give freest play to his passions and his will.
The present stage of our history is strongly marked by the tendency to make the sovereign, Majority, absolute and unfettered in his sway. Just so in the palmy days of the Caesars, all Rome was studying ways to exalt the emperor’s power, and remove all hindrances from his way. Public sentiment seems to be upon the steady, onward march towards changing our old republic, with its numerous checks and guards, into the despotism of an unmixed democracy. As in a single instance, already referred to,—the judiciary,—is it not plain that the idea is working in the sovereign’s mind, that that institution must, in some way, be brought under his more immediate control,—must not be so independent of the popular voice,—must have done with its abstract right and absolute justice, and learn to echo only the popular acclamations,—must come every year to the sovereign to beg for a precarious subsistence and for the boon of appointment and reappointment, and so learn to dispense justice according to the behests of partisan press, the votes of a caucus, and the interests of this or that party struggling to get or keep the ascendency? When king James II wished to play the despot, the great step was to get the courts of law subject directly to his will, and a Judge Jeffreys became a notable instrument in the sovereign’s hands. The king made him Lord Chancellor. It is always one great step towards despotism to get a dependent and subservient judiciary. And our sovereign will probably take that step, and many more. A raging thirst of power burns in the heart of this sovereign. He is but too unlikely to observe the limits he at first set to himself, and there is none else to compel his observance of them.
I am showing that there is the same room for, and danger of, a despotism, under our institutions, as under any other, and that the same consequence must follow. Why is there not the same room for it? Let us see.
One leading maxim under a monarchical government is this, that the king can do no wrong; that is, he cannot be called to account, tried, or punished for anything he may do. This maxim is probably essential to sovereignty and to the stability of a government; but it is a great help to a king toward becoming a tyrant. The same maxim here pertains to the sovereign majority, and is more potent here than elsewhere; for an individual tyrant may be put out of the way, like a Julius Caesar, a Charles I., or the Russian Paul, and the many kings that have been dethroned; but our multitudinous sovereign may commit what outrages he will, out-herod Herod in atrocity, and there is no remedy, legal or illegal.
It is little relief, that the majority may change every year, now this side triumphing, and now that. If the system be such as gives absolute power to the ruling party, little is gained by a frequent change of masters. The rival houses of York and Lancaster alternated on the English throne, every few years, for a long period; but it made little difference in the condition of the oppressed subject which side was uppermost. So let the principle be established, that a numerical majority is absolute in power,—the constitutional checks removed or evaded,—and it will matter little to individual citizens which party triumphs today or tomorrow.
Is our sovereign any less likely to commit violence than other sovereigns? The greatest atrocities on record have been committed, not by kings, but by excited and dominant masses, sometimes with, and sometimes without, the forms of law.
That great interest, so closely connected with the prosperity and morality of a nation,—Property,—is that more likely to be respected under an absolute democracy that under any other absolute power? No; the popular passion and jealousy are more easily excited against this interest than any other. From the nature of things, property, if it exist and flourish at all, must be very unequally divided. It is true, we have not, and cannot have, any permanently rich class. The families that are rich now are no more likely than others to be so a few years hence. But those, who, for the time being, happen to hole property in large masses, are always objects of jealousy, often bitter and rabid, to those who have little or none, for the time being; that is, to the majority, the sovereign. At least, such a jealousy may be easily awakened by the interested demagogue. Let that majority become the absolute, unlimited monarch, according to the tendency of the times, and the security of property is gone. The assault will be gradual and specious at first, but effective. It will show itself in a noisy and meddlesome zeal for the rights of the poor, in petty persecutions of property, all sorts of embarrassments thrown in the way of its operations, inquisitorial proceedings instituted over private possessions and affairs, innumerable means of thwarting, vexing, hampering the thrifty and successful,—making them odious and suspected. This is the way with despotism, whether popular or monarchical. There is nothing in our institutions, after the removal of a few barriers,—which are no more than bulrushes in the hand of our mighty sovereign,—nothing to hinder our approaching the condition of some Oriental states,—(for the thing has been comparatively unknown in modern Europe, except in France, during the reign of the Jacobin clubs,—) Asiatic states, I say, in which the possession of riches subjects the holder to such exactions, persecutions, and dangers, that treasure is hidden in the ground, carried out of the country, disappears, is hunted out of visible existence, by the jealousy or cupidity of the potentate. It would be no marvel, if another century should witness such a state of things in this favored land; for such a potentate is growing up here, and, under the plausible motto of Popular Rights, sounded from all tongues, is fast approaching the fatal absolutism.
Once more,—is our boasted sovereign one that is sure to surpass other sovereigns in the moral character of his dealings with mankind? Will this sovereign manifest a high-toned conscience, a scrupulous regard to honor and good faith in his engagements? This question is answered but too plainly already. To the infinite shame and sorrow of every high-minded citizen, the answer I written down before the eyes of the world in facts as black and foul as any, of this class, that ever yet blasted the fame of prince or people. In some States of the Union,—and God only knows how it would be in other States under like difficulties, or how it will yet be in some of them,—in some States debts have been openly repudiated, or else evaded under flimsy pretexts more disgraceful than open repudiation, because more mean. And this by the people, the infallible majority, the immaculate heaven-born sovereign of the New World, the model government, the desire of all nations! Our good name is gone beyond the power of many ages to redeem. The most beggarly prince in Europe, who strives to maintain a tottering throne, or who only goes out on adventure to acquire one, is a more welcome applicant to the capitalist than many a State in this Union, ore the whole together; and our glorious sovereign, Majority, that we fondly dreamed was to eclipse all others in the splendor of his power and the exaltation of his character, is a disgraced swindler, that can no longer be trusted for a mess of pottage. After this, any, the gloomiest, apprehensions for the career of our great potentate, in his future strides to absolutism, will not be deemed quite fanciful or gratuitous. Ten years ago, had this moral outrage of repudiation been predicted, the prophet would have been scouted, as a libeler, that could be no lover of his country. Yet now it is fact,—a fact that should secure a charitable hearing for one who ventures to whisper his fears of calamity and disgrace yet to come.
We are accustomed to place our great reliance on the intelligence of the people. Certainly we must place it there, if anywhere. There is probably as much intelligence diffused among our people as among those of any country in the world. But, after all our efforts for the cause of universal education, who does not know that there are, and always will be, great numbers, who really know almost nothing of the institutions or interests of the country, and do not at all know the duties or feel the responsibilities of the sovereignty which they share? It is an unpleasant truth,—but who seriously doubts that it is a truth? Nay, worse, there are great numbers who have no interest in the permanency and good management of our institutions,—or do not feel that they have,—who partake of the sovereignty; and may be said to hold the destinies of the country in their hands; for none will doubt that such persons are more numerous, a hundred fold, than the difference between the majority and the minority on any disputed question that ever divided, or ever will divide, the people.
In fact, it seems to be of the nature of sovereignty everywhere, that men acquire it, not by competency, but by birth. And, from the nature of the case, it would be as absurd for us to inquire into the fitness of a man to share the sovereignty by his vote, as for the Russians to inquire into the fitness of the crown prince to reign. He is born to reign, and in either case he must reign, fit or unfit, qualified or not,—and either nation must bear the consequences, or guard against them as it can.
It can avail but little for our security, that we have, and may continue to have, what is called a government of laws. The legislatures in many States—and there is too much cause to say the same of the national councils—seem to be losing the character of independent deliberative bodies. They meet, not to deliberate, but to act,—not to exercise their judgment, but to carry out at once the express or presumed decrees of sovereign party,—each member pledged and bound, not to think, but to do as he is commanded,—a dead hand, to register the edicts of the monarch. A legislature thus conducting itself will soon cease to be an assembly of wise men,—or, if they be wise, their wisdom will be as useless as their folly,—and it will become, as to a great extent our have become already, a mere index of the party passion and popular caprice of the year, enacting the changeful our-door clamor into laws as changeful. Our legislative bodies are becoming as subservient to the sovereign, as much mere automatic machines in his mighty hand, as ever was a British parliament under the eye of a Henry VIII or a queen Elizabeth. Unless our people pause soon in this career of revolution, and begin to retrace their steps towards the original theory of our government, the meeting of a legislature will come to be dreaded by quiet and order-loving citizens, little less than the gathering of a mob. Grave discussion gives place to party cabal, to foul-mouthed violence, nay, to open brawls and occasional homicide. A busy, capricious, and arbitrary legislation, continually unsettling all things and keeping them unsettled, echoing ever the gustful passion of the hour, will soon cease, as things are going on, to give us any comfort in the mere name of a government of laws. A legislature that basely lays down its independence at the feet of the sovereign, whether that sovereign be a crowned king or a triumphant party, always was and will be more an oppressor than a guardian, more a scourge than a blessing,—a supple tool of tyranny.
But why indulge these somber and unusual apprehensions? Why reflect thus on unhappy possibilities and fearful tendencies? It is not that we would depose our sovereign, or change him for another, if we could. He is—as American citizens we will maintain—the best in the world. I will cry with him who cries loudest, long live the Republic!—as long as it can live and be truly a republic. God grant that may be forever! We are born the subjects of this sovereign, and would render to him all true allegiance. But we will watch him, jealously, as every strong sovereign must be watched. We would not wrap ourselves up in our notorious national vanity, and refuse to see the peril. We will respect our changeful ruler, the Majority; but we would not be so duped by our own ceaseless and absurd adulation of him, as to be blind to the fact, that he can as easily become, is as eager to become, and is as likely to become, and absolute and arbitrary tyrant, a ruthless scourge of liberty, as any potentate that ever wore a crown. Such he has been in other parts of the world, and he may become such here. Let him become such, let all barriers fall away, and nothing stand between the individual citizen, and the passions and caprices of king Majority, always at war with, and perpetually exasperated by, a rival Minority, nearly equal, and close upon his heels, and often displacing him to take his turn in power and plunder, both made greedy and hot by the chase,—let this come to pass according to the strong tendencies of the age, and then, woe to the lane! The Assyrians be upon thee! As it has been with Samaria, so must it be with Jerusalem!
Absolute and unmitigated democracy, such as we are approaching,—far distant be the day of our reaching it!—is tantamount to downright and insupportable despotism, the worst in the world, because it is the reign of chaos and confusion. That is a condition that cannot be borne long,—never was borne long. When it comes to that pass, men must have relief, and it is only found in some single mighty are, able to seize and hold the scepter. Some “man of destiny” always arises at such a crises, and gives the only protection and rest then attainable, gives it beneath his iron heel and blood-red banner. He finds the people torn by faction, weakened by ceaseless dissensions, wearied out and impoverished by the instability of every private and public interest, fit and glad to welcome any master that can give them repose. Thus Greece got her Alexander, thus Rome got her Caesar, thus France got her Napoleon. Our “man of destiny,” we trust, is not yet born; but we are doing more than we are aware towards laying for him the foundations of a throne, broad and strong enough to overshadow and crush us.
Miserable forebodings, these!—yet I see not how any man, who stands apart from political strife, and watches the tendencies of the times, can help sometimes entertaining them; they are but echoes of the sad lessons of history, voices from the tombs of ruined nations; and, if ever these are to be uttered, when so fitly as on the day set apart for public humiliation?
Humiliation,—a word most appropriate to our subject. It is the one thing that this nation needs,—humiliation! We want it; not such as consists in shame and disgrace without repentance, of which kind we have enough; but humiliation before God. Our pride needs to be humbled. We are a vain-glorious people,—none more so ever flourished. Pride such as ours must be put away, or it must have a fall and we with it. The truth is, we have set up an Idol. The specious name we have inscribed upon its car is Popular Rights; a noble title, a precious possession, and never to be disparaged, ever to be honored,—yes honored and guarded, but not worshipped. Our people worship it, make a god of it. Our public men can never laud it and magnify it enough. It is the one great theme of state papers, and the daily press, and the popular harangue. “Take care lest Popular Rights be abridged, or called in question, or secretly undermined, or be not worshipped enthusiastically and loudly enough.” This is the one precept, the universal homily of politics; as if any one questioned the validity of those rights; as if the least conceivable speck of danger lay in that direction of all others; as if the one great and only peril with us did not consist in exalting the popular will into a divinity, and men’s believing that the voice of the people is in very truth the voice of God; as if the only possible despotism for us did not threaten us singly and solely from the side of party passion, and sweeping popular domination, majority exalted into a tyrant. One of the worst Roman emperors, Domitian, I think, had his closet paneled all round with mirrors, so that no assassin might approach him unperceived. His thoughts were always upon assassins; he could conceive of the existence of no other evil; not considering that the dangers and miseries of Rome were centered in himself,—him alone, his power and his cruelties. So our emperor, the Popular Will, who is not nearly so bad as Domitian, has mirrored himself all round, and is watching with sleepless eye for the approach of an enemy; conjuring up fearful specters, of king or aristocracy,—phantoms that exist nowhere in this country, but in the cant of demagogues, and in the brain of the ignorant and deluded;—his guards proclaiming, every moment, from every quarter but the right one, “Here they come! Here is the danger!” when, in fact, it is from himself alone that the ruin of our liberties can possibly come; in himself lies the only conceivable danger.
We worship a political idol; Popular Rights, Equal Rights, Inalienable Rights, is the flaming inscription; but under that title we worship man, human nature, ourselves, our idea of speedy perfectibility, our own omnipotence and infallibility, our unparalleled intelligence, and unequalled liberty, and glorious destiny. This idol may crush us yet, as it has others; as Samaria, so Jerusalem. In this idol, and our fanatical worship of it, lies our danger. When we learn to believe in God as firmly, and to worship him as devoutly, then, and not till then, the danger will be overpast.
Would that there were in fact, as well as in name, one day of true fasting and real humiliation throughout the land,—a day when the whole people, tearing off the sevenfold veil of national conceit, should confess with shame and contrition their political idolatries, their atheistic pride, their clamorous ambition for rights, to the forgetfulness of duties, their thirst for power, their rash removing of the father’s landmarks, their woful breaches of honor and integrity, their party rancor, their political lies and flatteries and endless chicaneries and self-deceptions, their cringing, self-seeking pretenses of devotion to the despot they are rearing and pampering,—the whole vast, complicated idol worship, which blinds them with self-sufficiency, and estranges them from their God!
This land is indeed a Jerusalem, and a glorious temple of liberty has been built therein, but a political idol usurps the place of the shechinah of the Lord; so it must not be, or that temple must fall into the dust, and bury us in the ruins. Such is the law of the God of nations. So it has been, so it must be. “Shall I not, as I have done unto Samaria and her idols, so do to Jerusalem and her idols?”