Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/January 1894/Editor's Table



THERE is nothing more tiresome than the platitudes in which popular orators and journals indulge when, generally for some sinister purpose, they set themselves to extol the wisdom and virtue of "the people." People who have any sense know just how wise and virtuous they are, and quite fail to see the point of the excessive adulation thus bestowed on them. It is difficult indeed to imagine what class of persons it is that can he gratified by praise of so inordinate and conventional a kind. Why should a lot of people who have chosen representatives of a certain kind care to be told that they are so very much wiser than the men they have chosen? yet that is the common refrain: the people are so much wiser and better than the politicians. If the people are so much wiser and better than the politicians, why don't they show their wisdom and goodness by bringing better men to the front? The men who are elected to-day may in a short time return to private life and become electors themselves: do they thereupon acquire a sudden increase in wisdom, and do they show their increased wisdom by helping at the first opportunity to elect worse men than themselves? That seems to be the way it is understood to work: the whole thing is fulsome and absurd to the last degree.

The truth, which, if it does not give rise to this kind of talk, occasionally seems to afford a certain justification of it, is that, from time to time, "the people" defeat the expectations of the politicians by refusing to carry out the plans and arrangements which the latter have made; so that a "ticket" which, considering the party organization behind it, might have been supposed sure of victory, meets with ignominious defeat. It is much better to be wise sometimes than to be wise never; but it is not very satisfactory to reflect that an electorate which is capable of exercising wisdom and properly branding political immorality should require the stimulus or shock of some great scandal to bring its virtue to the front. The reason why politicians are encouraged to proceed every now and then to some unusual length in defiance of political principle is that, in general, they can reckon on the partisanship of their followers to support whatever they may propose. What the public have to do, therefore, when by a tardy or fitful exercise of political conscience they have escaped some disgrace, is not so much to congratulate themselves on a remarkable achievement as to wonder, with some little humiliation, why the achievement was necessary—why their political leaders ever came to propose to them anything so disgraceful. It is rare that a man is approached with a disgraceful proposition unless he has in some way created the impression that the proposition might be well received; and therefore, mixed with any lofty indignation with which he repels it, should be some heart-searching as to how the whole thing came about. Applying this to a case which is fresh in the recollection of all, how much of moral inertness, how much of blind partisanship, how much of indifference to higher considerations of national welfare must have been shown on many occasions by respectable voters, before the managers of a great party could venture to place on their ticket a name which the most elementary considerations of political or moral principle should have sufficed to exclude from it!

It is, of course, satisfactory to think that there are bounds which can not be passed—that there is a point at which the better sense of the community rebels—but it is impossible not to think at the same time that this better sense might be kept in more regular exercise. Instead of descending like a deus ex machina into the political arena on critical occasions to safeguard the state against some signal danger, why should it not be the daily providence and bulwark of the state? The modern state depends for its prosperity and security on the faithful performance by citizens of their political duties; and it therefore behoves every citizen to inform himself as to the issues of the day, to consider carefully which side he should take, looking to the greatest interest of the country, and to vote and otherwise shape his course accordingly. If this were done as a rule by all voters capable of forming an intelligent and honest judgment, there would be very little encouragement given to dishonest political machinations; and those elements in the country that count on political corruption in one form or another for liberty to pursue fraudulent and immoral ends would find their action so circumscribed that all the profits of their several nefarious trades would be gone. There is reason to hope, we are very glad to say, that the sounder elements in the community are becoming more conscious of their strength and more disposed to use it for the purification of politics. Not one recent election only, but many, have turned more or less on moral issues, and have turned in the right direction. Let there be no pause in the good work; above all, let there be no reaction. The effect upon the administration of the government in any country of a decided expression of public opinion in favor of what is right, rather than of what is expedient in a party sense, can not but be beneficial. Does any one suppose that the public gets full value for the enormous expenditure incurred for the salaries of officials? If any one does, we venture to say that he is seriously in error. Neither the intelligence nor the zeal of public employees in general comes up to the standard that might be realized if our politics were dominated by higher principles; and not only is a vast burden thus laid on the industry of the country, but many advantages which might be secured to the public are lost. Let us make the most of any encouragement we have received; but let us not draw the lesson, either that the people at large are very wise and good, or that the forces of evil have been permanently discouraged. The people at large are good enough to do a great deal better than they generally do; that is about as much as can be said on that point. The forces of evil are hard to discourage and very hard to destroy. They watch their opportunity, and are as assiduous as the spider in repairing the party webs which an outraged public sentiment may have torn. Public opinion is something that should be invoked at all times against every form of evil, and every possible means should be used to keep it alive and active and watchful. The adulation so frequently bestowed upon "the people" is a moral narcotic rather than a stimulant, as it suggests that everything must go well in a country where there are such vast reservoirs of wisdom and virtue. The true note to strike is that of responsibility. An honest man does not require to be told he is honest; and a dishonest man is not made better by it. The message to each and all is, that we have public duties and responsibilities commensurate with the great advantages we derive from our membership in a civilized state, and that we can not neglect these without dishonor and loss.


It is greatly to the credit of the United States and Great Britain that they should now on several occasions have submitted disputes which might otherwise have given rise to war, to the decision of a court of arbitration, or, as in the case of the San Juan question, to that of an individual arbitrator. One conclusion that may be drawn from this course of procedure is that, as between these two countries at least, war is a discredited and obsolete method of settling disputes. The question now is why it should not soon become the same for all civilized nations. The burden of military taxation in Europe is becoming well-nigh intolerable. One or two countries, notably Italy, are now on the very verge of national bankruptcy, and all because the wit of man, at the close of the nineteenth century of what has been called the "Christian" era, can not devise any adequate means save war on a huge and most destructive scale for the adjustment of conflicting international claims. It seems impossible that the sin and shame of this should not before long become intolerable to all well-disposed men; and on the continent of Europe, not less than in England and the United States, the great majority of men may come under that designation. The time has arrived, we think, for a serious demonstration in favor of arbitration as a substitute for the barbarous method of the sword; and the duty of initiating such a movement would seem clearly to lie with the two nations who have themselves set the example of a successful and happy use of arbitration. The project of persuading the nations to turn their back on war is indeed a vast one, but that is no reason why it should not be taken in hand—why, in the first place, a rough sketch, as it were, of the conditions necessary for the realization of the object in view should not be made and taken into consideration. Of course, if any one nation is cherishing schemes that are in their nature inconsistent with peace with its neighbors, that nation could not be counted on for any sincere co-operation; and therefore the first thing to do would be to invite from each nation as frank and full a statement as possible of its views and aspirations, in order that the extent to which these came into conflict with those of other nations might be determined. We can not resist the belief that, if the matter were taken in hand seriously, the British Government, as being more directly interested in the peace of Europe, taking the lead, and the Government of this country lending it all the moral support possible, a hopeful beginning might be made. The thing could not be done in a day; but, unless we have faith enough to believe in the possibility of its being done, how is it going to be done at all or at any time? War has lasted through nineteen centuries of the Christian era, and still exists as a horrible fact and still more dread possibility in the era of science. It has lasted too long. Christianity and science should unite their forces to crush it.