Political Power.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  This proposition is consequent of the truth of the last. The community, which has the right to withhold power, delegates it of course for its own advantage. If ill any case its advantage is not consulted, then the object for which it was delegated is frustrated,—or in simple words, the measure which does not promote the public welfare is not right. It matters nothing whether the community have delegated specifically so much power for such and such purposes: the power, being possessed, entails the obligation. Whether a sovereign derives absolute authority by inheritance, or whether a president is intrusted with limited authority for a year, the principles of their duty are the same. The obligation to employ it only for the public good is just as real and just as great in one case as in the other. The Russian and the Turk have the same right to require that the power of their ruler shall be so employed, as the Englishman or American. They may not be able to assert this right, but that does not affect its existence nor the ruler’s duty,—nor his responsibility to that Almighty Being before whom he must give an account of his stewardship. These reasonings, if they needed confirmation, derive it from the fact that the Deity imperatively requires us, according to our opportunities, to do good to man.

  But, how ready soever men are to admit the truth of this proposition as a proposition, it is very commonly disregarded in practice: and a vast variety of motives and objects direct the conduct of governments which have no connexion with the public weal. Some pretensions of consulting the public weal are, indeed, usual. It is not to be supposed that when public officers are pursuing their own schemes and interests, they will tell the people that they disregard theirs. When we look over the history of a Christian nation, it is found that a large proportion of these measures which are most prominent in it, had little tendency to subserve, and did not subserve, the public good. In practice it is very often forgotten for what purpose governments are instituted. If a man were to look over twenty treaties, he would probably find that half of them had very little to do with the welfare of the respective communities. He might find a great deal about Charles’s rights, and Frederick’s honour, and Louis’s possessions, and Francis’s interests,—as if the proper subbjects of international arrangements were those which respected rulers rather than communities. If a man looks over the state papers which inform him of the origin of a war, he will probably find that they agitate questions about most Christian and most Catholic kings, and high mightinesses, and imperial majesties,—questions, however, in which Frenchmen, and Spaniards, and Dutch, and Austrians are very little interested or concerned, or at any rate much less interested than they are in avoiding the quarrel.

  Governments commonly trouble themselves unnecessarily and too much with the politics of other nations. A prince should tum his back towards other countries and his face towards his own,—just as the proper place of a landholder is upon his own estates, and not upon his neighbour’s. If governments were wise, it would ere long be found, that a great portion of the endless and wearisome succession of treaties, and remonstrances, and embassies, and alliances, and memorials, and subsidies might be dispensed with, with so little inconvenience and so much benefit, that the world would wonder to think to what futile ends they had been busying and how needlessly they had been injuring themselves.

  No doubt, the immoral and irrational system of international politics which generally obtains makes the path of one government more difficult than it would otherwise be; and yet it is probable that the most efficacious way of inducing another government to attend to its proper business would be to attend to our own. It is not sufficiently considered, nor indeed is it sufficiently known, how powerful is the influence of uprightness and candour in conciliating the good opinion and the good offices of other men. Overreaching and chicanery in one person induce overreaching and chicanery in another. Men distrust those whom they perceive to be unworthy of confidence. Real integrity is not without its voucher in the hearts of others; and they who maintain it are treated with confidence, because it is seen that confidence can be safely reposed. Besides, he who busies himself with the politics of foreign countries, like the busybodies in a petty community, does not fail to offend. In the last century, our own country was so much of a busybody, and had involved itself in such a multitude of treaties and alliances, that it was found, I believe, quite impossible to fulfil one without, by that very act, violating another. This, of course, would offend. In private life, that man passes through the world with the least annoyance and the greatest satisfaction who confines his attention to its proper business, that is, generally, to his own: and who can tell why the experience of nation should in this case be different from that of private men? In a rectified state of international affairs, half a dozen princes on a continent would have little more occasion to meddle with one another than half a dozen neighbours in a street.

  But, indeed, communities frequently contribute to their own injury. If governors are ambitious, or resentful, or proud, so, often, are the people; and the public good has often been sacrificed by the public, with astonishing preposterousness, to jealousy or vexation. Some merchants are angry at the loss of a branch of trade; they urge the government to interfere; memorials and remonstrances follow to the state of whom they complain;—and so, by that process of exasperation which is quite natural when people think that high language and a high attitude is politic, the nations soon begin to fight. The merchants applaud the spirit of their rulers,—while in one year they lose more by the war than they would have lost by the want of the trade for twenty; and before peace returns, the nation has lost more than it would have lost by the continuance of the evil for twenty centuries. Peace at length arrives, and the government begins to devise means of repairing the mischiefs of the war. Both government and people reflect very complacently on the wisdom of their measures,—forgetting that their conduct is only that of a man who wantonly fractures his own leg with a club, and then boasts to his neighbours how dexterously he limps to a surgeon.

  Present expedients for present occasions, rather than a wide-embracing and far-seeing policy, is the great characteristic of European politics. We are hucksters who cannot resist the temptation of a present sixpence, rather than merchants who wait for their profits for the return of a fleet. Si quæris monumentum, circumspice. Look at the condition of either of the continental nations, and consider what it might have been if even a short line of princes had attended to their proper business,—had directed their solicitude to the improvement of the moral and social and political condition of the people. Who has been more successful in this huckster policy than France? and what is France, and what are the French people, at the present hour? Why, as it respects real welfare, they are not merely surpassed, they are left at an immeasurable distance, by a people who sprang up but as yesterday,—by a people whose land, within the memory of our grandfathers, was almost a wilderness,—and which actually was a wilderness, long since France boasted of her greatness. Such results have a cause. It is not possible that systems of policy can be good of which the effects are so bad. I speak not of particular measures or of individual acts of ill policy,—these are not likely to be the result of the condition of man,—but of the whole international system,—a system of irritability, and haughtiness, and temporary expedients; a system of most unphilosophical principles, and from which Christianity is practically almost excluded. Here is the evidence of fact before us. We know what a sickening detail the history of Europe is. And it is obvious to remark, that the system which has given rise to such a history must be vicious and mistaken in its fundamental principles. The same class of history will continue to after generations, unless these principles are changed,—unless philosophy and Christianity obtain a greater influence in the practice of government; unless, in a word, governments are content to do their proper business, and to leave that which is not their business undone.

  When such principles are acted upon we may reasonably expect a rapid advancement in the whole condition of the world. Domestic measures, which are now postponed to the more stirring occupations of legislators, will be found to be of incomparably greater importance than they. A wise code of criminal law will be found to be of more consequence and interest than the acquisition of a million square miles of territory;—a judicious encouragement of general education will be of more value than all the “glory” that has been acquired from the days of Alfred till now. Of moral legislation, however, it will be our after business to speak; meanwhile, the lover of mankind has some reason for gratulation in perceiving indications that governments will hereafter direct their attention more to the objects for which they are invested with power. The statesman who promotes this improvement will be what many statesmen have been called—a great man. That government only is great which promotes the prosperity of its own people; and that people only are prosperous who are wise and happy.

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