Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/September 1898/The Nation's Crisis


"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." These were some of the parting words with which Herbert Spencer bade this country farewell after his short visit in 1882; they form the concluding sentences in that memorable interview which he granted a representative of our press a few days before his departure. It must still be fresh in the memories of Mr. Spencer's many friends on this side of the Atlantic that in this interview he freely discussed the numerous signs of an immense development of material civilization which everywhere confronted him here, without concealing the fact, however, that while the wealth and magnificence of our large cities had been a source of astonishment to him, these very evidences of a wonderful commercial activity and development of arts had constantly reminded him of the Italian republics of the middle ages, where the people under circumstances and conditions similar to ours were gradually losing their freedom.

It will also be remembered that Mr. Spencer's visit, owing to ill health, had been a hurried one, and that he offered his views as the result of his first impressions only. But of the symptoms in our public life which most impressed him as pointing toward the undermining of free institutions, he mentioned the tyranny of the political machine, under which the citizen, as a rule, had to use his political power according to the dictates of party managers, or else to throw it away; and in this connection he reminded his interviewer of the fact that "constitutions are not made, but grow," that the Americans got their form of government more by a happy accident than by a normal progress, and that here, as it has been elsewhere, it was becoming painfully evident that our political structure, as an artificially devised system, had been growing into something different from that intended. Yet, in spite of all this, Mr. Spencer did not seem to take a very doleful view of our future. From the size of our country and the heterogeneity of its components he thought it safe to predict that, as a nation, we would be long in evolving our ultimate form; but that this ultimate form would be high, considering all that we had accomplished and the troubles over which we had already triumphed, he saw no reason to doubt; and thus he dismissed his interviewer with the prophetic words quoted above.

Scarcely sixteen years have passed since this interview took place, but signs are not wanting to-day which show that during this brief period we have gone from bad to worse, not only in regard to those evils referred to, but to others of a like nature as well. From all our principal cities come startling disclosures of boss rule and its accompanying political corruption. Yet it is difficult to say which is the most startling—the corruption itself, or the apathy toward it evinced by the masses. In New York city the disclosures a few years ago were followed by a tidal wave of municipal reform, but after receding this wave seems to have left the great city in a condition little improved if any. The recent accounts from Pennsylvania furnished us by Mr. Wanamaker, whatever effect they may have on the elections in that State, are of far less interest to the average citizen than the news from Washington, although the dangers implied in the former threaten the most vital interests of the Commonwealth. But, if, in places, the Commonwealths are groaning under political corruption of the worst kind, the country as a whole is groaning under an industrial depression, the causes of which do not seem in any way to concern the professional politician, except perhaps when political capital may be made from taking up the question. As to these causes thoughtful men may differ. But upon this they all must agree: that corporate capital during the last sixteen years has become more and more tyrannical, while the wage-earners—mechanic and laborer alike—once supposed to furnish the brains as well as the brawn of this republic, have become more and more dependent. And here, again, we meet with the same apathy among those not directly interested. Gigantic strikes, one after the other, this country has witnessed since 1882, in which public sympathy at the beginning has been with the striking workingman, only to be transferred to the side of the rapacious corporation—already backed by the executive and judicial branches of the Government—just as soon as the inconvenience of the situation began to make itself felt by all: the result of it all being a large middle class, insensible to the encroachments on their personal freedom on the one hand, and a dissatisfied, disgruntled working element without faith or confidence in our political institutions on the other.

Under such conditions this war with Spain may truly be said to have found us unprepared, not so much from the lack of an adequate navy or standing army as from the absence of a real national unity. It is generally held that—war having commenced—it is unpatriotic to discuss now whether it was justifiable or not; it certainly is useless, and we may as well accept the situation as unavoidable and the war as a righteous one. It may seem strange, therefore, perhaps unkind, to speak of the absence of national unity in the face of the vigorous preparations made by the administration and the willing response to its call for volunteers by our young men in all parts of the country. Yet the thoughtful man can not shut his eyes or ears to the chaotic state of opinion concerning the war and its causes, and for the sake of the future of this nation it is well to take a sober look at the situation. A war is always a crisis in a nation's history, especially so when its traditional policy has been one of peace. Earnest appeals to patriotism and humanitarian principles have not been wanting; but side by side with the many responses to these appeals, grumblings and bitter fault-findings have been heard. The professional politician, as might be expected, has come in for his share of alleged responsibility—his supposed aim being personal gain or glory—though, strangely enough, the political leaders who usually are the targets for the attacks of the professional reformer were the most anxious to avert the conflict. No more satisfying is the charge that our politicians in Washington, who were chiefly instrumental in working up the war feeling, were actuated only by a desire to stem the tide of Bryanism by diverting public attention from this movement—seeing that its brilliant leader and some of his henchmen were as clamorous for war and military glory as any of the rest; while the silver organs did not hesitate in stigmatizing the President's efforts toward settling the difficulty through diplomacy as being in the interest of Wall Street.

But the strongest proof of the absence of the genuine national unity which should characterize a righteous war is, perhaps, the indifference noticed among the working people. This has been commented on in several newspapers, and an explanation has been sought in the fact that a large part of our foreign population has not as yet sufficiently imbibed the spirit of our institutions to make them good Americans. The real explanation, however, is the fact that through actual experience they are learning that war can only result in making their struggle for existence still harder, partly by the paralyzing of many industries and partly by enhancing their cost of living. Can a lofty and self-sacrificing patriotism be expected from those who, in their struggles with aggressive capital intrenched behind governmental protection, have invariably suffered the fate of the vanquished? And they who have learned that it is less against foreign aggressions that eternal vigilance is required than against the insidious growth of domestic interferences with personal liberty—should they blame them so very much?

It being granted that this war was unavoidable, that humanitarian principles no less than self-interest compelled this country to make this departure from a time-honored policy, this allusion to its unfavorable internal conditions is made only for the sake of pointing out the real danger of the hour. As already remarked, this war presents a crisis—we stand at a crossway, and it is now that we must choose whether our destination is to be that higher civilization predicted for us by Mr. Spencer, or whether we shall turn back toward a purely military régime. That there is grave danger of choosing the latter is seen in the changed sentiments throughout the country. Many well-meaning people who a short time ago deprecated the idea of war altogether, and who rejected with scorn and indignation the insinuation or open charges by European powers that our real object was one of conquest, have been, through the first success in the East, carried away by the alluring spectacle of the United States assuming the position of the greatest naval power of the earth, and as entering upon a new career as "a fulfillment of its appointed mission." It was truly said at the time by a New York journal: "The American spirit is stirred and its imagination inflamed by the opportunities now offered this country to extend the sphere of its power and influence." But what does all this mean? It means that, when the war is over and victory ours, then the people, drunk with military success, will be ready to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage. In their delirium they will have no adequate idea of the cost of maintaining a standing army and a navy second to none. So far from being frightened by the strong centralized government made necessary by these changed conditions, they will hail with loud acclamations the military hcro with the most picturesque trappings as the man sent by a special providence to lead and to guide us, and thus a long step forward—or backward—to monarchical institutions will have been taken.

Is this picture overdrawn? Will it be said that this is the prediction of a warped, a fretful and pessimistic mind? Not by the sober and the thoughtful. Signs pointing that way are too numerous, sentiments of such a nature abound in the daily press; even the religious sentiment here and there is prone to lend encouragement to the idea of special providence in this matter of a new mission for the United States—that of spreading the light of civilization among semibarbarous people, east and west, by the help of fire and the sword. Who this "man on horseback" is to be is now and then clearly indicated. That he may be a man of high attainments, of personal integrity and nobility of mind, does not help the case; he is a relic of a chivalric, it may be, but still a barbaric past. Only such a man can fearlessly advocate, in season and out of season, the necessity of a navy equal or superior to that of Great Britain, knowing as he must that the resultant national self-consciousness of brute strength is ever prone to lead a government to aggressive acts both at home and abroad. And what is to pay us for this sacrifice of personal liberty? Is it the increased trade with foreign nations? Is it the increased industrial activity, made necessary by caring for distant colonies? Too late will it be learned that the only way to national prosperity lies in attending, as far as possible, to our own affairs; in guarding faithfully the rights of every citizen; and in encouraging, first and last, friendly relations with foreign powers. The nation, doing all this, will soon find itself strong enough in the internal unity, resulting from the contentment among all of its citizens and through the moral effect this must have on others, to defy any encroachments and to ward off any 'insults or impositions from the outside, though it may not have a gigantic army or navy sapping its very life blood.

It is held by some who are aware of the possible dangers here alluded to, that there is really no serious cause for alarm—the great merit of a democracy like ours, according to such, being the assured fact that "out of its multitudes, who have all had a chance for development, there will always arise, when occasion demands it, stronger and wiser men than any class-governed societies have ever bred." This, however, is begging the very question at issue. For now has the critical time arrived, when it is to be ascertained how far the insidious growth of class government has affected our nation. Strong men we have, and wise men, too; the first are already coming to the front, but—and this is one of the ominous symptoms—there is a disposition whenever the latter are heard to cry them down