Page images
PDF
EPUB

It is the evident and honorable design of this book, as its leading object, to set forth the working of Democracy as a system of government; to show that the Democratic principle is dominant in our institutions, and to prove by historical induction the safety and advantage of following its guidance. It was natural that he should give great prominence to the administration of General Jackson, because it was in this that Democracy culminated, as viewed from his stand-point. And it was equally natural and proper that he should speak much of his own doings, both on account of the leading part which he bore in public affairs, and because the very thing he has undertaken was to furnish the materials for history presented with the liveliness and authenticity of personal narrative. No manly or impartial critic will complain or say that the measured exultation and self-complacency here and there breaking forth, should have been repressed under such circumstances.

It must be admitted that he evinces a good degree of impartiality in narrating his own deeds; for he says of the famous clause in the constitution of Missouri, designed to perpetuate slavery there, which threw the country into what he deems the most dangerous excitement it has ever encountered, “I was myself the instigator of that prohibition, and the cause of its being put in the constitution.” (p. 8. And he records, in chapters 28 and 30, the propositions for the reduction of executive patronage, and the preservation of the integrity of Congress as essential to the purity of the government, which he supported with earnestness when the executive power was not in the hands of his political friends, but which he never urged, and appeared to have forgotten, after the power came into the hands of his own party.

The Historical View commences with the Missouri Compromise, as it was called, of 1820, which he shows to have been a Southern measure in its inception, supported by the vote of every Southern Senator, and a large majority of the representatives of the South. The country has fully sanctioned the principle there established, that when the people of an organized territory of the United States have arrived at that stage at which it is admitted to be competent for the formation of a state, to be admitted to the Union, on the same footing as the original states, the Democratic principle requires that the people thereof should be allowed to form their own constitution, without any other restriction than the constitutional one, that the form of government should be republican. The power of Congress to make all needful regulations for the

territories, is to be exercised while they are territories, and requires all such wholesome legislation as will give the right stamp in infancy to the character of the embryo state. This is doubtless the statesmanlike conclusion, irrespective of the sectionalism of the question which was the immediate occasion of the struggle. This principle, however, was lost sight of in the struggle of 1850, when the state of California was kept waiting for six months after it had formed a constitution.

In narrating the course of public measures, in which he bore 80 conspicuous a part during the succeeding sixteeu years, to the end of General Jackson's presidency, our author takes care to show, as far as facts will warrant, how constantly the popular will is sure to triumph in our government, and to prove by the results of national advancement, how safe it is to entrust all great public questions and interests to the ultimate decision of the people. With this in view, he narrates the controversy concerning internal improvements by Congress, from Mr. Monroe's veto in 1823; the "American System,” as the plan of congressional legislation to promote manufactures by levying heavy duties on imported goods, was called by its friends, from the first debate in 1824, in which Mr. Webster was the leading speaker on the side of free trade; the Disposal of the Public Lands, from the passing of the act devised by the great Secretary Crawford, to reduce the price, and require all sales to be for cash; the National Currency question, from the first denunciation of the United States Bank, in General Jackson's first message to Congress, in 1829; Nullification, from its first shadowing forth in Mr. Calhoun's toast, at the celebration of Jefferson's birthday in 1830; the Nature of our Federal Government, as exhibited in the discussion of Calhoun's resolutions in 1832; the Senatorial Censure of President Jackson, with the subsequent “Expunge;" the Slavery Agitation in its various phases, of post-office regulation, denunciation by resolutions, inflammatory speeches, and political manoeuvering; the Defenses of the country, including the Navy, Fortifications, and the Military Academy; the subjects of Executive Appointments, Gold Currency, Indians, Salt Tax, French Spoliations, French Indemnity, and many others, arising in the course of one of the most trying periods of our political history.

It is foreign to the purpose of this article to examine or adjudicate these topics in detail ; or even to enter into an argumentative proof of the main conclusion—the triumphant vindication of the stability and self-preserving power of our form of government, and the futility of all attempts to prevent the popular will from controlling and determining the action of the government. Mr. Benton's volume of more than seven hundred pages, in royal octavo, printed in double columns, is no larger than he thought necessary for the purpose of establishing these positions; and certainly, no such meagre summary as we could crowd into three or four paragraphs, could be an adequate presentation of the argument with its proofs. We prefer to rest this part of the case upon the general conviction, now everywhere prevailing, in favor of this conclusion.

The young men of the United States, and the students or writers of history in future times, will enjoy the advantage of having all these subjects largely elucidated, from the Democratic point of view, by the labors of the man, who above all others in our day, is best entitled to speak authoritatively concerning them, because he is to be regarded as the most farseeing, the most laborious, the most uncompromising, and the most uniformly consistent supporter of Democratic principles. We have no object in lauding Colonel Benton-he has never been our favorite, and it is easy enough to detect the mistakes and inconsistencies of his history--and we speak thus of him only by comparison. He has done well in the service of his country according to his abilities--and nobly, because none has done better. Let this be his fitting epitaph—THE MOST CONSISTENT AND FAITHFUL DEMOCRAT OF HIS TIMES.

Having borne our willing testimony to the Colonel and his Book, we may be allowed a few remarks upon the general subject suggested-American Democracy. It is a trite remark, that political society naturally resolves itself into two parties, Aggressives and Defensives, Progressists and Alarmists, Reformers and Conservatives, Radicals and Respectables, or, more comprehensively, Democracy and Aristocracy. There is not, indeed, a line drawn in society, by which these classes are separate so that all can be known, or can even know themselves, as to their true classification. It would be a great simplification of politics, truly, if the distinction could be made so plain that every man could tell on which side of the separating line he belongs. For the want of this, we must generalize, and set forth the tendencies and biases and bearings of different matters, and leave each citizen to settle as he best may bis own political associations and responsibilities. Only, it ought to be observed, that most Americans will find their position on the one side or the other of this imaginary line, according to the subject matter that is on the tapis. There are few among us who are not reformers on some subject or other; and there are many boastful radicals who are conservative enough upon some

a

question, where the change of reform would cross their prejudices or injure their interests. Wherein any man resists change simply because it is change, or refuses to look at a matter just becanse he never has seen it, or shrinks from a well-attested measure for no reason but that he has never tried it, he is so far forth an Anti-progressist. And wherever the same man is ready to sacrifice the old because it is inferior, and seek the new because it is better, there he appears as a Progressive; and if the change he promotes is thorough and uncompromising, he is in this a genuine Radical. And if the matter he is engaged in is political, and if it favors the government of the people, or opposes class interests and uneqnal privileges, or promotes the development of individual self-reliance, he is so far entitled to call mself a Democrat-an American Democrat.

In tracing the development of American Democracy historically, we must therefore be guided by principles and not by the lives of individual men. Consistency is not the attribute of humanity. Men change their aspects and courses by changes of circumstances; but principles are immutable, and always consistent. American Democracy requires also to be considered as the product of American society—just as the investigation of American society requires an understanding of American Democracy. Like living and breathing, which are distinct yet inseparable, each of these is to the other both cause and effect. American Democracy is the growth of the soil, and hence can never be learned from books written in other lands, or in ages that are long past. It is as unique as our history, and as superior in its qualities, as it is in the advantages under which it has obtained its existence. Like Christianity, it has a right to be judged by the purity of its theories, and the benefits it has yielded when consistently carried out in practice, and not to be blamed for the prejudice it has encountered, or the violence with which it has been resisted, nor yet condemned because it has failed of producing what no other system of politics or morals has produced-perfection in its supporters. American Democracy claims to be, not the best system that imagination can conceive, but the best method of government that man can administer. And it justifies itself when it is shown to be productive of more good and less evil, than any method of government which can be brought into comparison

The true origin of American Democracy was on board the Mayflower, in Plymouth Bay, where the right was exercised of originating a government by the people, to be administered

with it.

by the will of all, and for the good of all. It is not intended by this remark, that the principle of a government by the will of the people, here adopted, was in the first experiments consistently carried out in all respects, nor that the will of the people was always perfectly wise or entirely consistent in the measures it adopted. But the Mayflower government was a true and honest adoption of the Democratic principle. It recognized no class interest, no permanent prerogative, no prolonged tenure of office. Even in its most prominent restriction, where the right of suffrage was limited to the owners of land, the violation of Democratic principles was less apparent than real, because they connected with it that other AngloSaxon idea, which has since become the distinguishing peculiarity of our American colonization, that every man who was capable of sustaining the responsibilities of a citizen should be furnished with land. It was only after a change in the conditions of society had created numbers of landless men, that Democracy was driven to a struggle in behalf of universal suffrage.

The circumstances under which Democratic government originated in this country have given to American Democracy its distinguishing features. It was a society self-formed out of the original elements, and not a substitute for a monarchical or aristocratical government thrown off. It had no preëxistent usages or forms of power to mold into conformity with popular ideas. The men were before the state, and the state was voluntarily created by the men, and for themselves alone. The men came to the wilderness as men, to live, or to carry out their ideas of a life worthy of men, which included the idea of a free exercise of their religion, each one for himself. And they formed their government just to help them to live; not as a substitute for their individual life, or as the paramount object of individual life, but as a secondary adjunct, serviceable and needful, but not paramount. Each man expected to live, of and for himself, bound only to the offices of good-neighborhood towards others; and he only looked to the state to watch for him and keep him in safety against external war and internal crime. The idea never entered their minds of looking to the state to furnish employment, or to be a substitute for individual energy and sagacity in carving out a course of life. Commencing their social institutions amid the hardships of the wilderness, there was no other alternative but that those who could not swim must sink. Their religious institutions and forms, their educational provisions, their methods of management of all public affairs, were formed with this view, that

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »