January 12, 2012

Lord Macaulay on American Institutions and Prospects, 1860


From the Southern Literary Messenger. | Published: March 24, 1860 [Emphasis added]

Dear Sir:
You are surprised to learn that I have not a high opinion of Mr. JEFFERSON, and I am surprised at your surprise. I am certain that I never wrote a line, and that I never, in Parliament, in conversation, or even on the hustings -- a place where it is the fashion to court the populace -- uttered a word indicating an opinion that the supreme authority in a State ought to be intrusted to the majority of citizens told by the head; in other words, to the poorest and most ignorant part of society. I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty, or civilization, or both.

In Europe, where the population is dense, the effect of such institutions would be almost instantaneous. What happened lately in France is an example. In 1848 a pure Democracy was established there. During a short time there was reason to expect a general spoliation, a national bankruptcy, a new partition of the soil, a maximum of prices, a ruinous load of taxation laid on the rich for the purpose of supporting the poor in idleness. Such a system would, in twenty years, have made France as poor and barbarous as France of the Carlovingians. Happily the danger was averted; and now there is a despotism, a silent tribune, an enslaved Press. Liberty is gone; but civilization has been saved. I have not the smallest doubt that, if we had a purely Democratic Government here, the effect would be the same. Either the poor would plunder the rich, and civilization would perish; or order and property would be saved by a strong military government, and Liberty would perish.

You may think that your country enjoys an exemption from these evils. I will frankly own to you that I am of a very different opinion.

Your fate I believe to be certain, though it is deferred by a physical cause. As long as you have a boundless extent of fertile and unoccupied land, your laboring population will be far more at ease than the laboring population of the old world; and, while that is the case, the Jeffersonian policy may continue to exist without causing any fatal calamity. But the time will come when New-England will be as thickly peopled as Old England. Wages will be as low, and will fluctuate as much with you as with us. You will have your Manchesters and Birminghams; and, in those Manchesters and Birminghams, hundreds of thousands of artisans will assuredly be sometimes out of work. Then your institutions will be fairly brought to the test.

Distress everywhere makes the laborer mutinous and discontented, and inclines him to listen with eagerness to agitators who tell him that it is a monstrous iniquity that one man should have a million while another cannot get a full meal. In bad years there is plenty of grumbling here, and sometimes a little rioting. But it matters little. For here the sufferers are not the rulers. The supreme power is in the hands of a class, numerous indeed, but select, of an educated class, of a class which is, and knows itself to be, deeply interested in the security of property and the maintenance of order. Accordingly, the malcontents are firmly, yet gently, restrained. The bad time is got over without robbing the wealthy to relieve the indigent. The springs of national prosperity soon begin to flow again; work is plentiful; wages rise, and all is tranquillity and cheerfulness.

I have seen England pass three or four times through such critical seasons as I have described. Through such seasons the United States will have to pass, in the course of the next century, if not of this. How will you pass through them? I heartily wish you a good deliverance. But my reason and my wishes are at war, and I cannot help foreboding the worst.

It is quite plain that your Government will never be able to restrain a distressed and discontented majority. For with you the majority is the Government, and has the rich, who are always a minority, absolutely at its mercy.

The day will come when, in the State of New-York, a multitude of people, none of whom has had more than half a breakfast, or expects to have more than half a dinner, will choose a Legislature. Is it possible to doubt what sort of Legislature will be chosen?

On one side is a statesman preaching patience, respect for vested rights, strict observance of public faith. On the other is a demagogue ranting about the tyranny of capitalists and usurers, and asking why anybody should be permitted to drink champagne and to ride in a carriage, while thousands of honest folks are in want of necessaries. Which of the two candidates is likely to be preferred by a working man who hears his children cry for more bread?

I seriously apprehend that you will, in some such season of adversity as I have described, do things which will prevent prosperity from returning; that you will act like people would, in a year of scarcity, devour all the seed-corn, and thus make the next year, a year not of scarcity, but of absolute famine. There will be, I fear, spoliation. The spoliation will increase the distress. The distress will produce fresh spoliation. There is nothing to stay you. Your Constitution is all sail and no anchor.

As I said before, when a society has entered on this downward progress, either civilization or liberty must perish. Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of government with a strong hand; or your Republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the twentieth century as the Roman Empire was in the fifth; with this difference, that the Huns and Vandals, who ravaged the Roman Empire, came from without, and that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your country by your own institutions.

I have the honor to be, dear Sir, Your faithful servant, T.B. MACAULAY.

Source: MACAULAY ON DEMOCRACY. - Curious Letter from Lord Macaulay on American Institutions and Prospects. - Article - NYTimes.com

Posted by gerardvanderleun at January 12, 2012 12:09 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Thanks for sharing. Worth reading if only for its prescience but, of course, mostly for its warning.

Posted by: Joe Fusco at January 12, 2012 12:58 PM

Unfortunately, Macaulay's remarks are somewhat 'Delphic' in that they can be interpreted as supporting either side -- in select aspects -- of today's American ideological divide. The left will point out that Macaulay favors a "wise elite," while the right will point out the folly of demagoguery, indolence and welfare, and pandering to the mob.

What Macaulay missed in his letter is that America had/has supplanted Britain's upper and propertied classes with an even broader one that, by de Tocqueville's observations, had not yet lost touch with more humble American citizens. Even in Macaulay's Britain, Charles Dicken's was celebrating the emerging middle class there as a bulwark against open rebellion and demagoguery (it's one reason he wrote Tale of Two Cities).

Macaulay was projecting. He equated Europe's "masses" with America's citizenry, something that both European and American elitists do now. But to be fair, Macaulay was also warning us that we were not immune from a European-style future if the mix of our citizenry and populace should change for the worse. We see that happening now.

Posted by: Don Rodrigo at January 12, 2012 3:22 PM

Tocqueville found Macaulay to be the most brilliant of all political philosophers. There is only one flaw in Macaulay's understanding (to my mind) which is that the disintegration of the aristocratic ruling-class mind was already upon them. Henry Adams, who worked with them all during the War Between the States, was constantly puzzled by their positions, factions, true allegiances, and impenetrable ways. After living there forty more years, he finally concluded that the major players during the war were in fact all mad or senile.

Lord Acton saw it correctly--The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern.

The American Constitution was designed not to be inclusive of ideas, but to remove a very large number from even being discussed, which made it nearly idiot proof. And idiots we had right along. Tocqueville, 1831--"When I stepped ashore in the United States, I discovered with amazement to what extent merit was common among the government but rare among the rulers. On close scrutiny of the defects and weaknesses of those who govern in America, the growing prosperity of the people is astonishing; but it should not be so. It is not the elected official who produces the prosperity of the American democracy but the fact that the official is elected.
It is not always the ability to choose men of merit which democracy lacks but the desire and inclination to do so. In the United States, where public officials promote no class interest, the general and continuous course of government is beneficial even though the rulers are often incompetent and sometimes despicable.
Those who consider universal suffrage as a guarantee of the excellence of the choice made are under a complete delusion. Universal suffrage has other advantages but not that one.
The race of American statesmen has strangely shrunk in size over the last half-century."

Posted by: james wilson at January 12, 2012 8:53 PM

The race of American statesmen has strangely shrunk in size over the last half-century

And that was almost two centuries ago!

What made America back then able to survive the "low quality" of its governing leadership was the fact that government was so much smaller and less intrusive than it is now. Therein lies what may be the most important lesson about why big, and even more so the COLLOSSAL, government we have today to be such a bad idea. Flawed "leaders" and insane bureaucrats with limited power can make less mischief.

Thank you, James Wilson

Posted by: Don Rodrigo at January 13, 2012 9:42 AM


Posted by: pdwalker at January 13, 2012 9:12 PM

Not relevant in any way, really, but Macaulay died in 1859. It seems this was published posthumously.

Posted by: Thon Brocket at January 14, 2012 4:34 AM

The more powerful the government, the higher the stakes of seeking office. The higher the stakes, the more tempting it is to employ dirty and downright illegal tactics. These tactics drive away the honest men (those whose drive in life is something other than power), leaving the field open to the power-hungry scoundrels.

The solution to corrupt politicians is to make all politicians as powerless as possible, by making government as small as possible.

Posted by: John at January 14, 2012 4:35 AM

The heading was apparently left off,

Quite right, it was published posthumously.

Posted by: John the River at January 14, 2012 12:21 PM

/re-reads carefully

Wow. What a pompous horse's ass. He puts all his sneering upper-crust Victorian disdain for grass-roots democracy on display and you guys take him seriously....? For shame, sirs.

Posted by: Phil Ossiferz Stone at January 17, 2012 1:05 PM

Grass roots democracy is composed of a million asses and the donkeys they rode in on. Democracy is very over-rated, sir. A republic is much, much better.

Posted by: vanderleun at January 17, 2012 1:46 PM

Oh and, BTW, as it was in 1860 Lord M really was the real thing when it came to the upper crust. He actually was superior. There is such a thing as a superior human being. Honest. Trust me on this, Phil.

Posted by: vanderleun at January 17, 2012 2:46 PM