Thoughts on Democracy
Courtesy of a reader:
Democracy, the Radical Lieutenant’s Oracle:
[Diary Entry] June 28, 1864
“Here I found my first expert on American politics, Lieutenant C. He is not only a Republican, he is a Radical, and we have already crossed swords several times. Like all Americans, he pushes adulation of his country well beyond the limits of politeness and acceptability. Democracy is his oracle, his god, and he will never agree that it may not be the same thing as liberty.
If I reply that even the will of the people should have its limits, and that if it exercises in America the absolute reign that he talks about, it is more likely to pave the way to tyranny than to preserve liberty, he answers brusquely that I am French, that I don’t understand anything about freedom and that I have no right to judge his country. “Europeans,” he told me, “are born slaves. They always have been and they always will be. Only America knows what freedom is.”
“Oh,” I replied, “get off your high horse. There are many dark spots on your wonderful picture of American freedom.” Thereupon I ticked off for him the suspension of habeas corpus, the violation of the freedom of the press, the transfer of jurisdiction over many cases from civil to military courts, secret arrests, arbitrary imprisonments and all the other abuses of power that are the sad accompaniments of the Civil War. I asked him if that was what he called freedom.
“It is freedom if we have willed it. Mr. Seward boasts that he needs only ring his little bell to have absolutely anyone put in prison. That is true, but behind him are the American people who direct him. Let him strike down the rebels and traitors…We want martial law, do you understand? We want it, and that’s why we are still free.”
“[I replied] Revolutionary power is a seed of dictatorship. Watch out that the seed doesn’t take root. You refuse to see the danger; the freedom of your neighbor means little to you! This is the way to lose your own freedom and to rush headlong into despotism one of these days. [L]et’s get to the bottom of it. I know your theories. We practiced them under the [French revolutionary] National Convention. You think you’ve discovered a new idea, but all you do is recite the sophistries of the Committee of Public Safety.”
Are these not strange opinions in the mouth of an American, notions that would fit better with the outlook of a European Jacobin or a Massachusetts Whig? We think the Americans are madly in love with their individual freedom, yet there is a school of thought which springs up to repudiate it in the name of public safety, which views freedom as submission to the multitude. Love of freedom, like all human passions, falls asleep when it is not contested.”
(A Frenchman in Lincoln’s America, Ernst D. de Hauranne, Donnelly & Sons, 1974, Volume I, pp. 67-70)