« PreviousContinue »
one after the other, its highest honor. They had their way, and war was declared. When the revolutionary series of Presidents was brought to a close, on the retirement of James Munroe, the hero of New Orleans took from Mr. Clay so many of the electoral votes of the West, and from Mr. Calhoun, so many of the votes of the South and the Middle States, as to leave them both distanced in the race. The popularity of Jackson only yielded to that of the hero of Tippecanoe; and a fresh crop of military chieftains has just been reared, to destroy, in all probability, the last chance of these veteran aspirants for the great prize. It is not the least of the eminent services they have rendered their country, that, in their baffled ambition, the distinguished statesmen and truly great men whom we have named teach to all coming times the salutary lesson, that, if politicians will have war, they must step aside for ever from the path of honor, and relinquish the posts of power to overshadowing rivals, created by their own suicidal hands. It is not unlikely, as just intimated, that the lesson will be corroborated by the political results of the war in which the country is now involved. Let us hope that it may make a deep and durable impression upon that class of persons whom it so vitally concerns. When the leaders of parties become convinced, that in promoting warlike measures and a military spirit, they are digging their own graves, we may confidently rely upon perpetual peace.
Another lesson taught by the French Revolution, and taught with terrific clearness, was the power of organized associations, operating upon popular sentiment. Under different names, public opinion – called, when it is intended to commend it, the voice of the people, but denominated mob law, when its developments are condemned — is a mighty power, generated in masses of men, which deserves to be profoundly considered in all free countries. This power was evoked in its utmost strength, as an implement in the hands of those who raised, and for a while ruled, the storm in France. Lamartine describes it, to the life, in the following passage.
“ The whole of France was but one vast sedition : anarchy swayed the state, and in order that it might be, as it were, selfgoverned, it had created its government in as many clubs as there were large municipalities in the kingdom. The dominant club was that of the Jacobins : this club was the centralization of
anarchy. So soon as a powerful and high-passioned will moves a nation, their common impulse brings men together; individuality ceases, and the legal or illegal association organizes the public prejudice. Popular societies thus have birth. At the first menaces of the court against the States General, certain Breton deputies had a meeting at Versailles, and formed a society to detect the plots of the court and assure the triumphs of liberty : its founders were Siéyès, Chapelier, Barnave, and Lameth. After the 5th and 6th of October, the Breton Club, transported to Paris in the train of the National Assembly, had there assumed the more forcible name of “Society of the Friends of the Constitution.' It held its sittings in the old convent of the Jacobins Saint Honoré, not far from the Manège, where the National Assembly sat. The deputies, who had founded it at the beginning for themselves, now opened their doors to journalists, revolutionary writers, and finally to all citizens. The presentation by two of its members, and an open scrutiny as to the moral character of the person proposed, were the sole conditions of admission : the public was admitted to the sittings by inspectors, who examined the admission card. A set of rules, an office, a president, a corresponding committee, secretaries, an order of the day, a tribune, and orators, gave to these meetings all the forms of deliberative assemblies : they were assemblies of the people, only without elections and responsibility ; feeling alone gave them authority: instead of framing laws, they formed opinion.
“The sittings took place in the evening, so that the people should not be prevented from attending in consequence of their daily labor : the acts of the National Assembly, the events of the moment, the examination of social questions, frequently accusations against the king, ministers, the côté droit, were the texts of the debates. Of all the passions of the people, their hatred was the most flattered; they made it suspicious in order to subject it.
Convinced that all was conspiring against it, — king, queen, court, ministers, authorities, foreign powers, - it threw itself headlong into the arms of its defenders. The most eloquent in its eyes was he who inspired it with most dread — it had a parching thirst for denunciations, and they were lavished on it with prodigal hand.” – Vol. 1. pp. 33, 34.
When men are assembled in crowded meetings, we behold one of the deep and portentous mysteries of our nature, in the contagious flame that is enkindled throughout the entire company, melting their passions into one which flows through the breasts of all, and the whole body, thus divested of the restraining and resisting power of individual reason and will, is swayed to and fro, and borne to any extreme. In such circumstances, each person is transformed into an irresponsible agent; and sentiments, impulses, extravagances, to which, in a solitary and independent sphere, he would be entirely superior, gain possession and control of his bosom. The strength of purpose and passion thus generated is immeasurably greater than the aggregate strength of all the individuals that compose the assembly. And when a whole people, in associations gathered at different points, but identified by the magnetic wires of sympathy, is brought under this influence, the combined result is a power of will which nothing can withstand.
We are inclined to think that the surest test of the advancement of society towards true refinement is the degree to which individuals are raised beyond the reach of the multitude, and the sacred supremacy of the reason and intellect of each private person is guarded against the ruthless encroachments of blind and intoxicated popular excitements. The true theory of political freedom is the limitation of the power of society. It is the dictate of wisdom, and the safeguard of liberty, to disarm the mob. For certain purposes, and to a certain extent, individuals must yield themselves up to be controlled and guided by the general will. are described, and this extent is defined, among us, by constitutions of civil government, established by the compact and consent of the people. The more the action of social power is confined to the channels opened for it in these constitutions, the better. Beyond them, it is desirable that individuals should be guided by their own several preferences and inclinations. To secure and preserve such independence of character, a careful and suspicious watch must be kept upon the power of society. It is, in fact, the only tyranny that can obtain a foothold in this country, and there is reason to apprehend that it has already obtained one. The most impartial and well-disposed persons who travel among us concur in noticing indications of its existence and operation. It leads to the suppression of freedom of utterance and discussion. It has generated a timidity and indecision, pervading the style of conversation in the most educated circles of society, and has rendered frankness and strength of speech a marked and startling eccentricity of manner. The fear of giving
offence stifles the best judgments of men, and substitutes for the good sense that actually pervades the community, but which is awed into silence, the narrow, superficial, untenable theories and declamations of a bigoted fanaticism, which, in reality, is approved by the convictions of quite a small faction, in either the literary or political community. It sometimes happens, no doubt, that the result to which many come by conference is wiser than the counsels of individuals. But this always occurs when the parties conferring have been kept free from the influence of the sympathetic excitement, or whatever may be its best descriptive expression, of the passion that is developed by the congregation of many. As the effect of true wisdom is to disclose more and more the doubts that hang over every question and the difficulties that embarrass every movement, and thereby produce and deepen a sentiment of humble diffidence of ourselves and respectful toleration of the judgments of others, it invariably happens that the wisest men fall behind the public confidence in matters involved in general excitement, and conducted in associations and assemblages ; while the superficial, unreflecting, and ignorant, taking no thought either of the lessons of experience or the contingencies of the future, by their vehement assurance and headlong zeal, get in front of the popular sentiment, and assume its direction. They are sure to acquire predominating influence.
Under their rash and blundering guidance, the best of causes soon becomes perverted, flies from the track of reason, truth, and right, plunges from one stage of violence to another, and continually severs itself from the support and sympathy of intelligent, moderate, and just persons, until it explodes at last in a frenzy of delirious fanaticism.
There is another lesson taught by the French Revolution which may be profitably considered at the present time. Those who raised and conducted it were almost altogether social theorists and speculative philanthropists. Their own minds were inflamed, and they inflamed the minds of others, with the most sanguine visions of liberty, equality, and universal prosperity and happiness. They were captivated by ideal scenes of political felicity. Disregarding all prescriptive titles and obligations, all established law and authority, they recognized only the general principles of absolute right and truth, as existing in their own minds, and re
solved to reduce every form of government and social institution into an agreement with them. Circumstances gave them an opportunity to show the consequences, when men undertake to tear down the fabric of society in order to reconstruct it according to their own theoretic views of justice, liberty, and order.
If the absolute right were an independent and distinct object or existence, that is, if it existed in a form and shape, external to all particular minds, and on which all could turn and look, then might men endeavour to frame their institutions in precise conformity with it. But, in point of fact, the right, truth, justice, and, in short, whatever we characterize as general ideas, exist only in the minds of men or other moral beings, and in each mind with different degrees and sorts of apprehension. The consequence is, that when many persons, acting together, profess and imagine themselves to be acting upon the same principles, because they use the same terms, they are in reality acting upon different principles, according as those terms signify different combinations of thought and sentiment in their several minds. Hence, collision, confusion, contention, arise. Passions are roused; intolerance is evoked ; violence ensues.
Each individual, identifying his own views of righteousness with the absolute and supreme law to which alone they severally and all acknowledge allegiance, becomes utterly uncompromising. The authority of absolute right and truth, of course, overrides all other authority, nullifies all other obligation ; and he who makes it the only rule of his actions follows his own ideas wherever they lead him. The law of the land, the institutions of society, sacred as well as political, the most venerable and universally received axioms and sentiments, the word of holy writ, the voice of revelation itself, all temporal and personal consequences to himself or to others, are for ever disregarded and defied. The French Revolution stands forth in the annals of mankind, an awful monument and exhibition of the consequences that naturally ensue, nay, of the results that must follow, when a people rebels against the established order of society, tramples upon the authority of civil law, discards the sentiment of allegiance to government, and pursues, with an entire abandonment, what is called the absolute right.
If, in our own country, the ideas on these subjects which