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JULY, 1868.


The People the Sovereigns. By JAMES MONROE, ex-President of the United States. Edited by SAMUEL L. GOVERNEUR. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1867.

The old Virginian school of statesmen, of whom President Monroe was the last and least, was marked by a distinct theoretic impulse, and in this respect differs from the general character of American statesmanship. The force of this impulse is shown, perhaps, by nothing more strongly than by its enforcing upon such a man a kind of necessity to assume a theoretic interest; for few writers have attempted a speculative labor with less of speculative ability. Mr. Monroe desires, but utterly fails, to discuss the principles of politics; he can do little more than mention one after another the chief features of the American system, and say of each, This "must" be so. In fact, the whole of the book is in the title: when the writer has declared the people sovereign, he has expressed all which he has thought. Instead, therefore, of attempting a criticism in detail of a work commended to attention by little but its subject and the name of its author, I propose to take a hint only from its title, and to show that an attribution of sovereignty to the people may be interpreted in two different ways, the one of which consists with republicanism proper, while the other leads only to a composite autocracy.


Aristotle made a classification of governments according to their diversities of form, - considering these, however, in connection with that diversity of spirit, which formal difference could not fail to imply; and, since his time, it has scarcely been supposed by most persons, that a valid distinction could be made upon any other principle. But states may also be classified, and perhaps quite as much to purpose, according to the notion they embody of the nature of political power. Of such notions there are two, radically opposed. By the one, government exists by virtue of an absolute right of rule, belonging as a private property to some man or men, to one or many or all; by the other, government is strictly a means to an end, and political function, therefore, legitimate only as it subserves that end. The former begins with prerogatives, and makes all results contingent upon their exercise; the latter begins with the purpose to effect a certain substantial good, and makes all powers and agencies contingent.

The notion of an absolute right of rule was upheld in their time by such men as Filmer in England, and Bossuet in France. These theorists did, indeed, maintain that such right appertains to but one man in a nation. In their eyes, this was an inseparable part of the doctrine. Nevertheless, the doctrine contains two wholly distinct propositions: first, all sovereignty, in whomsoever rightfully lodged, is held by an unconditional title, which neither the best use of it can strengthen, nor the worst use annul; secondly, such power belongs only to exceptional individuals, here Charles, there Louis. The former proposition would state the generic character of the sovereignty; the latter, its numerical form. There is one distinction between a horse and an ox, and quite another between one horse and two or ten thousand. So political sovereignty has its genus, accordingly as in title it is immediate or mediate, absolute or contingent, a proprietary right or an official trust; and it has also its subordinate distinction, accordingly as it is singular or plural, simple or composite.

The question of sole or associate rule is one whose im

portance I neither conceal from myself, nor would conceal from others. The character of a government will be determined in a grave degree by the concentration or diffusion of the sovereignty; and that government, in my opinion, will be securest and most serviceable in the long-run, wherein all take part who can do so with intelligence and good purpose; while it will be a happiness if these are much the larger number. I do indeed make this statement with some reservations. There are national characteristics, not inconsistent with a high degree of civilization, which, it seems to me, do not consist with popular forms of government. Among an impatient, precipitous people, who, when they do any thing, must needs do it tearingly, I question if such modes of government could ever have more than a transient success. But given a people strongly attached, without being enslaved, to form and precedent, – that is, rich in the conservative instinct which preserves continuity, while also it is well endowed with that sense of justice, and that indefatigable, slow-sure energy, which shall make renovation incessant, —and for them, when they have had the requisite traditional schooling, I think a government highly popular in form the best.

But, however important the distinction between governments based upon the relative concentration or diffusion of the sovereignty, it does not furnish the sole, nor perhaps the most important, principle of classification. Sovereignty, we remark, whether of one or many, may be held by a "jural claim, which the jurists call suum," as Grotius has it; or it may be held only as a functional trust, for the general good, and upon evidence of ability and disposition to promote this good. In the former case, the mere will and pleasure of the possessor has a supposed right to express itself as authoritative, and to make general obligation; in the latter case, obligation goes before function, creates it, and remains its master, and the possessor of power convenants, by the act of assuming his office, the subordination of his private will and pleasure to an intent comprehending the welfare of all. There, the use made of power cannot reflect upon its title and tenure, whether to confirm or to invalidate; here, the usefulness alone makes the title. In the one case, we begin with powers not to be questioned, and thence proceed to problematical effects of their exercise; in the other, we begin with a good to be attained, and duty to be performed, thence descending to the question of fit agents.

In all action, there is, first, the absolute peremptory Beginning, or datum; next, the Search or Inquiry. We first determine what, and then ask how. Suppose we begin by saying, “ This man, Charles, shall rule;” or, “ All men shall vote:" the question now is, What effects will follow? The effect depends. It is as if one began by saying, “I will build a slip:" this being placed above question, the inquiry follows whether he is to be the richer or the poorer for so doing. Suppose, on the contrary, we set out by saying, “ Good government shall be attained : " now the question is, What means shall be taken, who be endowed with ruling force, in order that good government may be attained ? Here it is as if one said, “I will endeavor to increase my estate ;" thence proceeding to inquire whether he will build a ship, or how else he may better employ his capital in order to increase his estate. Will any one tell me that the difference between these opposite modes of procedure is merely a difference to the speculative eye, and practically unimportant ? He may tell me so many times before I shall believe him.

Conceive of a government which, by design, is all and only a rationally devised means to an end intrinsically good. Let the logic of this fundamental conception penetrate the entire structure, creating, assigning powers, and making the spirit in which they are held. We may then suppose the possessor to say: “ This power which I hold is not mine as property, but only in my hands as a public trust. It signifies, not what I own, but what I owe, being no more than the conduit, through which may pass discriminations and choices that are of virtue to nourish the common weal. If useful, it is where it should be; and only if useful is it where it should be. Only as I shall prove equal, by quality of mind and purpose, to the intents for which such powers are designed, am I, in holding them, other than a pretender and usurper."

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