Nations are only individuals on a larger scale. They have a life, an individuality, a reason, a conscience, and instincts of their own, and have the same general laws of development and growth, and, perhaps, of decay, as the individual man. A nation has a spiritual as well as a material, a moral as well as a physical existence, and is subjected to internal as well as external conditions of health and virtue, greatness and grandeur, which it must in some measure understand and observe, or become weak and infirm, stunted in its growth, and end in premature decay and death.
The simplest form of society is the family—Adam and Eve. But though Adam and Eve are in many respects equal, and have equally important though different parts assigned them, one or the other must be head and governor, or they cannot form the society called family. They would be simply two individuals of different sexes, and the family would fail for the want of unity.
The authority of the husband and father is recognized by the common consent of mankind. Still more apparent is the necessity of government the moment the family develops and grows into the tribe, and the tribe into the nation. Hence no nation exists without government; and we never find a savage tribe, however low or degraded, that does not assert somewhere in the father, in the elders, or in the tribe itself, the rude outlines or the faint reminiscences of some sort of government, with authority to demand obedience and to punish the refractory. Hence, as man is nowhere found out of society, so nowhere is society found without government.
The nature or essence of government is to govern. A government that does not govern is simply no government at all. If it has not the ability to govern and governs not, it may be an agency, an instrument in the bands of individuals for advancing their private interests, but it is not government. To be government it must govern both individuals and the community. If it is a mere machine for making prevail the will of one man, of a certain number of men, or even of the community, it may be very effective sometimes for good, sometimes for evil, oftenest for evil, but government in the proper sense of the word it is not. To govern is to direct, control, restrain, as the pilot controls and directs his ship. It necessarily implies two terms, governor and governed, and a real distinction between them.
Feudalism, established in Western Europe after the downfall of the Roman Empire, and by reminiscences of Greco-Roman civilization retained by the conquered, was a barbaric constitution. The feudal monarch, as far as he governed at all, governed as proprietor or landholder, not as the representative of the commonwealth. Under feudalism there are estates, but no state. The king governs as an estate, the nobles hold their power as an estate, and the commons are represented as an estate. The whole theory of power is that it is an estate; a private right, not a public trust. It is not without reason, then that the common sense of civilized nations terms the ages when it prevailed in Western Europe barbarous ages. The characteristic principle of barbarism is that power is a private or personal right, and when democrats assert that the elective franchise is a natural right of man, or that it is held by virtue of the fact that the elector is a man, they assert the fundamental principle of barbarism and despotism.
Hobbes, the English materialist, held that men lived, prior to the creation of civil society, in a state of nature, in which all were equal, and every one had an equal right to everything, and to take anything on which he could lay his hands and was strong enough to hold. There was no law but the will of the strongest. Hence, the state of nature was a state of continual war. At length, wearied and disgusted, men sighed for peace, and, with one accord, said to the tallest, bravest, or ablest among them: Come, be our king, our master, our sovereign lord, and govern us; we surrender our natural rights and our natural independence to you, with no other reserve or condition than that you maintain peace among us, keep us from robbing and plundering one another or cutting each other's throats.
Locke followed Hobbes, and asserted virtually the same theory, but asserted it in the interests of liberty, as Hobbes had asserted it in the interests of power. Rousseau, a citizen of Geneva, followed in the next century with his Social Contract, the text-book of the French revolutionists and put the finishing stroke to the theory. Hitherto the compact or agreement had been assumed to be between the governor and the governed; Rousseau supposes it to be between the people themselves, or a compact to which the people are the only parties. He adopts the theory of a state of nature in which men lived, antecedently to their forming themselves into civil society, without government or law. All men in that state were equal, and each was independent and sovereign proprietor of himself. These equal, independent, sovereign individuals met, or are held to have met, in convention, and entered into a compact with themselves, each with all, and all with each, that they would constitute government, and would each submit to the determination and authority of the whole, practically of the fluctuating and irresponsible majority. Civil society, the state, the government, originates in this compact, and the government, as Mr. Jefferson asserts in the Declaration of American Independence, "derives its just powers from the consent of the governed."
"Forms of government," somebody has said, "are like shoes—that are the best form which best fit the feet that are to wear them." Shoes are to be fitted to the feet, not the feet to the shoes, and feet vary in size and conformation. Ordinarily the form of the government practicable for a nation is determined by the peculiar providential constitution of the territorial people, and a form of government that would be practicable and good in one country may be the reverse in another. The English government is no doubt the best practicable in Great Britain, at present at least, but it has proved a failure wherever else it has been attempted. The American system has proved itself, in spite of the formidable rebellion to overthrow it, the best and only practicable government for the United States, but it is impracticable everywhere else, and all attempts by any European or other American state to introduce it can end only in disaster. The imperial system apparently works well in France, but though all European states are tending to it, it would not work well at all on the American continent, certainly not until the republic of the United States has ceased to exist. While the United States remain the great American power, that system, or its kindred system, democratic centralism, can never become an American system, as Maximilian's experiment in Mexico is likely to prove.
Fit your shoes to your feet. The law of the governmental constitution is in that of the nation. The constitution of the government must grow out of the constitution of the state, and accord with the genius, the character, the habits, customs, and wants of the people, or it will not work well, or tend to secure the legitimate ends of government. The constitutions imagined by philosophers are for Utopia, not for any actual, living, breathing people. You must take the state as it is, and develop your governmental constitution from it, and harmonize it with it. Where there is a discrepancy between the two constitutions, the government has no support in the state, in the organic people, or nation, and can sustain itself only by corruption or physical force. A government may be under the necessity of using force to suppress an insurrection or rebellion against the national authority, or the integrity of the national territory, but no government that can sustain itself, not the state, only by physical force or large standing armies, can be a good government, or suited to the nation. It must adopt the most stringent repressive measures, suppress liberty of speech and of conscience, outrage liberty in what it has the most intimate and sacred, and practice the most revolting violence and cruelty, for it can govern only by terror. Such a government is unsuited to the nation.
Armed with the ballot, more powerful than the sword, each citizen is able to protect himself. But this is theory, not reality. If it were true, the division of the powers of government between two co-ordinates, governments would be of no practical importance. Experience does not sustain the theory, and the power of the ballot to protect the individual may be rendered ineffective by the tyranny of party. Experience proves that the ballot is far less effective in securing the freedom and independence of the individual citizen than is commonly pretended. The ballot of an isolated individual counts for nothing. The individual, though armed with the ballot, is as powerless, if he stands alone, as if he had it not. To render it of any avail he must associate himself with a party, and look for his success in the success of his party; and to secure the success of his party, he must give up to it his own private convictions and free will. In practice, individuals are nothing individually, and parties are everything.
Parties are formed, one hardly knows how, and controlled, no one knows by whom; but usually by demagogues, men who have some private or personal purposes, for which they wish, through party to use the government. Parties have no conscience, no responsibility, and their very reason of being is the usurpation and concentration of power. The real practical tendency of universal suffrage is too democratic, instead of an imperial, centralism. What is to guard against this centralism? Not universal suffrage, for that tends to create it; and if the government is left to it, the government becomes practically the will of an ever shifting and irresponsible majority. Is the remedy in written or paper constitutions? Party can break through them, and by making the judges elective by party, for short terms, and re-eligible, can do so with impunity. In several of the States, the dominant majority have gained the power to govern at will, without any let or hindrance. Besides, constitutions can be altered, and have been altered, very nearly at the will of the majority. No mere paper constitutions are any protection against the usurpations of party, for party will always grasp all the power it can.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of The American Republic: Its Constitution,Tendencies, and Destiny, by A. O. Brownson)