Saturday, 17 July 2010

Dirty your hands

Coming across this essay; 'the administration of Andrew Jackson' by William Graham Sumner, the passage below makes me pause for thought. It is, I would say, a call for action on the part of the 'philosophers and book-men', to do their duty in society, even though it's often a thankless task.

"The philosophers and book-men have no great rĂ´le offered them in a new country. They will always be a minority, they will always be holding back in the interest of law, order, tradition, history, and they will rarely be entrusted with the conduct of affairs; but, since their lot is cast here, if they withdraw from the functions which fall to them in this society, such as it is, they do it at the sacrifice not only of duty but also of everything which makes a fatherland worth having, to them or to their posterity. The fault which they commit is the complement of that committed by their opponents. For the notion which underlies democracy is that of rights, tenacity in regard to rights, the brutal struggle for room for one's self, and, still more specifically, for equal rights, the root principle of which is envy. This was abundantly illustrated in Jackson's day. The opposition of his supporters to bank and tariff had no deeper root than this, and the name they chose for themselves as descriptive of their aims was “The Equal Rights Party.” But the principle of political life lies not in rights but in duties. The struggle for rights is at best war. The subjection to duty reaches the same end, reaches it far better, and reaches it through peace. Still less is there any principle of political health in the idea of equality of rights, much as some people seem to believe the opposite. In political history it has been the melancholy province of France to show us that if you emphasize equality you reduce all to a dead level of slavery, with a succession of revolutions to bring about a change of masters.

If, then, the classes which are by education and position conservative withdraw from public activity, pride themselves on their cleanness from political mire, and satisfy themselves at most with a negative and destructive interference at the polls from time to time, the conception of political duty with them must be as low as with their opponents; and I will add that they will at best turn from one set of masters to another, under a general and steady deterioration in the political tone of the country. If we have to-day a society in which we go our ways in peace, freedom, and security, a society from the height of which we look back upon the life of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with a shudder, we owe it to no class of men who wrote satirical essays on contemporary politics and said to one another: “What is the use?” Elliott and Hampden and Sydney and these revolutionary heroes whose praise we are just now chanting did not win for us all the political good we owe them by any such policy as that. There was no use, as far as any one could see, in their cases. They risked persecution, imprisonment, the axe, and the scaffold, and their puny efforts seemed ridiculous in the face of the task they undertook; but they never stopped to think of that. They saw that it was the right thing to do then to speak or to resist, and they did it and let the end take care of itself.


No man, no committee, no party, no centralized organization of the general government, can rid us of our difficulties and yet leave us self-government. Nor can we invent any machinery of elections or of government which will do the work for us. We have got to face the problems like men, animated by patriotism, acting with business-like energy, standing together for the common weal. Whenever we do that we cannot fail of success in getting what we want; so long as we do not do that, our complaints of political corruption are the idlest and most contemptible expressions which grown men can utter."

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