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CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. III. Essays: Second Series
 
VII. Politics
 
  GOLD and iron are good
To buy iron and gold;
All earth’s fleece and food
For their like are sold.
Boded Merlin wise,
Proved Napoleon great,—
Nor kind nor coinage buys
Aught above its rate.
Fear, Craft and Avarice
Cannot rear a State.
Out of dust to build
What is more than dust,—
Walls Amphion piled
Phœbus stablish must.
When the Muses nine
With the Virtues meet,
Find to their design
An Atlantic seat,
By green orchard boughs
Fended from the heat,
Where the statesman ploughs
Furrow for the wheat;
When the Church is social worth,
When the state-house is the hearth,
Then the perfect State is come,
The republican at home.

IN 1 dealing with the State we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born; that they are not superior to the citizen; that every one of them was once the act of a single man; every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case; that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good, we may make better. Society is an illusion to the young citizen. It lies before him in rigid repose, with certain names, men and institutions rooted like oak-trees tot he centre, round which all arrange themselves the best they can. But the old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres, but any particle may suddenly become the centre of the movement and compel the system to gyrate round it; as every man of strong will, like Pisistratus or Cromwell, does for a time, and every man of truth, like Plato or Paul, does forever. 2 But politics rest on necessary foundations, and cannot be treated with levity. Republics abound in young civilians who believe that the laws make the city, that grave modifications of the policy and modes of living and employments of the population, that commerce, education and religion may be voted in or out; and that any measure, though it were absurd, may be imposed on a people if only you can get sufficient voices to make it a law. But the wise know that foolish legislation is a rope of sand which perishes in the twisting; 3 that the State must follow and not lead the character and progress of the citizen; the strongest usurper is quickly got rid of; and they only who build on Ideas, build for eternity; and that the form of government which prevails is the expression of what cultivation exists in the population which permits it. The law is only a memorandum. We are superstitious, and esteem the statute somewhat: so much life as it has in the character of living men is its force. The statute stands there to say, Yesterday we agreed so and so, but how feel ye this article to-day? Our statute is a currency which we stamp with our own portrait: it soon becomes unrecognizable, and in process of time will return to the mint. 4 Nature is not democratic, nor limited-monarchical, but despotic, and will not be fooled or abated of any jot of her authority by the pertest of her sons; and as fast as the public mind is opened to more intelligence, the code is seen to be brute and stammering. It speaks not articulately, and must be made to. Meantime the education of the general mind never stops. The reveries of the true and simple are prophetic. What the tender poetic youth dreams, and prays, and paints to-day, but shuns the ridicule of saying aloud, shall presently be the resolutions of public bodies; then shall be carried as grievances and bill of rights through conflict and war, and them shall be triumphant law and establishment for a hundred years, until it gives place in turn to new prayers and pictures. 5 The history of the State sketches in coarse outline the progress of thought, and follows at a distance the delicacy of culture and of aspiration.
  1
  The theory of politics which has possessed the mind of men, and which they have expressed the best they could in their laws and in their revolutions, considers persons and property as the two objects for whose protection government exists. Of persons, all have equal rights, in virtue of being identical in nature. This interest of course with its whole power demands a democracy. Whilst the rights of all as persons are equal, in virtue of their access to reason, their rights in property very unequal. One man owns his clothes, and another owns a county. This accident, depending primarily on the skill and virtue of the parties, of which there is every degree, and secondarily on patrimony, falls unequally, and its rights, of course are unequal. Personal rights, universally the same, demand a government framed on the ratio of the census; property demands a government framed on the ratio of owners and of owning. Laban, who has flocks and herds, wishes them looked after by an officer on the frontiers, lest the Midianites shall drive them off; and pays a tax to that end. Jacob has no flocks or herds and no fear of the Midianites, and pays no tax to the officer. It seemed fit that Laban and Jacob should have equal rights to elect the officer who is to defend their persons, but than Laban and not Jacob should elect the officer who is to guard the sheep and cattle. And if question arise whether additional officers or watch-towers should be provided, must not Laban and Isaac, and those who must sell part of their herds to buy protection for the rest, judge better of this, and with more right, than Jacob, who, because he is a youth and a traveller, eats their bread and not his own?  2
  In the earliest society the proprietors made their own wealth, and so long as it comes to the owners in the direct way, no other opinion would arise in any equitable community than that property should make the law for property, and persons the law for persons.  3
  But property passes through donation or inheritance to those who do not create it. Gift, in one case, makes it as really the new owner’s as labor made it the first owner’s: in the other case, of patrimony, the law makes an ownership which will be valid in each man’s view according to the estimate which he sets on the public tranquillity.  4
  It was not, however, found easy to embody the readily admitted principle that property should make law for property, and persons for persons; since persons and property mixed themselves in every transaction. At last it seemed settled that the rightful distinction was that the proprietors should have more elective franchise than non-proprietors, on the Spartan principle of “calling that which is just, equal; not that which is equal, just.”  5
  That principle no longer looks so self-evident as it appeared in former times, partly because doubts have arisen whether too much weight had not been allowed in the laws to property, and such a structure given to our usages as allowed the rich to encroach on the poor, and to keep them poor; but mainly because there is an instinctive sense, however obscure and yet inarticulate, that the whole constitution of property, on its present tenures, is injurious, and its influence on persons deteriorating and degrading; that truly the only interest for the consideration of the State is person; that property will always follow persons; that the highest end of government is the culture of men; and that if men can be educated, the institutions will share their improvement and the moral sentiment will write the law of the land.  6
  If it be not easy to settle the equity of this question, the peril is less when we take note of our natural defences. We are kept by better guards than the vigilance of such magistrates as we commonly elect. Society always consists in greatest part of young and foolish persons. The old, who have seen through the hypocrisy of courts and statesmen, die and leave no wisdom to their sons. They believe their own newspaper, as their fathers did at their age. With such an ignorant and deceivable majority, States would soon run to ruin, but that there are limitations beyond which the folly and ambition of governors cannot go. Things have their laws, as well as men; and things refuse to be trifled with. 6 Property will be protected. Corn will not grow unless it is planted and manured; but the farmer will not plant or hoe it unless the chances are a hundred to one that he will cut and harvest it. 7 Under any forms, persons and property must and will have their just sway. They exert their power, as steadily as matter its attraction. Cover up a pound of earth never so cunningly, divide and subdivide it; melt it to liquid, convert it to gas; it will always weigh a pound; it will always attract and resist other matter by the full virtue of one pound weight:—and the attributes of a person, his wit and his moral energy, will exercise, under any law or extinguishing tyranny, their proper force,—if not overtly, then covertly; if not for the law, then against it; if not wholesomely, then poisonously; with right, or by might.  7
  The boundaries of personal influence it is impossible to fix, as persons are organs of moral or supernatural force. Under the dominion of an idea which possesses the minds of multitudes, as civil freedom, or the religious sentiment, the powers of persons are no longer subjects of calculation. A nation of men unanimously bent on freedom or conquest can easily confound the arithmetic of statists, and achieve extravagant actions, out of all proportion to their means; as the Greeks, the Saracens, the Swiss, the Americans, and the French have done. 8  8
  In like manner to every particle of property belongs its own attraction. A cent is the representative of a certain quantity of corn or other commodity. Its value is in the necessities of the animal man. It is so much warmth, so much bread, so much water, so much land. The law may do what it will with the owner of property; its just power will still attach to the cent. The law many in a mad freak say that all shall have power except the owners of property; they shall have no vote. Nevertheless, by a higher law, the property will, year after year, write every statute that respects property. The non-proprietor will be the scribe of the proprietor. what the owners wish to do, the whole power of property will do, either through the law or else in defiance of it. Of course I speak of all the property, not merely of the great estates. When the rich are outvoted, as frequently happens, it is the joint treasury of the poor which exceeds their accumulations. Every man owns something, if it is only a cow, or a wheelbarrow, or his arms, and so has that property to dispose of. 9  9
  The same necessity which secures the rights of person and property against the malignity or folly of the magistrate, determines the form and methods of governing, which are proper to each nation and to its habit of though, and nowise transferable to other states of society. In this country we are very vain of our political institutions, which are singular in this, that they sprung, within the memory of living men, from the character and condition of the people, which they still express with sufficient fidelity,—and we ostentatiously prefer them to any other in history. They are not better, but only fitter for us. We may be wise in asserting the advantage in modern times of the democratic form, but to other states of society, in which religion consecrated the monarchical, that and not this was expedient. Democracy is better for us, because the religious sentiment of the present time accords better with it. Born democrats, we are nowise qualified to judge of monarchy, which, to our fathers living in the monarchical idea, was also relatively right. But our institutions, though in coincidence with the spirit of the age, have not any exemption from the practical defects which have discredited other forms. Every actual State is corrupt. Good men must not obey the laws too well. 10 What satire on government can equal the severity of censure conveyed in the word politic, which now for ages has signified cunning, intimating that the State is a trick?  10
  The same benign necessity and the same practical abuse appear in the parties, into which each State divides itself, of opponents and defenders of the administration of the government. Parties are also founded on instincts, and have better guides to their own humble aims than the sagacity of their leaders. They have nothing perverse in their origin, but rudely mark some real and lasting relation. We might as wisely reprove the east wind or the frost, as a political party, whose members, for the most part, could give no account of their position, but stand for the defence of those interests in which they find themselves. Our quarrel with them begins when they quit this deep natural ground at the bidding of some leader, and obeying personal considerations, throw themselves into the maintenance and defence of points nowise belonging to their system. A party is perpetually corrupted by personality. Whilst we absolve the association from dishonesty, we cannot extend the same charity to their leaders. They reap the rewards of the docility and zeal of the masses which they direct. Ordinarily our parties are parties of circumstances, and not of principle; as the planting interest in conflict with the commercial; the party of capitalists and that of operatives: parties which are identical in their moral character, and which can easily change ground with each other in the support of many of their measures. Parties of principle, as, religious sects, or the party of free-trade, of universal suffrage, of abolition of slavery, of abolition of capital punishment,—degenerate into personalities, or would inspire enthusiasm. The vice of our leading parties in this country (which may be cited as a fair specimen of these societies of opinion) is that they do not plant themselves on the deep and necessary grounds to which they are respectively entitled, but lash themselves to fury in the carrying of some local and momentary measure, nowise useful to the commonwealth. Of the two great parties which at this hour almost share the nation between them, I should say that one has the best cause, and the other contains the best men. The philosopher, the poet, or the religious man, will of course wish to cast his vote with the democrat, for free-trade, for wide suffrage, for the abolition of legal cruelties in the penal code, and for facilitating in every manner the access of the young and the poor to the sources of wealth and power. But he can rarely accept the persons whom the so-called popular party propose to him as representatives of these liberalities. They have not at heart the ends which give to the name of democracy what hope and virtue are in it. The spirit of our American radicalism is destructive and aimless: it is not loving; it has no ulterior and divine ends, but is destructive only out of hatred and selfishness. On the other side, the conservative party, composed of the most moderate, able and cultivated part of the population, is timid, and merely defensive of property. It vindicates no right, it aspires to no real good, it brands no crime, it proposes no generous policy; it does not build, nor write, nor cherish the arts, nor foster religion, nor establish schools, nor encourage science, nor emancipate the slave, nor befriend the poor, or the Indian, or the immigrant. From neither party, when in power, has the world any benefit to expect in science, art, or humanity, at all commensurate with the resources of the nation.  11
  I do not for these defects despair of our republic. We are not at the mercy of any waves of chance. In the strife of ferocious parties, human nature always finds itself cherished; as the children of the convicts an Botany Bay are found to have as healthy a moral sentiment as other children. citizens of feudal states are alarmed at out democratic institutions lapsing into anarchy, and the older and more cautious among ourselves are learning from Europeans to look with some terror at our turbulent freedom. It is said that in our license of construing the Constitution, and in the despotism of public opinion, we have no anchor; and one foreign observer thinks he has found the safeguard in the sanctity of Marriage among us; and another thinks he has found it in our Calvinism. Fisher Ames expressed the popular security more wisely, when he compared a monarchy and a republic, saying that a monarchy is a merchantman, which sails well, but will sometimes strike on a rock and go to the bottom; whilst a republic is a raft, which would never sink, but then your feet are always in water. No forms can have any dangerous importance whilst we are befriended by the laws of things. It makes no difference how many tons’ weight of atmosphere presses on our heads, so long as the same pressure resists it within the lungs. Augment the mass a thousand-fold, it cannot begin to crush us, as long as reaction is equal to action. The fact of two poles, of two forces, centripetal and centrifugal, is universal, and each force by its own activity develops the other. Wild liberty develops iron conscience. Want of liberty, by strengthening law and decorum, stupefies conscience. ‘Lynch-law’ prevails only were there is greater hardihood and self-subsistency in the leaders. A mob cannot be a permanency; everybody’s interest requires that it should not exist, and only justice satisfies all.  12
  We must trust infinitely to the beneficent necessity which shines through all laws. Human nature expresses itself in them as characteristically as in statues, or songs, or railroads; and an abstract of the codes of nations would be a transcript of the common conscience. Governments have their origin in the moral identity of men. Reason for one is seen to be reason for another, and for every other. There is a middle measure which satisfies all parties, be they never so many or so resolute for their own. Every man finds a sanction for his simplest claims and deeds, in decisions of his own mind, which he calls Truth and Holiness. In these decisions all the citizens find a perfect agreement, and only in these; not in what is good to eat, good to wear, good use of time, or what amount of land or of public aid each is entitled to claim. This truth and justice men presently endeavor to make application of to the measuring of land, the apportionment of service, the protection of life and property. Their first endeavors, no doubt, are very awkward. Yet absolute right is the first governor; or, every government is an impure theocracy. The idea after which each community is aiming to make and mend its law, is the will of the wise man. The wise man it cannot find in nature, and it makes awkward but earnest efforts to secure his government by contrivance; as by causing the entire people to give their voices on every measure; or by a double choice to get the representation of the whole; or by a selection of the best citizens; or to secure the advantages of efficiency and internal peace by confiding the government to one, who may himself select his agents. All forms of government symbolize an immortal government, common to all dynasties and independent of numbers, perfect where two men exist, perfect where there is only one man.  13
  Every man’s nature is a sufficient advertisement to him of the character of his fellows. My right and my wrong is their right and their wrong. Whilst I do what is fit for me, and abstain from what is unfit, my neighbor and I shall often agree in our means, and work together for a time to one end. But whenever I find my dominion over myself not sufficient for me, and undertake the direction of him also, I overstep the truth, and come into false relations to him. I may have so much more skill or strength than he that he cannot express adequately his sense of wrong, but it is a lie, and hurts like a lie both him and me. Love and nature cannot maintain the assumption; it must be executed by a practical lie, namely by force. This undertaking for another is the blunder which stands in colossal ugliness in the governments of the world. It is the same thing in numbers, as in a pair, only not quite so intelligible. I can see well enough a great difference between my setting myself down to a self-control, and my going to make somebody else act after my views; but when a quarter of the human race assume to tell me what I must do, I may be too much disturbed by the circumstances to see so clearly the absurdity of their command. Therefore all public ends look vague and quixotic beside private ones. For any laws but those which men make for themselves are laughable. 11 If I put myself in the place of my child, and we stand in one thought and see that things are thus or thus, that perception is law for him and me. We are both there, both act. But if, without carrying him into the thought, I look over into his plot, and, guessing how it is with him, ordain this or that, he will never obey me. 12 This is the history of governments,—one man does something which is to bind another. A man who cannot be acquainted with me, taxes me; looking from afar at me ordains that a part of my labor shall go to this or that whimsical end,—not as I, but as he happens to fancy. Behold the consequence. Of all debts men are least willing to pay the taxes. What a satire is this on government! Everywhere they think they get their money’s worth, except for these. 13  14
  Hence the less government we have the better,—the fewer laws, and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal government is the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual; the appearance of the principal to supersede the proxy; the appearance of the wise man; of whom the existing government is, it must be owned, but a shabby imitation. That which all things tend to educe; which freedom, cultivation, intercourse, revolutions, go to form and deliver, is character; that is the end of Nature, to reach unto this coronation of her king. To educate the wise man the State exists, and with the appearance of the wise man the State expires. The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary. The wise man is the State. He needs no army, fort, or navy,—he loves men too well; no bribe, or feast, or palace, to draw friends to him; no vantage ground, no favorable circumstance. He needs no library, for he has not done thinking; no church, for he is a prophet; no statute-book, for he has the lawgiver; no money, for he is value; no road, for he is at home where he is; no experience, for the life of the creator shoots through him, and looks from his eyes. He has no personal friends, for he who has the spell to draw the prayer and piety of all men unto him needs not husband and educate a few to share with him a select and poetic life. His relation to men is angelic; his memory is myrrh to them; his presence, frankincense and flowers. 14  15
  We think our civilization near its meridian, but we are yet only at the cock-crowing and the morning star. In our barbarous society the influence of character is in its infancy. As a political power, as the rightful lord who is to tumble all rulers from their chairs, its presence is hardly yet suspected. Malthus and Ricardo quite omit it; the Annual Register is silent; in the Conversations’ Lexicon it is not set down; the President’s Message, the Queen’s Speech, have not mentioned it; and yet it is never nothing. Every thought which genius and piety throw into the world, alters the world. 15 The gladiators in the lists of power feel, through all their frocks of force and simulation, the presence of worth. I think the very strife of trade and ambition is confession of this divinity; and successes in those fields are the poor amends, the fig-leaf with which the shamed soul attempts to hide its nakedness. I find the like unwilling homage in all quarters. It is because we know how much is due from us that we are impatient to show some petty talent as a substitute for worth. We are haunted by a conscience of this right to grandeur of character, and are false to it. But each of us has some talent, can do somewhat useful, or graceful, or formidable, or amusing, or lucrative. That we do, as an apology to others and to ourselves for not reaching the mark of a good and equal life. But it does not satisfy us, whilst we thrust it on the notice of our companions. It may throw dust in their eyes, but does not smooth our own brow, or give us the tranquillity of the strong when we walk abroad. We do penance as we go. Our talent is a sort of expiation, and we are constrained to reflect on our splendid moment with a certain humiliation, as somewhat too fine, and not as one act of many acts, a fair expression of our permanent energy. Most persons of ability meet in society with a kind of tacit appeal. Each seems to say, ‘I am not all here.’ Senators and presidents have climbed so high with pain enough, not because they think the place specially agreeable, but as an apology for real worth, and to vindicate their manhood in our eyes. This conspicuous chair is their compensation to themselves for being of a poor, cold, hard nature. They must do what they can. Like one class of forest animals, they have nothing but a prehensile tail; climb they must, or crawl. If a man found himself so rich-natured that he could enter into strict relations with the best persons and make life serene around him by the dignity and sweetness of his behavior, could he afford to circumvent the favor of the caucus and the press, and covet relations so hollow and pompous as those of a politician? Surely nobody would be a charlatan who could afford to be sincere.  16
  The tendencies of the times favor the idea of self-government, and leave the individual, for all code, to the rewards and penalties of his own constitution; which work with more energy than we believe whilst we depend on artificial restraints. The movement in this direction has been very marked in modern history. Much has been blind and discreditable, but the nature of the revolution is not affected by the vices of the revolters; for this is a purely moral force. It was never adopted by any party in history, neither can be. it separates the individual from all party, and unites him at the same time to the race. It promises a recognition of higher rights than those of personal freedom, or the security of property. A man has a right to be employed, to be trusted, to be loved, to be revered. The power of love, as the basis of a State, has never been tried. We must not imagine that all things are lapsing into confusion if every tender protestant be not compelled to bear his part in certain social conventions; nor doubt that roads can be built, letters carried, and the fruit of labor secured, when the government of force is at an end. Are our methods now so excellent that all competition is hopeless? could not a nation of friends even devise better ways? On the other hand, let not the most conservative and timid fear anything from a premature surrender of the bayonet and the system of force. For, according to the order of nature, which is quite superior to our will, it stands thus; there will always be a government of force where men are selfish; and when they are pure enough to abjure the code of force they will be wise enough to see how these public ends of the post-office, of the highway, of commerce and the exchange of property, of museums and libraries, of institutions of art and science can be answered.  17
  We live in a very low state of the world, and pay unwilling tribute to governments founded on force. There is not, among the most religious and instructed men of the most religious and civil nations, a reliance on the moral sentiment and a sufficient belief in the unity of things, to persuade them that society can be maintained without artificial restraints, as well as the solar system; 16 or that the private citizen might be reasonable and a good neighbor, without the hint of a jail or a confiscation. What is strange too, there never was in any man sufficient faith in the power of rectitude to inspire him with the broad design of renovating the State on the principle of right and love. All those who have pretended this design have been partial reformers, and have admitted in some manner the supremacy of the bad State. I do not call to mind a single human being who has steadily, denied the authority of the laws, on the simple ground of his own moral nature. Such designs, full of genius and full of faith as they are, are not entertained except avowedly as air-pictures. 17 If the individuals who exhibits them dare to think them practicable, he disgusts scholars and churchmen; and men of talent and women of superior sentiments cannot hide their contempt. Not the less does nature continue to fill the heart of youth with suggestions of this enthusiasm, and there are now men,—if indeed I can speak in the plural number,—more exactly, I will say, I have just been conversing with one man, to whom no weight of adverse experience will make it for a moment appear impossible that thousands of human beings might exercise towards each other the grandest and simplest sentiments, as well as a knot of friends, or a pair of lovers.  18
 
Note 1. This essay was based on a lecture in the Boston course of 1839–40 on “The Present Age.” The lecture on “Politics” followed “Literature” and preceded “Reforms” and “Religion.” Much new matter was added in the essay. Some passages that were omitted it seemed well to give in these notes. In this essay one sees Emerson fearlessly apply his doctrine of the Universal Mind, or the common sense of man, to politics, and find therein good hope for democracy. And his faith in evolution encourages a fearless optimism when at last in the nineteenth Christian century he has found one man—it does not appear whether himself or another—“to whom no weight of adverse experience will make it for a moment impossible that thousands of human beings might exercise towards each other the grandest and simplest sentiments, as well as a knot of friends, or a pair of lovers.”
  The motto is an example of the earlier poems of Emerson’s second period, when, perhaps influenced by the Bardic fragments, he felt that the strength of the thought would be lost in too much attention to melodious expression. His “Merlin” says of the bard:—
  He shall not his brain encumber
With the coil of rhythm and number,
But, leaving rule and pale forethought,
He shall aye climb
For his rhyme.
With severe condensation, in the twenty-six short lines, none too melodious, of the motto, we have Merlin from old Cymrian forests bearing witness, and the Man of Destiny of the early nineteenth century proving by his overthrow, that like begets only like. The precedent of the mystic building of Thebes to the god-inspired harping of Amphion is cited to show that the divine must enter into all that shall have strength. Then the Muses from Helicon and the personified virtues from Europe of the Renaissance cross the Atlantic to find, in a country where a Lincoln may follow the example of Cincinnatus, a promise of a better republic than that of Plato. [back]
Note 2. In those days of eager plans for social reforms, and gallant forlorn-hope attacks on slavery, Mr. Emerson had steadily to keep before his eyes, and present to others, that the larger included the less, and that one must not spend all one’s energy on the transient. [back]
Note 3. This simile of ropes to be twisted out of sand came from the old treatises on the black arts. Such an attempt is described in Scott’s ballad “Lord Soulis.” [back]
Note 4. The late Professor James B. Thayer, of the Harvard Law School, wrote in 1876 to Mr. Emerson’s daughter: “I was almost startled yesterday in our Law Library on opening an English treatise on ‘The Law of Carriers,’ by J. H. Balfour Browne (1873), to see this on the title-page, and Mr. Emerson’s name under it: ‘Our statute is a currency,’” etc., giving the whole passage.
  In the original lecture this passage occurs: “Out of a thousand errors, oppositions, compromises, springs ever the actual statute-book which regulates to-day the economy of the Commonwealth.” [back]
Note 5. He lived to see the apparent fulfilment of these words in the issue of the War of the Rebellion. [back]
Note 6. He quotes often the Latin proverb of which I cannot learn the source,—Res nolunt diu male administrari. [back]
Note 7. This paragraph from the lecture was omitted here:—
  “The philosopher, who is never to stop at the outside or appearance of things, will find more to justify his faith in the harmony of politics with the constitution of man, than the mere statute-book can furnish him. There is more history to a nation than can be gathered from its code. Its code is only the high-water mark showing how high the last tide rose, but at this moment perhaps the waters rise higher still, only they have not yet notched their place by a line of pebbles, shells and seaweed. Observe that the law is always the last and never the first step. One person, a few persons, an increasing minority do the thing; defend it; irresistibly urge it; until finally, against all reluctance, roaring opposition, it becomes the law of the land. The thing goes before,—the form comes after. The elements of power, namely, persons and property, must and will have their just sway.” [back]
Note 8. “Away with this hurrah of masses.… In old Egypt it was established law that the vote of a prophet be reckoned equal to a hundred hands.… Pairing off! As if one man who votes wrong, going away, could excuse you, who mean to vote right, for going away; or as if your presence did not tell in more ways than in your vote. Suppose the three hundred heroes at Thermopylæ had paired off with three hundred Persians. Would it have been all the same to Greece and to history?”—“Considerations by the Way,” Conduct of Life. [back]
Note 9. From this point the lecture ended differently, as given below.
  “It seems to follow from these doctrines that nothing is less important than the laws or forms of government. Power belongs to persons and to property. Property is merely the obedience of nature to human labor and follows of course the moral quality of the persons who create and hold it. With the progress of any society, with the cultivation of individuals, the existing forms become every day of less consequence. Every addition of good sense that a citizen acquires destroys so much of his opposition to the laws of nature and the well-being of society, and of course brings the power of his property on the side of justice. Knowledge transfers the censorship from the State House to the reason of every citizen, and compels every man to mount guard over himself, and puts shame and remorse for sergeants and maces. And we find in all times and countries every great man does, in all his nature, point at and imply the existence and well-being of all the orders and institutions of a state. He is full of reverence. He is by inclination (how far soever in position) the defender of the grammar-school, the almshouse, the holy day, the church, the priest, the judge, the legislator, the executive arm. Throughout his being is he loyal, even when by circumstance arrayed in opposition to the actual order of things. Such was Socrates, St. Paul, Luther, Milton, Burke.
  “The education of every man is bringing him ever to postpone his private to the universal good, to comport himself, that is, in his proper person, as a state, and of course whilst the whole community around him are doing the like, the persons who hold public offices become mere clerks of business, in no sense the sovereigns of the people.
  “It were very much to be wished that these laws drawn from the nature of things could become a part of the popular philosophy, that at least all endeavors for the reform of education or the reform of political opinion might be made where only they can have any avail, in the speculative views of the individual, for it was justly said by Bacon that the speculative opinions of men in general between the age of thirty and forty were the only sure source of political prophecy. The philosophy of property, if explored in its foundations, would open new mines of practical wisdom, which would in the event change the face of the world; would destroy the whole magazine of dissimulation, for so many ages reckoned the Capital art of Government. It would purge that rottenness which has defamed the whole Science until politic has come to mean cunning; would show the pretenders in that science that they were their own dupes; would show that the cunningest man cannot cheat nature or do any wrong without suffering the same. It would go deep into ethics and touch all the relations of man. It would teach the subtle and inextricable compensation that attaches to property. Everything God hath made hath two faces. Every cent in a dollar covers its worth, and also covers its evil. The man who covets the wealth of London should know that whilst each pound and penny represents so much commodity, so much corn and wine and cloth, of necessity it also represents so much mould or sourness and moth as belongs to these commodities: if so much property, then so much risk; if so much power, then so much danger; if so much revenue, then so much tax. When his honest labor and enterprise attract to him a great estate, then his exertions stand over against his gains to make him whole. But could his wish without his honest labor transfer out of another’s vaults a million pounds sterling into his own chest, so would also, against his wish, just so massive an ill will and fear concentrate its black rays on him in darkness that might be felt. All property must and will pay its tax. If it come not by fair means, then it comes by foul. The wise man who sees the unerring compensations which worked themselves out in the world, will pay the state its full dividend on his estate, if not for love of right, then for fear of harm.
  “And as in respect to property so also in respect to persons it takes an ounce to balance an ounce; the fair house of Seem is never an equivalent for the house of Be. Nor can the loudest Pretension supply the place of the smallest piece of Performance. A just view of human nature would convince men of that truth (how hard to learn) that it is the man makes the place. Alfred, Washington, Lafayette, appear half divine to the people followed in their office by a nation’s eye. Ambitious but pitiful persons see them and think it is the place alone that makes them great, and that if they sat in the same chairs they would be as much admired. All means are used to this end; all sorts of shame accumulated; and by and by perhaps they sit in the high seat only to make subtleness and pitifulness quite bare to the view of all men.
  “In our own times, without satire, this mistake is so common that all society and government seems to be making believe, when we see such ignorant persons with a grave countenance taking their places as legislators and statesmen. This could not be, but that at intervals throughout society there are real men intermixed, whose natural basis is broad enough to sustain the paper men in common times, as the carpenter puts one iron rod in his banister to five or six wooden ones. But inexorable time, which brings opportunity once to every man, brings also to every man the hour of trial to prove him whether he is genuine, or whether he is counterfeit.
  “The last ages have been characterized in history by the immense creation of property. The population of the globe, by the nations of western Europe in whom the superiority of intellect and organization seems to reside, has set at work so many skilful hands that great wealth is added. Now no dollar of property is created without some direct communication with nature, and of course some acquisition of knowledge and practical power. The creation of all this property, and that by millions, not by a few, involves necessarily so much education of the minds of the proprietors. With power always comes the consciousness of power, and therefore indomitable millions have demanded forms of government more suited to the facts. Throughout Europe, throughout America, the struggle exists between those who claim new forms at all hazards, and those who prefer the old forms to the hazard of change. Of course on the whole is a steady progress of innovation. In London, they write on the fences, ‘Of what use are the Lords?’ In Spain and in Portugal, the liberal monarchists can scarce hold out against the mob. The South American States are too unsettled than that an ordinary memory can keep the run of the powers that be.
  “The era seems marked in many countries by the separation of real power from its forms, and the continual interference of the popular opinion between the executive and its will. A levity before unknown follows. The word ‘Revolution’ is stripped of its terrors, and they may have many in a year. They say in Paris, There will be no revolution to-day, for it rains.
  “The struggle is envenomed by the great admixture of ignorance and selfishness on both sides which always depraves human affairs, and also prevents the war from being one purely of ideas. The innovators are led not by the best, but by the boldest, and often by the worst, who drive their private trade on, take advantage of the march of the principle. The conservatives make up for weakness by wiles and oppose indiscriminately the good and evil measures of their antagonists. Meantime Party, that bellowing hound that barks or fawns, that defamer and bargainer and unreasoning self-lover, distorts all facts and blinds all eyes. Party counts popularity success. Its whole aim ever is to get the hurrah on our side. It infects from the bar-room and ward-caucus up, all the veins of the state, stealing even into literature and religion; and in out age every Party has written history for itself as Gibbon, Lingard, Brodie, Hume, Hallam, Mitford.
  “Meantime if we rise above the hubbub of parties, and the uncovered selfishness of many of the actors, we shall see that humanity is always the gainer, that the production of property has been the education of the producers, that the creation of so many new households and so many forcible and propertied citizens, has been the creation of lovers of order, knowledge and peace, and hating war. Trade and war are always antagonists. The progress of trade has been the death of war, universally. In these days nations have stretched out the hand to each other. In our time, it is said for the first time, has the word ‘International’ been compounded. Some progress has been made by national compact in hindering offences against all the world as piracy and kidnapping. Mediation is made to supersede armies and navies. The projects with which the minds of philanthropists teem, are themselves a sure mark of progress. The black colony at Liberia, the proposition of the congress of nations to arbitrate controversies arising between two states, and so to prevent war or at least aid the right cause by the moral force of a decision, these are projects the bare starting of which in any practicable shape, proves civilization and Christianity. The mutual helpfulness of nations and the sympathy of all in the projects of each and the continual approximation by means of mechanical improvements seem to point at stricter union and simpler legislation, at a legislation more purely official, such as shall not hold out such bribes to vanity and avarice.
  “The philosopher must console himself amidst the harsh discord of what is called politics by the reflection that its errors, like the errors of the planets, are periodic; that a firm bound is set by counterchecks in man to every excess, that the discipline which the events of every day administer to every man, tend always to make him a better citizen, and to make him independent of the mutations of parties and states”. [back]
Note 10. As the inventor by a mechanical device shows man’s previous stupid waste if energy, and the man of science shows by his heresies the errors of the church’s teaching, so Mr. Emerson held good men to their duty of protest against unjust law. Six years later the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law brought this question home to every brave man of the North, and this is what Mr. Emerson said to his Concord neighbors of the duty of the hour:—
  “The last year has forced us all into politics. There is infamy in the air. I wake in the morning with a painful sensation which I carry about all day, and which, when traced home, is the odious remembrance of that ignominy which has fallen on Massachusetts. I have lived all my life in this State and never had any experience of personal inconvenience from the laws until now. They never came near me to my discomfort before. But the Act of Congress of September 18th, 1850, is a law which every one of you will break on the earliest occasion,—a law which no man can obey, or abet the obeying, without loss of self-respect and forfeiture of the name of a gentleman.” [back]
Note 11. Mr. Cabot, in the Appendix F to his Memoir, giving an account of the lecture “Politics,” printed the following passage as omitted in the essay. I cannot find it in the manuscript, and suppose it may have dropped out:—
  “The State and Church guard their purlieus with jealous decorum. I sometimes wonder where their books find readers among mere mortals, who must sometimes laugh, and are liable to the infirmity of sleep. Yet politics rest on real foundations and cannot be treated with levity. But the foundation is not numbers or force, but character. Men do not see that all force comes from this, and that the disuse of force is the education of men to do without it. Character is the true theocracy. It will one day suffice for the government of the world. Absolutely speaking, I can only work for myself. The fight of Leonidas, the hemlock of Socrates, the cross of Christ, is not personal sacrifice for others, but fulfils a high necessity of his proper character: the benefit to others is merely contingent.” [back]
Note 12. In dealing with his children after they began to grow up, Mr. Emerson held to his theory. He did not command or forbid, but laid principles and facts before us and left the case in our hands,—a helpful confidence. [back]
Note 13. His townsman, Squire Hoar, was an exception. “When I talked with him one day of some inequality of taxes in the town, he said it was his practice to pay whatever was demanded; for, though he might think the taxation large and very unequally proportioned, yet he thought the money might as well go in this way as any other.”—“Samuel Hoar,” Lectures and Biographical Sketches. [back]
Note 14. When the question arose what epitaph to put upon the stone over Emerson’s grave, a young man who had often been his guest wrote suggesting that much of the foregoing paragraph would be fitting, beginning “The wise man … needs no library,” etc. [back]
Note 15.
  His instant thought a poet spoke,
And filled the age his fame;
An inch of ground the lightning strook,
But lit the sky with flame.
“Fragments on the Poet,” Poems, Appendix.    
 [back]
Note 16. In an address prefixed to the first number of the Massachusetts Quarterly, in 1848, Mr. Emerson said: “We believe politics to be nowise accidental or exceptional, but subject to the same laws with trees, earths and acids.” [back]
Note 17. In the first edition the wording was “full of fate,” instead of “full of faith.” [back]
 
 
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