The Promise of American Life eBook

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

CHAPTER IX

I

THE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY AND ITS NATIONAL PRINCIPLE

The foregoing review of the relation which has come to subsist in Europe between nationality and democracy should help us to understand the peculiar bond which unites the American democratic and national principles.  The net result of that review was encouraging but not decisive.  As a consequence of their development as nations, the European peoples have been unable to get along without a certain infusion of democracy; but it was for the most part essential to their national interest that such an infusion should be strictly limited.  In Europe the two ideals have never been allowed a frank and unconstrained relation one to the other other.  They have been unable to live apart; but their marriage has usually been one of convenience, which was very far from implying complete mutual dependence and confidence.  No doubt the collective interests of the German or British people suffer because such a lack of dependence and confidence exists; but their collective interests would suffer more from a sudden or violent attempt to destroy the barriers.  The nature and the history of the different democratic and national movements in the several European countries at once tie them together and keep them apart.

The peoples of Europe can only escape gradually from the large infusion of arbitrary and irrational material in their national composition.  Monarchical and aristocratic traditions and a certain measure of political and social privilege have remained an essential part of their national lives; and no less essential was an element of defiance in their attitude toward their European neighbors.  Hence, when the principle of national Sovereignty was proclaimed as a substitute for the principal of royal Sovereignty, that principle really did not mean the sudden bestowal upon the people of unlimited Sovereign power.  “The true people,” said Bismarck, in 1847, then a country squire, “is an invisible multitude of spirits.  It is the living nation—­the nation organized for its historical mission—­the nation of yesterday and of to-morrow.”  A nation, that is, is a people in so far as they are united by traditions and purposes; and national Sovereignty implies an attachment to national history and traditions which permits only the very gradual alteration of these traditions in the direction of increasing democracy.  The mistake which France made at the time of the French Revolution was precisely that of interpreting the phrase “souvrenete nationale” as equivalent to immediate, complete, and (in respect to the past) irresponsible popular sovereignty.

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