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Americanisation - a letter to John Stuart Mill


A Letter








Price Threepence.

"I see in America the generality of people living in a style of plenty unknown in monarchical countries, and I see that the principle of its Government—which is that of the Rights of Man—is making rapid progress in the world." —Thomas Paine.

This is no question between Monarchy and Republicanism; it is a question of policy, a question of possessing a real control over the public funds by those who contribute to those funds,"–Mr. Bright.

"Our only chance of national prosperity lies in the timely remodelling of our system, so as to put it as nearly as possible upon an equality with the improved arrangement of the Americans."—Mr Cobden.

"Every man who is not incapacitated by personal unfitness, or whose admission would not be attended by political danger, is morally entitled to come within the pale of the Constitution."—Mr Gladstone.

"Mr. Gladstone has been converted by Mr. Bright, as Sir Robert Peel was converted by Mr. Cobden."—Morning Star.




Sir,—From your letter to the Secretary of the Reform League, which was read at the Reform demonstration on Primrose Hill, along with one from Mr. Bright of a rather incendiary cast, I infer that you go heartily along with the member for Birmingham in his present policy. Widely as you differ, on many questions, from the Americanised section of the Liberal party of which he is the sole leader, you have joined that small but energetic faction in supporting a Reform Bill, founded on those Democratic principles to which Mr. Fox so unwisely gave his adhesion, during the Revolution fever of 1789, and with which the followers of Mr. Fox have been playing fast and loose ever since that memorable era. In taking this course, which is certainly not the one that Philosophical Radicalism had a right to expect from the author of "Considerations on Representative Government," you have been actuated, no doubt, by a wish to get rid of a troublesome question, in order that the way may be opened up for settling those practical measures of sanitary, social, and educational reform which the wants and privations of the poorer classes most imperatively demand. Another reason, probably, was the conviction, that neither the House of Commons nor the London daily press (which is the breath of its nostrils), is quite prepared to take those calm and considerate views of the Suffrage question which you so ably expounded, as "a writer of books," before you entered that House; and which you might have been expounding still more effectively now, as a member of Parliament, through the columns of every daily newspaper in the United Kingdom—aye, and even through all the best American papers—had you wisely entered the House as the independent member of a small borough, and not as the delegate of so thoroughly Americanised a constituency as that of Westminster. You may possibly object to my characterising the "free and independent" electors whom you represent as "an Americanised constituency;" but a little reflection will convince you that I am perfectly justified in using that phrase. Should any one question its correctness, my only reply would be to point to the notable alteration which has taken place in your opinions, since you exchanged the peaceful seclusion and fearless independence of a student's life, for the feverish excitement and mental subjugation which must always be the lot of any man—whatever intellectual eminence he may have attained—who aspires to represent a Democracy like that of Westminster.

In your excellent little treatise "On Representative Government," there is a passage on the dead-levelling tendency of Democracy which ought to be frequently and thoughtfully read by every Liberal member of the House of Commons, and especially by all those—a pretty large number—who have not yet learned the real meaning and full significance of the word "Americanisation." I use that term to express what you describe so well in the following paragraph:—

"Political life is indeed, in America, a most valuable school, but it is a school from which the ablest teachers are excluded, the first minds in the country being as effectually shut out from the national representation, and from public functions generally, as if they were under a formal disqualifcation. The Demos, too, being the one source of power in America, all the selfish ambition of the country gravitates towards it, as it does in despotic countries towards the monarch: the people, like the despot, is pursued with adulation and sycophancy, and the corrupting effects of power fully keep pace with its improving and ennobling influences."

Now, if this be the inevitable tendency of Democracy in America, as it manifests itself at the present day, I cannot help thinking that it was rather disingenuous to make use of De Tocqueville's evidence in favour of those Democratic institutions, as you have done in the following portion of your first speech on the Reform Bill, seeing that De Tocqueville could speak only of what he saw thirty-two years ago, whereas we have the later and far more valuable accumulated experience of what has taken place in the "Model Republic" from that period down to the present day:—

"Let me refer hon. gentlemen to Tocqueville, who is so continually quoted when he says anything uncomplimentary to Democracy, that those who have not read him might mistake him for an enemy of it, instead of its discriminating but sincere friend, Tocqueville says that though the various legislatures are perpetually making mistakes, they are perpetually correcting them too, and that the evil, such as it is, is far outweighed by the salutary effects of the general tendency of their legislation, which is maintained, in a degree unknown elsewhere, in the direction of the interests of the people. Not that vague abstraction, the good of the country, but the actual, positive, well-being of the living human creatures who compose the population."

This is certainly most complimentary to American Democracy on the part of M. De Tocqueville; but how will it bear the test of examination? You have told us in your essay "On Representative Government" that "a Government is to be judged by its action upon men, and by its action upon things." Apply this test to the sanitary legislation of Great Britain and the United States, and you will find that the limited aristocracy of this country, in its administrative action, has been much more successful in promoting "the actual, positive well-being of the living human creatures who compose the population" of Great Britain, than the unlimited Democracy of America has been in promoting that of the sovereign people of the "Model Republic." I make no mere random statement in asserting this truth, as you must admit when you have digested the unpalatable facts contained in the following paragraph, which I copy from the New York Courier:—

"In England, where if progress is slow it is always sure, the best results have attended the observing of sanitary provisions. There the value of human life is better appreciated than it is here, and the duty of doing all that lies within the reach of human means for preserving it is fully acknowledged. … In looking at the rate of mortality in our own country, it will be found that there is much work to be done. "We have grossly neglected the laws of health, and have ignored the obvious results obtained in England. Instead of lengthening the average term of life in our cities, we have shortened it. In Philadelphia the average term of life between the years 1810 and 1820 was 26. From 1820 to 1844 it was 22 years, and in 1857 it was 20 years only. In Boston, between the years 1810 and 1820, it was 27 years; from 1820 to 1844 it was 21 years, and in 1857 it was but 20 years. In this city (New York), from 1810 to 1820 it was 26 years; in 1821 it was 21 years; in 1843 it was 19 years; and now the average term is only about 15 years."

So great an increase in the rate of mortality in the three largest, wealthiest, and most influential cities of the Union, is a terrible fact, and one that involves some very important conclusions. Observe, too, that this frightful deterioration of the public health, this wholesale destruction of human life, has been going forward with steady pace from year-to year among a people for whose education the most lavish provision has been made. "In the cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, more money, in proportion to the population, is raised by taxation, for the support of common schools, than in any other cities in the world."[1] Nor is there any lack of means to provide everything that is needful for the preservation and improvement of the public health. The annual revenue levied in the city of New York alone is now ten times greater than the entire sum raised by the Government of the whole American Union at the end of last century. At that time the average amount paid by each inhabitant of New York was about 4s. per head, man, woman, and child. Last year it was nearly 80s. per head; showing an increase in the pressure of local taxation, within that period, of 2,000 per cent.!

When we inquire into the causes of the increased mortality in the "Empire City" of the Union, whose journalism inspires public sentiment, and manufactures public opinion for the "Model Republic," we find that one of the chief sources of the evil has been the unchecked progress of what is called "the tenement system," a wretched sort of barracks on a gigantic scale, in which some three or four hundred thousands of the working classes of New York find lodgings.[2] Last November, when rumours of the approach of cholera had awakened public attention to the fact that so many nurseries of pestilence were growing up in the very midst of the city, the New York Tribune gave a report of "A Tour among the Tenements,"from which I take the following graphic passage, in order to show you how much more powerful the aggregate greed of an unlimited democracy is likely to become than "the aggregate wisdom of humanity," on which Utopian reformers place so much reliance:—

"An 'Improved' Dwelling.

"Right in the centre of the city, in the middle of countless millions of wealth, are hundreds of buildings of the following description:—The first we visited is labelled 'Improved Tenement Building,' and true to its title it is an improvement upon many. It is in Park-street, and is six stories high. Each storey contains two rooms of about ten by fourteen feet, with a small dark windowless bedroom of about half that size. A narrow, dark staircase winds from top to bottom. In each is a family of several persons. All the cooking is done in the same apartment. Ventilation is impossible, from the construction of the house. But the saddest feature of all is at the basement. The only place which answers to the name of water-closets for the men, women, and children, baffles all description, and would disgrace the worst camp or prison in the South. This reeking cesspool, situated at the bottom of the chasm between two huge buildings, poisons all the air that ever passes by the windows. They must, of necessity, inhale these pestiferous odours continually. For this privilege these tenants pay from five to six dollars a month [£12 to £15 a year]."

The interest on capital invested in these "improved" cholera beds is enormous; "in many cases not less than 35 per cent." Such houses, we are told, "are all full, and the rents collectable." The poor tenants, in spite of universal suffrage and the ballot, and the lavishly-endowed common schools, are completely at the mercy of their landlords, who, as the Tribune remarks, "have not the custody of either the health, or the morals, or the comfort of their tenants," and who, consequently, like certain rich companies in this country, "consult only their profit," acting strictly in accordance with the doctrine of laissez faire: "Everyone for himself, and the Devil take the hindmost."

As to the remedy, the New York Tribune in spite of its hopefulness, and firm persuasion that America manages its affairs better than England has ever done, is very much as sea. "The great difficulty," as it informs us, "lies in the fact that there exists no authority to control or prevent these matters; no person whose function and responsibility it is to have them corrected." What more fatal sentence could be passed on the working of unlimited democracy than this melancholy confession?" You tell the House of Commons, on the authority of De Tocqueville, that, "though the various American legislatures are perpetually making mistakes, they are perpetually correcting them." Where is the proof of this? In the same speech, you say, "the general tendency of their legislation is maintained, in a degree unknown elsewhere, in the direction of the interests of the people." But this is flatly contradicted by the incontrovertible facts I have given, and which furnish so complete an illustration of what you had stated so well, (before you were returned for Westminster,) in the following passage of your "Considerations on Representative Government":—

"In the false democracy, which, instead of giving representation to all, gives it only to the local majorities, the voice of the instructed minority may have no organ at all in the representative body. It is an admitted fact that, in the American democracy, which is constructed of this faulty model, the highly-cultivated members of the community, except such of them as are willing to sacrifice their own opinions and modes of judgment, and become the servile mouthpieces of their inferiors in knowledge, seldom offer themselves for Congiess or the State Legislatures, so little likelihood have they of being returned."

It would be unreasonable to look for wise measures from a Legislature composed of men without sufficient moral courage or honesty to assert their own convictions; and it would be no less unreasonable to look for brilliant examples of national progress and civilization among a people whose institutions are founded on so debasing a principle. As for the vast sums expended in educating the people of the United States, how utterly worthless must all that expenditure be rendered, so far as regards the diffusion of political wisdom, which implies political honesty, when it is found that those "highly-cultivated members of the community" who wish to enter Congress can do so only by "sacrificing their own opinions and modes of judgment," and becoming the mere "servile mouthpieces of their inferiors in knowledge"?[3]

In your "Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform," which was published in 1859, you made a remark, with reference to the corrupting influence of the ballot on national morality, which, as it bears upon this point, I shall take the liberty of quoting:—

"There are few points in which the English, as a people, are entitled to the moral pre-eminence with which they are accustomed to compliment themselves at the expense of other nations; but of these points, perhaps the one of greatest importance is, that the higher classes do not lie, and the lower, though mostly habitual liars, are ashamed of lying.[4] To run any risk of weakening this feeling—a difficult one to create, or, when once gone, to restore—would be a permanent evil too great to be incurred for so very temporary a benefit as the ballot would confer, even on the most exaggerated estimate of its necessity."

This was your sober and well-matured opinion, in 1859, when you were a writer of books." What your opinion may be with regard to the need of the ballot, in 1869, should you continue to represent the Americanised constituency of Westminster for the next three years, must be left to conjecture. From what has already happened, I would not like to predict very confidently what your verdict may be, some three years hence, when the eloquent member for Birmingham brings forward his motion for the adoption of secret voting as the only effectual mode of suppressing bribery and corruption.

From the general tone of your treatise "On Representative Government" your friends and admirers naturally expected that, when the important question of Parliamentary Reform came under discussion, you would gladly embrace so excellent an opportunity of ventilating the enlightened ideas you had there expounded, with reference to the principles by which Reformers ought to be guided in dealing with this question. In the Preface to that work you remarked that "both Conservatives and Liberals have lost confidence in the political creeds which they nominally profess, while neither side appears to have made any progress in providing itself with a better." And yet, as you justly observe, "such a better doctrine must be possible; not a mere compromise, by splitting the difference between the two, but something wider than either, which, in virtue of its comprehensiveness, might be adopted by either Liberal or Conservative, without renouncing anything which he really feels to be valuable in his own creed."

This is true Liberalism, which differs as widely from the blatant, sham Liberalism of stump orators and Demos-worshipping journals as the Anglican idea of freedom differs from the American idea. The latter is founded on the false doctrine of the rightful supremacy of a mere numerical majority, and the equally false theory of the natural equality of mankind. The English idea of freedom is as much opposed to the Democratic absolutism of "a tyrant majority" as it is to the Autocratic absolutism of an Emperor elected by universal suffrage and the ballot. "Englishmen," as Mr. Emerson remarks, are not to be led by a phrase; they want a working plan—a working machine—a working constitution." Hence the strong aversion they have always manifested to Gallican and American ideas when any attempt has been made to incorporate them in our institutions. Their first inquiry is: How have those theories worked in America and France? So far as the United States was concerned, it was easy to give a plausible answer to this question a few years ago. But the civil war which broke out in 1861 gave a terrible blow to the theory of American perfectibility, as well as to those arguments in favour of "Americanising our institutions" which, the advanced Liberals naturally founded on that theory.

It was only a few months before the fall of Fort Sumter that Mr. Bright, in a speech he made at Wakefield, drew the following contrast between the working of English and American institutions:—

"How came it—he asked their public writers—he asked their statesmen—he asked ministers of religion,—how came it—the fact was indisputable—that in the United States the great body of the artisans and labouring classes were so much better off than those of this country were? He knew of three causes that would account for it. In the United States the land was wholly free from all feudal law and tenures; the people were instructed by an extensive and thoroughly working common school system, useful to a degree infinitely beyond what the people of this country ever dreamt of; and further, that, from some cause or other that he could not then inquire into, the Government of the United States, although the population of each country was about 30,000,000, spent about 60,000,000l. less than the Government of this country."[5]

The majority of your "Westminster constituents, who hanker after Utopian visions of a perfect political system, have been no doubt indoctrinated with the same opinions as Mr. Bright. From the revolutionary era when Paine wrote his "Rights of Man," down to the present day, the democratic press has been constantly instilling the doctrines of American perfectibility into the minds of our artisans and labouring classes. No member of the House of Commons, either on the Conservative or the Liberal side, knows better than you do how false those doctrines are, and therefore you ought to take advantage of the prominent position you now hold to assert your independent convictions on that head.

You have told us that "the natural tendency of representative government, as of modern civilization, is towards collective mediocrity;" and that "this tendency is increased by all reductions and extensions of the franchise, their tendency being to place the principal power in the hands of classes more and more below the highest level of instruction in the community." Now, if this be the "natural tendency" of all reductions of the franchise, you ought seriously to consider whether you are acting wisely in assisting Ministers to hurry a franchise extension bill, founded on democratic principles, through Parliament, when you know that that measure was advisedly framed to give "leverage" for effecting greater changes in the same direction.

I am, yours faithfully,

  1. The "Fourth of July Oration," pronounced in the City Hall, Boston, before the municipal authorities, by the Hon. Edward Everett.—New York Tribune, July, 1860.
  2. Some idea of the magnitude of these dwellings may be gathered from one, which is 50 feet front by 250 feet deep. It has an alley running the whole depth on each side of it. These alley-ways are excavated to the depth of the cellars, arched over, and covered with flag stoops, in which, at intervals, are open gratings to give light; the whole length of which space is occupied by water-closets without doors, and under which are open drains communicating with the street sewer. This building is occupied mostly by foreigners. It is calculated for 126 families, each family having a room in which they cook, eat, sleep, and sit. The only ventilation is by a window which opens against a dead wall eight feet distant, and to which rises the vapour from the vaults below. Such buildings are, many of them, provided with gas and water, and they vary in the degree of ventilation and sanitary regulation. The importance they occupy in this metropolis is manifest in the fact that the population of the city of New York was, in 1861, 810,000; of which one-half lived in tenement houses.—Appleton's American Cyclopædia, 1861.
  3. The besetting, the degrading vice of America is the moral cowardice by which men are led to truckle to what is called public opinion, though this opinion is as inconsistent as the winds—though, in all cases that enlist the feelings of factions, there are two, and sometimes twenty, each differing from all the others, and though, nine times in ten, these opinions are mere engines set in motion by the most corrupt and least respectable portion of the community, for unworthy purposes.—J. Fenimore Cooper.

    The Englishman is so much attached to his independence that he instinctively resists every effort to invade it, and nothing would be more likely to arouse him than to say the mass thinks differently from himself; whereas the American ever seems ready to resign his own opinion to that which is made to seem to be the opinion of the public. I say seems to be, for so manifest is the power of public opinion, that one of the commonest expedients of all American managers is to create an impression that the public thinks in a particular way, in order to bring the common mind into subjection,—Ibid.

  4. Englishmen are blunt in saying what they think, sparing of promises, and they require plain dealing of others. We will not have to do with a man in a mask. Let us know the truth. … To be king of their word is their pride. When they unmask cant, they say "the English of this is," &c.; and to give the lie is the extreme insult. The phrase of the lowest of the people is "honour bright," and their vulgar phrase, "his word is as good as his bond." They hate shuffling and equivocation, and the cause is damaged in the public opinion on which any paltering can be fixed.—Emerson's English Traits.
  5. Another and more potent cause, which Mr. Bright did not mention, is the difference in regard to density of population in the two countries. In America it ranges from 60 or 70 inhabitants per square mile in New England, to 3 inhabitants per mile in Texas and California. In Great Britain the average is 242 inhabitants per square mile.

This work was published before January 1, 1924 and it is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 100 years or less since publication.