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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Votes Of Non-Combatants

Title:     The Votes Of Non-Combatants
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

The tendency of modern society is not to concentrate power in the hands of the few, but to give a greater and greater share to the many. Read Froissart's Chronicles, and Scott's novels of chivalry, and you will see how thoroughly the difference between patrician and plebeian was then a difference of physical strength. The knight, being better nourished and better trained, was apt to be the bodily superior of the peasant, to begin with; and this strength was reinforced by armor, weapons, horse, castle, and all the resources of feudal warfare. With this greater strength went naturally the assumption of greater political power. To the heroes of "Ivanhoe," or "The Fair Maid of Perth," it would have seemed as absurd that yeomen and lackeys should have any share in the government, as it would seem to the members in an American legislature that women should have any such share. In a contest of mailed knights, any number of unarmed men were but so many women. As Sir Philip Sidney said, "The wolf asketh not how many the sheep may be."

But time and advancing civilization have tended steadily in one direction. "He giveth power to the weak, and to them who have no might He increaseth strength." Every step in the extension of political rights has consisted in opening them to a class hitherto humbler. From kings to nobles, from nobles to burghers, from burghers to yeomen; in short, from strong to weak, from high to low, from rich to poor. All this is but the unconscious following out of one sure principle,--that legislation is mainly for the protection of the weak against the strong, and that for this purpose the weak must be directly represented. The strong are already protected by their strength: it is the weak who need all the vantage-ground that votes and legislatures can give them. The feudal chiefs were stronger without laws than with them. "Take care of yourselves in Sutherland," was the anxious message of the old Highlander: "the law has come as far as Tain." It was the peaceful citizen who needed the guaranty of law against brute force.

But can laws be executed without brute force? Not without a certain amount of it, but that amount under civilization grows less and less. Just in proportion as the masses are enfranchised, statutes execute themselves without crossing bayonets. "In a republic," said De Tocqueville, "if laws are not always respectable, they are always respected." If every step in freedom has brought about a more peaceable state of society, why should that process stop at this precise point? Besides, there is no possibility in nature of a political division in which all the men shall be on one side and all the women on the other. The mutual influence of the sexes forbids it. The very persons who hint at such a fear refute themselves at other times, by arguing that "women will always be sufficiently represented by men," or that "every woman will vote as her husband thinks, and it will merely double the numbers." As a matter of fact, the law will prevail in all English-speaking nations: a few men fighting for it will be stronger than many fighting against it; and if those few have both the law and the women on their side, there will be no trouble.

The truth is that in this age _cedant arma togae:_ it is the civilian who rules on the throne or behind it, and who makes the fighting-men his mere agents. Yonder policeman at the corner looks big and formidable: he protects the women and overawes the boys. But away in some corner of the City Hill there is some quiet man, out of uniform, perhaps a consumptive or a dyspeptic or a cripple, who can overawe the burliest policeman by his authority as city marshal or as mayor. So an army is but a larger police; and its official head is that plain man at the White House, who makes or unmakes, not merely brevet-brigadiers, but major-generals in command,--who can by the stroke of the pen convert the most powerful man of the army into the most powerless. Take away the occupant of the position, and put in a woman, and will she become impotent because her name is Elizabeth or Maria Theresa? It is brains that more and more govern the world; and whether those brains be on the throne, or at the ballot-box, they will soon make the owner's sex a subordinate affair. If woman is also strong in the affections, so much the better. "Win the hearts of your subjects," said Lord Burleigh to Queen Elizabeth, "and you will have their hands and purses."

War is the last appeal, and happily in these days the rarest appeal, of statesmanship. In the multifarious other duties that make up statesmanship we cannot spare the brains, the self-devotion, and the enthusiasm of woman. One of the most important treaties of modern history, the peace of Cambray, in 1529, was negotiated, after previous attempts had failed, by two women,--Margaret, aunt of Charles V., and Louisa, mother of Francis I. Voltaire said that Christina of Sweden was the only sovereign of her time who maintained the dignity of the throne against Mazarin and Richelieu. Frederick the Great said that the Seven Years' War was waged against three women,--Elizabeth of Russia, Maria Theresa, and Mme. Pompadour. There is nothing impotent in the statesmanship of women when they are admitted to exercise it: they are only powerless for good when they are obliged to obtain by wheedling and flattery a sway that should be recognized, responsible, and limited.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Votes Of Non-Combatants