The Constitution of the United States
James M. Beck
Part 2 out of 2
wholly resists the ceaseless washing of time or circumstance, nor is it,
on the other hand, a sandy beach, which is slowly destroyed by the
erosion of the waves. It is rather to be likened to a floating dock,
which, while firmly attached to its moorings, and not therefore the
caprice of the waves, yet rises and falls with the tide of time and
While in its practical adaptation to this complex age the men who framed
it, if they could "revisit the glimpses of the moon," would as little
recognize their own handiwork as their own nation, yet they would still
be able to find in successful operation the essential principles which
they embodied in the document more than a century ago.
Its success is also due to the fact that its framers were little
influenced by the spirit of doctrinarianism. They were not empiricists,
but very practical men. This is the more remarkable because they worked
in a period of an emotional fermentation of human thought. The
long-repressed intellect of man had broken into a violent eruption like
that of a seemingly extinct volcano.
From the middle of the eighteenth century until the end of the French
Revolution the masses everywhere were influenced by the emotional, and
at times hysterical, abstractions of the French encyclopedists; and that
these had influenced thought in the American colonies is readily shown
in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, with its
unqualified assertion of the equality of men and the absolute right of
self-determination. The Declaration sought in its noble idealism to make
the "world safe for democracy," but the Constitution attempted the
greater task of making democracy safe for the world by inducing a people
to impose upon themselves salutary restraints upon majority rule.
Fortunately, the framers of the Constitution had learned a rude and
terrible lesson in the anarchy that had followed the War of
Independence. They were not so much concerned about the rights of man as
about his duties, and their great purpose was to substitute for the
visionary idealism of a rampant individualism the authority of law. Of
the hysteria of that time, which was about to culminate in the French
Revolution, there is no trace in the Constitution.
They were less concerned about Rousseau's social contract than to
restore law and order. Hard realities and not generous and impossible
abstractions interested them. They had suffered grievously for more than
ten years from misrule and had a distaste for mere phrase-making, of
which they had had a satiety, for the Constitution, in which there is
not a wasted word, is as cold and dry a document as a problem in
mathematics or a manual of parliamentary law. Its mandates have the
simplicity and directness of the Ten Commandments, and, like the
Decalogue, it consists more of what shall not be done than what shall be
done. In this freedom from empiricism and sturdy adherence to the
realities of life, it can be profitably commended to all nations which
may attempt a similar task.
While the Constitution apparently only deals with the practical and
essential details of government, yet underlying these simply but
wonderfully phrased delegations of power is a broad and accurate
political philosophy, which goes far to state the "law and the
prophets" of free government.
These essential principles of the Constitution may be briefly summarized
_The first is representative government_.
Nothing is more striking in the debates of the convention than the
distrust of its members, with few exceptions, of what they called
"democracy." By this term they meant the power of the people to
legislate directly and without the intervention of chosen
representatives. They believed that the utmost concession that could be
safely made to democracy was the power to select suitable men to
legislate for the common good, and nothing is more striking in the
Constitution than the care with which they sought to remove the powers
of legislation from the _direct_ action of the people. Nowhere in the
instrument is there a suggestion of the initiative or referendum.
Even an amendment to the Constitution could not be directly proposed by
the people in the exercise of their residual power or adopted by them.
As previously said, it could only be proposed by two-thirds of the House
and the Senate, and then could only become effective, if ratified by
three-fourths of the States, acting, not by a popular vote, but through
their chosen representatives either in their legislatures or special
conventions. Thus they denied the power of a majority to alter even the
form of government. Moreover, they gave to the President the power to
nullify laws passed by a majority of the House and Senate by his simple
veto, and yet, fearful of an unqualified power of the President in this
respect, they provided that the veto itself should be vetoed, if
two-thirds of the Senate and House concurred in such action. Moreover,
the great limitations of the Constitution, which forbid the majority, or
even the whole body of the House and Senate, to pass laws either for
want of authority or because they impair fundamental rights of
individuals, are as emphatic a negation of an absolute democracy as can
be found in any form of government.
Measured by present-day conventions of democracy, the Constitution is an
undemocratic document. The framers believed in representative
government, to which they gave the name "Republicanism" as the
antithesis to "democracy." The members of the Senate were to be selected
by State legislatures, and the President himself was, as originally
planned, to be selected by an electoral college similar to the College
The debates are full of utterances which explain this attitude of mind.
Mr. Gerry said: "The evils we experience flow from the excesses of
democracy. The people are the dupes of pretended patriots." Mr.
Randolph, the author of the Virginia plan, observed that the general
object of the Constitution was to provide a cure for the evils under
which the United States laboured; that in tracing these evils to their
origin every man had found it in the tribulation and follies of
democracy; that some check, therefore, was to be sought for against this
tendency of our Government.
Alexander Hamilton remarked, on June 18, that--
"the members most tenacious of republicanism were as loud as any in
declaiming against the evils of democracy."
"Give all the power to the many and they will oppress the few. Give
all the power to the few and they will oppress the many. Both ought,
therefore, to have the power that each may defend itself against the
Perhaps the attitude of the members is thus best expressed by James
Madison, in the 10th of the Federalist papers:
"A pure democracy, by which I mean a State consisting of a small
number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in
person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. Such
democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention,
and have often been found incompatible with the personal security
and rights of property, and have generally been as short in their
lives as they have been violent in their deaths."
Undoubtedly, the framers of the Constitution in thus limiting popular
rule did not take sufficient account of the genius of an
English-speaking people. A few of their number recognized this.
Franklin, a self-made man, believed in democracy and doubted the
efficacy of the Constitution unless it was, like a pyramid, broad-based
upon the will of the people.
Colonel Mason, of Virginia, who was also of the Jeffersonian school of
political philosophy, said:
"Notwithstanding the oppression and injustice experienced among us
from democracy, the genius of the people is in favour of it, and the
genius of the people must be consulted."
In this they were true prophets, for the American people have refused to
limit democracy as narrowly and rigidly as the framers of the
Constitution clearly intended. The most notable illustration of this is
the selection of the President. It was never contemplated that the
people should directly select the President, but that a chosen body of
electors should, with careful deliberation, make this momentous choice.
While, in form, the system persists to this day, from the very beginning
the electors simply vote as the people who select them desire. It should
here be noted that Thomas Jefferson, the great Democrat and draftsman of
the Declaration of Independence, was not a member of the convention.
During its sessions he was in France. He was instrumental in securing
the first ten Amendments and the subsequent adaptation of the
Constitution to meet the democratic instincts of the American people is
largely due to his great leadership.
Moreover, the spirit of representative government has greatly changed
since the Constitution was adopted. The ideal of the earlier time was
that so nobly expressed by Edmund Burke in his address to the electors
of Bristol, for the framers believed that a representative held a
judicial position of the most sacred character, and that he should vote
as his judgment and conscience dictated without respect to the wishes of
his constituents. To-day, and notably in the last half century, the
contrary belief, due largely to Jefferson's political ideals, has so
influenced American politics that the representatives of the people,
either in the legislature or the executive departments of the
government, are considered by the masses as only the mouthpieces of the
people who select them, and to ignore their wishes is regarded as
virtually a betrayal of a trust and the negation of democracy.
For this change in attitude there has been much justification, for in my
country, as elsewhere, the people do not always select their best men as
representatives, and, with the imperfections of human nature, there has
been so much of ignorance and, at times, venality, that the instinct of
the people is to take the conduct of affairs into their own hands. On
the other hand, this change of attitude has led, in many instances, to
government by organized minorities, for, with the division of the masses
into political parties, it is easy for an organized minority to hold the
balance of power, and thus impress its will upon majorities. Time may
yet vindicate the theory of the framers that the limit of democracy is
the selection of true and tried representatives.
_The second and most novel principle of the Constitution is its dual
form of Government._
This did constitute a unique contribution to the science of politics.
This was early recognized by de Tocqueville, one of the most acute
students of the Constitution, who said that it was based "upon a wholly,
novel theory, which may be considered a great discovery in modern
Previous to the Constitution it had not been thought possible to divide
sovereignty, or at least to have two different sovereignties moving as
planets in the same orbit. Therefore, all previous federated governments
had been based upon the plan that a league could only effect its will
through the constituent States and that the citizens in these States
owed no direct allegiance to the league, but only to the States of which
they were members. The Constitution, however, developed the idea of a
dual citizenship. While the people remained citizens of their respective
States in the sphere of government which was reserved to the States, yet
they directly became citizens of the central government, and, as such,
ceased to be citizens of the several States in the sphere of government
delegated to the central power; and this allegiance was enforced by the
direct action of the central government on the citizens as individuals.
Thus has been developed one of the most intricately complex governmental
systems in the world.
At the time of the adoption of the Constitution this division of
jurisdiction was quite feasible, for, geographically, the various States
were widely separated, and the lack of economic contact made it easy for
each government to function without serious conflict. The framers,
however, did not sufficiently reckon with the mechanical changes in
society that were then beginning. They did not anticipate, and could not
have anticipated, the centripetal influences of steam and electricity
which have woven the American people into an indissoluble unit for
commercial and many other purposes. As a result many laws of the Federal
Government, in their incidences in this complex age, directly impinge
upon rights of the State governments, and _vice versa_, and the
practical application of the Constitution has required a very subtle
adaptation of a form of government which was enacted in a primitive age
to a form of government of a complex age.
Take, for example, the power over commerce. According to the
Constitution, the Federal Government had plenary power over foreign
commerce and commerce _between_ the States, but the power over commerce
_within_ a State was reserved to State governments. This presupposed the
power of Government to divide commerce into two water-tight
compartments, or, at least, to regard the two spheres of power as
parallel lines that would never meet; whereas with the coming of the
railroad, steamship and the telegraph commerce has become so unified
that the parallel lines have become lines of interlacing zigzags. To
adapt the commerce clause of the Constitution to these changed
conditions has required, in the highest degree, the constructive genius
of the Supreme Court of the United States, and, in a series of very
remarkable decisions, which are contained in 256 volumes of the official
reports, that great tribunal has tried to draw a line between
inter-State and domestic commerce as nearly to the original plans of the
framers as it was possible; but obviously there has been so much
adaptation to make this possible that if Washington, Franklin, Madison
and Hamilton could revisit the nation they created they would not
recognize their own handiwork.
For the same reason, the dual system of government has been profoundly
modified by the great elemental forces of our mechanical age, so that
the scales, which try to hold in nice equipoise the Federal Government
on the one hand and the States on the other, have been greatly
disturbed. Originally, the States were the powerful political entities,
and the central government a mere agent for certain specific purposes;
but, in the development of the Constitution, the nation has naturally
become of overshadowing importance, while the States have relatively
steadily diminished in power and prestige.
These inevitable tendencies in American politics are called
"centralization," and while for nearly a century a great political party
bitterly contested its steady progress, due to the centripetal
influences above indicated, yet the contest was long since abandoned as
a hopeless one, and the struggle to-day is rather to keep, so far as
possible, the inevitable tendency measurably in check.
Nevertheless, it would be erroneous to suggest that the dual system of
government is a failure. It still endures in providing a large measure
of authority to the States in their purely domestic concerns, and, in a
country that extends from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the
Lakes to the Gulf, whose northern border is not very far from the Arctic
Circle, and whose southern border is not many degrees from the Equator,
there are such differences in the habits, conventions, and ideals of the
people that without this dual form of government the Constitution would
long since have broken down. It is not too much to say that the success
with which the framers of the Constitution reconciled national supremacy
and efficiency with local self-government is one of the great
achievements in the history of mankind.
_The third principle was the guaranty of individual liberty through
This marked another great contribution of America to the science of
government. In all previous government building, the State was regarded
as a sovereign, which could grant to individuals or classes, out of its
plenary power, certain privileges or exemptions, which were called
"liberties." Thus the liberties which the barons wrung from King John at
Runnymede were virtually exemptions from the power of government. Our
fathers did not believe in the sovereignty of the State in the sense of
absolute power, nor did they believe in the sovereignty of the people in
that sense. The word "sovereignty" will not be found in the Constitution
or the Declaration of Independence. They believed that each individual,
as a responsible moral being, had certain "inalienable rights" which
neither the State nor the people could rightfully take from him.
This conception of individualism, enforced in courts of law against
executives and legislatures, was wholly new and is the distinguishing
characteristic of American constitutionalism. As to such reserved
rights, guaranteed by Constitutional limitations, and largely by the
first ten amendments to the Constitution, a man, by virtue of his
inherent and God-given dignity as a human soul, has rights, such as
freedom of the Press, liberty of speech, property rights, and religious
freedom, which even one hundred millions of people cannot rightfully
take from him, without amending the Constitution. The framers did not
believe that the oil of anointing that was supposed to sanctify the
monarch and give him infallibility had fallen upon the "multitudinous
tongue" of the people to give it either infallibility or omnipotence.
They believed in individualism. They were animated by a sleepless
jealousy of governmental power. They believed that the greater such
power, the greater the danger of its abuse. They felt that the
individual could generally best work out his own salvation, and that his
constant prayer to Government was that of Diogenes to Alexander: "Keep
out of my sunlight." The worth and dignity of the human soul, the free
competition of man and man, the nobility of labour, the right to work,
free from the tyranny of state or class, this was their gospel.
Socialism was to them abhorrent.
This theory of government gave a new dignity to manhood. It said to the
State: "There is a limit to your power. Thus far and no further, and
here shall thy proud waves be stayed."
_Closely allied to this doctrine of limited governmental powers, even by
a majority, is the fourth principle of an independent judiciary_.
It is the balance wheel of the Constitution, and to function it must be
beyond the possibility of attack and destruction. My country was founded
upon the rock of property rights and the sanctity of contracts. Both the
nation and the several States are forbidden to impair the obligation of
contracts, or take away life, liberty, or property "without due process
of law." The guarantee is as old as Magna Charta; for "due process of
law" is but a paraphrase of "the law of the land," without which no
freeman could be deprived of his liberties or possessions.
"Due process of law" means that there are certain fundamental principles
of liberty, not defined or even enumerated in the Constitution, but
having their sanction in the free and enlightened conscience of just
men, and that no man can be deprived of life, liberty, or property,
except in conformity with these fundamental decencies of liberty. To
protect these even against the will of a majority, however large, the
judiciary was given unprecedented powers. It threw about the individual
the solemn circle of the law. It made the judiciary the final conscience
of the nation. Your nation cherishes the same primal verities of
liberty, but with you, the people in Parliament, is the final judge. We,
however, are not content that a majority of the Legislature shall
override inviolable individual rights, about which the judiciary is
empowered to throw the solemn circle of the law.
This august power has won the admiration of the world, and by many is
regarded as a novel contribution to the science of government. The idea,
however, was not wholly novel. As previously shown, four Chief Justices
of England had declared that an Act of Parliament, if against common
right and reason, could be treated as null and void; while in France the
power of the judiciary to refuse efficacy to a law, unless sanctioned by
the judiciary, had been the cause of a long struggle for at least three
centuries between the French monarch and the courts of France. However,
in England the doctrine of the common law yielded to the later doctrine
of the omnipotence of Parliament, while in France the revisory power of
the judiciary was terminated by the French Revolution.
The United States, however, embodied it in its form of government and
thus made the judiciary, and especially the Supreme Court, the balance
wheel of the Constitution. Without such power the Constitution could
never have lasted, for neither executive officers nor legislatures are
good judges of the extent of their own powers.
Nothing more strikingly shows the spirit of unity which the Constitution
brought into being than the unbroken success with which the Supreme
Court has discharged this difficult and most delicate duty. The
President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and the Navy and can
call them to his aid. The legislature has almost unlimited power through
its control of the public purse. The States have their power reinforced
by armed forces, and some of them are as great in population and
resources as many of the nations of Europe. The Supreme Court, however,
has only one officer to execute its decrees, called the United States
Marshal; and yet, without sword or purse, and with only a high sheriff
to enforce its mandates, when the Supreme Court says to a President or
to a Congress or to the authorities of a great--and, in some respects,
sovereign--State that they must do this or must refrain from doing that,
the mandate is at once obeyed. Here, indeed, is the American ideal of "a
government of laws and not of men" most strikingly realized; and if the
American Constitution, as formulated and developed, had done nothing
else than to establish in this manner the supremacy of law, even as
against the overwhelming sentiment of the people, it would have
justified the well-known encomium of Mr. Gladstone.
It must be added, however, that in one respect this function of the
judiciary has had an unfortunate effect in lessening rather than
developing in the people the sense of constitutional morality. In your
country the power of Parliament is omnipotent, and yet in its
legislation it voluntarily observes these great fundamental decencies
of liberty which in the American Constitution are protected by formal
guarantees. This can only be true because either your representatives in
Parliament have a deep sense of constitutional morality, or that the
constituencies which select them have so much sense of constitutional
justice that their representatives dare not disregard these fundamental
decencies of liberty.
In the United States, however, the confidence that the Supreme Court
will itself protect these guaranties of liberty has led to a diminution
of the sense of constitutional morality, both in the people and their
representatives. It abates the vigilance which is said to be ever the
price of liberty.
Laws are passed which transgress the limitations of the Constitution
without adequate discussion as to their unconstitutional character, for
the reason that the determination of this fact is erroneously supposed
to be the exclusive function of the judiciary.
The judiciary, contrary to the common supposition, has no plenary power
to nullify unconstitutional laws. It can only do so when there is an
irreconcilable and indubitable repugnancy between a law and the
Constitution; but obviously laws can be passed from motives that are
anti-constitutional, and there is a wide sphere of political discretion
in which many acts can be done which, while politically
anti-constitutional, are not juridically unconstitutional. For this
reason, the undue dependence upon the judiciary to nullify every law
which either in form, necessary operation, or motive transgresses the
Constitution has so far lessened the vigilance of the people to protect
their own Constitution as to lead to its serious impairment.
_The fifth fundamental principle was a system of governmental checks and
The founders of the Republic were not enamoured of power. As they viewed
human history, the worst evils of government were due to excessive
concentration of power, which like Othello's jealousy "makes the meat it
This system of checks and balances again illustrates that the
Constitution is the great negation of unrestrained democracy. The
framers believed that a people was best governed that was least
governed. Therefore, their purpose was not so much to promote efficiency
in legislation as to put a brake upon precipitate action.
Time does not suffice to state the intricate system of checks and
balances whereby the legislature acts as a check upon the executive and
the executive upon the legislature, and the Supreme Court upon both.
When the Republic was small, and its public affairs were few, this
system of checks and balances worked admirably, but to-day, when the
nation is one of the greatest in the world, and its public affairs are
of the most important and complicated character, and often require
speedy action, it may be questioned whether the system is not now an
undue brake upon governmental efficiency, and does _not_ require some
modification to ensure efficiency. Indeed, it is a serious question with
many thoughtful Americans whether the growth of the United States has
not put an excessive strain upon its governmental machinery.
This system was in part due to the confident belief of the framers of
the Constitution in the Montesquieu doctrine of the division of
government into three independent departments--legislative, executive
and judicial; but experience has shown how difficult it is to apply this
doctrine in its literal rigidity. One result of the doctrine was the
mistaken attempt to keep the legislative and the executive as far apart
as possible. The Cabinet system of parliamentary government was not
adopted. While the President can appear before Congress and express his
views, his Cabinet is without such right. In practice, the gulf is
bridged by constant contact between the Cabinet and the committees of
Congress, but this does not wholly secure speedy and efficient
co-operation between the two departments. As I speak, a movement is in
progress, with the sanction of President Harding, to permit members of
his Cabinet to appear in Congress and thus defend directly and in person
the policies of the Executive.
This separation of the two departments, which causes so much friction,
has been emphasized by one feature of the Constitution which again marks
its distrust of democracy, namely the fixed tenure of office. The
Constitution did not intend that public officials should rise or fall
with the fleeting caprices of a constituency. It preferred to give the
President and the members of Congress a fixed term of office, and,
however unpopular they might become temporarily, they should have the
right and the opportunity to proceed even with unpopular policies, and
thus challenge the final verdict of the people.
If a parliamentary form of government, immediately responsive to
current opinion as registered in elections, is the great desideratum,
then the fixed tenure of offices is the vulnerable Achilles-heel of our
form of government. In other countries the Executive cannot survive a
vote of want of confidence by the legislature. In America, the
President, who is merely the Executive of the legislative will,
continues for his prescribed term, though he may have wholly lost the
confidence of the representatives of the people in Congress. While this
makes for stability in administration and keeps the ship of state on an
even keel, yet it also leads to the fatalism of our democracy, and often
the "native hue" of its resolution is thus "sicklied o'er with the pale
cast of thought." Take a striking instance. I am confident that after
the sinking of the _Lusitania_, the United States would have entered the
world war, if President Wilson's tenure of power had then depended upon
a vote of confidence.
_The sixth fundamental principle is the joint power of the Senate and
the Executive over the foreign relations of the Government_.
I need not dwell at length upon this unique feature of our
constitutional system, for since the Versailles Treaty, the world has
become well acquainted with our peculiar system under which treaties are
made and war is declared or terminated. Nothing, excepting the principle
of local rule, was of deeper concern to the framers of the Constitution.
When it was framed, it was the accepted principle of all other nations
that the control of the foreign relations of the Government was the
exclusive prerogative of the Executive. In your country the only
limitation upon that power was the control of Parliament over the purse
of the nation, and some of the great struggles in your history related
to the attempt of the Crown to exact money to carry on the wars without
a Parliament grant.
The framers were unwilling to lodge any such power in the Executive,
however great his powers in other respects. This was primarily due to
the conception of the States that then prevailed. While they had created
a central government for certain specified purposes, they yet regarded
themselves as sovereign nations, and their representatives in the Senate
were, in a sense, their ambassadors. They were as little inclined to
permit the President of the United States to make treaties or declare
war at will in their behalf as the European nations would be to-day to
vest a similar authority in the League of Nations. It was, therefore,
first proposed that the power to make treaties and appoint diplomatic
representatives should be vested exclusively in the Senate, but as that
body was not always in session, this plan was so far modified as to give
the President, who is always acting, the power to _negotiate_ treaties
"with the advice and consent of the Senate." As to making war, the
framers were not willing to entrust the power even to the President and
the Senators, and it was therefore expressly provided that only Congress
could take this momentous step.
Here, again, the theory of the Constitution was necessarily somewhat
modified in practical administration, for under the power of nominating
diplomatic representatives, negotiating treaties, and in general, of
executing the laws of the nation, the principle was soon evolved that
the conduct of foreign affairs was primarily the function of the
President, with the limitation that the Senate must concur in diplomatic
appointments and in the validity of treaties, and that only both Houses
of Congress could jointly declare war. This cumbrous system necessarily
required that the President in conducting the foreign relations of the
Government should keep in touch with the Senate, and such was the
accepted procedure throughout the history of the nation until President
Wilson saw fit to ignore the Senate, even when the Senate had indicated
its dissent in advance to some of his policies at the Versailles
I suppose that since that conference no part of our constitutional
system has caused more adverse comment in Europe than this system. It
often handicaps the United States from taking a speedy and effectual
part in international negotiations, although if the President and the
Senate be in harmony and collaborate in this joint responsibility, there
is no necessary reason why this should be so.
I share the view of many Americans that this provision of the
Constitution was wise and salutary, especially at this time, when the
United States has taken such an important position in the councils of
civilization. The President is a very powerful Executive, and his
tenure, while short, is fixed. Generally he is elected by little more
than a majority of the people, and sometimes through the curious
workings of the electoral college system, he has been only the choice
of a minority of the electorate. For these reasons, the framers of the
Constitution were unwilling to vest in the President exclusively the
immeasurable power of pledging the faith, man-power, and resources of
the nation and of declaring war. The heterogeneous character of our
population especially emphasizes the wisdom of this course, for it would
be difficult, if not impossible, for an American President to make an
offensive and defensive alliance with any nation or declare war against
another nation without running counter to the racial interests and
passions of a substantial part of the American nation. For better or
worse, the United States has limited, but not destroyed, as the world
war showed, its freedom to antagonize powerful nations from whose people
it has drawn large numbers of its own citizenship. The domestic harmony
of the nation requires that before the United States assumes treaty
obligations or makes war such policy shall represent the largely
preponderating sentiment of its people, and nothing could more
effectually secure this end than to require the President, before making
a treaty, to secure the assent of two-thirds of the Senate and a
majority of both Houses of Congress before making war.
While this may lead, as it has in recent years, to temporary and
regrettable embarrassments, yet in the long run, it is not only better
for the United States, but it is even to the best interests of other
nations, for in this way they are safeguarded against the possible
action of an Executive with whom racial instincts might still be very
influential. In your country, where the Government of the day is subject
to immediate dismissal for want of confidence, such power over foreign
relations can be safely entrusted to a few men, but in the United
States, with its fixed tenures of office, a President could pledge the
faith and involve his nation in war against the interests and will of
the people. Suppose the President had unlimited power over our foreign
relations and that within the next ten years an American, whose parents
were born in any European nation, was elected on purely domestic issues,
he could, with his assured four years of power, bring about a new
alignment of nations and shake the political equilibrium of the world.
The Constitution wisely refused to grant such a power. Hence the
provision for the concurrence of the legislative representatives of the
nation. At all events, it constitutes a system which, as the last
presidential election showed, the American people will not willingly
forgo. It is true that this system makes it difficult for the United
States to participate effectively in the main purpose of the League of
Nations to enforce peace by joint action at Geneva, but to ask the
United States to surrender a vital part of its constitutional system,
upon which its domestic peace so largely depends, in order to promote
the League, seems to me as unreasonable as it would be to ask your
country to abolish the Crown, to which it is sincerely attached as a
vital part of its system, as a contribution towards international
co-operation. You would not surrender such an integral part of your
system, and therefore it is not reasonable to expect a similar sacrifice
on our part, even though the meritorious purposes of the League be
I have thus summarized briefly and most inadequately some of the
essential principles of the Constitution. I have only been able to
suggest very impressionistically what they are and the lessons to be
drawn from them. If I were able to deliver a dozen addresses on the
subject in this historic Hall and with this indulgent audience I would
not scratch even the surface. To understand the Constitution of the
United States you must not only read the text but the thousands of
opinions rendered in the last 130 years by the Supreme Court in its
great task of interpreting this wonderful document. Few documents have
been the subject of more extended commentaries. The four thousand words
have been meticulously examined through intellectual microscopes in
judicial opinions, textbooks, and other commentaries which are as "thick
as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa."
One can say of this document as Dr. Furness, in his variorum edition of
_Hamlet_, says of the words of that character:
"No words by him let fall, no syllable by him uttered, but has been
caught up and pondered, as no words except those of Holy Writ."
But what of its future and how long will the Constitution wholly resist
the washing of time and circumstance? Lord Macaulay once ventured the
prediction that the Constitution would prove unworkable as soon as there
were no longer large areas of undeveloped land and when the United
States became a nation of great cities. That period of development has
arrived. In 1880 only 15 per cent. of the American population lived in
the cities and the remainder were still on the farms. To-day over 52 per
cent, are crowded in one hundred great cities. Lord Macaulay added:
"I believe America's fate is only deferred by physical causes.
Institutions purely democratic will sooner or later destroy liberty
or civilization, or both.... The American Constitution is all sail
and no anchor."
In this last commentary Lord Macaulay was clearly mistaken. As I have
shown, the Constitution is not "purely democratic." It is amazing that
so great a mind should have so little understood that more than any
other Constitution, that of America imposes powerful restraints on
democracy. The experience of a century and a quarter has shown that
while the anchor may at times drag, yet it measurably holds the ship of
state to its ancient moorings. The American Constitution still remains
in its essential principles and still enjoys not only the confidence but
the affection of the great and varied people whom it rules. To the
latter this remarkable achievement must be attributed rather than to any
inherent strength in parchment or red seals, for in a democracy the
living soul of any Constitution must be such belief of the people in its
wisdom and justice. If it should perish to-morrow, it would yet have
enjoyed a life and growth of which any nation or age might be justly
proud. Moreover, it could claim with truth, if it finally perished, that
it had been subjected to conditions for which it was never intended and
that some of its essential principles had been ignored.
The Constitution is something more than a written formula of
government--it is a great spirit. It is a high and noble assertion,
and, indeed, vindication, of the morality of government. It "renders
unto Caesar [the political state] the things that are Caesar's," but in
safeguarding the fundamental moral rights of the people, it "renders
unto God the things that are God's."
In concluding, I cannot refrain from again reminding you that this
consummate work of statecraft was the work of the English-speaking race,
and that your people can therefore justly share in the pride which it
awakens. It is not only one of the great achievements of that _gens
aeterna_, but also one of the great monuments of human progress. It
illustrates the possibilities of true democracy in its best estate. When
the moral anarchy out of which it was born is called to mind, it can be
truly said that while "sown in weakness, it was raised in power."
To the succeeding ages, it will be a flaming beacon, and everywhere men,
who are confronted with the acute problems of this complex age, can
take encouragement from the fact that a small and weak people, when
confronted with similar problems, had the strength and will to impose
restraint upon themselves by peacefully proclaiming in the simple words
of the noble preamble to the Constitution:
"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more
perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquillity,
provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and
secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do
ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of
Note the words "ordain and establish." They imply perpetuity. They make
no provision for the secession of any State, even if it deems itself
aggrieved by federal action. And yet the right to secede was urged for
many years, but Lincoln completed the work of Washington, Franklin,
Madison and Hamilton by establishing that "a government for the people,
by the people and of the people should not perish from the earth."
_IV. The Revolt Against Authority_
"Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the
law, happy is he."
PROVERBS xxix. 18.
One of the most quoted--and also mis-quoted--proverbs of the wise
Solomon says, as translated in the authorized version: "Where there is
no vision, the people perish." What Solomon actually said was: "Where
there is no vision, the people _cast off restraint_." The translator
thus confused an effect with a cause. What was the vision to which the
Wise Man referred? The rest of the proverb, which is rarely quoted,
"Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint: _but he that
keepeth the law, happy is he_."
The vision, then, is the authority of law, and Solomon's warning is
that to which the great and noble founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn,
many centuries later gave utterance, when he said:
"That government is free to the people under it, where the laws rule and
the people are a party to those laws; and all the rest is tyranny,
oligarchy and confusion."
It is my present purpose to discuss the moral psychology of the present
revolt against the spirit of authority. Too little consideration has
been paid by the legal profession to questions of moral psychology.
These have been left to metaphysicians and ecclesiastics, and yet--to
paraphrase the saying of the Master--"the laws were made for man and not
man for the laws," and if the science of the law ignores the study of
human nature and attempts to conform man to the laws, rather than the
laws to man, then its development is a very partial and imperfect one.
Let me first be sure of my premises. Is there in this day and
generation a spirit of lawlessness greater or different than that that
has always characterized human society? Such spirit of revolt against
authority has always existed, even when the penalty of death was visited
upon nearly all offences against life and property. Blackstone tells us
(Book IV, Chap. I) that in the eighteenth century it was a capital
offence to cut down a cherry tree in an orchard--a drastic penalty which
should increase our admiration for George Washington's courage and
We are apt to see the past in a golden haze, which obscures our vision.
Thus, we think of William Penn's "holy experiment" on the banks of the
Delaware as the realization of Sir Thomas More's dream of Utopia; and
yet Pennsylvania was somewhat intemperately called in 1698 "the greatest
refuge for pirates and rogues in America," and Penn himself wrote, about
that time, that he had heard of no place which was "more overrun with
wickedness" than his City of Brotherly Love, where things were so
"openly committed in defiance of law and virtue--facts so foul that I am
forbid by common modesty to relate them."
Conceding that lawlessness is not a novel phenomenon, is not the present
time characterized by an exceptional revolt against the authority of
law? The statistics of our criminal courts show in recent years an
unprecedented growth in crimes. Thus, in the federal courts, pending
criminal indictments have increased from 9503 in the year 1912 to over
70,000 in the year 1921. While this abnormal increase is, in part, due
to sumptuary legislation--for approximately 30,000 cases now pending
arise under the prohibition statutes--yet, eliminating these, there yet
remains an increase in nine years of over 400 per cent, in the
comparatively narrow sphere of the federal criminal jurisdiction. I have
been unable to get the data from the State Courts; but the growth of
crimes can be measured by a few illustrative statistics. Thus, the
losses from burglaries which have been repaid by casualty companies have
grown in amount from $886,000 in 1914 to over $10,000,000 in 1920; and,
in a like period, embezzlements have increased five-fold. It is
notorious that the thefts from the mails and express companies and other
carriers have grown to enormous proportions. The hold-up of railroad
trains is now of frequent occurrence, and is not confined to the
unsettled sections of the country. Not only in the United States, but
even in Europe, such crimes of violence are of increasing frequency, and
a recent dispatch from Berne, under date of August 7, 1921, stated that
the famous International Expresses of Europe were now run under a
The streets of our cities, once reasonably secure from crimes of
violence, have now become the field of operations for the foot-pad and
highwayman. The days of Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard have returned,
with this serious difference--that the Turpins and Sheppards of our day
are not dependent upon the horse, but have the powerful automobile to
facilitate their crimes and make sure their escape.
Thus in Chicago alone, 5000 automobiles were stolen in a single year.
Once murder was an infrequent and abnormal crime. To-day in our large
cities it is of almost daily occurrence. In New York, in 1917, there
were 236 murders and only 67 convictions; in 1918, 221, and 77
convictions. In Chicago, in 1919, there were 336, and 44 convictions.
When the crime wave was at its height a year ago, the police authorities
in more than one American city confessed their impotence to impose
effective restraints. Life and property had seemingly become almost as
insecure as during the Middle Ages.
[Footnote 3: The reader will bear in mind that these words were spoken
in August 1921. Unquestionably, the situation has greatly improved
during the present year(1922).]
As to the subtler and more insidious crimes against the political
state, it is enough to say that graft has become a science in city,
state and nation. Losses by such misapplication of public funds--piled
Pelion on Ossa--no longer run in the millions but the hundreds of
millions. Our city governments are, in many instances, foul cancers on
the body politic; and for us to boast of having solved the problem of
local self-government is as fatuous as for a strong man to exult in his
health when his body is covered with running sores. It has been
estimated that the annual profits from violations of the prohibition
laws have reached $300,000,000. Men who thus violate these laws for
sordid gain are not likely to obey other laws, and the respect for law
among all classes steadily diminishes as our people become familiar
with, and tolerant to, wholesale criminality. Whether the moral and
economic results of Prohibition overbalance this rising wave of crime,
time will tell.
_In limine_, let us note the significant fact that this spirit of
revolt against authority is not confined to the political state, and
therefore its causes lie beyond that sphere of human action.
Human life is governed by all manner of man-made laws--laws of art, of
social intercourse, of literature, music, business--all evolved by
custom and imposed by the collective will of society. Here we find the
same revolt against tradition and authority.
In music, its fundamental canons have been thrown aside and discord has
been substituted for harmony as its ideal. Its culmination--jazz--is a
musical crime. If the forms of dancing and music are symptomatic of an
age, what shall be said of the universal craze to indulge in crude and
clumsy dancing to the vile discords of so-called "jazz" music? The cry
of the time is:
"On with the dance, let joy be" unrefined.
In the plastic arts, the laws of form and the criteria of beauty have
been swept aside by the futurists, cubists, vorticists, tactilists, and
other aesthetic Bolsheviki.
In poetry, where beauty of rhythm, melody of sound and nobility of
thought were once regarded as the true tests, we now have in freak forms
of poetry the exaltation of the grotesque and brutal. Hundreds of poets
are feebly echoing the "barbaric yawp" of Walt Whitman, without the
redeeming merit of his occasional sublimity of thought.
In commerce, the revolt is against the purity of standards and the
integrity of business morals. Who can question that this is
pre-eminently the age of the sham and the counterfeit? Science is
prostituted to deceive the public by cloaking the increasing
deterioration in quality of merchandise. The blatant medium of
advertising has become so mendacious as to defeat its own purpose.
In the recent deflation in commodity values, there was widespread
"welching" among business men who had theretofore been classed as
reputable. Of course, I recognize that a far greater number kept their
contracts, even when it brought them to the verge of ruin. But when in
the history of American business was there such a volume of broken faith
as in the drastic deflation of 1920?
In the greater sphere of social life, we find the same revolt against
the institutions which have the sanction of the past. Social laws, which
mark the decent restraints of print, speech and dress, have in recent
decades been increasingly disregarded. The very foundations of the great
and primitive institutions of mankind--like the family, the Church, and
the State--have been shaken. Nature itself is defied. Thus, the
fundamental difference of sex is disregarded by social and political
movements which ignore the permanent differentiation of social function
ordained by Nature.
All these are but illustrations of the general revolt against the
authority of the past--a revolt that can be measured by the change in
the fundamental presumption of men with respect to the value of human
experience. In all former ages, all that was in the past was
presumptively true, and the burden was upon him who sought to change it.
To-day, the human mind apparently regards the lessons of the past as
presumptively false--and the burden is upon him who seeks to invoke
Lest I be accused of undue pessimism, let me cite as a witness one who,
of all men, is probably best equipped to express an opinion upon the
moral state of the world. I refer to the venerable head of that
religious organization which, with its trained representatives in
every part of the world, is probably better informed as to its spiritual
state than any other organization.
[Footnote 4: Reference is to the late Pope Benedict.]
Speaking last Christmas Eve, in an address to the College of Cardinals,
the venerable Pontiff gave expression to an estimate of present
conditions which should have attracted far greater attention than it
The Pope said that five plagues were now afflicting humanity.
The first was the unprecedented challenge to authority.
The second, an equally unprecedented hatred between man and man.
The third was the abnormal aversion to work.
The fourth, the excessive thirst for pleasure as the great aim of life.
The fifth, a gross materialism which denied the reality of the spiritual
in human life.
The accuracy of this indictment will commend itself to men who like
myself are not of Pope Benedict's communion.
I trust that I have already shown that the challenge to authority is
universal and is not confined to that of the political state. Even in
the narrower confine of the latter, the fires of revolution are either
violently burning, or, at least, smouldering. Two of the oldest empires
in the world, which, together, have more than half of its population
(China and Russia) are in a welter of anarchy; while many lesser nations
are in a stage of submerged revolt. If the revolt were confined to
autocratic governments, we might see in it merely a reaction against
tyranny; but even in the most stable of democracies and among the most
enlightened peoples, the underground rumblings of revolution may be
The Government of Italy has been preserved from overthrow, not alone by
its constituted authorities, but by a band of resolute men, called the
"fascisti," who have taken the law into their own hands, as did the
vigilance committees in western mining camps, to put down worse
Even England, the mother of democracies, and the most stable of all
Governments in the maintenance of law, has been shaken to its very
foundations in the last three years, when powerful groups of men
attempted to seize the State by the throat and compel submission to
their demands by threatening to starve the community. This would be
serious enough if it were only the world-old struggle between capital
and labour and had only involved the conditions of manual toil. But the
insurrection against the political state in England was more political
than it was economic. It marked, on the part of millions of men, a
portentous decay of belief in representative government and its chosen
organ--the ballot box. Great and powerful groups had suddenly
discovered--and it may be the most portentous political discovery of the
twentieth century--that the power involved in their control over the
necessaries of life, as compared with the power of the voting franchise,
was as a forty-two centimetre cannon to the bow and arrow. The end
sought to be attained, namely the nationalization of the basic
industries, and even the control of the foreign policy of Great Britain,
vindicated the truth of the British Prime Minister's statement that
these great strikes involved something more than a mere struggle over
the conditions of labour, and that they were essentially seditious
attempts against the life of the State.
[Footnote 5: I am here speaking of the conditions of 1920. I appreciate
the great improvement, which seems to me to justify the Lincoln-like
patience of Lloyd George.]
Nor were they altogether unsuccessful; for, when the armies of Lenin and
Trotsky were at the gates of Warsaw, in the summer of 1920, the attempts
of the Governments of England and Belgium to afford assistance to the
embattled Poles were paralysed by the labour groups of both countries,
who threatened a general strike if those two nations joined with France
in aiding Poland to resist a possibly greater menace to Western
civilization than has occurred since Attila and his Huns stood on the
banks of the Marne.
Of greater significance to the welfare of civilization is the complete
subversion during the world war of nearly all the international laws
which had been slowly built up in a thousand years. These principles, as
codified by the two Hague Conventions, were immediately swept aside in
the fierce struggle for existence, and civilized man, with his liquid
fire and poison gas and his deliberate; attacks upon undefended cities
and their women and children, waged war with the unrelenting ferocity of
Surely, this fierce war of extermination, which caused the loss of three
hundred billion dollars in property and thirty millions of human lives,
did mark for the time being the "twilight of civilization." The hands on
the dial of time had been put back--temporarily, let us hope and pray--a
Nor will many question the accuracy of the second count in Pope
Benedict's indictment. The war to end war only ended in unprecedented
hatred between nation and nation, class and class, and man and man.
Victors and vanquished are involved in a common ruin. And if in this
deluge of blood, which has submerged the world, there is a Mount Ararat,
upon which the ark of a truer and better peace can find refuge, it has
not yet appeared above the troubled surface of the waters.
Still less can one question the closely related third and fourth counts
in Pope Benedict's indictment, namely the unprecedented aversion to
work, when work is most needed to reconstruct the foundations of
prosperity, or the excessive thirst for pleasure which preceded,
accompanied, and now has followed the most terrible tragedy in the
annals of mankind. The true spirit of work seems to have vanished from
millions of men; that spirit of which Shakespeare made his Orlando
speak when he said of his true servant, Adam:
"O good old man! how well in thee appears
The constant service of the antique world.
When service sweat for duty, not for meed!"
The _moral_ of our industrial civilization has been shattered. Work for
work's sake, as the most glorious privilege of human faculties, has
gone, both as an ideal and as a potent spirit. The conception of work as
a degrading servitude, to be done with reluctance and grudging
inefficiency, seems to be the ideal of millions of men of all classes
and in all countries.
The spirit of work is of more than sentimental importance. It may be
said of it, as Hamlet says of death: "The readiness is all." All of us
are conscious of the fact that, given a love of work, and the capacity
for it seems almost illimitable--as witness Napoleon, with his
thousand-man power, or Shakespeare, who in twenty years could write
more than twenty masterpieces.
On the other hand, given an aversion to work, and the less a man does
the less he wants to do, or is seemingly capable of doing.
The great evil of the world to-day is this aversion to work. As the
mechanical era diminished the element of physical exertion in work, we
would have supposed that man would have sought expression for his
physical faculties in other ways. On the contrary, the whole history of
the mechanical era is a persistent struggle for more pay and less work,
and to-day it has culminated in world-wide ruin; for there is not a
nation in civilization which is not now in the throes of economic
distress, and many of them are on the verge of ruin. In my judgment, the
economic catastrophe of 1921 is far greater than the politico-military
catastrophe of 1914.
The results of these two tendencies, measured in the statistics of
productive industry, are literally appalling.
Thus, in 1920, Italy, according to statistics of her Minister of
Labour, lost 55,000,000 days of work because of strikes alone. From July
to September, many great factories were in the hands of revolutionary
communists. A full third of these strikes had for their end political
and not economic purposes.
In Germany, the progressive revolt of labour against work is thus
measured by competent authority: There were lost in strikes in 1917,
900,000 working days; in 1918, 4,900,000, and, in 1919, 46,600,000.
Even in our own favoured land, the same phenomena are observable. In the
State of New York alone for 1920, there was a loss due to strikes of
over 10,000,000 working days.
In all countries the losses by such cessations from labour are little as
compared with those due to the spirit which in England is called
"ca'-canny" or the shirking of performance of work, and of sabotage,
which means the deliberate destruction of machinery in operation.
Everywhere the phenomenon has been observed that, with the highest wages
known in the history of modern times, there has been an unmistakable
lessening of efficiency, and that with an increase in the number of
workers, there has been a decrease in output. Thus, the transportation
companies in the United States have seriously made a claim against the
United States Government for damages to their roads, amounting to
$750,000,000, claimed to be due to the inefficiency of labour during the
period of governmental operation.
Accompanying this indisposition to work efficiently has been a mad
desire for pleasure, such as, if it existed in like measure in preceding
ages, has not been seen within the memory of living man. Man has danced
upon the verge of a social abyss, and, as previously suggested, the
dancing has, both in form and in accompanying music, lost its former
grace and reverted to the primitive forms of crude vulgarity.
which gives the spectators the maximum of emotional expression with the
minimum of mental effort, had not been eclipsed by the splendour of a
Dempsey or a Carpentier.
Of the last count in Pope Benedict's indictment, I shall say but little.
It is more appropriate for the members of that great and noble
profession which is more intimately concerned with the spiritual advance
of mankind. It is enough to say that, while the Church as an institution
continues to exist, the belief in the supernatural and even in the
spiritual has been supplanted in the souls of millions of men by a gross
and debasing materialism.
If my reader agrees with me in my premises then we are not likely to
disagree in the conclusion that the causes of these grave symptoms are
not ephemeral or superficial; but must have their origin in some
deep-seated and world-wide change in human society. If there is to be a
remedy, we must first diagnose this malady of the human soul.
For example, let us not "lay the flattering unction to our souls" that
this spirit is solely the reaction of the great war.
The present weariness and lassitude of human spirit and the
disappointment and disillusion as to the aftermath of the harvest of
blood, may have aggravated, but they could not cause the symptoms of
which I speak; for the very obvious reason that all these symptoms were
in existence and apparent to a few discerning men for decades before the
war. Indeed, it is possible that the world war, far from causing the
_malaise_ of the age, was, in itself, but one of its many symptoms.
Undoubtedly, there are many contributing causes which have swollen the
turbid tide of this world-wide revolution against the spirit of
Thus, the multiplicity of laws does not tend to develop a law-abiding
spirit. This fact has often been noted. Thus Napoleon, on the eve of the
18th Brumaire, complained that France, with a thousand folios of law,
was a lawless nation. Unquestionably, the political state suffers in
authority by the abuse of legislation, and especially by the appeal to
law to curb evils that are best left to individual conscience.
In this age of democracy, the average individual is too apt to recognize
two constitutions--one, the constitution of the State, and the second,
an unwritten constitution, to him of higher authority, under which he
believes that no law is obligatory which he regards as in excess of the
true powers of government. Of this latter spirit, the widespread
violation of the prohibition law is a familiar illustration.
A race of individualists obey reluctantly, when they obey at all, any
laws which they regard as unreasonable or vexatious. Indeed, they are
increasingly opposed to any law, which affects their selfish interests.
Thus many good women are involuntary smugglers. They deny the authority
of the state to impose a tax upon a Paquin gown. The law's delays and
laxity in administration breed a spirit of contempt, and too often
invite men to take the law into their own hands. These causes are so
familiar that their statement is a commonplace.
Proceeding to deeper and less recognized causes, some would attribute
this spirit of lawlessness to the rampant individualism, which began in
the eighteenth century, and which has steadily and naturally grown with
the advance of democratic institutions. Undoubtedly, the excessive
emphasis upon the rights of man, which marked the political upheaval of
the close of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century,
has contributed to this malady of the age. Men talked, and still talk,
loudly of their rights, but too rarely of their duties. And yet if we
were to attribute the malady merely to excessive individualism, we would
again err in mistaking a symptom for a cause.
To diagnose truly this malady we must look to some cause that is
coterminous in time with the disease itself and which has been operative
throughout civilization. We must seek some widespread change in social
conditions, for man's essential nature has changed but little, and the
change must, therefore, be of environment.
I know of but one such change that is sufficiently widespread and
deep-seated to account adequately for this malady of our time.
Beginning with the close of the eighteenth century, and continuing
throughout the nineteenth, a prodigious transformation has taken place
in the environment of man, which has done more to revolutionize the
conditions of human life than all the changes that had taken place in
the 500,000 preceding years which science has attributed to man's life
on the planet. Up to the period of Watt's discovery of steam vapour as a
motive power, these conditions, so far as the principal facilities of
life, were substantially those of the civilization which developed
eighty centuries ago on the banks of the Nile and later on the
Euphrates. Man had indeed increased his conquest over Nature in later
centuries by a few mechanical inventions, such as gunpowder, telescope,
magnetic needle, printing-press, spinning jenny, and hand-loom, but the
characteristic of all those inventions, with the exception of gunpowder,
was that they still remained a subordinate auxiliary to the physical
strength and mental skill of man. In other words, man still dominated
the machine, and there was still full play for his physical and mental
faculties. Moreover, all the inventions of preceding ages, from the
first fashioning of the flint to the spinning-wheel and the hand-lever
press, were all conquests of the tangible and visible forces of Nature.
With Watt's utilization of steam vapour as a motive power, man suddenly
passed into a new and portentous chapter of his varied history.
Thenceforth, he was to multiply his powers a thousandfold by the
utilization of the invisible powers of Nature--such as vapour and
electricity. This prodigious change in his powers, and therefore his
environment, has proceeded with ever-accelerating speed.
Man has suddenly become the superman. Like the giants of the ancient
fable, he has stormed the very ramparts of Divine power, or, like
Prometheus, he has stolen fire of omnipotent forces from Heaven itself
for his use. His voice can now reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific,
and, taking wing in his aeroplane, he can fly in one swift flight from
Nova Scotia to England, or he can leave Lausanne and, resting upon the
icy summit of Mont Blanc--thus, like "the herald, Mercury, new-lighted
on a heaven-kissing hill"--he can again plunge into the void, and thus
outfly the eagles themselves.
In thus acquiring from the forces of Nature almost illimitable power, he
has minimized the necessity for his own physical exertion or even
mental skill. The machine now not only acts for him, but too often
_thinks_ for him.
Is it surprising that so portentous a change should have fevered his
brain and disturbed his mental equilibrium? A new ideal, which he
proudly called "progress," obsessed him, the ideal of quantity and not
quality. His practical religion became that of acceleration and
facilitation--to do things more quickly and easily--and thus to minimize
exertion became his great objective. Less and less he relied upon the
initiative of his own brain and muscle, and more and more he put his
faith in the power of machinery to relieve him of labour. The evil of
our age is that its values are all false. It overrates speed, it
underrates sureness; it overrates the new, it underrates the old; it
overrates automatic efficiency, it underrates individual craftsmanship;
it overrates rights, it underrates duties; it overrates political
institutions, it underrates individual responsibility. We glory in the
fact that we can talk a thousand miles, but we ignore the greater
question, whether when we thus out-do Stentor, we have anything worth
saying. We have now made the serene spaces of the upper Heavens our
media to transmit market reports and sporting news, second-rate music
and worse oratory and in the meantime the great masters of thought,
Homer and Shakespeare, Bach and Beethoven remain unbidden on our library
shelves. What a sordid Vanity Fair is our modern Civilization!
This incalculable multiplication of power has intoxicated man. The lust
has obsessed him, without regard to whether it be constructive or
destructive. Quantity, not quality, becomes the great objective. Man
consumes the treasures of the earth faster than he produces them,
deforesting its surface and disembowelling its hidden wealth. As he
feverishly multiplied the things he desired, even more feverishly he
multiplied his wants.
To gain these, man sought the congested centres of human life. While
the world, as a whole, is not over-populated, the leading countries of
civilization were subjected to this tremendous pressure. Europe, which,
at the beginning of the nineteenth century, barely numbered 100,000,000
people, suddenly grew nearly five-fold. Millions left the farms to
gather into the cities to exploit their new and seemingly easy conquest
In the United States, as recently as 1880, only 15 per cent. of the
people were crowded in the cities, 85 per cent. remained upon the farms
and still followed that occupation, which, of all occupations, still
preserves, in its integrity, the dominance of human labour over the
machine. To-day, 52 per cent. of the population is in the cities, and
with many of them existence is both feverish and artificial. While they
have employment, many of them do not themselves work, but spend their
lives in watching machines work.
The result has been a minute subdivision of labour that has denied to
many workers the true significance and physical benefit of labour.
The direct results of this excessive tendency to specialization, whereby
not only the work but the worker becomes divided into mere fragments,
are threefold. Hobson, in his work on John Ruskin, thus classifies them.
In the first place, _narrowness_, due to the confinement to a single
action in which the elements of human skill or strength are largely
eliminated; secondly, _monotony_, in the assimilation of man to a
machine, whereby seemingly the machine dominates man and not man the
machine, and, thirdly, _irrationality_, in that work became dissociated
in the mind of the worker with any complete or satisfying achievement.
The worker does not see the fruit of his travail, and cannot therefore
be truly satisfied. To spend one's life in opening a valve to make a
part of a pin is, as Ruskin pointed out, demoralizing in its
tendencies. The clerk who only operates an adding machine has little
opportunity for self-expression.
Thus, millions of men have lost both the opportunity for real physical
exertion, the incentive to work in the joyous competition of skill, and
finally the reward of work in the sense of achievement.
More serious than this, however, has been the destructive effort of
quantity, the great object of the mechanical age, at the expense of
Take, for example, the printing-press: No one can question the immense
advantages which have flowed from the increased facility for
transmitting ideas. But may it not be true that the thousandfold
increase in such transmission by the rotary press has also tended to
muddy the current thought of the time? True it is that the
printing-press has piled up great treasures of human knowledge which
make this age the richest in accessible information. I am not speaking
of knowledge, but rather of the current thought of the living
I gravely question whether it has the same clarity as the brain of the
generation which fashioned the Constitution of the United States. Our
fathers could not talk over the telephone for three thousand miles, but
have we surpassed them in thoughts of enduring value? Washington and
Franklin could not travel sixty miles an hour in a railroad train, or
twice that speed in an aeroplane, but does it follow that they did not
travel to as good purpose as we, who scurry to and fro like the ants in
a disordered ant-heap?
Unquestionably, man of to-day has a thousand ideas suggested to him by
the newspaper and the library where our ancestors had one; but have we
the same spirit of calm inquiry and do we co-ordinate the facts we know
as wisely as our ancestors did?
Athens in the days of Pericles had but thirty thousand people and few
mechanical inventions; but she produced philosophers, poets and artists,
whose work after more than twenty centuries still remain the despair of
the would-be imitators.
Shakespeare had a theatre with the ground as its floor and the sky as
its ceiling; but New York, which has fifty theatres and annually spends
$100,000,000 in the box offices of its varied amusement resorts, has
rarely in two centuries produced a play that has lived.
To-day, man has a cinematographic brain. A thousand images are impressed
daily upon the screen of his consciousness, but they are as fleeting as
moving pictures in a cinema theatre. The American Press prints every
year over 29,000,000,000 issues. No one can question its educational
possibilities, for the best of all colleges is potentially the
University of Gutenberg. If it printed only the truth, its value would
be infinite; but who can say in what proportions of this vast volume of
printed matter is the true and the false? The framers of the
Constitution had few books and fewer newspapers. Their thoughts were few
and simple, but what they lacked in quantity they made up in unsurpassed
Before the beginning of the present mechanical age, the current of
living thought could be likened to a mountain stream, which though
confined within narrow banks yet had waters of transparent clearness.
May not the current thought of our time be compared with the mighty
Mississippi in the period of a spring freshet? Its banks are wide and
its current is swift, but the turbid stream that flows onward is one of
muddy swirls and eddies and overflows its banks to their destruction.
The great indictment, however, of the present age of mechanical power is
that it has largely destroyed the spirit of work. The great enigma which
it propounds to us, and which, like the riddle of the Sphinx, we will
solve or be destroyed, is this:
_Has the increase in the potential of human power, through
thermodynamics, been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the
potential of human character?_
To this life and death question, a great French philosopher, Le Bon,
writing in 1910, replied that the one unmistakable symptom of human life
was "the increasing deterioration in human character," and a great
physicist has described the symptom as "the progressive enfeeblement of
the human will."
In a famous book, _Degeneration_, written at the close of the nineteenth
century, Max Nordau, as a pathologist, explains this tendency by arguing
that our complex civilization has placed too great a strain upon the
limited nervous organization of man.
A great financier, the elder J.P. Morgan, once said of an existing
financial condition that it was suffering from "undigested securities,"
and, paraphrasing him, is it not possible that man is suffering from
undigested achievements and that his salvation must lie in adaptation to
a new environment, which, measured by any standard known to science, is
a thousandfold greater in this year of grace than it was at the
beginning of the nineteenth century?
No one would be mad enough to urge such a retrogression as the
abandonment of labour-saving machinery would involve. Indeed, it would
be impossible; for, in speaking of its evils, I freely recognize that
not only would civilization perish without its beneficent aid, but that
every step forward in the history of man has been coincident with, and
in large part attributable to, a new mechanical invention.
But suppose the development of labour-saving machinery should reach a
stage where all human labour was eliminated, what would be the effect on
man? The answer is contained in an experiment which Sir John Lubbock
made with a tribe of ants. Originally the most voracious and militant of
their species, yet when denied the opportunity for exercise and freed
from the necessity of foraging for their food, in three generations they
became anaemic and perished.
Take from man the opportunity of work and the sense of pride in
achievement and you have taken from him the very life of his existence.
Robert Burns could sing as he drove his ploughshare through the fields
of Ayr. To-day millions who simply watch an automatic infallible
machine, which requires neither strength nor skill, do not sing at their
work but too many curse the fate, which has chained them, like Ixion, to
a soulless machine.
The evil is even greater.
The specialization of our modern mechanical civilization has caused a
submergence of the individual into the group or class. Man is fast
ceasing to be the unit of human society. Self-governing groups are
becoming the new units. This is true of all classes of men, the employer
as well as the employee. The true justification for the American
anti-monopoly statutes, including the Sherman anti-trust law, lies not
so much in the realm of economics as in that of morals. With the
submergence of the individual, whether he be capitalist or wage-earner,
into a group, there has followed the dissipation of moral
responsibility. A mass morality has been substituted for individual
morality, and unfortunately, group morality generally intensifies the
vices more than the virtues of man.
Possibly, the greatest result of the mechanical age is this spirit of
Its merits are manifold and do not require statement; but they have
blinded us to the demerits of excessive organization.
We are now beginning to see--slowly, but surely--that a faculty of
organization which, as such, submerged the spirit of individualism, is
not an unmixed good.
Indeed, the moral lesson of the tragedy of Germany is the demoralizing
influence of organization carried to the _n_th power. No nation was ever
more highly organized than this modern State. Physically, intellectually
and spiritually it had become a highly developed machine. Its dominating
mechanical spirit so submerged the individual that, in 1914, the paradox
was observed of an enlightened nation that was seemingly destitute of a
What was true of Germany, however, was true--although in lesser
degree--of all civilized nations. In all of them, the individual had
been submerged in group formations, and the effect upon the character of
man has been destructive of his nobler self.
This may explain the paradox of so-called "progress." It may be likened
to a great wheel, which, from the increasing domination of mechanical
forces, developed an ever-accelerating speed, until, by centrifugal
action, it went off its bearings in 1914 and caused an unprecedented
catastrophe. As man slowly pulls himself out of that gigantic wreck and
recovers consciousness, he begins to realize that speed is not
Of all this, the nineteenth century, in its exultant pride in its
conquest of the invisible forces, was almost blind. It not only accepted
progress as an unmistakable fact--mistaking, however, acceleration and
facilitation for progress--but in its mad folly believed in an immutable
law of progress which, working with the blind forces of machinery, would
propel man forward.
A few men, however, standing on the mountain ranges of human
observation, saw the future more clearly than did the mass. Emerson,
Carlyle, Ruskin, Samuel Butler, and Max Nordau, in the nineteenth
century, and, in our time, Ferrero, all pointed out the inevitable
dangers of the excessive mechanization of human society. The prophecies
were unhappily as little heeded as those of Cassandra.
One can see the tragedy of the time, as a few saw it, in comparing the
first _Locksley Hall_ of Alfred Tennyson, written in 1827, with its
abiding faith in the "increasing purpose of the ages" and its roseate
prophecies of the golden age, when the "war-drum would throb no longer
and the battle flags be furled in the Parliament of Man and the
Federation of the World," and the later _Locksley Hall_, written sixty
years later, when the great spiritual poet of our time gave utterance to
the dark pessimism which flooded his soul:
"Gone the cry of 'Forward, Forward,' lost within a growing gloom;
Lost, or only heard in silence from the silence of a tomb.
Half the marvels of my morning, triumphs over time and space,
Staled by frequence, shrunk by usage, into commonest commonplace!
Evolution ever climbing after some ideal good,
And Reversion ever dragging Evolution in the mud.
Is it well that while we range with Science, glorying in the Time,
City children soak and blacken soul and sense in city slime?"
Am I unduly pessimistic? I fear that this is the case with most men who,
like Dante, have crossed their fiftieth year and find themselves in a
"dark and sombre wood."
My reader will probably subject me to the additional reproach that I
suggest no remedy.
There are many palliatives for the evils which I have discussed. To
rekindle in men the love of work for work's sake and the spirit of
discipline, which the lost sense of human solidarity once inspired,
would do much to solve the problem, for work is the greatest moral force
in the world. But I must frankly add that I have neither the time nor
the qualifications to discuss the solution of this grave problem.
If we of this generation can only recognize that the evil exists, then
the situation is not past remedy; for man has never yet found himself in
a blind alley of negation. He is still "master of his soul and captain
of his fate," and, to me, the most encouraging sign of the times is the
persistent evidence of contemporary literature that thoughtful men now
recognize that much of our boasted progress was as unreal as a rainbow.
While the temper of the times seems for the moment pessimistic, it
merely marks the recognition of man of an abyss whose existence he
barely suspected but over which his indomitable courage will yet carry
I have faith in the inextinguishable spark of the Divine, which is in
the human soul and which our complex mechanical civilization has not
extinguished. Of this, the world war was in itself a proof. All the
horrible resources of mechanics and chemistry were utilized to coerce
the human soul, and all proved ineffectual. Never did men rise to
greater heights of self-sacrifice or show a greater fidelity "even unto
death." Millions went to their graves, as to their beds, for an ideal;
and when that is possible, this Pandora's box of modern civilization,
which contained all imaginable evils, as well as benefits, also leaves
I am reminded of a remark that the great Roumanian statesman, Taku
Jonescu, made during the Peace Conference at Paris. When asked his views
as to the future of civilization, he replied: "Judged by the light of
reason there is but little hope, but I have faith in man's
inextinguishable impulse to live."
Happily, that cannot be affected by any change in man's environment! For
even when the cave-man retreated from the advance of the polar cap,
which once covered Europe with Arctic desolation, he not only defied the
elements but showed even then the love of the sublime by beautifying the
walls of his icy prison with those mural decorations which were the
beginning of art.
Assuredly, the man of to-day, with the rich heritage of countless ages,
can do no less. He has but to diagnose the evil and he will then, in
some way, meet it.
But what can man-made law do in this warfare against the blind forces of
It is easy to exaggerate the value of all political institutions; for
they are generally on the surface of human life and do not reach down to
the deep under-currents of human nature. But the law can do something to
protect the soul of man from destruction by the soulless machine.
It can defend the spirit of individualism. It must champion the human
soul in its God-given right to exercise freely the faculties of mind and
body. We must defend the right to work against those who would either
destroy or degrade it. We must defend the right of every man, not only
to join with others in protecting his interests, whether he is a brain
worker or a hand worker--for without the right of combination the
individual would often be the victim of giant forces--but we must
vindicate the equal right of an individual, if he so wills, to depend
upon his own strength.
The tendency of group morality to standardize man--and thus reduce all
men to the dead level of an average mediocrity--is one that the law
should combat. Its protection should be given to those of superior skill
and diligence, who ask the due rewards of such superiority. Any other
course, to use the fine phrase of Thomas Jefferson in his first
inaugural, is to "take from the mouth of labour the bread it has
Of this spirit one of the noblest expressions is the Constitution of the
United States. That Magna Charta has not wholly escaped the destructive
tendencies of a mechanical age. It was framed at the very end of the
pastoral-agricultural age and at a time when the spirit of
individualism was in full flower. The hardy pioneers who, with their
axes, made straight the pathway of an advancing civilization, were
sturdy men who need not be undervalued to us of the mechanical age. The
"prairie schooner," which met the elemental forces of Nature with the
proud challenge: "Pike's Peak or bust," produced as fine a type of
manhood as the age which travels either in Mr. Ford's "fliver" or the
more luxurious Rolls-Royce.
The Constitution was framed in the period that marked the passing of the
primitive age and the dawn of the day of the machine. Watt had recently
discovered the potency of steam vapour as a motive power; but its only
use at first was for pumping water out of the mines.
When the framers of the Constitution met in high convention in
Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, a Connecticut Yankee, John Fitch,
was then also working in Philadelphia upon his steamboat; but twenty
years were to pass before the prow of the _Clermont_ was to part the
waters of the Hudson, and nearly a half century before transportation
was to be revolutionized by the utilization of Watt's invention in the
locomotive. Of the wonders of the steamship, the railroad, the
telegraphic cable, the wireless, the gasoline engine, and a thousand
other mechanical miracles, the framers of the American Constitution did
not even dream.
The greatest and noblest purpose of the Constitution was not alone to
hold in nicest equipose the relative powers of the nation and the
States, but also to maintain in the scales of justice a true equilibrium
between the rights of government and the rights of an individual. It did
not believe that the State was omnipotent or infallible, and yet it
proclaimed its authority within wise and just limits. It defended the
integrity of the human soul.
In other governments, these fundamental decencies of liberty rest upon
the conscience of the legislature. Under the American Constitution,
they are part of the fundamental law, and, as such, enforceable by
judges sworn to defend the integrity of the individual as fully as the
integrity of the State.
When did a nobler "vision" inspire men in the political annals of
mankind? Without that vision to restrain each succeeding generation of
Americans from the tempting excesses of political power, the American
Commonwealth, with its great heterogeneous democracy, would probably
That vision still remains as an ideal with the American people and still
leads them to ever-higher achievements, for in all the mad changes of a
frenzied hour, they have not yet lost faith in or love for the
Constitution of the Fathers! That vision will remain with them as long,
and no longer, as there is in their hearts a conscious and willing
acquiescence in its wisdom and justice. Obviously, it can have no
inherent vigour to perpetuate itself. If it ceases to be of the spirit
of the people, then the yellow parchment whereon it is inscribed can
avail nothing. When that parchment was last taken from the safe in the
State Department, the ink in which it had been engrossed nearly 134
years ago was found to have faded. All who believe in constitutional
government must hope that this is not a portentous symbol. The American
people must write the compact, not with ink upon parchment, but with
"letters of living light"--to use Webster's phrase--upon their hearts.
Again the solemn warning of the wise man of old recurs to us:
"Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the
law, happy is he."
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