Page images

showing that men of shady character frequently try to cover their misconduct by fervent protestations of love of country. Nevertheless, the fact remains that exactly as true patriots should be especially jealous of any appeal to what is base under the guise of patriotism, so men who strive for honesty, and for the cleansing of what is corrupt in the dark places of our politics, should emphatically disassociate themselves from the men whose antics throw discredit upon the reforms they profess to advocate.

These little knots of extremists are found everywhere, one type flourishing chiefly in one locality and another type in another. In the particular objects they severally profess to champion they are as far asunder as the poles, for one of their characteristics is that each little group has its own patent recipe for salvation and pays no attention whatever to the other little groups; but in mental and moral habit they are fundamentally alike. They may be socialists of twenty different types, from the followers of Tolstoi down and up, or they may ostensibly champion some cause in itself excellent, such as temperance or municipal reform, or they may merely with comprehensive vagueness announce themselves as the general enemies of what is bad, of corrupt, machine politics, and the like. Their policies and principles are usually mutually exclusive; but that does not alter the conviction, which each feels or affects to feel, that his particular group is the real vanguard of the army of reform.

Of course, as the particular groups are all marching in different directions, it is not possible for more than one of them to be the vanguard. The others, at best, must be off to one side, and may possibly be marching the wrong way in the rear; and, as a matter of fact, it is only occasionally that any one of them is in the front. There are in each group many entirely sincere and honest men, and because of the presence of these men we are too apt to pay some of their associates the unmerited compliment of speaking of them also as honest but impracticable. As a matter of fact, the typical extremist of this kind differs from the practical reformer, from the public man who strives in practical fashion for decency, not at all in superior morality, but in inferior sense. He is not more virtuous; he is less virtuous. He is merely more foolish. When Wendell Phillips denounced Abraham Lincoln as "the slave-hound of Illinois," he did not show himself more virtuous than Lincoln, but more foolish. Neither did he advance the cause of human freedom. When the contest for the Union and against slavery took on definite shape then he and his kind were swept aside by the statesmen and soldiers, like Lincoln and Seward, Grant and Farragut, who alone were able to ride the storm. Great as is the superiority in efficiency of the men who do things over those who do not, it may be no greater than their superiority in morality. In addition to the simple and sincere men who have a twist in their mental make-up, these knots of enthusiasts contain, especially among their leaders, men of morbid vanity, who thirst for notoriety, men who lack power to accomplish anything if they go in with their fellows to fight for results, and who prefer to sit outside and attract momentary attention by denouncing those who are really forces for good.

In every community in our land there are many hundreds of earnest and sincere men, clergymen and laymen, reformers who strive for reform in the field of politics, in the field of philanthropy, in the field of social life; and we could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times these men have been really aided in their efforts by the men of the type referred to in the preceding paragraph. The socialist who raves against the existing order is not the man who ever lifts his hand practically to make our social life a little better, to make the conditions that bear upon the unfortunate a little easier; the man who demands the immediate impossible in temperance is not the man who ever aids in an effort to minimize the evils caused by the saloon; and those who work practically for political reform are hampered, so far as they are affected at all, by the strutting vanity of the professional impracticables.

It is not that these little knots of men accomplish much of a positive nature that is objectionable, for their direct influence is inconsiderable; but they do have an undoubted indirect effect for bad, and this of a double kind. They affect for evil a certain number of decent men in one way and a certain number of equally decent men in an entirely different way. Some decent men, following their lead, withdraw themselves from the active work of life, whether social, philanthropic, or political, and by the amount they thus withdraw from the side of the forces of good they strengthen the forces of evil, as, of course, it makes no difference whether we lessen the numerator or increase the denominator. Other decent men are so alienated by such conduct that in their turn they abandon all effort to fight for reform, believing reformers to be either hypocrites or fools. Both of these phenomena are perfectly familiar to every active politician who has striven for decency, and to every man who has studied history in an intelligent way. Few things hurt a good cause more than the excesses of its nominal friends.

Fortunately, most extremists lack the power to commit dangerous excesses. Their action is normally as abortive as that of the queer abolitionist group who, in 1864, nominated a candidate against Abraham Lincoln when he was running for re-election to the Presidency. The men entering this movement represented all extremes, moral and mental. Nominally they opposed Lincoln because they did not feel that he had gone far enough in what they deemed the right direction,—had not been sufficiently extreme,—and they objected to what they styled his opportunism, his tendency to compromise, his temporizing conduct, and his being a practical politician. In reality, of course, their opposition to Lincoln was conditioned, not upon what Lincoln had done, but upon their own natures. They were incapable of supporting a great constructive statesman in a great crisis; and this, not because they were too virtuous, but because they lacked the necessary commonsense and power of subordination of self to enable them to work disinterestedly with others for the common good. Their movement, however, proved utterly abortive, and they had no effect even for evil. The sound, wholesome common-sense of the American people fortunately renders such movements, as a rule, innocuous; and this is, in reality, the prime reason why republican government prospers America, as it does not prosper, for instance, in France. With us these little knots of impracticables have an insignificant effect upon the national life, and no representation to speak of in our governmental assemblies. In France, where the nation has


« PreviousContinue »