The Eclipse of Liberalism (1900)
by Edwin L. Godkin (1831-1902)
As the nineteenth century draws to its close it is impossible not to contrast the political ideals now dominant with those of the preceding era. It was the rights of man which engaged the attention of the political thinkers of the eighteenth century. The world had suffered so much misery from the results of dynastic ambitions and jealousies, the masses of mankind were everywhere so burdened by the exactions of the superior classes, as to bring about a universal revulsion against the principle of authority. Government, it was plainly seen, had become the vehicle of oppression; and the methods by which it could be subordinated to the needs of individual development, and could be made to foster liberty rather than to suppress it, were the favorite study of the most enlightened philosophers. In opposition to the theory of divine right, whether of kings or demagogues, the doctrine of natural rights was set up. Humanity was exalted above human institutions, man was held superior to the State, and universal brotherhood supplanted the ideals of national power and glory. These eighteenth-century ideas were the soil in which modern Liberalism flourished. Under their influence the demand for Constitutional Government arose. Rulers were to be the servants of the people, and were to be restrained and held in check by bills of rights and fundamental laws which defined the liberties proved by experience to be most important and vulnerable. Hence arose the demands for Constitutional reform in all the countries of Europe; abortive and unsuccessful in certain respects, but frightening despots into a semblance of regard for human liberty, and into practical concessions which at least curbed despotic authority. Republics were established and Constitutions were ordained. The revolutions of 1848 proved the power of the spirit of Liberalism, and where despotism reasserted itself, it did so with fear and trembling.
To the principles and precepts of Liberalism the prodigious material progress of the age was largely due. Freed from the vexatious meddling of governments, men devoted themselves to their natural task, the bettering of their condition, with the wonderful results which surround us. But it now seems that its material comfort has blinded the eyes of the present generation to the cause which made it possible. In the politics of the world, Liberalism is a declining, almost a defunct force. The condition of the Liberal party in England is indeed parlous. There is actually talk of a organizing a Liberal-Imperialist party; a combination of repugnant tendencies and theories as impossible as that of fire and water. On the other hand, there is a faction of so-called Liberals who so little understand their traditions as to make common cause with the Socialists. Only a remnant, old men for the most part, still uphold the Liberal doctrine, and when they are gone, it will have no champions.
True Liberalism has never been understood by the masses of the French people; and while it has no more consistent and enlightened defenders than the select group of orthodox economists that still reverence the principles of Turgot and Say, there is no longer even a Liberal faction in the Chamber. Much the same is true of Spain, of Italy, and of Austria, while the present condition of Liberalism in Germany is in painful contrast with what it was less than a generation ago. In our country recent events show how much ground has been lost. The Declaration of Independence no longer arouses enthusiasm; it is an embarrassing instrument which requires to be explained away. The Constitution is said to be “outgrown”; and at all events the rights which it guarantees must be carefully reserved to our own citizens, and not allowed to human beings over whom we have purchased sovereignty. The great party which boasted that it had secured for the negro the rights of humanity and of citizenship, now listens in silence to the proclamation of white supremacy and makes no protest against the nullifications of the Fifteenth Amendment. Its mouth is closed, for it has become “patriot only in pernicious toils,” and the present boasts of this “champion of human kind” are
“To mix with Kings in the low lust of sway,
Yell in the hunt, and share the murderous prey;
To insult the shrine of Liberty with spoils
From freemen torn, to tempt and to betray.”
Nationalism in the sense of national greed has supplanted Liberalism. It is an old foe under a new name. By making the aggrandizement of a particular nation a higher end than the welfare of mankind, it has sophisticated the moral sense of Christendom. Aristotle justified slavery, because Barbarians were “naturally” inferior to Greeks, and we have gone back to his philosophy. We hear no more of natural rights, but of inferior races, whose part it is to submit to the government of those whom God has made their superiors. The old fallacy of divine right has once more asserted its ruinous power, and before it is again repudiated there must be international struggles on a terrific scale. At home all criticism on the foreign policy of our rulers is denounced as unpatriotic. They must not be changed, for the national policy must be continuous. Abroad, the rulers of every country must hasten to every scene of international plunder, that they may secure their share. To succeed in these predatory expeditions the restraints on parliamentary, even of party, government must be cast aside. The Czar of Russia and the Emperor of Germany have a free hand in China; they are not hampered by constitutions or by representatives of the common people. Lord Salisbury is more embarrassed, and the President of the United States is, according to our Constitution, helpless without the support of Congress. That is what our Imperialists mean by saying that we have outgrown the Constitution.
Nation, August 9, 1900