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1838

Big Government Debases Public Discourse: “Political Tolerance”

“The remedy for these vast and continually increasing evils cannot be doubted…It is to simplify government. It is to reduce it to its proper sphere…”

Editor’s Note

In 1838, the two great American political parties were the relatively young spawn of dueling efforts surrounding the Jackson campaign.  Jackson and his supporters felt robbed by Adams’s and Clay’s “Corrupt Bargain” in 1824.  Political machinists like Martin Van Buren saw the opportunity to construct new partisan establishments atop Jackson’s persona and cause.  By 1828, the Democratic Party was not exactly the creature we know today, but it was awfully close and the following decade was its formative period.  Jackson’s conservative and Hamiltonian opponents, however, constructed their own partisan apparatus for the specific purpose of unseating the Hero of New Orleans.  While undoubtedly generative, the culture surrounding the Second Party System was hardly genteel.  In the following document, John L. O’Sullivan pleaded with his readership for “Political Tolerance.”

O’Sullivan begins by observing the bewildering display of variety and difference proliferating throughout both the natural world and the mental composition of individuals.  Recognition of difference as a fact of nature implied “the duty of the widest tolerance of opinion,” and yet political institutions arrayed human beings in veritable battle lines against one another.  Through the prism of democratic politics, “men enter into conflict, armed…with invective,” and so long as such conditions persisted, O’Sullivan believed that society would remain fundamentally medieval.  His primary target, therefore, was the system of “special” or “partial” legislation that empowered the state and private sectors to mutually reinforce one another and manipulate the population into fighting amongst themselves with their (purely symbolic) ballots.  Politics thus became a game for partisan and corporate spoils rather than an honest servant of the people.  Society appeared rotted from the head down, but O’Sullivan determined on revitalizing liberty-loving spirits and public ethics both.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

“Political Tolerance,” US Magazine & Democratic Review 3 No. 9 (Sept. 1838). (Excerpts).

By John L. O’Sullivan

The infinite variety of nature furnishes an unfailing source of admiration to all who contemplate her works. The boundless affluence of creative wisdom, is signally and beautifully illustrated in this interminable diversity…Her excelling hand fashions no two objects alike. Not only does kind differ from kind, and species from species, but one individual differs from another…

Mind differs from mind, not less than feature from feature. In tastes, habits, modes of thinking, and degrees of intelligence; in memory, imagination, and the power of comparison and inference; and in every separate faculty of intellect, each human being is marked by qualities exclusively his own. Boundless as is the field of knowledge and speculation, there is perhaps scarcely a subject that employs the thoughts of men, on which the opinions of any two wholly coincide. They worship at the same altar from similarity, not identity of creed: they support the same system of government, not because it fully accords with the political theory of either, but approaches more nearly than the counter systems which the others maintain; and they draw their swords in the same cause, influenced by general correspondence of motive, not by precisely coincident views of national honor and right.

A consideration of this inevitable and all pervading difference in the constitution of intellect would seem sufficient, in itself, to teach mankind the duty of the widest tolerance of opinion. Yet, strange anomaly! difference of opinion has ever been regarded as an occasion for the most vehement persecution. For this, martyrs innumerable have been immolated at the stake, and the whole earth has been incarnadined with the blood of human victims…There are still left, in the hands of intolerance, other weapons of coercion, by the free use of which she strives, though with efforts of comparative impotence, to retard the march of truth. Abuse is now substituted in place of force. Opprobrious terms and epithets of derision are the racks and pincers of the modern question. On the gravest subjects which affect the happiness of their kind, men enter into conflict, armed, not with arguments, but with invective. They address themselves not to reason and justice, but to passion and prejudice. They impugn the motives of their antagonists, instead of combatting their opinions; and exercise all the arts of a perverted logic to heap ridicule and contempt on their persons and characters, instead of temperately demonstrating, by the irrefragable methods of dialectic proof, the unsoundness of their positions, and the inherent badness of their cause.

This modified form in which the spirit of the dark ages still lingers among men displays itself nowhere so grossly as in the field of political discussion. The controversialists here…assail each other with the rancor of mortal hostility, rather than the generous rivalry of champions alike zealous in the cause of truth. They contend as if their aim were to exterminate, not to convince; as if obloquy were a more powerful weapon than reason, and to defame an opponent a prouder achievement, than to refute the errors of his creed. In this respect, political controversy is behind the improved temper of the age…No longer do arrogant synods proclaim arbitrary standards of faith, to which men must conform their worship on pain of anathemas and persecution. No longer need the astronomer fear, while directing his tube to the stars, that the discoveries he may make will subject him to derision and reproach. No Galileo is now summoned before an inquisitorial tribunal to recant his sublime theory of the mechanism of the heavens; and no Bacon is maligned with the imputation of a league with the powers of darkness for the fruits he derives from a patient investigation of the mysteries of nature.

Happily for mankind, in religion and science, a wide and continually extending spirit of tolerance prevails. Their votaries seem at last to have discovered that the utmost liberty of inquiry furnishes the surest means for the ascertainment of truth, the only object worthy of pursuit; that all truth is single, and consistent with itself; and that it is its grand and peculiar characteristic ever to come forth from the alembic of discussion unchanged, and purified from the adulterations of error, with which passion and ignorance may have blended it…

Politics are a branch of morals. All the duties of life are embraced under the three heads of religion, politics, and private ethics. The object of religion is the regulation of human conduct with reference to happiness in a future state of being. The object of politics is to regulate conduct with reference to happiness in communities. The object of private ethics is to regulate conduct with reference to individual happiness. Happiness, then, is the single aim of these three great and comprehensive branches of duty; and it may be questioned whether the obligations imposed by either can be fully performed by him who neglects those which the others enjoin. If we believe in the divinity of that precept which teaches us to love our neighbour as ourselves, in what mode can we more effectually show its authority over our minds, than by taking a firm and temperate part in political affairs? The right ordering of a State directly promotes the welfare of multitudes of human beings; and it is therefore not only the private interest, but the christian duty, of every individual of those multitudes, strenuously to exert his just influence in accomplishing so important a result…

They who call themselves politicians, not having this as their cardinal object, are not politicians, but demagogues; and, on the contrary, they only deserve the name, no matter what the anomalies and contradictions of their several creeds, who are truly governed by this high and generous purpose. That mind should differ from mind, in its estimate of the relative adequacy of opposite systems of politics to accomplish the same result, is a necessary consequence of the infinite variety which is displayed in the constitution of intellect. But that they should differ from each other in the end proposed, can only be accounted for, not by inherent diversity of understanding, but by depravity of heart. To which of these causes must be ascribed the wild intemperance and asperity which distinguish our political controversies?…

There are none so ignorant as not to know, that our party strifes are conducted with intemperance wholly unsuited to the conflicts of reason, and decided, in a great measure, not by the preponderance of honest opinion, but by the influence of the worst motives, operating on the worst class of people…By the worst class of people, in our sense of the expression, all those are included—whether sons of idleness or of toil, whether rolling in affluence or pinched with want, whether dressed in furred gowns or in tatters who enter into the strife of party without paramount regard to the inherent dignity and true end of politics; without due reference to the interests of their country and of mankind; without singly and solely aiming to advance the greatest happiness of society; but actuated by private and unworthy motives; by personal preferences and dislikes; by lust of office, or the hope of achieving, directly or indirectly, some sinister object through the means of party predominance. These are, indeed, the lower orders, if we measure things by the sound standard of the moral scale. These are the dregs of society, often, it is true, cast to the surface by the agitation of the political elements, but infallibly doomed to sink to the bottom when the fierce ebullition of passion, ignorance, and selfishness shall subside.

It is from the undue influences of causes such as these, that elections come to be regarded by many as a mere game of mingled hazard and calculation, on the issue of which depends, as matters of absorbing importance, the division of party spoils, the distribution of chartered privileges, and the allotment, in various forms, of distinctions and pecuniary rewards. The antagonist principles of government, which should constitute the sole ground of controversy, are lost sight of in the eagerness of sordid motives, or only viewed as supplying an opportunity for inflammatory invective; and the struggle, which should be one of reason and opinion, with no aim less noble than the achievement of political truth, and the promotion thereby of the greatest good of the greatest number, sinks into a wretched brawl, in which passion, avarice, and profligacy, act the chief parts on the desecrated scene…

Whence, let us inquire, chiefly arises the harsh and vindictive tone of our party disputations? Do we place ourselves in the opposition of mortal foes…because our theoretic views of the best means of promoting national welfare do not entirely coincide? Or is this rancor aggravated by causes not necessarily connected with politics…Is not the fierce and intolerant temper of our political controversy largely owing to the fact, that government, instead of being conducted exclusively for the protection of the equal rights, and promotion of the general happiness of the community, has been extended to embrace the control of a thousand objects, which might safely, and with far greater advantage, be left to the regulation of social morals, and to the unrestrained efforts of individual enterprise and competition. Are our elections, in truth, the means of deciding mere questions of government, or does not upon them depend, to a much greater extent than the cardinal principles of politics, the decision of numerous questions affecting private and peculiar interests, schemes of selfishness, rapacity, and fraud, and artful projects of men who, under illusory pretexts of seeking to advance the public good, aim only to make the many tributary to the few?…

The true end of government is the equal protection of its citizens in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, leaving them to think, speak, and act, in whatever way their ideas of happiness may suggest, with no limit to unbounded freedom, save that which restrains them from mutual injury. But widely have we departed, in practice, from this principle of our political faith. We have fallen into the besetting sin of mankind of governing too much. We have undertaken to regulate, by political interference, the pursuits of industry and improvement; we have connected government with the speculations of trade; we have imposed burdens on the whole people in order to afford peculiar advantages to certain branches of traffic; and worse than all, we have endowed with exclusive privileges, and hedged and guarded round with all the cunning devices of the law, an order of chartered money-changers, whose aggregate power is so tremendous, that it is yet an unsolved problem of fearful interest, whether, in the great struggle now waging, that or the democratic principle will finally prevail. This is the mode in which we have complicated the functions of government; and hence the maddening elements which give such violence and acrimony to party strife. We have perverted legislation from its high and holy office of equal protection, and debased it into an almoner of special advantages and immunities to a few. We have made our elections a contest for these favors—a vile scramble for crumbs cast from the tables of those whom we have lifted on our own shoulders into place…

Can any truth in morals be more self-evident than the pernicious influence of special legislation? It degrades politics from its dignity as the most important branch of morals, to a system of trickery, artifice, and corruption. It changes the generous and ennobling rivalry of men for such improvements in government as should most effectually promote the happiness of their kind, into a low strife for doles and rewards, obtained by trampling on the equal rights of the people. It quenches the sentiment of patriotism; excites a feverish thirst for sudden wealth; provokes a spirit of wild and dishonest speculation; allures industry from its accustomed field of useful occupation; pampers the harmful appetites of luxury, and introduces intemperance and profligacy in a thousand hateful forms.

The remedy for these vast and continually increasing evils cannot be doubted, if the cause has been correctly assigned. It is to simplify government. It is to reduce it to its proper sphere…

Twenty thousand churches are scattered over our land, and the number of their communicants probably exceeds two millions. Here then we see the happy fruits of applying to religion the principles of freedom; and what ground is there to doubt that equally happy would be the result of applying the same principles to trade? Why should trade, any more than religion, have its hierarchs, holding their powers from a political source? And why should tithes be imposed on the people, for the support of commercial, any more than ecclesiastical high priests and pontiffs?

It is no answer to these questions to call those who propose them agrarians, levellers, and visionaries. Abuse is not argument; and though it may retard, it cannot arrest, the progress of sound opinion. Well for mankind that this is so; since it has ever been the doom of reason to be assailed with scoff and clamor by ignorance and prejudice…They who, in this age of the world…would attempt to obstruct the course of free, calm, fearless discussion by derisive epithets and paltry catch-words for folly to play upon, if they had lived three centuries ago, would have been incited by the same temper…to break their opponents on the wheel or burn them at the stake. Intolerance shows itself in many guises; but all impatience of the free, dispassionate exercise of reason—all hindrances to the utmost liberty of inquiry, whether consisting in physical resistance, or in the terrors of denunciation, and the arts of ridicule, are but various forms in which that bad spirit manifests itself. Discussion is the great means of eliciting truth. Truth is an ethereal light kindled by the attrition of opposite opinions. They who would quench it, if through fear of its effects, are despicable, if through any other motive, they are base.