Legitimacy and Revolutionism, Conservatism and Reform

by Circle or Line

Democracy … is sometimes asserted to be the sovereignty of the people. If this be a true account of it, it is indefensible. The sovereignty of the people is not a truth. Sovereignty is that which is highest, ultimate; which has not only the physical force to make itself obeyed, but the moral right to command whatever it pleases. The right to command involves the corresponding duty of obedience. What the sovereign may command, it is the duty of the subject to obey [to do].

Are the people the highest? Are they ultimate? And are we bound in conscience to obey whatever it may be their good pleasure to ordain? If so, where is individual liberty? If so, the people, taken collectively, are the absolute master of every man taken individually. Every man, as a man, then, is an absolute slave. Whatever the people, in their collective capacity, may demand of him, he must feel himself bound in conscience to give. No matter how intolerable the burdens imposed, painful and needless the sacrifices required, he cannot refuse obedience without incurring the guilt of disloyalty; and he must submit in quiet, in silence, without even the moral right to feel that he is wronged.

Now this, in theory at least, is absolutism. Whether it be a democracy, or any other form of government, if it be absolute, there is and there can be no individual liberty. Under a monarchy, the monarch is the state. L’Etat c’est moi, said Louis the Fourteenth, and he expressed the whole monarchical theory. The state being absolute, and the monarch being the state, the monarch has the right to command what he will, and exact obedience in the name of duty, loyalty. Hence absolutism, despotism. Under an aristocracy, the nobility are the state, and consequently, as the state is absolute, the nobility are also absolute. Whatever they command is binding. If they require the many to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ to them, then ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ to them the many must feel it their duty to be. Here, for the many, is absolutism as much as under a monarchy. Every body sees this.

Well, is it less so under a democracy, where the people, in their associated capacity, are held to be absolute? The people are the state, and the state is absolute; the people may therefore do whatever they please. Is not this freedom? Yes, for the state; but what is it for the individual? There are no kings, no nobilities, it is true; but the people may exercise all the power over the individual that kings or nobilities may; and consequently every man, taken singly, is, under a democracy, if the state be absolute, as much the slave of the state, as under the most absolute monarchy or aristocracy.

The effects of this doctrine, so far as believed and acted on, cannot be too earnestly deprecated. It creates a multitude of demagogues, pretending a world of love for the dear people, lauding the people’s virtues, magnifying their sovereignty, and with mock humility professing their readiness ever to bow to the will of the majority. It tends to make public men lax in their morals, hypocritical in their conduct; and it paves the way for gross bribery and corruption. It generates a habit of appealing, on nearly all occasions, from truth and justice, wisdom and virtue, to the force of numbers, and virtually sinks the man in the brute. It destroys manliness of character, independence of thought and action, and makes one weak, vacillating, a timeserver and a coward. It perverts inquiry from its legitimate objects, and asks, when it concerns a candidate for office, not, Who is the most honest, the most capable? but, Who will command the most votes? and when it concerns a measure of policy, not, What is just? What is for the public good? but, What can the majority be induced to support?

Now, as men, as friends to good morals, we cannot assent to a doctrine which not only has this tendency, but which declares this tendency legitimate. That it does have this tendency needs not to be proved. Every body knows it, and not a few lament it. Not long since it was gravely argued by a leading politician, in a Fourth of July oration, that Massachusetts ought to give Mr. Van Buren her votes for the Presidency, because, if she did not, she would array herself against her sister States, and be compelled to stand alone, as the orator said with a sneer, ‘in solitary grandeur’. In the access of his party fever, it did not occur to him that Massachusetts was in duty bound, whether her sister States were with her or against her, to oppose Mr. Van Buren, if she disliked him as a man, or distrusted his principles as a politician or a statesman. Many good reasons, doubtless, might have been alleged why Massachusetts ought to have voted for Mr. Van Buren, but the orator would have been puzzled to select one less conclusive, or more directly in the face and eyes of all sound morals, than the one he adduced. The man who deserves to be called a statesman never appeals to low or demoralizing motives, and he scorns to carry even a good measure by unworthy means. There is within every man, who can lay any claim to correct moral feeling, that which looks with contempt on the puny creature who makes the opinions of the majority his rule of action. He who wants the moral courage to stand up ‘in solitary grandeur’, like Socrates in face of the Thirty Tyrants, and demand that right be respected, that justice be done, is unfit to be called a statesman, or even a man. A man has no business with what the majority think, will, say, do, or will approve; if he will be a man, and maintain the rights and dignity of manhood, his sole business is to inquire what truth and justice, wisdom and virtue, demand at his hands, and to do it, whether the world be with him or against him, to do it, whether he stand alone ‘in solitary grandeur’, or be huzzaed by the crowd, loaded with honors, held up as one whom the young must aspire to imitate, or be sneered at as singular, branded as a ‘seditious fellow’, or crucified between two thieves. Away, then, with your demoralizing and debasing notion of appealing to a majority of voices! Dare be a man, dare be yourself, to speak and act according to your own solemn convictions, and in obedience to the voice of God calling out to you from the depths of your own being. Professions of freedom, of love of liberty, of devotion to her cause, are mere wind, when there wants the power to live and to die in defence of what one’s own heart tells him is just and true. A free government is a mockery, a solemn farce, where every man feels himself bound to consult and to conform to the opinions and will of an irresponsible majority. Free minds, free hearts, free souls, are the materials, and the only materials, out of which free governments are constructed. And is he free in mind, heart, soul, body, or limb, he who feels himself bound to the triumphal car of the majority, to be dragged whither its drivers please? Is he the man to speak out the lessons of truth and wisdom when most they are needed, to stand by the right when all are gone out of the way, to plead for the wronged and downtrodden when all are dumb, he who owns the absolute right of the majority to govern?

Sovereignty is not in the will of the people, nor in the will of the majority. Every man feels that the people are not ultimate, are not the highest, that they do not make the right or the wrong, and that the people as a state, as well as the people as individuals, are under law, accountable to a higher authority than theirs. What is this Higher than the people? The king? Not he whom men dignify with the royal title. Every man, by the fact that he is a man, is an accountable being. Every man feels that he owes allegiance to some authority above him. The man whom men call a king is a man, and, inasmuch as he is a man, he must be an accountable being, must himself be under law, and therefore cannot be the highest, the ultimate, and of course not the true sovereign. His will is not in itself law. Then he is not in himself a sovereign. Whatever authority he may possess is derived, and that from which he derives his authority, and not he, in the last analysis, is the true sovereign. If he derive it from the people, then the people, not he, is the sovereign; if from God, then God, not he, is the sovereign. Are the aristocracy the sovereign? If so, annihilate the aristocracy, and men will be loosed from all restraint, released from all obligation, and there will be for them neither right nor wrong. Nobody can admit that right and wrong owe their existence to the aristocracy. Moreover, the aristocracy are men, and, as men, they are in the same predicament with all other men. They are themselves under law, accountable, and therefore not sovereign in their own right. If we say they are above the people, they are placed there by some power which is also above them, and that, not they, is the sovereign.

But if neither people, nor kings, nor aristocracy are sovereign, who or what is? What is the answer which every man, when he reflects as a moralist, gives to the question, Why ought I to do this or that particular thing? Does he say, Because the king commands it, the aristocracy enjoin it, the people ordain it, the majority wills it? No. He says, if he be true to his higher convictions, Because it is right, because it is just. Every man feels that he has a right to do whatever is just, and that it is his duty to do it. Whatever he feels to be just he feels to be legitimate, to be law, to be morally obligatory. Whatever is unjust he feels to be illegitimate, to be without obligation, and to be that which it is not disloyalty to resist. The absolutist, he who contends for unqualified submission on the part of the people to the monarch, thunders, therefore, in the ears of the absolute monarch himself, that he is bound to be just; and the aristocrat assures his order that its highest nobility is derived from its obedience to justice; and does not the democrat, too, even while he proclaims the sovereignty of the people, tell this same sovereign people to be just? In all this, witness is borne to an authority above the individual, above kings, nobilities, and people, and to the fact, too, that the absolute sovereign is justice. Justice is, then, the sovereign, the sovereign of sovereigns, the king of kings, lord of lords, the supreme law of the people, and of the individual.

This doctrine teaches that the people, as a state, are as much bound to be just as is the individual. By bounding the state by justice, we declare it limited, we deny its absolute sovereignty, and therefore save the individual from absolute slavery. The individual may on this ground arrest the action of the state, by alleging that it is proceeding unjustly; and the minority has a moral force with which to oppose the physical force of the majority. By this there is laid in the state the foundation of liberty; liberty is acknowledged as a right, whether it be possessed as a fact or not.

A more formal refutation of the sovereignty of the people, or vindication of the sovereignty of justice, is not needed. In point of fact, there are none who mean to set up the sovereignty of the people above the sovereignty of justice. All, we believe, when the question is presented as we have presented it, will and do admit that justice is supreme, though very few seem to have been aware of the consequences which result from such an admission. The sovereignty of justice, in all cases whatsoever, is what we understand by the doctrine of democracy. True democracy is not merely the denial of the absolute sovereignty of the king, and that of the nobility, and the assertion of that of the people; but it is properly the denial of the absolute sovereignty of the state, whatever the form of government adopted as the agent of the state, and the assertion of the absolute sovereignty of justice.

Orestes Brownson