Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/December 1882/Editor's Table



THERE was a strong and perhaps a quite laudable curiosity on the part of many people to know what impression had been made upon the mind of Herbert Spencer when first coming to this country. It was certainly something more than an idle curiosity on the part of a large number of our citizens to learn his impressions, because it was widely known that he is a philosophical student of national institutions, and probably the highest living authority on the science of human society. He has been very widely read and much studied in this country, and it was felt that his views, whether favorable or not, would certainly be interesting, and his criticisms, if he made any, suggestive and valuable.

And it was no doubt because of his respect for this sincere desire, to get at his real views, that Mr. Spencer persistently declined to be hastily and prematurely interviewed by the professionals of the press, whose ways of doing such things are not always favorable to the representation of important truths. What they generally most want is frivolous gossip and personal particulars, to be dressed up for sensational purposes, and to be had exclusively for the benefit of enterprising newspapers. Mr. Spencer was indeed repeatedly applied to by reporters of a better character who would have represented him in his own way, and with fullness and fairness, but the state of his health long made it impossible that he could consent to be questioned.

And there was certainly plenty of reason why he should be in no hurry to venture upon an expression of opinion regarding American social and political affairs. It was easy enough to say how he was struck by the external aspects of American life, but it was not so easy to get familiar with the working of the internal elements and forces of our social and political life. It was easy enough to compare our cities, steam-boats, railroads, rural scenery, and open habits of the people with those of the olden countries, but a very different thing to form an intelligent judgment of the operation of complex institutions and the slow-working social tendencies in a nation that covers a continent. Perhaps no living man is so well aware of the magnitude and the difficulties of the problems now being worked out by the people of these associated States as Mr. Spencer, and he could not but feel that a two months' sojourn among us in a very unfavorable state of health was but a very insufficient preparation for an intelligent verdict upon American social and political problems. Yet his previous occupation with such subjects certainly qualified him to form opinions of what he saw and heard and at the proper time he had no hesitation in expressing them.

And that he was prepared to speak a good deal to the point, to offer views of moment, and suggest weighty criticisms, has been sufficiently proved by the way his opinions have been received in all quarters. They have been very extensively published from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and as extensively commented upon. No such message from any foreigner has ever compelled equal attention, or been received in a better spirit. There has been very wide agreement with Mr. Spencer's most important statements, and, where assent has been denied, it has still been recognized that the questions raised are fundamental, and that Mr. Spencer has done us an eminent service in setting people to thinking about the sources of danger to our institutions, and the duties of citizens in regard to them.

In one respect the time of publication was somewhat unfortunate. The results of the interview were offered to the New York press to all the New York newspapers at the same time and without previous notice, and, as the columns of the press are generally much crowded in an active political campaign, there was some difficulty in publishing the communication. Several papers felt it necessary to shorten it by omitting what they regarded as the less important parts, so that imperfect representations of the interview were extensively circulated and republished. This being known, there has been a good deal of call for the document in its complete form, which could not be met. We have accordingly thought it best to reprint the interview in full. It will certainly not be news to our readers, but it may be well to have a permanent record of it for future reference:

Hearing that Herbert Spencer had returned to New York in a somewhat improved condition of health, an intimate American friend obtained his consent to be questioned regarding his impressions of this country to the following effect:

I believe, Mr. Spencer, that you have not been interviewed since your arrival in this country?

I have not. The statements in the newspapers implying personal intercourse are unauthorized, and many of them incorrect. It was said, for example, that I was ill from the effects of the voyage; the truth being that I suffered no inconvenience whatever, save that arising from disturbed rest. Subsequent accounts of me in respect of disorders, diet, dress, habits, etc., have been equally wide of the mark.

Have these misrepresentations been annoying to you?

In some measure, though I am not very sensitive; but I have been chiefly annoyed by statements which affect, not myself only, but others. For some ten days or more there went on reappearing in various journals, an alleged opinion of mine concerning Mr. Oscar Wilde. The statement that I had uttered it was absolutely baseless. I have expressed no opinion whatever concerning Mr. Oscar Wilde. Naturally, those who put in circulation fictions of this kind may be expected to mix much fiction with what fact they report.

Might not this misrepresentation have been avoided, by admitting interviewers?

Possibly; but, in the first place, I have not been sufficiently well; and, in the second place, I am averse to the system. To have to submit to cross-examination, under penalty of having ill-natured things said if one refuses, is an invasion of personal liberty which I dislike. Moreover, there is implied what seems to me an undue love of personalities. Your journals recall a witticism of the poet Heine, who said that "when a woman writes a novel, she has one eye on the paper and the other on some man except the Countess Hahn-hahn, who has only one eye." In like manner, it seems to me that in the political discussions that fill your papers, everything is treated in connection with the doings of individuals—some candidate for office, or some "boss" or wire puller. I think it not improbable that this appetite for personalities, among other evils, generates this recklessness of statement. The appetite must be ministered to; and in the eagerness to satisfy its cravings, there comes less and less care respecting the correctness of what is said.

Has what you have seen answered your expectations?

It has far exceeded them. Such books about America as I had looked into, had given me no adequate idea of the immense developments of material civilization which I have everywhere found. The extent, wealth, and magnificence of your cities, and especially the splendor of New York, have altogether astonished me. Though I have not visited the wonder of the West, Chicago, yet some of your minor modern places, such as Cleveland, have sufficiently amazed me, by the marvelous results of one generation's activity. Occasionally, when I have been in places of some ten thousand inhabitants, where the telephone is in general use, I have felt somewhat ashamed of our own unenterprising towns; many of which, of fifty thousand inhabitants and more, make no use of it.

I suppose you recognize in these results the great benefit of free institutions?

Ah, now comes one of the inconveniences of interviewing. I have been in the country less than two months; have seen but a relatively small part of it, and but comparatively few people; and yet you wish from me a definite opinion on a difficult question.

Perhaps you will answer, subject to the qualification that you are but giving your first impressions?

Well, with that understanding, I may reply that, though free institutions have been partly the cause, I think they have not been the chief cause. In the first place, the American people have come into possession of an unparalleled fortune—the mineral wealth, and the vast tracts of virgin soil producing abundantly with small cost of culture. Manifestly that alone goes a long way toward producing this enormous prosperity. Then they have profited by inheriting all the arts, appliances, methods, developed by older societies, while leaving behind the obstructions existing in them. They have been able to pick and choose from the products of all past experience; appropriating the good and rejecting the bad. Then, besides these favors of fortune, there are factors proper to themselves. I perceive in American faces generally, a great amount of determination—a kind of "do or die" expression; and this trait of character, joined with a power of work exceeding that of any other people, of course produces an unparalleled rapidity of progress. Once more, there is the inventiveness, which, stimulated by the need for economizing labor, has been so wisely fostered. Among us in England, there are many foolish people who, while thinking that a man who toils with his hands has an equitable claim to the product, and, if he has special skill, may rightly have the advantage of it, also hold that if a man toils with his brain, perhaps for years, and, uniting genius with perseverance, evolves some valuable invention, the public may rightly claim the benefit. The Americans have been more far-seeing. The enormous museum of patents which I saw at Washington, is significant of the attention paid to inventors' claims; and the nation profits immensely from having, in this direction (though not in all others), recognized property in mental products. Beyond question, in respect of mechanical appliances, the Americans are ahead of all nations. If, along with your material progress, there went equal progress of a higher kind, there would remain nothing to be wished.

That is an ambiguous qualification. What do you mean by it?

You will understand when I tell you what I was thinking of the other day. After pondering over what I have seen of your vast manufacturing and trading establishments, the rush of traffic in your streetcars and elevated railways, your gigantic hotels and Fifth Avenue palaces, I was suddenly reminded of the Italian republics of the middle ages; and recalled the fact that, while there was growing up in them great commercial activity, a development of the arts which made them the envy of Europe, and a building of princely mansions which continue to be the admiration of travelers, their people were gradually losing their freedom.

Do you mean this as a suggestion that we are doing the like?

It seems to me that you are. You retain the forms of freedom, but, so far as I can gather, there has been a considerable loss of the substance. It is true that those who rule you do not do it by means of retainers armed with swords; but they do it through regiments of men armed with voting-papers, who obey the word of command as loyally as did the dependants of the old feudal nobles, and who thus enable their leaders to override the general will and make the community submit to their exactions as effectually as their prototypes of old. It is doubtless true that each of your citizens votes for the candidate he chooses for this or that office, from President downward, but his hand is guided by a power behind, which leaves him scarcely any choice. "Use your political power as we tell you, or else throw it away," is the alternative offered to the citizen. The political machinery as it is now worked has little resemblance to that contemplated at the outset of your political life. Manifestly, those who framed your constitution never dreamed that twenty thousand citizens would go to the poll led by a "boss." America exemplifies, at the other end of the social scale, a change analogous to that which has taken place under sundry despotisms. You know that in Japan, before the recent revolution, the divine ruler, the Mikado, nominally supreme, was practically a puppet in the hands of his chief minister, the Shogun. Here it seems to me that the "sovereign people" is fast becoming a puppet which moves and speaks as wire-pullers determine.

Then you think that republican institutions are a failure?

By no means! I imply no such conclusion. Thirty years ago, when often discussing politics with an English friend, and defending republican institutions, as I always have done and do still; and when he urged against me the ill-working of such institutions over here; I habitually replied that the Americans got their form of government by a happy accident, not by normal progress, and that they would have to go back before they could go forward. What has since happened seems to me to have justified that view; and what I see now confirms me in it. America is showing on a larger scale than ever before, that "paper constitutions" will not work as they are intended to work. The truth, first recognized by Mackintosh, that "constitutions are not made, but grow," which is part of the larger truth that societies throughout their whole organizations are not made but grow, at once, when accepted, disposes of the notion that you can work, as you hope, any artificially-devised system of government. It becomes an inference that if your political structure has been manufactured, and not grown, it will forthwith begin to grow into something different from that intended—something in harmony with the natures of citizens and the conditions under which the society exists. And it evidently has been so with you. Within the forms of your constitution there has grown up this organization of professional politicians, altogether uncontemplated at the outset, which has become in large measure the ruling power.

But will not education and the diffusion of political knowledge fit men for free institutions?

No. It is essentially a question of character, and only in a secondary degree a question of knowledge. But for the universal delusion about education as a panacea for political evils, this would have been made sufficiently clear by the evidence daily disclosed in your papers. Are not the men who officer and control your Federal, State, and municipal organizations—who manipulate your caucuses and conventions, and run your partisan campaigns—all educated men? and has their education prevented them from engaging in, or permitting, or condoning, the briberies, lobbyings, and other corrupt methods which vitiate the actions of your administrations? Perhaps party newspapers exaggerate these things; but what am I to make of the testimony of your civil-service reformers—men of all parties? If I understand the matter aright, they are attacking, as vicious and dangerous, a system which has grown up under the natural spontaneous working of your free institutions—are exposing vices which education has proved powerless to prevent.

Of course, ambitious and unscrupulous men will secure the offices, and education will aid them in their selfish purposes; but would not those purposes be thwarted, and better government secured, by raising the standard of knowledge among the people at large?

Very little. The current theory is that if the young are taught what is right, and the reasons why it is right, they will do what is right when they grow up. But, considering what religious teachers have been doing these two thousand years, it seems to me that all history is against the conclusion, as much as is the conduct of these well-educated citizens I have referred to; and I do not see why you expect better results among the masses. Personal interests will sway the men in the ranks as they sway the men above them; and the education which fails to make the last consult public good rather than private good, will fail to make the first do it. The benefits of political purity are so general and remote, and the profit to each individual so inconspicuous, that the common citizen, educate him as you like, will habitually occupy himself with his personal affairs, and hold it not worth his while to fight against each abuse as soon as it appears. Not lack of information, but lack of certain moral sentiments, is the root of the evil.

You mean that people have not a sufficient sense of public duty?

Well, that is one way of putting it; but there is a more specific way. Probably it will surprise you if I say that the American has not, I think, a sufficiently quick sense of his own claims, and at the same time, as a necessary consequence, not a sufficiently quick sense of the claims of others—for the two traits are organically related. I observe that you tolerate various small interferences and dictations which Englishmen are prone to resist. I am told that the English are remarked on for their tendency to grumble in such cases; and I have no doubt it is true.

Do you think it worth while for people to make themselves disagreeable by resenting every trifling aggression? We Americans think it involves too much loss of time and temper, and doesn't pay.

Exactly. That is what I mean by character. It is this easy-going readiness to permit small trespasses because it would be troublesome or profitless or unpopular to oppose, which leads to the habit of acquiescence in wrong, and the decay of free institutions. Free institutions can be maintained only by citizens each of whom is instant to oppose every illegitimate act, every assumption of supremacy, every official excess of power, however trivial it may seem. As Hamlet says, there is such a thing as greatly to find quarrel in a straw, where that straw implies a principle. If, as you say of the American, he pauses to consider whether he can afford the time and trouble—"whether it will pay"—corruption is sure to creep in. All these lapses from higher to lower forms begin in trifling ways; and it is only by incessant watchfulness that they can be prevented. As one of your early statesmen said, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." But it is far less against foreign aggressions upon national liberty, that this vigilance is required, than against the insidious growth of domestic interferences with personal liberty. In some private administrations which I have been concerned with, I have often insisted, much to the disgust of officials, that instead of assuming, as people usually do, that things are going right until it is proved that they are going wrong, the proper course is to assume that they are going wrong until it is proved that they are going right. You will find, continually, that private corporations, such as joint-stock banking companies, come to grief from not acting upon this principle. And what holds of these small and simple private administrations, holds still more of the great and complex public administrations. People are taught, and, I suppose, believe, that "the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked"; and yet, strangely enough, believing this, they place implicit trust in those they appoint to this or that function. I do not think so ill of human nature; but, on the other hand, I do not think so well of human nature as to believe it will do without being watched.

You hinted that while Americans do not assert their own individualities sufficiently in small matters, they, reciprocally, do not sufficiently respect the individualities of others.

Did I? Here, then, comes another of the inconveniences of interviewing. I should have kept this opinion to myself if you had asked me no questions; and now I must either say what I do not think, which I can not, or I must refuse to answer, which perhaps will be taken to mean more than I intend, or I must specify, at the risk of giving offense. As the least evil I suppose I must do the last. The trait I refer to comes out in various ways, small and great. It is shown by the disrespectful manner in which individuals are dealt with in your journals—the placarding of public men in sensational headings, the dragging of private people and their affairs into print. There seems to be a notion that the public have a right to intrude on private life as far as they like; and this I take to be a kind of moral trespassing. It is true that during the last few years we have been discredited in London by certain weekly papers which do the like (except in the typographical display); but in our daily press, metropolitan and provincial, there is nothing of the kind. Then, in a larger way, the trait is seen in this damaging of private property by your elevated railways without making compensation; and it is again seen in the doings of railway governments, not only when overriding the rights of shareholders, but in dominating over courts of justice and State governments. The fact is, that free institutions can be properly worked only by men each of whom is jealous of his own rights, and also sympathetically jealous of the rights of others—will neither himself aggress on his neighbors, in small things or great, nor tolerate aggression on them by others. The republican form of government is the highest form of government; but because of this it requires the highest type of human nature—a type nowhere at present existing. We have not grown up to it, nor have you.

But we thought, Mr. Spencer, you were in favor of free government in the sense of relaxed restraints, and letting men and things very much alone—or what is called laissez faire?

That is a persistent misunderstanding of my opponents. Everywhere, along with the reprobation of government-intrusion into various spheres where private activities should be left to themselves, I have contended that in its special sphere, the maintenance of equitable relations among citizens, governmental action should be extended and elaborated.

To return to your various criticisms, must I then understand that you think unfavorably of our future?

No one can form anything more than vague and general conclusions respecting your future. The factors are too numerous, too vast, too far beyond measure in their quantities and intensities. The world has never before seen social phenomena at all comparable with those presented in the United States. A society spreading over enormous tracts while still preserving its political continuity, is a new thing. This progressive incorporation of vast bodies of immigrants of various bloods has never occurred on such a scale before. Large empires composed of different peoples, have, in previous cases, been formed by conquest and annexation. Then your immense plexus of railways and telegraphs tends to consolidate this vast aggregate of States in a way that no such aggregate has ever before been consolidated. And there are many minor co-operating causes unlike those hitherto known. No one can say how it is all going to work out. That there will come hereafter troubles-of various kinds, and very grave ones, seems highly probable; but all nations have had, and will have, their troubles. Already you have triumphed over one great trouble, and may reasonably hope to triumph over others. It may, I think, be reasonably held that both because of its size and the heterogeneity of its components, the American nation will be a long time in evolving its ultimate form; but that its ultimate form will be high. One great result is, I think, tolerably clear. From biological truths it is to be inferred that the eventual mixture of the allied varieties of the Aryan race forming the population, will produce a more powerful type of man than has hitherto existed, and a type of man more plastic, more adaptable, more capable of undergoing the modifications needful for complete social life. I think that whatever difficulties they may have to surmount, and whatever tribulations they may have to pass through, the Americans may reasonably look forward to a time when they will have produced a civilization grander than any the world has known.


No part of the foregoing deliverance is more true than that which refers to American tolerance of interference and dictation in the lesser affairs of life. What people do, habitually illustrates character, and American character in this important respect is undoubtedly of a low type. The forms of free institutions have not engendered the sentiment of personal independence which resents encroachments and insists upon justice. The institutions are nominally free, but the citizens who grow up under them are not free in the sense of exemption from impertinent meddlings and petty tyranny. There is wanting the spirit of resistance to apparently trivial violations of right. The man who would fight for his country will not fight a despotic neighbor, but will tamely acquiesce in wrong for the sake of peace and neighborly harmony. This spirit of complacent acquiescence in wrongs inevitably breeds wrong-doers to take advantage of it. Where there is a low regard for the strictly equitable, equity is sure to be violated. There are always natures that will encroach if not resisted, because the roots of aggression run deep in the soil of selfishness. Boys of strong wills that are petted and pampered, or left unrestrained at home, become bullies in the streets and tyrants in their social relations. "Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God," of course, but that means the foreign tyrant, not the one next door, or in the school-board, or church, or in the car, or restaurant—to resist him might make unpleasant disturbance. Habitual submission to inflicted wrongs, however small, is simply moral cowardice, and there is no disguising the fact that it is a very large element of the American character. Mr. Spencer has diagnosed our condition in this respect from a very few symptoms, but the illustrations of wrong tolerated from timidity and dread of what people will say, if small aggressions are seriously resisted, are all too plentiful. An excellent example of it occurred recently, which it is worth while to note.

Bicycles upon the sidewalks, as everybody knows, are not particularly conducive to the comfort of pedestrians. Even the small machines impelled by children, though hardly dangerous, are often annoying. But large bicycles, ridden rapidly by strong boys on the sidewalk, are sources of constant solicitude to those who are walking, are dangerous, often result in accidents, and are simply nuisances that should not be tolerated. In most English villages, as we are informed, bicycles are not allowed on the sidewalks; and the hand-books issued by English manufacturers of bicycles caution their customers that it is a forbidden practice, while in many places bells have to be attached to the bicycles even when ridden in the streets. To what degree this practice is general here in country towns we do not know, but there has recently been an experience in this matter in the village of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which is quite American in its way.

In the first place, Stockbridge is a charming town among the Berkshire hills, much resorted to as a summer residence by city people. Moreover, the people that go there and the people that live there are eminently cultivated and refined; wealth abounds, and it is not a place where poor people are much harbored. In education, intelligence, and all the moral qualities which are said to accompany mental cultivation, Stockbridge is an American village of a superior sort. It will be long, very long before American villages generally come up to the Stockbridge standard of culture and good breeding.

Nevertheless, all grades of bicycles were allowed upon the Stockbridge sidewalks, and the vexation and danger attending the practice were such, that last July one of the summer residents presented a petition, signed by eighteen prominent residents, to the board of selectmen, praying that the use of bicycles on the sidewalks be prohibited. Immediately after a remonstrance signed by thirty residents was got up and handed to the selectmen. Understanding that the main objection to the original petition was that it did not discriminate between large and small bicycles, the gentlemen who drew the first document prepared a second draft, asking only that large bicycles should be excluded from the sidewalks of the village, and this was signed by one hundred and sixty-eight residents. Many who had signed the remonstrance now signed the petition, so that the consent of the village to the measure proposed was regarded as practically unanimous.

But there was an active party in favor of the boys, who were determined that they should not be interfered with in their amusement, and so the selectmen played into the hands of this party by excluding all bicycles, large and small, from the sidewalks, well knowing that this step would cause such irritation as to defeat itself. The consequence was that the order of exclusion was rescinded, and all bicycles, large and small, were once more allowed to run freely on the sidewalks, except in the small portion of the village occupied by the stores, hotel, and bank.

The gentleman, a distinguished professor of Columbia College, who moved in the matter, attempted to arouse public sentiment upon the subject, and, as there was no newspaper printed in the village, he posted up a handbill with a list of thirteen accidents, and cases of serious annoyance, that had occurred; and shortly after posted up ten additional cases, signed with his well-known initials, to show by facts that the practice resisted was really a dangerous one. These posters were removed by the selectmen. He then printed a letter, stating the case fully, and giving an account of twenty accidents, and placed a copy in every box in the village post-office, addressed to the chief residents. One was also sent to the editor of the "Springfield Republican," who made a notice of it, and one hundred copies of his paper were distributed in the village, all of which failed to produce any effect.

Now, our interest in this matter is purely scientific. We take the data, find their explanation, and draw conclusions respecting the true grade of Stockbridge society.

The facts in a sentence are simply these: Half a dozen boys, in the pursuit of a selfish gratification, persist in violating the rights of citizens, and this conduct is sustained by the community which yet acknowledges the outrage.

And how is it to be explained? By the indifference of the people to the subject as a matter of right and wrong; or a laxity of moral sense. The gentleman who moved in the matter, and should have been regarded as a public benefactor, was not supported, but was condemned for his action. Of course, when such an issue was once raised, there was tenfold necessity to put down the openly immoral party; but the raising of the issue only cowed their opponents, and disclosed the absence of moral backbone in the Stockbridge character. "It was really such a petty matter, such small business, to be meddling with the enjoyments of the dear boys!" from which we get an idea of the quality of Stockbridge ethics, which is far too much the American sort. Small trespasses are to be tolerated, and only outrages that comport with the scale of American ideas are to be reprobated. Abuses that have in them something of the breadth of the continent or the length of the Mississippi, or the bigness of the national debt, are worthy to excite indignation; but mere sidewalk offenses—nonsense!

It is to be presumed, of course, that Stockbridge education conforms to the standard of its public opinion. The boys are sent to school, and taught book-lessons in morality, including sensitiveness to the rightful claims of others, and especially solicitude for the weak and helpless, and then they take lessons in the out-of-door practical morality of running over baby-carriages, upsetting old people, and disturbing everybody, because the sidewalk is a little nicer than the street for bicycle riding.

From all of which we may fairly infer the grade of Stockbridge civilization. Its people may be refined and educated, affluent, polished, and devotional; but they are, nevertheless, barbarians: for the degree of barbarism in any community is measured by the impunity with which its members seek their gratification at each other's expense.