The Problematic Triad of Democracy, Liberty, and Nationalism
While John L. O’Sullivan and the loco‐Young Americans naively ignored tensions, they preached the unity of liberty, democracy, and American nationalism.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
John L. O’Sullivan founded the United States Magazine & Democratic Review in 1837 and issued his first volume in October of the same year. His mission–the purpose of the Review–was to proclaim and promote the genius of American culture and institutions. As such, O’Sullivan stocked his pages with robust and energetic defenses of democracy, republicanism, liberty, and the “manifest destiny” of free institutions and spontaneous order throughout human history. The bulk of the Democratic Review, however, was generally devoted to the advancement of American national culture. O’Sullivan patronized and sponsored the careers of literary luminaries from Knickerbockers like William Cullen Bryant and John Greenleaf Whittier to Young Americans like Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In the introduction to the first number, O’Sullivan unabashedly and directly declared his principles before the reading public. His vision of a democratic republic depended upon the virtue of the voting public as well as their elected officials and institutional arrangements. He argued for the critical role of local knowledge and the necessity that the majority temper its treatment of minorities with strict regard for universal, equal human rights. “The Voluntary Principle,” O’Sullivan declared, was the singular, central, and guiding force of all democratic, republican theory. More than simply expressing their preference for one particular form of government, by embracing democracy and republicanism, Americans quite literally embraced the laws of Nature. In the Old World, the vast majority of human beings remained shackled to the earth with the chains of feudalism and slavery, but in the United States free men and women everywhere lifted their eager heads to dizzying heights of peace and prosperity. O’Sullivan pushed his argument further, declaring democracy and republicanism the “manifest destinies” inevitably awaiting all human societies as part of their natural historical developments. O’Sullivan and the early Review, therefore, propounded thoroughly and radically classical liberal theories of history, politics, and social development mixed with a novel, uniquely American form of nationalist mythology guiding his application of theory. With this introduction, O’Sullivan charted an important new course for American politics and culture; though, in ways modern readers can no doubt divine, his ideas in turn provided ad hoc and post hoc justifications for imperial conquest and the decidedly anti‐liberal modern Leviathan state.
By John L. O’Sullivan. U.S. Magazine & Democratic Review, Vol. I, No. I (1837).
Introduction: The Democratic Principle, the Importance of Its Assertion, and Application to Our Political System and Literature
So many false ideas have insensibly attached themselves to the term democracy, as connected with our party politics, that we deem it necessary here, at the outset, to make a full and free profession of the cardinal principles of political faith on which we take our stand; principles to which we are devoted with an unwavering force of conviction and earnestness of enthusiasm which, ever since they were first presented to our minds, have constantly grown and strengthened by contemplation of them, and of the incalculable capabilities of social improvement of which they contain the germs.
We believe, then, in the principle of democratic republicanism, in its strongest and purest sense. We have an abiding confidence in the virtue, intelligence, and full capacity for self‐government, of the great mass of our people–our industrious, honest, manly, intelligent millions of freemen.
We are opposed to all self‐styled wholesome restraints on the free action of the popular opinion and will, other than those which have for their sole object the prevention of precipitate legislation. This latter object is to be attained by the expedient of the division of power, and by causing all legislation to pass through the ordeal of successive forms; to be sifted through the discussions of co‐ordinate legislative branches, with mutual suspensive veto powers. Yet all should be dependant with equal directness and promptness on the influence of public opinion; the popular will should be equally the animating and moving spirit of them all, and ought never to find in any of its own creatures a self‐imposed power, capable (when misused either by corrupt ambition or honest error) of resisting itself, and defeating its own determined object…
Though we go for the republican principle of the supremacy of the will of the majority, we acknowledge, in general, a strong sympathy with minorities, and consider that their rights have a high moral claim on the respect and justice of majorities; a claim not always fairly recognised in practice by the latter, in the full sway of power, when flushed with triumph, and impelled by strong interests. This has ever been the point of the democratic cause most open to assault, and most difficult to defend. This difficulty does not arise from any intrinsic weakness. The democratic theory is perfect and harmonious in all its parts; and if this point is not so self‐evidently clear as the rest is generally, in all candid discussion, conceded to be, it is because of certain false principles of government, which have, in all practical experiments of the theory, been interwoven with the democratic portions of the system, being borrowed from the example of anti‐democratic systems of government. We shall always be willing to meet this question frankly and fairly. The great argument against pure democracy, drawn from this source, is this:
Though the main object with reference to which all social institutions ought to be modelled is undeniably, as stated by the democrat, the greatest good of the greatest number, yet it by no means follows that the greatest number always rightly understands its own greatest good…Majorities are often as liable to error of opinion, and not always free from a similar proneness to selfish abuse of power, as minorities; and a vast amount of injustice may often be perpetrated, and consequent general social injury be done, before the evil reaches that extreme at which it rights itself by revolution, moral or physical.
We have here, we believe, correctly stated the anti‐democratic side of the argument on this point. It is not to be denied that it possesses something more than plausibility. It has certainly been, the instrument of more injury to the cause of the democratic principle than all the bayonets and cannon that have ever been arrayed in support of it against that principle. The inference from it is, that the popular opinion and will must not be trusted with the supreme and absolute direction of the general interests; that it must be subjected to the conservative checks of minority interests, and to the regulation of the more enlightened wisdom of the better classes, and those to whom the possession of a property test of merit gives what they term a stake in the community. And here we find ourselves in the face of the great stronghold of the anti‐democratic, or aristocratic, principle…
In the first place, the greatest number are more likely, at least, as a general rule, to understand and follow their own greatest good, than is the minority.
In the second, a minority is much more likely to abuse power for the promotion of its own selfish interests, at the expense of the majority of numbers–the substantial and producing mass of the nation–than the latter is to oppress unjustly the former. The social evil is also, in that case, proportionately greater. This is abundantly proved by the history of all aristocratic interests that have existed, in various degrees and modifications, in the world. A majority cannot subsist upon a minority; while the natural, and in fact uniform, tendency of a minority entrusted with governmental authority is, to surround itself with wealth, splendor, and power, at the expense of the producing mass, creating and perpetuating those artificial social distinctions which violate the natural equality of rights of the human race, and at the same time offend and degrade the true dignity of human nature.
In the third place, there does not naturally exist any such original superiority of a minority class above the great mass of a community, in intelligence and competence for the duties of government–even putting out of view its constant tendency to abuse from selfish motives, and the safer honesty of the mass. The general diffusion of education; the facility of access to every species of knowledge important to the great interests of the community; the freedom of the Press, whose very licentiousness cannot materially impair its permanent value, in this country at least, make the pretensions of those self‐styled better classes to the sole possession of the requisite intelligence for the management of public affairs, too absurd to be entitled to any other treatment than an honest, manly contempt. As far as superior knowledge and talent confer on their possessor a natural charter of privilege to control his associates, and exert an influence on the direction of the general affairs of the community, the free and natural action of that privilege is best secured by a perfectly free democratic system, which will abolish all artificial distinctions, and, preventing the accumulation of any social obstacles to advancement, will pen it the free development of every germ of talent, wherever it may chance to exist, whether on the proud mountain summit, in the humble valley, or by the wayside of common life…
It is under the word government, that the subtle danger lurks. Understood as a central consolidated power, managing and directing the various general interests of the society, all government is evil, and the parent of evil. A strong and active democratic government, in the common sense of the term, is an evil, differing only in degree and mode of operation, and not in nature, from a strong despotism. This difference is certainly vast, yet, inasmuch as these strong governmental powers must be wielded by human agents, even as the powers of the despotism, it is, after all, only a difference in degree; and the tendency to demoralization and tyranny is the same, though the development of the evil results is much more gradual and slow in the one case than in the other. Hence the demagogue–hence the faction–hence the mob–hence the violence, licentiousness, and instability–hence the ambitious struggles of parties and their leaders for power–hence the abuses of that power by majorities and their leaders–hence the indirect oppressions of the general by partial interests–hence (fearful symptom) the demoralization of the great men of the nation, and of the nation itself, proceeding (unless checked in time by the more healthy and patriotic portion of the mind of the nation rallying itself to reform the principles and sources of the evil) gradually to that point of maturity at which relief from the tumult of moral and physical confusion is to be found only under the shelter of an energetic armed despotism.
The best government is that which governs least. No human depositories can, with safety, be trusted with the power of legislation upon the general interests of society so as to operate directly or indirectly on the industry and property of the community. Such power must be perpetually liable to the most pernicious abuse, from the natural imperfection, both in wisdom of judgment and purity of purpose, of all human legislation, exposed constantly to the pressure of partial interests; interests which, at the same time that they are essentially selfish and tyrannical, are ever vigilant, persevering, and subtle in all the arts of deception and corruption. In fact, the whole history of human society and government may be safely appealed to, in evidence that the abuse of such power a thousand fold more than overbalances its beneficial use. Legislation has been the fruitful parent of nine‐tenths of all the evil, moral and physical, by which mankind has been afflicted since the creation of the world, and by which human nature has been self‐degraded, fettered, and oppressed. Government should have as little as possible to do with the general business and interests of the people. If it once undertake these functions as its rightful province of action, it is impossible to say to it thus far shalt thou go, and no farther. It will be impossible to confine it to the public interests of the commonwealth. It will be perpetually tampering with private interests, and sending forth seeds of corruption which will result in the demoralization of the society. Its domestication should be confined to the administration of justice, for the protection of the natural equal rights of the citizen, and the preservation of social order. In all other respects, the VOLUNTARY PRINCIPLE, the principle of FREEDOM, suggested to us by the analogy of the divine government of the Creator, and already recognised by us with perfect success in the great social interest of Religion, affords the true golden rule which is alone abundantly competent to work out the best possible general result of order and happiness from that chaos of characters, ideas, motives, and interests–human society. Afford but the single nucleus of a system of administration of justice between man and man, and, under the sure operation of this principle, the floating atoms will distribute and combine themselves, as we see in the beautiful natural process of crystallization, into a far more perfect and harmonious result than if government, with its fostering hand, undertake to disturb, under the plea of directing, the process. The natural laws which will establish themselves and find their own level are the best laws. The same hand was the Author of the moral, as of the physical world; and we feel clear and strong in the assurance that we cannot err in trusting, in the former, to the same fundamental principles of spontaneous action and self‐regulation which produce the beautiful order of the latter.
This is then, we consider, the true theory of government, the one simple result towards which the political science of the world is gradually tending, after all the long and varied experience by which it will have dearly earned the great secret–the elixir of political life. This is the fundamental principle of the philosophy of democracy, to furnish a system of administration of justice, and then leave the business and interests of society to themselves, to free competition and association–in a word, to the VOLUNTARY PRINCIPLE…
This principle, therefore, constitutes our point of departure. It has never yet received any other than a very partial and imperfect application to practice among men, all human society having been hitherto perpetually chained down to the ground by myriads of Lilliputian fetters of artificial government and prescription. Nor are we yet prepared for its full adoption in this country–Far, very far indeed, from it; yet is our gradual tendency toward it clear and sure. How many generations, may yet be required before our theory and practice of government shall he sifted and analysed, down to the lowest point of simplicity consistent with the preservation of some degree of national organization, no one can presume to prophecy. But that we are on the path toward that great result, to which mankind is to be guided down the long vista of future years by the democratic principle,–walking hand in hand with the sister spirit of Christianity,–we feel a faith as implicit as that with which we believe in any other great moral truth…
We are not afraid of that much dreaded phrase, “untried experiment,” which looms so fearfully before the eyes of some of our most worthy and valued friends. The whole history of the progress hitherto made by humanity, in every respect of social amelioration, records but a series of experiments. The American revolution was the greatest of experiments, and one of which it is not easy at this day to appreciate the gigantic boldness. Every step in the onward march of improvement by the human race is an experiment; and the present is most emphatically an age of experiments. The eye of man looks naturally forward; and as he is carried onward by the progress of time and truth, he is far more likely to stumble and stray if he turn his face backward, and keep his looks fixed on the thoughts and things of the past. We feel safe under the banner of the democratic principle, which is borne onward by an unseen hand of Providence, to lead our race toward the high destinies of which every human soul contains the God‐implanted germ; and of the advent of which–certain, however distant–a dim prophetic presentiment has existed, in one form or another, among all nations in all ages. We are willing to make every reform in our institutions that may be commanded by the test of the democratic principle–to democratize them–but only so rapidly as shall appear, to the most cautious wisdom, consistent with a due regard to the existing development of public opinion anti to the permanence of the progress made. Every instance in which the action of government can be simplified, and one of the hundred giant arms curtailed, with which it now stretches around its fatal protecting grasp over almost all the various interests of society, to substitute the truly healthful action of the free voluntary principle–every instance in which the operation of the public opinion and will, fairly signified, can be brought to bear more directly upon the action of delegated powers–we would regard as so much gained for the true interest of the society and of mankind at large…
For Democracy is the cause of Humanity. It has faith in human nature. It believes in its essential equality and fundamental goodness. It respects, with a solemn reverence to which the proudest artificial institutions and distinctions of society have no claim, the human soul. It is the cause of philanthropy. Its object is to emancipate the mind of the mass of men from the degrading and disheartening fetters of social distinctions and advantages; to bid it walk abroad through the free creation in its own majesty; to war against all fraud, oppression, and violence; by striking at their root., to reform all the infinitely varied human misery which has grown out of the old and false ideas by which the world has been so long misgoverned; to dismiss the hireling soldier; to spike the cannon, and bury the bayonet; to burn the gibbet, and open the debtors dungeon; to substitute harmony and mutual respect for the jealousies and discord now subsisting between different classes of society, as the consequence of their artificial classification. It is the cause of Christianity…It is, moreover, a cheerful creed, a creed of high hope and universal love, noble and ennobling; while all others, which imply a distrust of mankind, and of the natural moral principles infused into it by its Creator, for its own self‐development and self‐regulation, are as gloomy and selfish, in the tone of moral sentiment which pervades them, as they are degrading in their practical tendency, and absurd in theory, when examined by the light of original principles.
But a more potent influence than any yet noticed, is that of our national literature. Or rather we have no national literature. We depend almost wholly on Europe, and particularly England, to think and write for us, or at least to furnish materials and models after which we shall mould our own humble attempts. We have a considerable number of writers; but not in that consists a national literature. The vital principle of an American national literature must be democracy. Our mind is enslaved to the past and present literature of England…There is an immense field open to us, if we would but enter it boldly and cultivate it as our own. All history has to be re‐written; political science and the whole scope of all moral truth have to be considered and illustrated in the light of the democratic principle. All old subjects of thought and all new questions arising, connected more or less directly with human existence, have to be taken up again and re‐examined in this point of view. We ought to exert a powerful moral influence on Europe, and yet we are entirely unfelt; and as it is only by its literature that one nation can utter itself and make itself known to the rest of the world, we are really entirely unknown. In the present general fermentation of popular ideas in Europe, turning the public thoughts naturally to the great democracy across the Atlantic, the voice of America might be made to produce a powerful and beneficial effect on the development of truth; but as it is, American writings are never translated, because they almost always prove to be a diluted and tardy second edition of English thought…
If the United States Magazine and Democratic Review shall be able, by the influence of example and the most liberal encouragement, to contribute in any degree towards the remedy of this evil, (as of the other evils in our institutions which may need reform,) by vindicating the true glory and greatness of the democratic principle, by infusing it into our literature, and by rallying the mind of the nation from the state of torpor and even of demoralization in which so large a proportion of it is sunk, one of the main objects of its establishment will have been achieved.
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Scholnick, Robert. “Extermination and Democracy: O’Sullivan, the Democratic Review, and Empire, 1837–1840,” American Periodicals 15, No. 2 (2005): 123–141.