Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/A question of democratic ability


It seems very strange that, amidst all that has been written about the progress of democracy in the civilised world, from the first French Revolution to the present hour, there should be little or nothing said on the important question of the competency of democratic republics to sustain international relations. I do not know where to look for any express and adequate treatment of this topic since the first establishment of the American polity. It is the more remarkable, because we have always found it difficult to get on amicably for any length of time with the American government; and we have a floating impression that this is owing to the form of government existing in the United States. An old man, strongly interested in both countries, having a cordial sympathy with the admirers of constitutional monarchy on the one hand, and of democratic republicanism on the other, while abiding by the former, as an Englishman should do, may be allowed to state what he has observed, and what he thinks, on a subject which must become more and more interesting to society as the tendency towards democratic modes of government (which no political philosopher disputes) becomes more pronounced.

The first idea which must strike everybody who attends to the subject is that, if elective government must necessarily embody the popular sentiment and opinion of the day, it must be unfavourable to international relations which are based on certain fixed principles and rules; principles and rules which it is the very object of international society to maintain, against the caprice, interest, or passion of individual States. It is natural that this should be the impression even of the sincere admirers of republican institutions, who are satisfied that popular self-government may in any event cope with the difficulties at home, and be trusted to deal with whatever may arise in the republic itself. Where the appeal to the national understanding and heart is complete and thorough, the national intelligence and conscience may, they think, be entrusted with the management of its own affairs—deciding for itself how far it is desirable to interpret and rule each present case by ancient principles and rules, and how far to modify and innovate as it proceeds. But in international relations a wholly different procedure is requisite. The great question is, whether a nation which has no governing class devoted to a political career can continuously act with other governments on equal terms, with the intelligence, learning, temper and manners which the vocation of diplomacy and the terms of alliance or international comity require. While, as I said, the question has been strangely neglected in works of political philosophy, there is, I believe, a very general impression, in European society at least, that this competency can hardly exist, and can scarcely be looked for. In the United States there is no evidence that it has ever been effectually discussed at all since the great Founders of the Republic passed away from the scene of their labours. Let us review briefly such facts as have occurred in our own time, and before our own eyes, bearing upon this question.

When we consider that the Dutch and Swiss republics, and the democratic government of Norway, which sports a king for ornament or convenience only, have not been particularly chargeable with aggressive tendencies, or with incapacity to live in peace and honour among the nations around them, we must suppose at once that American aggressiveness and impracticability may be owing to other causes than the democratic character of the national polity. If it is proved that the fact is so, the question will remain whether the popular self rule which exists in its broadest form there, would interfere with international intercourse, if there were no prior causes of disturbance.

First, for the facts in regard to the American case.

Nothing about the Americans surprises Europeans more than their being always on better terms with despotic than constitutional governments, and in heartier sympathy with subjected than with free nations. They themselves admit the fact; and some of their leading statesmen of the last generation have accounted to me for it, in conversation, in various ways. Mr. Clay told me, a quarter of a century since, that it was agreeable news in Washington when the tories came into power in England, and matter of silent vexation when they gave way to the whigs. He, who had negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, was qualified to speak on the subject, and he told me that the reason was that the tories were, from their long tenure of office, better men of business. He added that they had also better manners than the whigs, so that it was much easier to do business and to relish intercourse with them. Others accounted for the national predilection for despotic governments by saying that Americans who travel are, for the most part, scholarly men, with historical or political tastes, or men weary of political turmoil (if not disappointment) at home, and delighted to be where politics were the last thing talked about, and where the citizens seemed to them supremely happy in having that sort of business transacted for them, without any thought or care on their own part. Others, again, glanced at the traditional hostility to England, and sympathy with England's enemies, as accounting for part of the admiring friendship which travelled Americans avow at the great continental capitals. All this may be true; but I felt at the time, and have felt a hundred times since, that it does not account for more than a very small part of the case. It is abundantly evident that individuals from a young nation, living beyond sea, may be swayed in their preferences, during the period of travel, by sentiment, imagination, passion, historical memories, and a new set of social sensations; but these things are not a ground for a permanent political characteristic. It is very natural that the entrance of an American travelling party upon European soil should be such as happened a few years ago, when a group of them landed at Civita Vecchia, and proceeded at once to Rome. It happened to be at sunset on a lovely evening when these Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims,—proud of their Puritan origin,-were summoned to alight from their carriage because the Pope was approaching. His Holiness was walking up the hill; and as he stopped on the ridge to look abroad over the landscape, the last rays of the sun shone upon his white garments, and the little cap he wore, and upon the benevolent smile with which he greeted the strangers. In an instant, they were not only all down on their knees, receiving his blessing, but convulsed with emotion, the tears raining down their cheeks. In all time to come, the most eminent Calvinistic pastor in Europe would have no chance with them beside Pio Nono. In the same way, Americans forget their republicanism under the slightest notice from the Czar, or an imperial invitation at Vienna or a smile from an Empress at Paris; and this from something stirring within them better than snobbishness, or any kind of express egotism. The good social understanding between Americans and king-ridden people,—or, rather, I fear I must say, the admiration of Americans for that kind of society,—is natural enough; and it may have some effect on republican diplomacy, inasmuch as the diplomatists themselves are subject to the same. beguiling influences; but there is much more in the matter than this view includes. The plain truth is that there have been grounds of sympathy between the Americans and the despotisms of Europe which do not exist as between them and free nations. There is no question of the fact on any hand; and the only matter for controversy is, whether this good understanding is owing to the republicanism of the Americans or to some other characteristic.

The most conspicuous instance of this close friendship with despotism is perhaps the intercourse of Americans with Russia during the reign of Nicholas. It is remarked by all Europeans who visit Washington that the Russian ambassador has easy work there, while the representatives of other powers are kept in continual hot water. The Russian is attended by trains of enthusiastic citizens when he enters the Capitol, extolling the majesty of the Czar, or longing to go to St. Petersburgh; and ladies crowd round him at the balls, twinkling away their tears of sensibility about some not of imperial charity, or echoing some soft sentiment of the empress. The Spanish ambassador, meanwhile, is internally raging, and outwardly restless under the ever-renewed insult of debates in Congress, or proposals from the President, about buying Cuba. The ambassador informs the government that Cuba is not on sale; but this makes no sort of difference; and the unhappy man who undertakes the post at Washington has to hear something every day about what the Americans mean to do with Cuba. The British ambassador is scarcely happier. He has to make up his mind to live in an atmosphere of jealousy, suspicion, and misapprehension, and under constant irritation from evil construction and bad manners. If there is an interval of reasonable temper and courteous behaviour, it is sure to be presently over. If the ministers are amiable, the journalists are sure to be insulting; and, from one quarter or another, he is under the constant necessity of explaining matters which would never raise a question in any other country. The French Minister stands next in favour to the Russian, generally speaking. There were bickerings and threatenings of war during the Orleans reign; but under the two Napoleons, France has appeared very charming to the republicans at Washington and at Paris. Other Ministers meet with varying degrees of favour; but the two extremes of treatment correspond with the political extremes. The Czar's ambassador is the pet; and the British is the butt.

We all remember how the Americans sided with Russia during the Crimean war; and what books and journals were published by the Czar's visitors from the United States, and by American surgeons and journalists who accompanied the Russian army, or accepted Russian accounts of the war. Almost every year, we read of interviews with the Czar, and invitations from the Empress, and frank friendships with the young princes; and of the confidential explanations and sentimentalities, evidently intended to come to the world's ears through the vanity of flattered republican tourists. I have watched the process, as no doubt others have, for many years; and, if they and I have been partly amused and partly indignant at seeing the game that was being played, our feelings have been tame and careless in comparison with those of sound-hearted and clear-minded Americans, who resented being made tools of by the Czar, in virtue of the political anomaly and social vice which is the root of all the serious troubles of the republic.

It was that order of American citizens which pointed out, many years ago, that every serious agitation on the Slavery question in America was coincident in time with some scheme of Russian aggression. I have not room here to follow out that curious series of facts; but it so happens that every alarm of insurrection or revolution in the United States, and every aggression of the Southern faction on constitutional liberty,—every repeal of compromise, fugitive slave law, outrage on the freedom of the press or of the mails, happened just when the Emperor Nicholas was moving upon Finland, upon Turkey, upon Poland, towards India, or the Caucasus, or China, or the Levant. In America it is well understood that Russian intrigue was as busy on the one side of the Atlantic as on the other, and that these coincidences were due to the imperial caution which employed the energies of the republic at home when they might have been troublesome to him in Europe. He might gloze at St. Petersburgh about the singular likeness between his and their aims and aspirations; but he took care to draw off their sympathies from Hungary and Poland, from Cracow and Constantinople, when he bad business of his own in that direction. This is one discovery of patriotic Americans.

Another is that a wonderful likeness has grown up between the mode of Russian and American filibustering. The Southern States have certainly taken a lesson from the Russian government in this matter; and, the mode being precisely what the Czar Peter prescribed to his descendants, it is believed that the Slave-power in America has been under the actual training of Russian political teachers. I need only remind my readers of the method. First, some citizens pass quietly into the doomed neighbour's country, and there establish themselves in pursuit of some branch of industry. There were Russian manufacturers and merchants in Caubul, just as there were American farmers in Texas, and at the same time. After a while, the settlers, or countrymen who follow upon their traces, find or make some cause for native discontent, and stir up disaffection and disorder. Then, the government of St. Petersburgh or of Washington, as it may be, benevolently intervenes to afford protection and secure order; and, a military force once introduced, annexation is only a question of time. History will by-and-by exhibit the process so plainly, as it has gone forward in both hemispheres, that posterity will ask how it was possible for the Americans to be so blind, and to allow themselves to be made tools of as they have been,—befooled to the level of the wit of their least wise fellow-citizens.

Many living Americans understand very well how it has happened. Looking at French transactions under the present régime, they see that this affair has nothing to do with republicanism. The Russian autocrat, the French revolutionary despot, and the American oligarchy have all been following the same course of aggression and annexation; and it has been done apart from all republican considerations, and by no means in virtue of them in any of the cases.

Here we lay our finger on the secret. Here we find the ground of sympathy between the Americans, as they have been governed by a slave-holding oligarchy, and the despotisms of Europe. The serf-holding and the slave-holding country had a common interest in aggression upon neighbours, just as the military governments of Russia and France have had the same tendency in common for politico-military reasons. We see, by meditating a little in this direction, that the international favouritism between Russians and Americans is largely accounted for without any reference to the republicanism of the latter. It is the oligarchical pro-slavery interest in the United States which was in such close affinity with the Russia of the Emperor Nicholas.

This leads us into a path on which we shall find a good deal of light shed by events within the memory of us all. There are two aspects under which Europeans have to observe the conduct of the great Republic—viz.: in its aggressions and in its alliances. These are its two classes of foreign relations. How do its citizens behave in them?

About the aggression I will say only a few words. I need not reprobate it, for nobody de fends it. All that is necessary is to remind my readers that it has nothing to do with republicanism. The Dutch and the Swiss have never been aggressive as to neighbouring territory, nor have the Americans of the Northern States, except in as far as they have been compelled by unworthy fears and vanities to answer the requisitions of the Southern oligarchy established at Washington. It is as slave-holders that the Southern citizens have needed fresh territory, and have sent their agents, Lopez and Walker and the like, into Cuba and Mexico and Nicaragua and St. Domingo. We constantly hear the question asked in every country in Europe, "Why cannot the Americans keep at home in their own half-peopled territory, and enjoy themselves in peace and plenty and progress?" Ay! why cannot they? The answer is, that some of them are slave-holders, and that, as they impoverish their own soil, they need fresh, and must be always on the move. The contrast between them and their countrymen in New England (who are far more truly republican) is as strong as between an Alabama speculator and a Lincolnshire or Lothian farmer.

Thus, as to this feature of their international relations—their aggressions on foreign territory—it is not their republicanism but their slave holding that is answerable for it.

And now for the other aspect—their foreign alliances.

Their international partialities are clearly not a matter of political philosophy or every-day common sense. Neither philosophy nor common sense justifies the partiality towards France and Russia and the touchiness and testiness towards England, which are notorious and undisputed everywhere. To what are these owing?

Large allowance must be made for the feelings left behind by the former colonial connection with England, and the mode of its rupture, and for the share which France took in sustaining that rupture. It is scarcely possible to overrate the allowance which should be made for these influences: but we must admit, first, that they have nothing to do with the republicanism of the Americans; and, next, that there is something remarkable in the revival of ill-humour and impracticable manners, after a course of good understanding and mutual good manners, during the very reign in which the separation took place. During many years of the reign of George III., there was a succession of dignified and thoroughly well qualified ambassadors from the United States to the Courts of Europe: whereas, what have we seen of late years? The Southern party sent to England Mr. Stevenson, Mr. Everett, who showed himself the Southern bully complete on his return, in his notorious letter to Lord J. Russell, and his manifestoes on the Monroe doctrine and the Slave Trade; Mr. Bancroft, who could do nothing but quail before the difficulties of his position; and Mr. Buchanan, who immortalised himself here as the author of the Ostend Manifesto. The same party favoured Spain with the loan of Mr. Soulé, who employed himself in working at the Ostend Manifesto, in intriguing on behalf of filibustering schemes, in plotting to deprive Spain of Cuba, and in fighting duels, and spouting venom and insult so intolerable that his patrons were compelled to recall him. When the Republican party came into power, their leaders sent Mr. Cassius Clay and Mr. Burlingame to Courts where they could not be endured, and whence they have been recalled, after having done all possible mischief by their effusions in speech and writing, in England and France. Here we seem to arrive at an implication of republicanism with the case; and it is true that in a republic only is it probable that citizens should be appointed to diplomatic missions who are conspicuously deficient in the first requisites for their office,—a dispassionate and patient temper, a knowledge of history and political philosophy, and courteous, or at least decent manners. But, though the republicanism did not check such appointments, something else originated them. Mr. Soulé was the pro-slavery bully; and Mr. Cassius Clay was the anti-slavery bully. Their respective parties sent the men; and the party feud, now intensified into civil war, was altogether due to slavery.

All the quarrels and bickerings with England have been due to slavery, for two generations past. The aggressiveness about territory is as directly owing to that cause as the dispute about the Right of Search. For their respective purposes of mutual antagonism the South and the North have craved Canada and the West Indies; and that antagonism has been about, not Republicanism but Slavery. The incessant bickerings and evil constructions arising from the unequal partnership in the care of the African coasts, in which till now England has done nearly all the work, and has had to endure endless obstruction and insult, have been the result of the insincerity of a slave-holding power pretending to stop a trade which its citizens were organised to promote with great energy. The recent change, by which sincerity has taken the place of false pretence, and friendliness with England has succeeded to counteraction of her efforts, indicates the truth of the case. Now that the Federal Government has shaken off its complicity with Slavery, it sweeps away, by its own spontaneous movement, all the causes of ill blood and ill manners which were involved in the question of searching vessels supposed to be carrying slaves. This is a clearing of the ground for the experiment of extreme interest and importance,—whether a democratic republic is capable of sustaining, more or less well, the international relations which are a part of the every day duty of other nations and their governments.

Thus far, the promise has not been very good, it must be admitted. The determinate admiration of France, under any circumstances, and the unremitting misconstruction of English conduct, spirit, and manners, show an ascendancy of passion over reason which is not encouraging; and again, I do not see any peculiar qualification as a set-off on the other side. But the whole temper of irritability, and the habit of deferring to passion and sentiment, rather than to reason, may be as confidently ascribed to the institution which has corrupted the political life of the republic, as any of the quarrels in the Gulf or on the African Coast about search. There is no very good promise in the utter inability of both South and North to conceive of England and France having any other aim than getting cotton. The Southern citizens see nothing but insanity in our non-intervention, and are certainly still hoping for our aid, which they suppose to be delayed for some cunning reason. The Northern citizens either suspect us of intervention, or regard our endurance of distress for cotton as "eating humble pie;" and there is not much promise in this inability to comprehend that we are bound by international duty, and to perceive the beauty of that obedience. There is no great promise in the evident insensibility to the claims of international duty shown in Commodore Wilkes's act, and in Mr. Wendell Phillips's comment, as reported by the "Times" correspondent, that he hoped to see the day when American commanders might take any man from any ship, without fear of consequences. There is no great promise while the citizens generally suppose, after all explanation, that England has formerly done what Commodore Wilkes did lately. There is no great promise while it is a common thing for legislators, and reformers, and popular speakers to propose to seize, at some convenient time, the territory of some other power, and to annex its inhabitants;—while men who would no more than other people dream of stealing a bank-note, or a book, or a hat, talk openly of stealing other people's islands and colonies. There is no great promise while the American legislature can pass, and the President can sanction, a Merrill tariff, with the avowed object of class profit at the expense of other nations. This symptom is mitigated, however, by the consideration that that tariff bears even more hardly upon American consumers than upon foreign producers; and that it may therefore be regarded as an evidence of ignorance, and therefore as a scandal which time will cure. On the whole, there is no great promise in the evidence of the collective events of the Republic that its citizens have yet to acquire the elementary conception of international i, obligation, and of the principles on which that obligation rests. At present, they clearly no more understand the international morality of other peoples than they perceive any such duty for themselves.

Still, I regard the matter as an open question—whether these republicans can take their place, and an equal place, in the communion of states. If they have till now been borne with, played with, used, and allowed for, as young and way ward, they have not the less been burdened by a great national disgrace and social sin; and, now that the national responsibility for that sin and burden is abjured, a new public morality may begin to grow. The whole question of their capacity for international relations hangs on the point which is all important in every view of republican existence—whether fundamental principles and inviolable rules can be so commended to the national allegiance as to abide securely amidst all changes of men and circumstance. This is the great republican question: if it can be answered favourably, international relations may prosper, with others: if time should afford an unfavourable answer, disorder at home must cause utter wreck abroad, and the American people must be in reality what some of them propose now in ignorant levity to render themselves,—an outlaw among the nations.

Having seen how fast they can learn, when once interested, and how exemplary is their general obedience to principles and laws which have once fairly laid hold on their minds, I hope the best for them. Meantime, England has shown her disposition to be forbearing, and France to be considerate. The Americans must strive in return to be just. If they cannot be so, the consequences will be not only fatal to their particular polity, but perilous to the principles of political freedom, of which they believe themselves to be the apostles.

From the Mountain.