Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Thomas Wentworth Higginson > Text of Good Of The Governed

An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Good Of The Governed

Title:     The Good Of The Governed
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

In Paris, some years ago, I was for a time a resident in a cultivated French family, where the father was non-committal in politics, the mother and son were republicans, and the daughter was a Bonapartist. Asking the mother why the young lady thus held to a different creed from the rest, I was told that she had made up her mind that the streets of Paris were kept cleaner under the empire than since its disappearance: hence her imperialism.

I have heard American men advocate the French empire at home and abroad, without offering reasons so good as those of the lively French maiden. But I always think of her remark when the question is seriously asked, as Mr. Parkman, for instance, once gravely put it in "The North American Review,"--"The real issue is this: Is the object of government the good of the governed, or is it not?" Taken in a general sense, there is probably no disposition to discuss this conundrum, for the simple reason that nobody dissents from it. But the important point is: What does "the good of the governed" mean? Does it merely mean better street cleaning, or something more essential?

There is nothing new in the distinction. Ever since De Tocqueville wrote his "Democracy in America," forty years ago, this precise point has been under active discussion. That acute writer himself recurs to it again and again. Every government, he points out, nominally seeks the good of the people, and rests on their will at last. But there is this difference: A monarchy organizes better, does its work better, cleans the streets better. Nevertheless De Tocqueville, a monarchist, sees this advantage in a republic, that when all this is done by the people for themselves, although the work done may be less perfect, yet the people themselves are more enlightened, better satisfied, and, in the end, their good is better served. Thus in one place he quotes "a writer of talent" who complains of the want of administrative perfection in the United States, and says, "We are indebted to centralization, that admirable invention of a great man, for the uniform order and method which prevails alike in all the municipal budgets (of France) from the largest town to the humblest commune." But, says De Tocqueville,--

"Whatever may be my admiration of this result, when I see the communes (municipalities) of France, with their excellent system of accounts, plunged in the grossest ignorance of their true interests, and abandoned to so incorrigible an apathy that they seem to vegetate rather than to live; when, on the other hand, I observe the activity, the information, and the spirit of enterprise which keeps society in perpetual labor, in these American townships, whose budgets are drawn up with small method and with still less uniformity,--I am struck by the spectacle; _for, to my mind, the end of a good government is to insure the welfare of a people_, and not to establish order and regularity in the midst of its misery and its distress."[1]

The italics are my own; but it will be seen that he uses a phrase almost identical with Mr. Parkman's, and that he uses it to show that there is something to be looked at beyond good laws,--namely, the beneficial effect of self-government. In another place he comes back to the subject again:--

"It is incontestable that the people frequently conducts public business very ill; but it is impossible that the lower order should take a part in public business without extending the circle of their ideas, and without quitting the ordinary routine of their mental acquirements; the humblest individual who is called upon to cooperate in the government of society acquires a certain degree of self-respect; and, as he possesses authority, he can command the services of minds much more enlightened than his own. He is canvassed by a multitude of applicants, who seek to deceive him in a thousand different ways, but who instruct him by their deceit.... Democracy does not confer the most skilful kind of government upon the people; but it produces that which the most skilful governments are frequently unable to awaken, namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, under favorable circumstances, beget the most amazing benefits. These are the true advantages of democracy."[2]

These passages and others like them are worth careful study. They clearly point out the two different standards by which we may criticise all political systems. One class of thinkers, of whom Froude is the most conspicuous, holds that the "good of the people" means good laws and good administration, and that, if these are only provided, it makes no sort of difference whether they themselves make the laws, or whether some Caesar or Louis Napoleon provides them. All the traditions of the early and later Federalists point this way. But it has always seemed to me a theory of government essentially incompatible with American institutions. If we could once get our people saturated with it, they would soon be at the mercy of some Louis Napoleon of their own.

When President Lincoln claimed, following Theodore Parker, that ours was not merely a government for the people, but of the people, and by the people as well, he recognized the other side of the matter,--that it is not only important what laws we have, but who makes the laws; and that "the end of a good government is to insure the welfare of a people," in this far wider sense. That advantage which the French writer admits in democracy, that it develops force, energy, and self-respect, is as essentially a part of "the good of the governed" as is any perfection in the details of government. And it is precisely these advantages which we expect that women, sooner or later, are to share. For them, as for men, "the good of the governed" is not genuine unless it is that kind of good which belongs to the self-governed.


[Footnote 1: Sparks's _Franklin_, ii. 372.]

[Footnote 2: De Tocqueville, vol. ii. pp. 74, 75.]

[The end]
Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Good Of The Governed