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This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 523 pages of information about The Promise of American Life.

CHAPTER VII

I

RECONSTRUCTION; ITS CONDITIONS AND PURPOSES

The best method of approaching a critical reconstruction of American political ideas will be by means of an analysis of the meaning of democracy.  A clear popular understanding of the contents of the democratic principle is obviously of the utmost practical political importance to the American people.  Their loyalty to the idea of democracy, as they understand it, cannot be questioned.  Nothing of any considerable political importance is done or left undone in the United States, unless such action or inaction can be plausibly defended on democratic grounds; and the only way to secure for the American people the benefit of a comprehensive and consistent political policy will be to derive it from a comprehensive and consistent conception of democracy.

Democracy as most frequently understood is essentially and exhaustively defined as a matter of popular government; and such a definition raises at once a multitude of time-honored, but by no means superannuated, controversies.  The constitutional liberals in England, in France, and in this country have always objected to democracy as so understood, because of the possible sanction it affords for the substitution of a popular despotism in the place of the former royal or oligarchic despotisms.  From their point of view individual liberty is the greatest blessing which can be secured to a people by a government; and individual liberty can be permanently guaranteed only in case political liberties are in theory and practice subordinated to civil liberties.  Popular political institutions constitute a good servant, but a bad master.  When introduced in moderation they keep the government of a country in close relation with well-informed public opinion, which is a necessary condition of political sanitation; but if carried too far, such institutions compromise the security of the individual and the integrity of the state.  They erect a power in the state, which in theory is unlimited and which constantly tends in practice to dispense with restrictions.  A power which is theoretically absolute is under no obligation to respect the rights either of individuals or minorities; and sooner or later such power will be used for the purpose of opposing the individual.  The only way to secure individual liberty is, consequently, to organize a state in which the Sovereign power is deprived of any national excuse or legal opportunity of violating certain essential individual rights.

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