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FREE GOVERNMENT-ITS CHARACTER AND OFFICE.
IT IS A STATE OF LAWS-THE BRITISH SYSTENITS RIGID ENFORCEMENT THE
UNION AN ELECTIVE SYSTEM-ITS ELECTIVE PRESERVATION-ITS POPULAR
FAILURE-ORGANIC LAWS-THEIR OFFICE-CERTAIN RIGHTS OF PERSON NEVER
ENTER INTO GOVERNMENT TOO MUCH POWER A SOURCE OF WEAKNESS.
It would seem to be an easy task to arrange a just system of relations between government and people; certainly so on the basis that the former is an agency created by and for the sole benefit, advantage, and protection of the latter. In theory, this is the purpose and end of every description of polity, the public good being the grand objective point to be reached.
The application of this principle, in the creation and maintenance of government, in different countries, has produced widely different forms of administration. This is neither paradoxical nor illogical, any more than it is illogical in the physician who varies his remedies to suit the constitution and overcome the peculiar malady of his patient. Precisely so it is in the institution of government. What is suited to one people, is evidently unsuited to another.
In discussing the principles of free government, it would be unfair to test their practical benefits, by reference to the history of those nations where free speech and a free press have been the mere dreams of enthusiasts. With rare exceptions, the laws of any named people will be found to express just what is best adapted to their necessities, and indicate the true state of popular intelligence of the country ;-—in other words, what may be the very best government for one nation, may be the worst for another. This is simply the adaptation of means to ends.
It has been very much the habit of public writers, on both sides of the water, to draw conclusions concerning matters of government, from the operation of certain systems of administration, which have been found to work admirably in specified countries, without taking any account of the peculiar political habits of the people, their intelligence, or the character of their religious opinions. Hence it is that the French, always the most prosperous and successful under absolute government, are convinced that imperialism is better than republicanism--that the will of one man is better than the laws of many.
The English, on the other side, are equally certain that their free system of laws is the perfection of wisdom.
They are, in our judgment, both in the right.
The British government expresses a far higher intelligence on the part of the people, more complete and defined notions of personal rights and liberty, more dignity and nationality, than that of the French. It has elicited, in its establishment, more mind, and involved vastly heavier personal sacrifices. It is a state of laws --a state in which individualism no longer exists as a governing power—in which the law is supreme.
If we take any account of the ambitions of men, we must admit that the creation of such a system is a most wonderful achievement. It may be doubted, indeed, if any other people have encountered so many difficulties in the creation of government as the English. We know of no other where classes are so distinctly marked—the high, the middling, and the low; as there is no other, where, under the laws, classes are so absolutely obliterated, where laws, not individuals, have such supreme control.
It will be admitted that a state of laws, so established as to se cure public tranquillity, and maintain the rights of person, against the encroachments of influence and individual power, and of the state itself, is the best civil polity. This is precisely what we understand to be the British government. It has had a slow, but sure and healthy growth. Unlike the government of the Union, which consists of a simple compact of independent States, covering a few specified interests, created, as it were, by a body of representatives, commenced and ended in a day, that of England has been the pa
tient work of many centuries, its progress evolving principles of freedom, which had to be won by battle and by argument. It is a singular feature of British history, that the people have never taken a step backwards. Often checked in their onward course, slow to secure obvious rights of person and property, obstructed or crippled by the hand of power and ambition, they have, through every trial, vindicated their grand purpose to establish a free system of laws, and make them supreme, at all times and in every exigency, over individuals. This is the distinguishing feature of all free government.
It is common to maintain that this species of polity, being in its nature more stately and inflexible than absolute government, is ill adapted to meet and overcome great trials and difficulties. It is urged that while it is admirable in peace, economical in administration, and effective in rule, in the ordinary affairs of life, it is cumbrous, heavy, slow, and expensive, in periods of peril or civil commotion. This argument goes to the main question—to the very power of any people to maintain free government on any terms; for a state is clearly worthless, and something worse, if it has not the capacity, energy, and patriotism necessary to sustain its own life in hours of peril. If what is called a government of laws, is incapable of doing this, without invoking the discretionary powers of individuals-without, in other words, substituting the will of the latter for the inflexible rule of the former, it follows that it is a radical and mischievous error.
It is far better, under every description of government, to rely upon the enforcement of laws, than to trust the wisdom of persons, however honest, in times of civil commotion. It is hardly possible, at such periods, to find individuals to rule, who do not enter upon their work as partisans; and it is more than has been found safe, in this country, to trust this class of persons in time of peace,
much less should they be trusted with administrative discretion, in war.
Those who maintain the necessity of this rule under any circumstances, are no friends of constitutional government. It is a sort of appeal from free institutions to absolutism—from the government of the many to that of the few; a resolution to abandon the organism of the state in favor of a few persons in authority.
It is no answer to this statement to say, that individual govern. ment proposes to lay aside only a limited portion of the written law. It is not the extent of the change, but its character, its nature, to which we object. The authority to alter constitutional covenants is lodged in the States, which must act in strict obedi. ence to the organic law. Statute laws, State and federal, come within the legislative authority. It is now proposed to ordain a third estate, giving or conceding power to persons in charge of affairs, under the constitutions and laws, to alter, modify, or annul the one for the time being, and disregard the other. This, we take it, is authority, in point of fact, to ordain a new government.
It will not be maintained that we have adhered, in strict fidelity, even in the ordinary administration of the Government, to the Federal Constitution. In more than one instance, we have, as a people, sanctioned the complete surrender of fundamental rules, and given the full force of law and the indorsement of majorities to measures which were utterly incompatible with the peaceful maintenance of the National Government.
The Missouri Compromise is one of these-a law which ordained and established disunion-which distinctly recognized the separate existence of a political North and a political South; a law which created, as far as it could do so, two governments, permitting certain things to be done in one, which it prohibited in the other, thus ordaining positive inequality between citizens of the same common country. We allude to this matter, not to discuss it, but to show the tendency of our people, in time of peace, to disregard or overlook the Coustitution of the United States as the supreme law of the States over the interests delegated to the Union. Whether that compact was absolutely perfect or not, it is certain that the least departure from its provisions was not only unjustifiable, but fatal to the whole scheme of government, of which it was the only law. If, in other words, it was not supreme to the extent of preventing even compromises, by any other than State action, which violated its covenants, it was no law at all. If it had no power to vindicate itself against the action of majorities or even absolute unanimity, on the part of the people, except in its own prescribed way, then it follows, that, instead of a constitutional government, we had a purely democratic majority government. The real law
of the Union was not the Constitution, but the will of greater over lesser numbers. The recognition of the right to give force to laws, made in contravention of the fundamental law of the Union, concedes at once the right of the people, without reference to the States, to alter, modify, or annul the latter, at pleasure. Of course, in such case, the government is a democracy, under which minorities have no rights, and majorities are supreme.
Our career as a nation, though short, is full of evidence that however perfect may have been our theory of self-government, we have, after all, understood little of its practical philosophy. have had a broad and a rich field; but our husbandry has been sadly defective, our labor misapplied, and our productions meagre and unsatisfactory.
Our failure, for such it is, may be accounted for, by a simple reference to one or two leading features of the national mind. Self-reliance is a great virtue when kept within reasonable bounds. It quickens invention, stimulates industry, widens the channels of enterprise, and gives energy and force to those who possess it. But like every other good quality it is liable to run into excess—to become swollen into such inordinate vanity as to reject the lessons of experience and all the counsels of history. It is folly to seek to conceal this turn of an excellent characteristic of the American people. The great evils of its existence and dominion, at the present moment, are too obvious, damaging, and pervading, to admit of either extenuation or justification. It is the dominion of self-conceit over wisdom and patriotism.
It is no answer to point to the industrial successes of the people, during the period of what we call our national existence ; for these very triumphs of labor indicate far more the source of the evils referred to, than prove our capacity to maintain the government under which they were achieved. It is better at once to admit that we are indebted to exemption from trials—that our great success has resulted from the absence of political disturbances, rather than from ability, by strict adherence to fundamental principles of justice and freedom, to manage and control them, when they arise. Until recently we had been called upon only to overcome trifling disturbances. No great, disintegrating elements had