Letter Three

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    Letter III        March 27, 1843


SIR: The course of our inquiry on this all-touching subject naturally leads us to trace the workings of the present system from one end to the other. Some good at all events must come from this pursuit. For if we should not be enabled to see our way clearly to the abrogation of the entire code, we may at all events take the liberty of sweeping away such portions as are absolutely injurious as well as those parts which could, with manifest advantage, be left to spontaneous action. Political machinery is confessed by its managers to be so far imperfect that the greater part of the time and effort is devoted to patching it up so that it may be able to move with any degree of success or approbation.

In the American Constitution the Town Meeting is the primary spring, the vital element. Abolish this, and the whole fabric falls. Let the townsmen omit to act politically, let them forbear the manufacture of legislators and other officers, and the taper already flickering in the socket will be finally extinguished. The town meetings, to the external eye the mere circumference of the wheel, is the very centre of it, the axle upon which it revolves, and the power which imparts its motion. We assemble in town meeting, our Fathers having heretofore done the like. I and my neighbors choose to come together for certain purposes. What are they? To elect a representative, to be joined by many others from other towns, to make laws for our government. To appoint certain persons to select teachers for our children; to levy rates upon ourselves, and appoint a constable to collect them, and as part of a county to elect a jailor. We give up our regular productive employment, our home duties, the education of our children, the providing of fuel, the cultivation of the garden or field, or whatever the season, in conjunction with our most sacred family and neighbourly relations may render needful. We are gathered together over the business of sanctioning the present social order with all its rights and powers, real or supposed. The first act is to appoint a moderator. – Well, whom shall we fix upon? Why it is a secular business, and therefore not the Priest. But Squire – the Lawyer is a fit person; he has studied the laws, his life has been devoted to the subject, he can advise the town if any difficulty of construction arises, and so we place him in the chair. So far we seem to have proceeded rationally. But we, the mass, are only unlearned cultivators of the soil, or hard handed mechanics, who cannot wield a graceful pen, or round off a handsome speech, so that now the business hitches. The machinery is like a steam engine before the steam is turned on. Some one must bring forward the resolves, and suggest reasons for passing them, and the party names must be patronized by a man of weight. Who so fit as the Banker? He has, or appears to have a great stake in the hedge; he intends to preserve things in good order; so we will hear him. A seconder is wanted. Who can prescribe better than the Doctor? He is skilled in the treatment of the body physical, and if we trust him with our own frames, surely we shall not hesitate to accept his prescription for the body political. So now we are pretty safe. We have secured the guidance of the best educated classes, and we shall go ahead all right. – The Lawyer, the Banker, the Merchant, the Doctor have condescended to take us by the hand, so that we could not possibly be better off.

This, Sir, is no exaggeration of the facts. Enter the town meetings and see. If in all cases these characters do not come prominently forward to the eye, it is only because policy suggests they should keep in the back ground in order the better to carry their point. To the free observer the proceedings in a town meeting are dramatically interesting. These assemblies, once perhaps the seats of truth, of liberty, of safety, have now become a mimic scene, in which the wires that move the puppets are so obvious to all but the acting parties that their sober seriousness, as well as their moral utility, is entirely gone. It is a fact for the historians to note that the most elevated and energetic men of the age, have long ceased to participate in politics. Another fact is sometimes added. Namely that the entire town declines to act in that capacity so far as a legislative representative is concerned. What person of moral feeling reproaches a town for this course? None. It is rather accepted as a symptom of more profound thought and a deeper insight into the moral ordering of human affairs. In such towns the hinderative conservatism of lawyers, doctors, and bankers, is on the decline, and the progressive conservatism of industrious moral thought is on the ascendant. Such men have already adopted some steps towards a voluntary government, and they have only to proceed onwards and attain the whole. They are beginning to be liberated from the farcical incubus of the legal, medical, and pecuniary night-mare.

Now of all those other things which the town does, of which could we not be discharged as safely as from the legislative? – “The Schools,” perhaps it will be said, “must be cared for.” “Education is an object worth any price; and though our political functions involve many follies or errors, yet this item alone counterbalances them all.” Such is the language, such the feeling of many. But how fallacious is it to suppose that any political machinery, any ferocious government, need be set in motion for this noble purpose. Let fact be known to every sincere mind that this mixture of education and politics is only a contrivance to gild the iron chains by which men are so despotically bound. In some of the most educated countries on earth, Scotland and England for instance, the government has seldom interfered in any way, and then its help has generally been that of a bear in the boat, which wrecked the passengers. The true school is doubtless the parental home. The parents who produced should educate the children. All that is now accomplished by a forced taxation to secure that information to the children which they are denied at home could as well be done by a voluntary union amongst the interested parties untainted by that demoralizing force which compels a parent to contribute who is able and willing and does devote himself daily to the education of his offspring.

This impertinent assumption of men in town-meeting assembled is most gross. – What pure mind could ever conceive of so immoral an act, so dark and foul a piece of education as sending a man to jail in order to raise funds for the moral education of children. The plan is as absurd as it is vile. The only argument in behalf of national education is that ignorant parents would and do neglect their duty to their children, so the State must step in. I do not see why the State has not the same right, and much better arguments, for interfering in individual affairs at an earlier stage, and either forbidding such unqualified to marry, or passing them through a needful previous training. There would be more propriety, kindness and consistency in such a course. If education be enforced as a preventative of evils, let it become thorough, let it begin at the beginning. But even now an ill disposed parent is not forced to send his children to school; he is only forced to pay. So that this important part of the work is left to the moral influence of the neighbors; and why could not the money contribution be committed to the same influence? The existence of the town school determines the fact that a majority amongst the neighbors are aware of the importance of education, and therefore they need not coerce themselves; and if they have negligent fellow townsmen, should they rather set about awakening them. Never was there a greater absurdity than to pretend to enfranchise the human mind from ignorance and bad passions by force. Love alone can aid in this work, and therefore the sooner the town ceases to force any one against his conscience or spontaneous will to pay a cent towards it, the sooner they will really commence the business they aim at.

Such perceptions naturally excite another, of no small importance; which is the inferiority that will always mark a national education compared to that which results from open and free operations. Every measure touched by the hand of the State, or by any corporate body, if it be only a few annually appointed select men, acquires a fixedness which chills it to a corpse-like rigidity. France, with all her national and royal patronage of manufactures has rarely been able to equal the English productions brought forth by private enterprise and skill. Our education, cut down to a few formalities which the ill qualified inspectors understand, or presume they understand, is in its effects upon its victims, much more like the lightning shock which blasts the tall oak to a blackened stump, than the glowing sun which expands every bud to a fresh and cheerful green. The teachers are cut too pattern. Genius dare not show his face. – A man of new ideas would alarm the clerical, legal, trading spirits under which something nicknamed education, is now used to beguile the people. Thus instead of helping the people forward it keeps them all down to a low standard. That this is the general estimate is proved by the fact that most of those parents who can afford to send their children to free individual academies do so. I know of few better steps immediately practicable than that of throwing open education throughout New England to the moral and intellectual energies of the teachers, and the senses of duty and self-interest in the parents and the public. It does not sound very graciously towards our teachers to say that their qualifications would not attract scholars. I had not the design to dwell at this length on the item of education. But I perceive that it is important in many respects. Education is in itself so holy a pursuit that all our ideas concerning it are of an elevated character, and in spite of the glaring facts which render it obvious that much is going on about us of any, rather than of a holy nature, yet the mere name has some charm for us, and we are lead away by imagination to hopes which are never to be realized. But let us give up this hateful coercive system. Children will find their way to school where love teaches the lessons, as readily as adults find their way to the church where the voice of love alone is heard. Selfishness and force keep away the tender and kindly from both halls.

Inspection and repair of Roads, is another purpose for which we constitute ourselves a corporate body under the coercive system. On this subject very few words are needful to show that such a mode is altogether uncalled for. The roads are now in a state by no means remarkable for facility in travelling; and that owners of land and houses would neglect to keep up the roads to a state most profitable for cultivation and convenience of travel is to suppose that they are at once careful and careless of their own interests. Putting aside the fact that the common road might, like the railroad, be made into a shop keeping business, and paid for by every one who used it, we have a basis enough to rely on in knowing that the same cupidity which makes a man a land owner, prompts him to improve its value in every possible way. – The high roads are now not made by all who use them; we do not tax the transient passenger, and it is not conceivable that men who as neighbors voluntarily combined for road making would be less liberal than the same men in town meeting assembled; or than they are when they subscribe to a church or a lyceum. In some cases the truth in these views has been so far acknowledged that the road rate has been separated from the general levy and paid in labor or cash as agreeable.

Another item in this political account is to make a provision for the poor. Of all the objects for which money or means can be collected surely this may be left to human hearts to attain without coercion. – Anything I know is better than that the innocent, aged, helpless poor should suffer. It is in the very sincerity and intensity of that feeling that I am able to declare that the town need not trouble itself to come to a vote on the subject. I am fully alive to the arguments pro and con on the subject of poor laws, but whether the balance shall be found in favor of combined action or of individual and private donation, quite sure I am that charity cannot be sustained by force. There is no charity in raising money by force to put the care of the poor people up to the best bidder; that is to say to place them in the tender mercies of a person who will feed them at the lowest rate per head. Townsmen cannot do such things on charitable principles. They support themselves in it by arguments of selfish economy. We all know how hateful is the very name of poor-house to the rightly ordered mind. – Every man who is a party to its provision for others, shuns it as the lowest degradation for himself. Each voter is well aware how little the charitable spirit dictates his vote. True charity would prescribe a very different course. That superior feeling which desires not to tell the left hand what the right hand giveth would find other means for opening the sluices of a grateful heart for present benefits. It would bestow in a neighborly and delicate manner suited to each individual case, whatever would be spared of these external necessities; and accompanied withal by that personal kindness and affectionate expression so needful in such cases, and which never can be entered in the contract with the poor house master, at so much per head. I think I do not assume too much, I hope I do not, when I say I have broken down all the pretenses for the town taxation so far as its own local affairs are concerned. There remains, however, the other side of the case to meet, namely, that of electing individuals to form the more expansive political body called the legislature, including the governor. This duty remains to me, although some towns already omit to take part in this procedure; because it may be said that the general operation still goes on, and they are virtually represented by the members from neighboring towns. It may not be needful that every town should be represented at the State house, any more than it is needful for every citizen to be present at the town house. – We have therefore to trace, as well as we are able, what the results of the present system are, and what would be the probable consequences of a total abstinence of the citizens from the ballot box. The ancients voted by putting a bean into the vase; hence the saying of Pythagoras to his disciples “avoid the bean.” A precept we must take a subsequent occasion to discuss, as these remarks have extended to sufficient length for the present.

Yours, faithfully
C.L.
Concord, Mass.

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