A Plea for the American Tradition

By Winston Churchill
Author of "The Inside of the Cup," "A Far Country," etc.

[Harper's Magazine, December 1915]

It has been the complacent custom of the average man to despise systems of philosophy, to think of them as harmless speculations made for arm-chairs and leisure. Every once in a while the world undergoes a rude awakening from this fallacy, as when it is shaken by a French Revolution. The unrest of the masses in the eighteenth century, becoming conscious in the philosophy of the rights of man, lighted a conflagration that took a quarter of a century to quench and left a transformed world behind it. And recently we have had once more a terrifying proof that philosophies, that cultures, may be dynamic.

Those who had seen and studied the German Empire before the war beheld the spectacle of a nation which, though not without internal dissensions and party strife, had achieved a remarkable degree of efficiency and individual contentment; a nation in which waste had been largely eliminated, in which poverty was less prevalent than in the Anglo-Saxon democracies. Prosperity was more widely diffused. The industrial problem, hanging menacingly over England and America like an evil genie above the smoke, in Germany was apparently far on its way toward solution. The transformation from a loosely knit, overpopulated group of states in which there was much misery and poverty into a rich, self-confident, and aggressive empire had taken place within a comparatively few years.

It was not until the war broke out that we of the Anglo-Saxon democracies began to inquire why and how, only to find to our amazement that this growth was due to a principle at work among the German people, a philosophy, a Kultur, a leaven with which they had become saturated. It is not necessary here to enter into an analysis of this Kultur, or to attempt to pass judgment upon it; apparently it is a development from and an odd combination of the systems of many thinkers; it has been shaped by the needs and environment of a people and is in harmony with the temperament of that people. Nor is it needful to inquire to what extent this national philosophy or culture was intellectually conscious. In the early days of our republic the American was imbued with a racial tradition whose origin goes back to the Magna Charta; a tradition laying emphasis on individual initiative and individual freedom. It was in our blood, and it made the British Colonies and the United States of America. The average Scotch-Irish settler, the Western farmer, did not know any more of Locke or Adam Smith than the German peasant of to-day knows of Fichte and Hegel, Nietzsche, von Treitschke, or Bernhardi. But this American tradition, because of the change from a simple agricultural and a complex industrial society, has gradually become obscured.

It is difference in ideas, in views of life, that arouses suspicions and antagonisms, that leads to conflict between individuals as well as nations. The emotions, the longings, and aspirations of a people are expressed by their thinkers in ideas, and ideas lead to action. Whatever may be the merits or demerits of the German culture, the revelation of its existence and nature has sharply aroused thinking Americans to the realization that it is not for us. Both our traditions and temperament are opposed to it. We are beginning to grasp the fact that democracy is at stake—whatever democracy has come to mean. The opening of the present war found the Anglo-Saxon democracies in a state of muddle and chaos. Our houses were not in order. And that we might have to defend our institutions, such as they were, never seems to have occurred to us. We had evolved no system of defense in harmony with the nature of our government, with our traditions—we had no system of defense worthy of the name. And England, save for her navy, was in the same plight. Prosperity had made many of us smug and selfish, ready to reap profits out of other people's misfortunes; we had mistaken the pursuit of wealth for the pursuit of happiness; we were wasteful, and riddled with political corruption. The rise of modern industry with its introduction of the machine had changed the face of our civilization, largely swept away the democracy we had, created a class of economic dependents; established, indeed, an economic slavery—a slavery no less real than that in which the master was individualized. And that equality of opportunity, so prevalent when land and resources were plentiful, had dwindled amazingly. Serious writers agree that it is growing increasingly difficult for men to rise from the ranks of the workers, partly because of increasing class solidarity, partly because of the great denial necessary to acquire sufficient funds—a denial that reacts on the family. Those who do rise become recruits of a hostile camp—the camp of the employer; and those who do rise seem to be possessed more markedly than ever of those characteristics—so hostile to democratic ideals—hinted at by the author of the "Spoon River Anthology:"

Beware of the man who rises to power
From one suspender.

We are in the throes of industrial strife, class strife, the very condition our forefathers who founded this nation hoped to obviate. We have a large element of our population burning with a sense of injustice and dependence—feelings that partially die down only to flare up again; an element for the most part uneducated in any real sense of the word; an element imbued with crude and non-American ideas as to how this injustice is to be righted. Their solution is one of class solidarity and revolution, and they cannot be blamed for advocating it. We must make up our minds that we shall not have peace or order until equality of opportunity tends to become restored and dependence eliminated.

We shall have to find and put in practice, if democracy is to endure, a democratic solution of the industrial problem.

It is curious, but true, that it does not seem to have occurred to us to examine the traditions of our race to see whether these might not be developed and made as applicable to the problem of industrial democracy as they had been to that of political democracy. Our statesmen, in their despair, attempted to solve the problem by a tendency to adopt a collectivism borrowed from Central Europe. Indeed, many of the measures passed in England and America during the past dozen years are in principle alien to the American tradition and temperament. Pensions, for instance, are not compatible with Anglo-Saxon independence and respect; nor do we take kindly to laws, however benevolent that hamper the freedom and development of the individual. Coercion is repugnant to us.

It has been said that the United States of America is no longer Anglo-Saxon. But I believe that I am in accord with experience and modern opinion when I say that environment is stronger than heredity, and that our immigrants become imbued with our racial individualism—at present largely instructive and materialistic in quality. Whether our immigration problem is at present being handled with wisdom and efficiency is quite another matter.

Professor Dewey quotes a sentence from Heine declaring that nations have an instinctive presentiment of what is required to fulfil their missions, and it is quite true that we in America have such a presentiment, although we have not translated it into a conscious creed or culture; with us it is little more than a presentiment, but the war has served to make us realize, that, if our democracy is to be preserved, its survival must be justified, it must be efficient. The first essential to such efficiency is that our philosophy, our spirit and ideals, should be defined, and secondly that our citizens from the early years of childhood should be saturated and animated with these principles and ideals. In short, we must have a culture of American democracy, and that culture must be in harmony with the character and temperament and traditions of the nation.

For this reason it becomes essential to examine our character and traditions, for nations as well as men must first arrive at a thorough comprehension of their characters before a scheme of life can be made to fit them. The "presentiment of destiny" lies hidden in character. The leopard cannot change his spots: men and nations cannot change their inherent characteristics, but they can develop and transform these, direct them from material toward, spiritual ends.

Only a little reflection is required to convince any one that the Anglo-Saxon, and particularly the American, is an individualist. It is said with much truth that we are lawless by nature, and we have, indeed, very little respect for laws. We are jealous of control; we are not and never have been a submissive people, and we could not live under a benevolent government that would teach us what is good for us. Our forefathers came over here to live unto themselves, to exercise their own opinions and work out their own destinies. However unattractive such individualism may appear, we have to make the best of it, to make virtue out of necessity. All good people-—contrary to Sunday-school traditions—are not alike. And if we are going to become good, we must become good in our own way.

When certain American colonists, impatient with British interference, rebelled against England, they wrote down in the Declaration of Independence a creed, a philosophy, that was quite in keeping with Anglo-Saxon temperament, with Anglo-Saxon ideals as far back as the Magna Charta. Every man is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A government was necessary, but they were determined to have as little government as possible, to give the individual the greatest amount of liberty consistent with any government at all; they laid stress on individual initiative and development, on self-realization.

Our forefathers were neither saints nor dreamers. They also were not averse from the accumulation of wealth, and undoubtedly they had an eye to the main chance. But there is one truth that cannot be too emphatically affirmed, that in human affairs the material and the spiritual are inextricably mixed together, though one or the other may be preponderant.

In spite of—perhaps because of—the fact that the American creed was a magnificent declaration of faith in man, it was received with derision and laughter in Europe, regarded as Utopian. Yet we are pledged to it both by our temperament and traditions. We cannot do otherwise. We shall have to work out our destiny along these lines. But instead of spiritualizing this creed we have steadily materialized it, we have mistaken the pursuit of happiness for the pursuit of wealth; we have failed to grasp the truth that happiness lies—and lies alone—in self-realization; that the acquisition of wealth, that the triumph of man over nature, is merely accessory to happiness.

The creed is deeply religious in its sublime trust in man, its confidence that he will not pursue false gods for ever, that he will come at length to a realization of the futility of the purely material, and that he will turn at last voluntarily and make his contribution to the whole. I should like to emphasize that word voluntarily, because it is the most significant in democracy. We are a nation of volunteers; we do not wish to be forced into serving our government, but to do so of our own free will. This does not mean that voluntary service is unorganized service.

Our creed infers also that before we can have efficiency in government we must have self-control in individuals. It differs from the German culture in that it implies development and ultimate unity through differentiation, and a belief that that nation is the richest nation which contains the most highly developed and richest individuals. National wealth, both material and spiritual, grows out of the self-realization of citizens and their voluntary contributions to the nation, American democracy, then, as I have said, confesses its trust in mankind, and if we open our eyes we may see about us no lack of experiments throughout the republic in which this trust in humanity is being more or less justified. Many of our universities and some of our public schools have adopted a qualified system of self-government, and our faith is such that we are even applying it, and not without encouragement, to the prison system. Trust is the despair of politicians.

Democracy must, from its very nature, evolve its own truths from experience and tradition, and can accept no external authority. It is an adventure. It is never safe—otherwise the element of faith would be eliminated from it. It grows as the soul grows, through mistakes and suffering. Nevertheless, there is in it some guiding principle of progress that is constant, and with which its citizens should be imbued and inspired. I am speaking of an American culture, using it in the German sense of Kultur. To quote Professor Dewey again: Culture, according to Kant, differs from civilization in this, that civilization is a natural and largely unconscious or involuntary growth, the by-product of the needs engendered when people live close together, while culture is deliberate and conscious, the fruit not of men's natural motives, but of natural motives transformed by the inner spirit. Observe the word transformed.

The spirit of democracy, the philosophy of democracy, needs to be developed and made conscious in order that we may gradually transform our material individualism into a spiritual individualism. Thus the pursuit of happiness becomes the struggle for self-realization; thus the riches and the gifts developed are devoted, voluntarily, to the good of the whole. There is no coercion, but a spirit. Competition becomes emulation, such as we see now among scientists, or in that finer element of the medical profession that bends all its energies for the benefit of humanity. Trust is the order of the day. Individual initiative is stimulated rather than paralyzed, and the citizen contributes to government rather than attempts to compel government to contribute to him.

All this does not make organization any the less necessary. It does not mean that the volunteer must not be trained. Quite the contrary. But it does mean that the volunteer must grow up conscious of the traditions of his country, instilled with the spirit of its institutions.

As has been said, it would seem of late years that there has been a tendency to lose faith in the virtue of the principles of American democracy to right wrongs, to cure the evils that modern industrialism has brought in its train. A marked sentiment has arisen, demanding that government be given strong coercive powers to be exercised on behalf of and for the protection of the economically dependent. Such legislation is class legislation—it either takes for granted that an economically dependent class is inevitable, or else that the members of the dependent order will gradually be emancipated, not as individuals, but as a class. From the point of view of our traditions it is quite as subversive as legislation in favor of the economically powerful. Vicious as this undoubtedly is, it has been to a large extent extra-legal and therefore within the bounds of cure.

That an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure may be taken as a cardinal motto of our democracy. We are, of course, face to face at present with a condition and hot a theory, and we have to-day the anomalous situation of a political quasi-democracy upon which an economic oligarchy has been superimposed—we have an economically dependent class that has only the choice between masters, as Herbert Croly in his Progressive Democracy points out; a class whose members as individuals have no command over the conditions in which they shall work; and the fact that these conditions are often dictated by labor unions does not emancipate the individual. In such a case we are as far from American democracy as ever. Old-age pensions, minimum-wage laws, workingmen's compensation acts, may, in the muddle we have got into, be necessary to secure a temporary measure of justice, but fundamentally they are not American. Conscription was necessary in our Civil War, but conscription is not in harmony with Anglo-Saxon democracy. The laws I have mentioned are poultices and not cures, inasmuch as they do not go to the root of the evil. These laws confess no ultimate trust in human nature; they assume that a situation will always exist wherein the powerful will take advantage over the weak unless a strong government steps in to restrain them.

Democracy is contributive; it does not receive favors from its government, but confers them. And the tendency to throw the onus of support on government is not to create a self-reliant people, nor a self-respecting, resourceful, and inventive people. Labor tends to become routine; there is no pride in it. Unless labor is emancipated from its condition of dependence, unless we restore dignity and pride in work, and begin to re-establish that comparative equality of opportunity that once existed when this country had wide, empty lands and unclaimed resources, our republic will go on the rocks. Of this we may be sure. It cannot continue to exist half slave and half free. Unless our citizens without distinction of class are awakened to the danger and instilled with the spirit of our traditions, we shall have a class revolution, and that means collectivism with all its leveling influences. Collectivism does not tend to produce the rich individual, because initiative is destroyed. Class solidarity in a class struggle against injustice has indeed its ennobling influence, but it is a very different thing from what Americans understand as patriotism. Moreover, the characteristic of this class struggle in its earlier stages is that of the barter of one kind of property for another—and so long as labor is regarded as property it can never have any true dignity or distinction. The struggle, in spite of the heights in sacrifice often attained to by working men and women on strike, in spite of their physical and moral sufferings, is founded fundamentally on material issues. The great mass of working people are at present uneducated in any true sense, and therefore their ambitions, once gained, are apt to be satisfied with purely material comforts. A proof of this may be found in the fact that in times of prosperity, when work is plentiful and wages high, the labor agitator generally preaches to deaf ears unless the employees can be convinced that the employer is taking too large a share of the profits.

What, then, is the American solution? It depends absolutely upon the elimination of the class spirit, from our body politic.

Let us examine once more the theory of our state. We find in it certain fundamental principles in harmony with our national and racial character, and our general conclusion is, therefore, that we shall achieve no progress by breaking with traditions, but on the other hand these traditions must be developed to cope with new conditions that arise and confront us, conditions for which no man or set of men are to blame. One of these new conditions is this, that instead of a sparsely settled land fabulously rich in resources, with plenty of room for all who might come, we have to-day a population of a hundred million and the resources largely taken up and exploited. The day of the pioneer is past; the day of the administrator is at hand; husbandry and efficiency must take the place of waste. In former times, when lands and resources were plentiful, a large equality of opportunity existed, and equality of opportunity is the very foundation stone of American individualism. Indeed, it may be said that the state did guarantee this equality in not seizing the lands and resources for herself, but in throwing them open to her citizens.

A logical development, therefore, of the American doctrine, if indeed it be a development rather than application to new conditions, is that the state should guarantee equality of opportunity in a modern industrial commonwealth. And this guarantee of a fair start may be said to be the one positive function in the theory of the American state. All other adjustments, the righting of injustices and wrongs, must be left to the workings of the American democratic spirit in the citizens themselves, must depend upon the extent to which the body politic is saturated with this spirit. It is in truth what may be called a big order. But there is no other way out for us.

It is a fact of profound significance that American democracy from its very beginning instinctively laid stress on universal education, and foreign travelers who came a hundred years, ago to study our curious institutions were struck by the extent to which cultivation had permeated our citizenship. A self-governing people must be intelligent, And—be it noted—what was largely meant by education was the adequate preparation of the young for intelligent participation in the life and affairs of the nation as it then existed.

An almost incredible change has taken place since then. Our simple republic has become a complex commonwealth. And we must bear in mind that the final justification for the existence of this commonwealth must be that of creating material wealth for spiritual ends. An industrial commonwealth does not imply mere utilitarianism; the analogy of the bee and the hive does not hold. Life is not without its graces; existence is a rounded thing. Literature and art are not alone for the privileged, but are made more and more democratic, are part and parcel of the education of all, while religion is inherent in government itself, in harmony with it—the contributive spirit of the whole.

A new system of education based on psychology, on scientific principles, an education for life in a modern industrial democracy, is being put into practice in various parts of the United States, and is destined ultimately to supplant the old system. Education in its very nature is selective, but what may be called the new education is not that which we know as vocational, which is class education. It does not undertake to educate the workman for a workman. It is based on the American theory that every citizen, whatever his future calling may be, must be made familiar with the development of industry, with the development of government, of art and literature and religion, from the earliest times up to the present. This is not so difficult as it seems. It is an education in the principles of growth, in the social development of humanity. It is analogous to the physical and individual development of humanity from the egg. It is an education in truth, in science, and in straight thinking.

Industrially the modern steel-mill is an evolution from the village blacksmith's shop and foundry, just as a modern textile-mill is an evolution from the home spinning-wheel and loom on the farm. These industries have been taken out of the home, the blacksmith shop and the foundry are no longer familiar village spectacles. What was apart of the education of the individual outside of the school has now, perforce, become a part of the general educational task.

The new education is based on the sound principle of the direct application of thought to action, of passing from the concrete to the abstract rather than from the abstract to the concrete. The uses of knowledge are held up as incentives to its acquirement. The child learns to read because he loves stories; he learns arithmetic and weights and measures because he wishes to build a house; while the practice of a measure of self-government in school leads to a grasp of its value in democracy.

Presently the future citizen discovers what he can do best, to select the particular service in life for which nature has fitted him. It may not be an important service; he may not be equipped by nature for a leader. But he has had his opportunity. The state has given it to him. The opportunity does not necessarily cease when his early education has been finished, since some individuals develop late. But under such a system no citizen is able to say that he has not had a chance to develop what is in him, and thus the element of discontent is removed at its source. He is, so far as the state can make him such, a rounded individual; he has learned, to use his hands and his head, and to appreciate the finer things in life.

It is quite true that men will not work except for a prize; the personal possession of property is essential, but if the prize has not a spiritual aspect it is dross. In so far as work itself is the prize, in so far as the achieved gift is a contribution, and a voluntary contribution, to humanity it is worthy of individual effort.

Education founded on these principles instills patriotism instead of class feeling, and strikes at the very root of the tendency toward class solidarity and class strife. And it implies, furthermore, a truer conception of democracy than that held in Jackson's day—a democracy of leadership combined with responsibility. The choice individuals are developed with the least possible resentment.

Guaranteed education is therefore a fundamental principle in American democracy; but before leaving the subject, it is well, in addition to dwelling upon the significance of experiments such as the Gary schools, to call attention to another experiment, that of education in detail, which is being tried along traditional American lines at Schenectady and Cincinnati and other places in this country. Here, at Union College and the University of Cincinnati, education is directly connected with industry, the theoretical knowledge acquired in the college or university immediately applied by the students in the great manufacturing establishments whose properties lie adjacent. Thus students who prove their ability are actually in the industry and in line for rapid advancement. They are familiar with its theory as well as with its processes.

Lastly, students learn in the schools and universities to value the principles of American democracy to such an extent that they are willing to defend them, to fight if necessary for the right of self-development that is the American heritage. Even as the industrial army of the future must be recruited from educated citizens rather than from raw and ignorant masses, so must the military forces of the republic. It is a question whether militarism ever was or ever will be an American trait; but those who fear it, who are apprehensive that a large army will create a dangerous, high-handed ruling caste, need have no dread of such a caste if our army is organized in harmony with democratic principles.

The American democratic state, then, has but the one positive function, that of guaranteeing to each of its citizens a fair start—since the protection of rights is merely negative. The emphasis is laid on the spirit, the trust is put in the spirit, not in the law. Enlightened self-interest is the old and much-ridiculed phrase; an illuminating phrase, nevertheless; individual initiative and the satisfaction of individual achievement remain; the self-interest remains also, but transformed by enlightenment and made contributory to the interests of the whole. Here is precisely the paradox of Christianity: "He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for My sake shall find it."

It is no wonder, indeed, that such a political creed as our forefathers composed seemed to Europe impractical and Utopian. Thus analyzed, it must seem to many Utopian to-day. That our Anglo-Saxon theory of democracy is no short cut to the millennium is quite evident, and if democracy is to have any approach to perfection, that comparative perfection must be one of growth, not of achievement. A satisfaction in development rather than in achievement seems to be the principle of life.

Congress and state legislatures may pass coercive laws in the hope of securing a crude justice, but it has been well said that there never was a law that a coach and four couldn't be driven through. We Americans are skilful coach-drivers, and coach-driving through laws as obstacles has been the pastime and delight of many corporation lawyers. Public opinion must precede laws and not follow them. The truth may as well be faced that our salvation depends absolutely on what is called public opinion, and public opinion is only another name for the democratic spirit or culture with which our electorate must be saturated.

For those who have eyes to see, however, there are signs in various quarters of the growth of this spirit, and these may be taken as concrete illustrations of its workings. There is a sentiment, for instance, in favor of what we call ''prohibition"—ah example of the extreme that is apt to precede moderation. The moderate term, of course, is temperance, for temperance implies self-control. Wave after wave of "prohibition" has swept over the country, leaving some states—to use the vivid expression—high and dry. Whatever of value there s in this sentiment is the result of a conviction dawning on our people that alcoholic beverages are what modern economists aptly call illth, in contradistinction to wealth. The educated citizen of a democracy must become familiar with the deteriorating effects of alcohol, its influence on hand and brain and the consequent loss in individual service, as well as the degeneracy and insanity that follow its excessive use. A people who have been deprived of alcohol by a benevolent government will undoubtedly be a saner and healthier people, but they will neither be as intelligent nor as efficient nor as developed as that people which ultimately arrives at the knowledge as to why alcohol is harmful and paralyzing to efficiency, and which voluntarily deprives itself of it. Here is the principle of democracy in a nutshell. A public opinion is gradually created by an educative process, and laws follow it as a matter of course. On the other hand, "prohibition" that has not an educated public opinion behind it is a laughing-stock, as the experience of some of our states in New England and elsewhere has proved.

There is a new spirit in the universities, a healthier and sounder public opinion than existed at the end of the nineteenth century; a new interest in and knowledge of government and enthusiasm for democracy, with a desire to share its tasks and responsibilities. The response to the call of the training-camps at Plattsburg and elsewhere is an encouraging indication of it.

Peculiarly significant, however, is the birth of this new spirit among employers of labor—an indication that emulation may replace competition. There is no need to be cynical on this score, to insist that the men who control great corporations and combinations of capital have been frightened out of many practices in which they hitherto have indulged. There can be no question that the public attitude toward these practices has changed, and it would be stupid and un-American to maintain that this opinion has not permeated the element that employs labor, and made them more American also. This emulative spirit, this indication of the dawning of enlightened self-interest, this willingness to put a shoulder to the wheel, is at present more marked among employers of the large corporations. But it will spread, and is spreading. Even as we have to-day in the medical profession an association, an emulative body of medical opinion purifying that profession of quackery and fraud and strictly commercial practice, even as we have among the lawyers bar associations, so we shall have among business men and employers a growing element that sets its face against practices hitherto indulged in, making these practices more and more difficult of accomplishment by the remnant. When employers of their own initiative take steps to insure the safety and health of their employees, and at their own risk make experiments that tend toward the ultimate establishment of industrial democracy, toward giving the working man a share and interest in the industry, labor must respond. Little by little individual animosities are broken down and class animosity is weakened. It makes no difference if these experiments with a view to industrial democracy do not meet the demands of extremists; it makes no difference whether motives are mixed if the good be predominant. If the spirit is there, we may trust to its working. Our watchwords must be patience and faith, faith that our great problem of industrial democracy will one day be solved by the same principle of equality of opportunity, by the same trust in man that solved for us the problem of political democracy.

A nation saturated with the conviction that all should have an equal chance, imbued with this volunteer, emulative spirit instilled by education and growing out of experience, cannot ultimately go wrong. Let us therefore make our individual contributions, and be assured that it is better to give than to receive.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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