For Democracy

By Margaret Sherwood

[The Atlantic Monthly, October 1918]

Great moments have a way of simplifying the thought and the emotion of a people, sifting out the essential from the unessential, and bringing into clearer light fundamental things. In the present winnowing by the winds of destiny, much chaff is being blown away from our minds, and questions of vital importance emerge. Our country's present need of concerted thought and action on the part of its citizens brings a new valuation of that which we have been doing, a new smiting of the conscience because of things left undone. This great cause of democracy, for which our youth are going out to fight, how have we served it, each and every one of us, in times of peace?

Why, one asks now, among the many kinds of propaganda carried on in this country, on lecture-platforms, in parks and on commons, at village post-office corners, wherever men meet with men, has there been so little of the one kind of propaganda that we most need—a right and vital teaching of true Americanism? Never, except perhaps in ancient Athens, was country so belectured and harangued. Every new theory of faith or of practice has a hearing; every sort of wrong or grievance, arising from labor conditions or negligence on the part of officials, is set forth eloquently sooner or later, for the sun in its wanderings shines down upon no other people so patient under the lash of the human tongue. Work negative, work positive, is being done by economist, social philosopher, preacher, in investigating special complaint, or teaching special conviction.

But, among the many voices, the one supremely important voice has, in the past, been lacking, I do not know anyone, among the many preachers, teachers, reformers, to whom it is my privilege to listen, who has tried to teach the American public the essentials of our republican faith. Pole, Magyar, Czech, Turk, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Syrian, and innumerable others are gathered together here from the four corners of the earth, to learn the meaning of the greatest experiment in democracy that the world has ever tried. Not only have we failed to help them in learning how to play their part in it, but we have left them, unprepared as they are for the measure of liberty which we enjoy, to become the prey of political bosses, of agitators exhorting from the cart-tail in regard to oppression, exploitation by wealth, and class wrongs, misleading their mediaeval minds into the belief that something worse than old-world tyranny exists here; while no cart-tail whatsoever has revealed an equally ardent speaker, trying to make the masses understand what America stands for; what she is trying to achieve; what are the difficulties in her way. These new recruits have need of positive teaching to offset the negative doctrine of anarchist and I.W.W. leader, making them know that their whole duty is not to protest and fight; that they are citizens, members of the household, and, as such, responsible for its conduct; not angry and disaffected guests at an inn whose service does not satisfy.

A promise of better tidings comes in the new movement to Americanize the alien; in lending it our heartiest support we shall perhaps more effectually Americanize ourselves. We, like the newcomers, need to be enlisted in this great and still uncertain adventure of government by the people, for the people. What have we been doing, we citizens of longer standing, to whom has been intrusted the keeping of the starry flag? The luxury-loving among us, the idle rich, but also the idle poor, and the over-busy—scholars alert for the discovery of the remotest fact concerning ancient Babylon or the gases of Saturn's ring; literary folk, eager to say some new thing in some new way; business men, avoiding civic duty in order to have time for the great game of profit and loss; the pleaders of special causes, the exploiters of special wrongs, are all alike guilty.

How many kinds of exemption from service we claim! That very liberty of thought and of action which we cherish as so precious a possession has begotten, in us an irresponsibility which threatens the foundations of that freedom on which we pride ourselves. Slackers, deserters, we have shirked at home and in the market-place the high task of carrying on the work intrusted to us by our forefathers. We have failed to instruct these primitive folk in the first principles of citizenship, to impart a teaching that might, in some measure, take the place of the slow centuries of development that they and their ancestors have missed, while ours, blunderingly enough, perhaps, were working out the hard task of self-government. Do we really, absorbed in class pleasures or in the privileges of our several callings, believe in democracy? Do we not, following our fancy, or intent upon business or profession, forget that mere practical or intellectual achievement may be treason, in its narrow pursuit of individual aim, its ignoring of the common good?

Times of great tragedy may, for all their darkness, flash light upon the human way; this may perhaps show us where we stand, unveil our special opportunity, our special responsibility in the long line of history. It is indeed a supreme opportunity that the present crisis reveals; and a supreme duty confronts the citizens of this country, with its peculiar achievement in the theory and the practice of democracy. As our young men fight in the fields of France for an ideal, we should be fighting at home to bring into clearer vision of ourselves and others the nature of that ideal. To this task of enlightenment we need to bend every energy, for an unintelligent democracy is the worst foe civilization has ever had. Every artist, thinker, professional man, scholar—our lost citizens, astray among their individual interests—should make it his task to see how his special medium of expression can serve the great need; what way he can find to make the ideal of liberty and the possibility of it as a working conception come home to every one of us with new cogency, and to every stranger within our gates.

Our professional men, thus bending some of their effort to the common good, would be drawn more into the main stream of life, benefiting themselves and others; our idle rich, our scholars, and our artists could in this service open up some of the lost ways of communication between them and their kind; the privileged classes must not stay withdrawn apart; they need to learn that, in all our endeavor, we must be one and indivisible, as much as the warring masses, fighting for class-privilege, need to learn it. In a republic, every man who does not discover the common aim, and work for it, is indeed a Man without a Country.

It is time that we all realized that we are passing through a crucial period like that of the French Revolution, only incomparably greater, and time that we wakened to a sense of what the great hour demands of us. Why are not our writers finding simple ways of setting forth for the eager, misled, uninstructed populace the principles upon which depends the permanence of our institutions? Why are not our lawyers, our scholars, our editors, men of sound and balanced minds and clear convictions, instead of lingering at desk or club, deriding agitators, out on commons, in parks, and at street-corners, expounding the nature of true Americanism, teaching the populace how to rule themselves? Our educational institutions and our higher professions have produced an extraordinarily large number of critics of our civilization, in proportion to the number of those ready to perform their duties therein.

The most important of all civic tasks ought not to be left to spasmodic outbursts upon our national holiday; there is a great gap, which must be bridged, between the Fourth-of-July orator and the thinkers of the land. Our scholars, our professional men, still following the inherited tradition of their order under centuries of monarchical government, have not yet risen to the greater demands made upon them, as democracy defines their duties and their privileges in larger terms. Intellect should be made more available in this country, more disinterested, more fitted to the service of the many; the American mind should be turned, as never before, to the mental needs of the civic body.

A practical people should find little difficulty in finding practical ways to achieve this. Towns, villages, cities could organize lecture-courses, inviting the populace, and, perhaps not wholly without results, inviting the machine politicians to listen to lectures upon civic ideals, and civic duties; and many another method would suggest itself to those who cared to find it. If the world could see such a phenomenon as an ardent propaganda carried on by men of sane mind and clear vision, trying to make citizens of the masses, teaching them what self-government means, this most difficult problem would already be largely solved.

We need a new kind of street orator, addressing the populace in slum district, on common, in factory towns, wherever men meet with men, pleading, with the intelligence of the scholar and the ardor of the political campaigner, the fundamental articles of belief upon which our national life rests. We need priest and prophet of democracy, if this is indeed our faith; we need to practise this faith and to teach it, as we have never done before.

This should be expounded, not only upon the public platform: it should be the teaching, almost the most important teaching, of the schools. It is an amiable and a beautiful thing that the young should be taught to present plays, to carve wood, to do raffia work; but there is crying need of teaching that can serve greater ends than can this—ends not sufficiently recognized in present scholastic instruction. Why, with all the different kinds of knowledge imparted to them, is it taken for granted that training in the principles of citizenship will practically take care of itself, or that it can be safely left to the Fourth-of-July orator? The days that are opening out ahead of us have stern tasks for the young, both in thinking and in action, and they cannot be too early roused to a sense of their civic duty, and of the civic responsibilities that will fall upon them. Courses in civics already in existence in some schools should be increased in number and deepened in significance. Statement of fact and of theory, the mere intellectual appeal, should be blended with imaginative presentation of the difficulties and the possibilities in securing a working order for human society; conscience should be touched, and emotion quickened, to supplement the intellectual stimulus in the training of young citizens.

I know of many people agitated in various ways about the needs of the young, fearing lest they may not speak good English, lest artistic gifts may not be sufficiently cultivated; but I know of few who are profoundly concerned over the question whether they are being prepared to become worthy inheritors of democracy. Do they grasp the principles at stake in the present great crisis? Are they going to understand the long struggle of the human race toward liberty, and be ready to take their placid it? They indeed have need to be taught of what country they are citizens—less of this blundering and failing America, which has seemed to be drifting into disintegrated consciousness of the desires and demands of different classes, than of the ideal America of the future, which it is for them to make good, to bring to pass.

Part II

It is a crucial moment in the working out of the undying impulse toward self-government, manifest in the dickering republics of ancient time of Greece and of Rome, shining out in the Magna Charta, betraying itself in struggle through English history toward more and more freedom, more and more responsibility for the common man; the impulse that burned with passion of energy that would not be denied in the French Revolution. In this great and tragic time, the fate of the human race as capable of self-government is on trial as never before, and America's place in human history is being more fully defined. It is to this country, with its mixed population, its hordes of folk from all countries and all peoples, that the world looks for answer to the great world-question: Are masses of men capable of living together in peace and harmony, under principles framed by themselves, accepted by all? This faith for which the world is fighting—is it a tenable faith?

Democracy cannot be adequately taught by the shot and shell of wartime, however necessary these may be as a beginning, or by a laissez-faire policy in time of peace. Therefore, here where the hope of the world is being worked out on a scale of unprecedented vastness, the masses, the intelligent and the less intelligent, old citizens and new of this republic of ours, need direct instruction, in civic principles, in history, in the limitations of human nature; they need stimulus to understand. They need to know something of this struggle for liberty in other times and other countries: what they achieved; who strove; wherever they fell short; of the history of the Anglo-Saxon race, which, with all its mistakes and shortcomings, has succeeded more fully than any other in creating free institutions. They need to know how this has been done, wherein the race has failed, wherein it has made good.

Both in the schools and on commons this propaganda of democracy should be a propaganda of patience, should teach the over-eager many, clamoring to grasp the fruit where the bud has hardly been formed, the need of intelligent understanding and intelligent hope in dealing with-this complex, unruly, blind and headlong thing—yet capable of divine growth—human nature. To counteract the voices of irresponsible agitators, and the voices of many short-sighted and impatient idealists, we need to have sounding aloud, wherever there are ears to listen, voices of men of common sense and of insight, who are aware of the inevitable slow growth in human affairs. Many an agitator, many an academic theorist, with that lack of understanding of human limitation which seems to be the gift of agitators; many an idealist, dreaming of great good for abstract humanity, have done untold harm by advocating methods of revolution. It is strange and ironic that this, the era of all eras most impatient for quick results, should be the one which, theoretically, has learned the most of that long nature-patience known as evolution. It is time that the new insight into growth and slow growth in all things, the knowledge of evolutionary process, which is the chief contribution of the nineteenth century to knowledge, should be transmuted into wisdom for our use. We have need of such wisdom, and we should make haste to share it with the masses, especially with the young. In classrooms, and even in public parks, enough of history can be taught to show that the struggle for liberty is of necessity a long struggle; and something of Nature's own slow willingness to wait should go into constructive teaching that will nullify the outcries of those who berate America because the millennium is not yet here. Perhaps contemporary Russia may serve as a sad example of that which happens when the millennium comes with too great a rush.

These denunciators within our gates cannot grasp human nature in its slow maturing, cannot realize how short a time America has had to work out its democratic institutions. We have made progress, all retrogressions, evasions, and falling short admitted. Are there not potent masculine voices which can make known that, although we have failed in much, we have not wholly failed; although we have not fulfilled the perfect vision of spiritual and temporal liberty, still much has been achieved? Our disaffected citizens, our young, need to know that here in America our initial impulse was great; that our history is not contemptible; that our struggle, through unimagined difficulty, because of the vastness of the problem, has never been given up. Our agitator friends and acquaintances, who cry out that the republic is a failure, fail to realize that the republic has hardly been tried.

Recognizing the facts, it should be an humble propaganda, teaching the need of humility, confessing that in many ways we have woefully fallen short. The growing separation of interests in our country, manifesting itself in the labor troubles, in the heaping up of unjustifiable fortunes, in the self-absorption of the careless rich, of selfish scholar or professional man, is proof enough of this. It is, perhaps, our loud self-applause, our congratulation before achievement, which has most stood in the way of our real progress in working out our full share of the problem of human destiny. Our Fourth-of-July eagle is too often given to triumphant screaming where it should be bowing its head in abasement; our loud cries of liberty, equality, and fraternity where liberty, equality, and fraternity are not yet, bewilder many of those lured by these beguiling cries to our shores. Confessing partial failure, but clinging to our unforgotten aim and our forefathers' aim, we should hold high so great a conception of America, to guide the many, that the attitude of all must needs be humble, recognizing the vast difference between possibility and present achievement.

We need thus to substitute constructive teaching for destructive, a sense of the necessity of slow development for a passion for quick change; most crying of all the needs is that of emphasizing civic principles, of educating the masses, young and old alike, in the knowledge that fundamental articles of political belief must be grasped and held, obeyed through good fortune and through bad. If there was ever a time when the world had need of a realization that government rests upon enduring allegiance to law, that a lasting faith should guide conduct from day to day, from year to year, that decisions of right and wrong should cover more than the single instance, it is now, in face of the unthinking opportunism that has governed American life in recent years.

There is crass opportunism in the financier's grasp of the immediate chance that may spell great gain for him and ruin for others; there is crass opportunism in much of the labor agitation, when the unions lose all sense of the common good in their demands in behalf of a single organization or band of men; and both forget the future. If, as Mr. Schwab asserts, labor is to rule the world after the war, what hope can there be for America unless the union members learn that their gain to-day may mean their children's loss to-morrow, if momentary material advantage is won at the expense of lasting allegiance to a governing law of conduct? If arbitration is accepted as a principle in the matter of settling strikes, it must be adhered to as a principle, whether, in the individual case, it means gain or loss. One's moral code cannot become a matter of barter in the market-place. If the country is to endure, if free institutions, becoming still more free, are to be handed on, if permanent freedom is to be secured, the power which is to control us must rise above a hand-to-mouth method, a day-to-day, makeshift policy of adopting any course of action that means immediate advantage. No opportunist conduct can make an enduring America; we have need of abiding tenets of civic faith, recognized by all, operative for all.

This propaganda should be a propaganda of intelligence, emphasizing the need of clearer and saner thinking, of more far-reaching thought, teaching the masses to reach by intellectual vision through the mood of the moment, and to know how greatly the unborn generations need our present self-sacrifice, our present self-control, our present subordination of individual demand to the good of the whole. The supremely important thing for us all to learn is that we are indeed one and indivisible. As the greater part of the agitation and unrest has come from a disintegration, a falling apart in aim and in ideal, showing in increased demands for class rights or union rights—perhaps only natural in a country whose resources have been so largely exploited by men with strong sense of individual power and weak sense of citizenship—emphasis in all this propaganda should be laid upon our unity; the fact that we serve a common cause, share a common destiny. That sorry term, class-consciousness, so often on the lips of alleged friends of the people, should be buried in the ruins of old kingdoms and become a part of forgotten history.

In the pleading of special causes which has greatly increased among us in recent years, in the presentation of minor claims, how little of a genuine sense of national well-being! How much regarding the parts! How little regarding the whole! Surely this great crisis in our history, this war waged for democracy, will help do away with the talk of classes, with special demands, the agitated laborers and the complacent rich alike coming to know that they are, first and foremost, citizens of the country, and members of special clan or organization later. The moment has come when we must indeed learn to cry, ' Ay, Ay,' with one voice.

Meanwhile, the patience which we counsel must be shown by us as we face divergences of opinion and of feeling among our citizens gathered from many lands. There are, those among us who have preached violent and subversive doctrine; this we should examine carefully, while teaching a different faith, to see if there is in it something that we ought to claim as part of our larger hope. If agitators trample upon and burn the flag, it is because they have not yet learned what it stands for. Their ignorance is our sin of omission; we, citizens of a free country, do not trouble ourselves to share with them our belief, nor do we rouse ourselves sufficiently to see if there be right in anything they say. Through agitation and through violence truth sometimes enters; we must try to read the face of the standard they are attempting to unfurl. Wise governments find out a way to use for great ends the roused emotion and passion of the half-thinking; Americans of longer standing and of graver mind than many of the newcomers should help in finding ways of wise restraint, of directing hope to a higher level.

Part III

The country is already somewhat lifted by the great war out of the region of special complaints and special demands, into a consciousness of a common duty that is beginning to unite us from shore to shore. It is a great lesson; would that it might have been taught in some less fearful way; but at least it is being learned. Now, when the sight of khaki everywhere on the street brings its symbolism of service, and the air is full of notes of exhortation and of song ushering in a new era, there is with us a consciousness of a need of reconsecration, of refreshing ourselves at the deeper sources of our national well-being, of defining afresh for ourselves and sharing with others the great and simple hope of democracy in its purity.

This is our opportunity; the country is stirred as it has not been for many years, and it will be stirred yet more deeply as our wounded come home. The moment of great and common sorrow is the moment in which to learn indeed the deeper meaning of a political faith based upon the idea of the common good. In this supreme hour we need to withdraw our minds from our old exultant sense of achievement in external matters, and our more or less unfounded sense of intellectual enlightenment as existing in this country; to strip away our prepossessions; to face, without discouragement, our failures, and without dismay, our hopes; to rediscover our American ideal in its pristine freshness, that, we may carry forward this ideal and make it a fairer hope.

Moments when we look forward are moments when, if we are wise wayfarers, we must first look back. It is increasingly evident that we need to turn to the earlier moments of inspiration in our country's life, to gain a clearer sense of those ideals for which our forebears strove; to share, in its hope and its freshness, their sense of liberty, equality, fraternity. Great is our satisfaction in what they dared and won; yet even here, in that which the advanced thinkers of the late eighteenth century said, and the best that they said, we discern a lack; for we have won some further enlightenment with the passing years, have learned through success and through failure. Adam Smith and the rights of the individual, Thomas Paine and the rights of man—surely the best among us have traveled a long road since that time! That generation did not realize that you cannot make liberty, equality, and fraternity out of the rights of man. Perhaps the French Revolution failed, bringing disillusionment to many, because its doctrine was too negative to satisfy, with too much of demand therein, and not a profound enough idea of service, of sacrifice, to meet what is, after all, the deepest need of human nature; failed, not because its hopes were too high, but because they were not high enough. For the stern fact is that—as isolated thinkers have here and there recognized, but never masses of men—true democracy is based, not upon the rights of man, but upon the duties of man. What pity that those revolutionary days did not raise up some one—what pity also regarding our own!—to set forth with cogency the doctrine of the inalienable duties of human kind!

We of America, inheritors of the doctrine of the rights of man, have (though the finer perceptions of the few have outstripped us) added little in our hundred and twenty-five years, of prosperous existence. True, we have gone a little way, but we should have gone much further, in the faith and the practice of democracy. Our forefathers fought a great fight and left us a great hope; we have not carried the standard forward as we should have done. The slogan with which they began the battle is still ours; we are still clinging, in thought and in act, to the rights of man, using violence when we think we have not got them; sitting back in passive content when we feel that we have secured them. The light-heartedness with which the wealthy go to their pleasures, the scholar to his desk, the artist to his dream, with no thought of civic responsibility, proves this. The labor unions, instead of being, as they think, in the forefront of idealistic progress, are more than a century behind the times, still clamoring for the rights of man, as are we all, the mass of American citizens, instead of crying out in times of peace—as we do, thank God! in times of war—for our duties, our renunciations, the points of danger and of sacrifice.

We need a fresh shaping of the idea of democracy, and we have great need of thinkers who can voice with power that will inspire succeeding generations this principle which is deeper than the rights of man, this principle of his duties. Even our newest idealist-citizens do not greatly help us. Certain newcomers, alien folk, coming to our shores with the shadow of old-world oppression still upon them, have set forth with poignancy their imaginative vision of what America really is, uncovering the ideal of earlier days that our forefathers held, so that many a descendant of the Pilgrim Fathers is learning from the, insight of the Slav more than he has ever known, of what our republican faith was in its inception. Foreigners though they be, they recall to us a sense of what we have almost forgotten, or have been too careless to learn, and we are grateful to them for a freshened sense of the greatness of our heritage. Yet here, too, we detect something of limitation, a lack of .that which will make the great hope endure. Most of them come to receive liberty, not to make it; .come with a sense that the struggle will be finished when they get here; greeting America joyously because of what she has to give, what they can get out of it. Both in the glad expectation and in the disappointment or the anger that follows the discovery that the struggle is still going on, there is an attitude of passivity. This is the democracy of the outstretched hand, and of the voice that cries, 'Give!'

Life is a passion of activity, or it is nothing. Genuine democracy rests, not upon an attitude of pleased expectation of receiving, not upon an irresponsible sense of liberty to work one's will, but upon unflinching self-surrender, unceasing activity in behalf of the common good. Services must be voluntarily rendered, often more strenuous than those exacted by superiors under the old feudal order. For democracy is a stern and lofty creed of willing self-denial, of responsibilities staunchly borne, or it is a chaos and a failure, a stampede of the masses for power or for gain. It is a positive something, a service as exacting as the army-service, a constant act of energetic devotion; not a state, a passive condition of laissez-faire. Each moment of its life needs the whole-souled search, in times of peace as in time of war, of its citizens for present duty, no matter at what cost, at what relinquishment of individual claim.

We, who talk glibly of bur rights as citizens, must remember that no man has a right even to claim citizenship in. a democratic country, if he fail to place the common good above his own good, or fail to lend his utmost power to bring this to pass. For us the future should be filled, less with irresponsible grasping at our full privileges, our individual liberty, or our machine-organization liberty, and more with steady striving toward the ideal democracy of gladly rendered service and glad sacrifice for the larger good, in order that this great experiment in the rights of man, America, may be for the next hundred years, and who knows how many to follow, an experiment in the glad fulfilling of the duties of man.

Realizing, then, that liberty for the individual is a lasting act of self-surrender on the part of the individual, not a sheepfold, penning him in and protecting him from the tyrants of the world, we shall perhaps reach a deeper conception of what the battle for democracy means, and know that it is not wholly a struggle against outer things, but greatly and seriously a struggle with inner inclinations and conditions. No man can become a freeman in a moment, for the hardest tyranny of all is the tyranny of the undisciplined inner self, with its exactions, its pretensions, its blind demands. The basis of our political faith must be that teaching which wise mothers impart to their children as the first and most important lesson of life, which should be vigorously and constantly taught in the schools: that their first duty is to find how their wills can be brought into accord with the wills of their fellows; thus, through the slow training of young generations, mankind may meet the supreme problem of the human race, will subdued to will, all working out toward the common good.

By the soul
Only, the Nations shall be great and free.

In this deeper conception, democracy may indeed have in it something of a religion, for the trust that it implies in one's fellows, the trust that it implies in one's better self, lifts it into the realm of the spiritual, makes of it a faith. Here in America we need to teach that service to the state that means subordination of self—not to the earthly state of Kaiser and Junker, but to that inner kingdom where freedom is secured for every man by every man's renouncement of special claim and his offer of entire service for the upholding, not of a dynasty, but of an ideal.

We must match our outer greatness with an inner greatness that may meet its mighty challenge. This ideal of utmost service is one which every native son or daughter, however grown insensitive through long privilege, which every alien newcomer, Pole, Magyar, Czech, Turk, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Syrian, may understand. It is simple, as all great things are simple; it touches profounder depths in human nature than could any doctrine of rights; to it the ever-generous instincts of the poor man would be quick to respond if it could be brought rightly home. Could rich and poor alike be inspired, even in times of peace, with the idea that achievement lies in what they can do for their country, not what they can get out of it; could they but know that the whole idea of democracy is trembling in the balance, and that it is for them to help decide whether it shall live or no, the battle of democracy would be near the winning.

Hope cannot long live unless it grow greater; nor can the ideal of justice for all men, of liberty, equality, and fraternity, continue to exist save through constantly finer and finer manifestation, in theory and in practice, of the faith therein expressed. This house of life which we have inherited from our forefathers must indeed be built larger and fairer, if it is to stand; and we shall prove but unworthy descendants, if we have not grown with the growth of years and added unto it.

We have need to think of this now, and think of it all together—our more than one hundred million strong of American citizens. Making the world safe for democracy is not merely a matter of outer things, of breaking vicious systems, of removing existing tyrannical governments. The benighted and enslaved peoples of Germany will never learn from us the beauty of democracy until we, who have had the privilege so long, realize it more fully ourselves. The world will not be safe for democracy until democracy is safe within the minds of the great mass of men, in clearer vision than has ever yet been attained.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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