Letter Five

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    Letter V        May 4, 1843

SIR: No fact in human life is perhaps more clearly established than the tendency there is in men to depart in action from the principles they have laid down in words. In religion it is fearfully so; in morals scarcely less; and in politics we have seen, in the instance of negro slavery, how men could reconcile words and actions the very reverse of each other. – Often as this kind of remark is forced upon us, still I never deemed it needful in a country which has so recently appealed to first principles as New England, to recur to the record of its Constitution to see whether there was any such discrepancy between its theory and its practice. I had seen that it gives men no choice as to whether they will be members of the body politic or not; I had witnessed the incarceration of individuals because they declined to be party to bearing arms or paying others to bear arms, or keep jails, or use halters; but I had no suspicion that this daily practice of brute force was a direct contravention of the letter of the Constitution. Yet on reference to the preamble of this document for our notable State of Massachusetts, I find it set down in language of the plainest character that “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals.” Doubt as we may, this sentence stands at the head of the second paragraph of a document dated no farther back than the year 1780. If in so short a period as 63 years the most sacred public enactments are suffered by those who pretend to maintain them, to be reduced to waste paper; if in the most enlightened nations on the globe’s fair surface this contravention of clearly made statements can be accomplished, we may not marvel that the men of 1780 had some right to recur to the principles whose beauty the dust of countries and the darkness of ignorance, no less than the lust for dominion, had subverted.

We too, must in our day go back to the basis of our institutions. If knowledge and liberality, and enlightenment now run on rapidly, so also do vice and tyranny, and selfishness. If the means of doing good are in modern times much increased and multiplied, so also are the means of doing ill. There is not an instrument which virtue and morality have invented, that vice and crime have left unperverted. The pulpit and the press having been so frequently subverted to tyrannous ends, although originating in the most exalted freedom, shall we wonder when the senate house is debased to the same purposes? If the love of fame is “the last weakness of great minds,” the lust of power produces the first wish of small ones. – Small are the minds which find their way into subservient democratic councils. Small as they may be individually, it is only by becoming smaller that they are allowed a place there. The price one must pay for the most honorable participation in public affairs is to sink one’s manhood into the narrow dimensions of a three hundredth or a four hundredth part of a man. The country not possessing a real man, attempts to make one, somewhat as the bees their queen; with this remarkable difference, that the bees succeed, and the men fail. The human hive is not constructed on true principles, and never can succeed in this attempt to manufacture manhood.

I am not aware what other meaning the historic reader can put upon these words besides their very obvious and simple import; but politicians, it seems, have out of these terms made an authority for conduct directly the reverse. – The Constitution declares the body politic to be a voluntary association. – The principle announces love and choice; practice enacts necessity and force. All, therefore, on behalf of which I am asserting may be summed up as the restoration of the primary constitutional principle. I give no strained or unusual value to the word “voluntary” on this occasion. Either it means choice, or it means nothing at all. If it does not assert the free voluntariness of every individual who comes into “the body politic” it signifies nothing; or at least nothing which common sense can lay hold of. If the voluntariness is to be confined to those who have the power, and they are to be at liberty to force everyone into the association, then I must esteem this word “voluntary” to be a solemn mockery; and the sooner it is erased, and the term “forced” is put in its stead, the sooner will the words of the Constitution harmonize with the idea of its framers, and be at one with the every day practice of its supporters.

It will not, surely, be said that this reading is to stand good for those who originally framed the Constitution; but that all voluntariness or choice is to be taken away from their descendants, from those whose misfortune, as it would appear, was to be born into the world a few years later. The fathers could not design that their children, their own flesh and blood, should be placed in a worse position than they claimed for themselves. It is true that in the next clause they say they form “a new constitution of civil government for ourselves and posterity,” but in the following they also say “all men are born free and equal;” and the declared right to amend the Constitution is too well known and too practical to be forgotten. I cannot see therefore the propriety of twisting the terms of the Constitution from their obvious, legitimate and true meaning, and under those terms I affirm the right of any man to be a member of the body politic or not, as to him, on conscientious dictate, shall seem best.

Of course I present not this argument to the State. For to do that would be to admit its rightful establishment; an act of moral impropriety and false logic which we hope to avoid. But I lay it out for the consideration of that large class of minds which is rather alarmed than invited by novelty. I thus show that the “voluntary” principle was clearly and fully recognized, so far as words can prove, by the framers of the Constitution of 1780. Mine is therefore no new doctrine, whatever the practice may be. If the practice has not yet obtained, it is time it should. If men have not yet acted up to their own principles, this is the age to call upon them to do so. These illusions must no longer deceive men; and be the idea of voluntary government entirely new, or 63 years old, or 630 years old, I suppose it may obtain if we think proper, and we shall be determined to that by the conscience which rules us.

That I do not set any very great value on the Constitution under its best construction, you will readily conceive, not only from these particular remarks, but from the general tenor of my communications. Yet there is always a certain advantage in referring to the origin of our political order; or rather we should say disorder.

The first clause of the Massachusetts Constitution declares that “the end of the institution, maintenance and administration of government is to secure the existence of the body politic, to protect it” &c. The end of this renowned institution is to maintain and protect itself! The grand object is not the maintenance, security of prosperity of man; that is only a secondary object, as we shall see, but the great aim in government is its own existence. How well it has succeeded in this purpose we all witness. How ill-well, at what enormous cost of truth, of virtue, or progress, it has maintained its own wretched existence we begin now to be conscious. It is true that it goes on afterwards to say, “and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquility, their natural rights, and the blessings of life; and whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter the government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity and happiness.”

How the government can furnish individuals with any power of enjoyment I cannot very easily divine. That the government can and does in the most arbitrary manner take away the means of enjoying life, we know to be an indisputable fact in the new world as well as in the old. And at such a result we cannot be surprised when we see it plainly avowed that its first object is self maintenance, and to do something for individuals is but secondary. That the first object too is a cruel reality; while the second is a false assumption. Fight for itself it can and does, to the cost, oppression, and if need be, the annihilation of individuals; but as to furnishing any one in return with any power of enjoyment it is a difficult problem; unless is thereby meant the distribution of patronage and public wealth amongst its corrupt members.

Let us look at the first clause in the most favorable manner; let us give to it even a partial construction, such as politicians could not decently go beyond, still how illusive are these State pretentions. How does the State give us the means or “the power of enjoying in safety and tranquility, our natural rights, and the blessings of life?” The power of enjoyment which the State confers it would be difficult to discover. That it neither gives us “our natural rights” nor “the blessings of life,” will I suppose be confessed by its warmest advocates. Our natural rights, whatsoever they are, are antecedent to all written constitutions, and in fact I presume the making of a constitution is the exercise of one of our natural rights. As to the blessings of life the State has not yet pretended to confer health, strength, vigor of mind, moral character, religious vitality, though in some of these latter points it interferes as much as it can, and has assumed much more than it can ever maintain. Perhaps the only reason why the state, in its extraneous benevolence, does not interfere in the purgation of our bodies as well as of our souls is that mankind has ever been found ready enough in that particular to take care of themselves. But that arose in the very circumstance that they were permitted to do so. As soon as men were allowed to build their own churches, they did so more plentifully than ever, as the eyes of any one in this land can testify. Thus too would it happen with all social affairs. The necessity for a state rests solely upon its own existence, like many other such facts. If it had happened that the State had undertaken to physic our bodies, as it pretends to secure our worldly wealth, I am sure it could have found as good reasons for the continuance of such a function as it can for the maintenance of many if not all of its present occupations. So long as there were laws to punish sorcery and witchcraft, sorcerers and witches were plentiful enough. – These crimes ended because the law was repealed; and the law was not repealed because the crime ceased. For we very well know that sorcery and witchcraft abound now just as much as ever they did. But because these foolish and wicked laws are repealed, do not let us fancy we are rid of every legal or political phantom. The cry that “thieves are coming” would perhaps turn out to be as great a bugbear as that “the witches are coming” if we had but the courage to make the experiment: as I am sure that of “the pirates are coming” or “the enemy is coming” already is. And let it be recollected that upon phantoms and phantasies no other than these all this direful machinery of political government is based.

But let us recur to this first clause. As it is clearly impossible the state can give any enjoyment to any one, we must beg on its behalf that it enables the people to enjoy “in safety and tranquility” the “blessings of life,” and so on. It is the “safety and tranquility” for which we are indebted to the beautiful apparatus called government which we have constructed, and which we keep in repair at so princely a cost. ‘Safety and tranquility!’ Where are they? Who are safe and tranquil? Are the government functionaires themselves in the enjoyment of either of these blessings? They say not. – They are in a bustle from morning to night, and nervous all night too, living by excitements and stimulants. Where then is their tranquility? They are perpetually engaged in strategems and devices to maintain or strengthen their political position, which another party is equally strenuous to overthrow. Where, then, is their safety? Tranquility and safety are indeed valuable ingredients in the cup of life; but, for either mind or body, how do our political governments furnish them to us? They have none themselves as they confess. Every man declares he sacrifices his own peace for the public good. In England we see at this moment the government is an instrument for degrading and starving the people by millions. How much worse off would these people be if their country were to be invaded by a hostile army? Surely their “safety and tranquility” would not be unhappily en[d]an[g]ered. In this country, of the “safety and tranquility” we meet with in families, in individuals, and in respect to life and property, how much is attributable to the existence of the government?

As to safety of life and property I have previously shown how little the government does or can do for either; even when it is most disposed to be serviceable; and in this state the government is put so much on its good behaviour that I believe poor thing, that it does its best. As to “safety and tranquility” in an enlarged sense, I believe they are best attained by going away as far as possible from human governments. In both mental and physical proximity this is true. The mind of the man who has given up all wish to inter-meddle in politics is much more tranquil than that of the inexperienced, deluded youth who looks with silly anxiety to become the fraction of a law-giver. Property in the country is much safer than in towns. In the capitals, under the very eyes of government itself, robbery and even murder is more common than in the same amount of rural population; and no device of government, save that of its own annihilation, seems capable of mending the matter. At present, at all events, “safety and tranquility” are attainable on the old geometrical principle of inverse ratio, and are greatest when we are farthest from the seat of government. It is, I believe, a universal perception, that moderate sized or smaller States are best calculated for the management of their own affairs. – The union of North America is constructed somewhat on this idea; which, in contradistinction to that of a vast centralization, is no doubt a just one. By reason of local knowledge, immediate interest, prompt communication and final decision close at hand, the government is much more easily and beneficially managed than if every report had to travel from Bangor to Washington, or from New Orleans to the same centre, before a decision could be had. The “safety and tranquility” of the country would not be worth much under such a system. Why not, then, carry out this principle a little further? Let the divisions be still smaller, by allowing every county to provide all its own local supplies that it possibly can, and, further than that, let the necessity for county legislation be abridged by each town clearing up its own chips to the utmost practicable extent; but, beyond this, let it be thrown upon every family to legislate wisely and virtuously in and for itself. To that “complexion it must come at last.” Public opinion rules at last; and why not rule at first? We might then save all this vast expenditure, and this unseemly apparatus. The acknowledged vices of government would be attenuated to their smallest amount. The moral nuisance of large cities, the creation altogether of the present plan of government, and the profile hot-beds of vice, crime and misery, would dwindle to a more wholesome capacity, and their inhabitants would be disseminated over the land, a blessing and an ornament to their country, the emblems at least of something nearer to “safety and tranquility” than they now are.

A fact showing how far the people, even in this favored land, are indebted to the government for their safe and tranquil enjoyments is now in current report. The Lowell manufacturers finding a resistance to reduced wages on the part of their operatives, are reported to have sent to Great Britain for a supply of their poor factory hands who will be glad to work at the reduced rates offered. You will perceive that such an occurrence would be impossible under a voluntary, or real self-government, which had no custom house and no high tariff to maintain, made for the very purpose of propping up these destructive factories. The circle of misdoing, so evident in Old England, is thus attaining completion in New England. The manufacturers, the joint stock companies, the wealthy, engender the government; the government generates taxation; taxation has its custom house and high tariff, which in return foster the factories, by which the wealthy become wealthier, and the poor poorer. Thus, as of old, and in distant modern nations, the government itself becomes the great instruments in producing “danger and agitation,” under the pretence of aiding the people’s “safety and tranquility. “These, sir, are the actualities of our present system, and not theoretic speculations of your sincere friend,

Concord, Mass.

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