Skip to comments.The Proper Pace of Political Change.
Posted on 04/08/2014 4:17:21 AM PDT by Jacquerie
Coincident with ratification of the 1913 amendments to the constitution, New York Senator Elihu Root expressed his concerns in a series of lectures at the alma mater of James Madison, and Woodrow Wilson, Princeton University. He was one of the most respected and influential politicians of the early 20th century. Senator Root spoke freely, without hesitation, the language of our framing generation. As a tidal wave of progressivism swept across America, he clearly feared our overnight transformation from a federal, to a democratic republic.
Senator Elihu Root: The Proper Pace of Political Change. (Excerpts):
In this country we have set forth in the Declaration of Independence the principles which we consider to lie at the basis of civil society: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving just powers from the consent of the governed.
In our federal and state constitutions we have established the institutions through which these rights are to be secured. We have declared what officers shall make the laws, what officers shall execute them, what officers shall sit in judgment upon claims of right under them. We have prescribed how these officers shall be selected and the tenure by which they shall hold their offices. We have limited them in the powers which they are to exercise, and, where it has been deemed necessary, we have imposed specific duties upon them. The body of rules thus prescribed constitute the governmental institutions of the United States.
When proposals are made to change these institutions there are certain general considerations which should be observed.
The first consideration is that free government is impossible except through prescribed and established governmental institutions which work out the ends of government through many separate human agents, each doing his part in obedience to law. Popular will cannot execute itself directly except through a mob. Popular will cannot get itself executed through an irresponsible executive, for that is simple autocracy. An executive limited only by the direct expression of popular will cannot be held to responsibility against his will, because, having possession of all the powers of government, he can prevent any true, free, and general expression adverse to himself, and unless he yields voluntarily he can be overturned only by a revolution.
The familiar Spanish-American dictatorships are illustrations of this. A dictator once established by what is, or is alleged to be, public choice never permits an expression of public will which will displace him, and he goes out only through a new revolution because he alone controls the machinery through he could be displaced.
We should therefore, reject every proposal which involves the idea that the people can rule merely by voting, or merely by voting and having one man or group of men to execute their will.
A second consideration is that, in estimating the value of any system of governmental institutions, due regard must be had to the true functions of government and to the limitations imposed by nature upon what it is possible for government to accomplish. We all know of course that we cannot abolish all the evils in this world by statute or by the enforcement of statutes, nor can we prevent the inexorable law of nature which decrees that suffering shall follow vice and all the evil passions and folly of mankind. Law cannot give to depravity the rewards of virtue, to indolence the rewards of industry, to indifference the rewards of ambition, or to ignorance the rewards of learning. The utmost that government can do is measurably to protect men, not against the wrong done they do themselves but against wrong done by others, and to promote the long, slow process of educating mind and character to a better knowledge and nobler standards of life and conduct . . .
The chief motive power which has moved mankind along the course of development which we call the progress of civilization has been the sum total of intelligent selfishness in a vast number of individuals, each working for his own support, his own gain, his own betterment. It is that which has cleared the forests and cultivated the fields and built the ships and railroads, made discoveries and inventions, covered the earth with commerce, softened by intercourse the enmities of nations and races, and made possible the wonders of literature and art . . .
But the complete control of such motives will be the millennium. Any attempt to enforce a millennial standard now by law must necessarily fail, and any judgment which assumes governments responsibility to enforce such a standard must be an unjust judgment. Indeed, no such standard can ever be forced. It must come, not by superior force but from the changed nature of man, . . .
A third consideration is that it is not merely useless but injurious for government to attempt too much. It is manifest that to enable it to deal with the new conditions I have described we must invest government with authority to interfere with the individual conduct of the citizen to a degree hitherto unknown in this country. When government undertakes to give the individual citizen protection by regulating the conduct of others toward him in the field where formerly he protected himself by his freedom of contracts, it is limiting the liberty of the citizen whose conduct is regulated and taking a step in the direction of paternal government. Interference with individual liberty by government should be jealously watched and restrained, because the habit of undue interference destroys that independence of character without which in its citizens no free government can endure . . .
The habit of undue interference by government in private affairs breeds the habit of undue reliance upon government in private affairs at the expense of individual initiative, energy, enterprise, courage, independent manhood.
The strength of self-government and the motive power of progress must be found in the characters of the individual citizens who make up a nation. Weaken individual character among a people by comfortable reliance upon paternal government and a nation soon becomes incapable of free self-government and fit only to be ruled. The higher and nobler qualities of national life that make for ideals and effort and achievement become atrophied and the nation is decadent.
The recognition of shortcomings or inconveniences in government is not by itself sufficient to warrant a change of system. There should be also an effort to estimate and compare the shortcomings and inconveniences of the system to be substituted, for although they may be different they will certainly exist.
In the nature of things all government must be imperfect because men are imperfect. Every system has its shortcomings and inconveniences; and these are seen and felt as they exist in the system under which we live, while the shortcomings and inconveniences of other systems are forgotten or ignored.