“Indeed distrust, expressed or implied, of the eternal verity of one’s own views is the secret of the survival of this republic.
We have in the case of France an appalling demonstration of what happens to a democracy in which there is no realization of the fact that of political principles, too, it may be said that “time and chance happeneth to them all.”
There is a strange delusion in this country that the weakness of France was the strength of her scoundrels; the truth is it was rather the strength of the conviction of her honest men.
Without doubt, the Third Republic had its scoundrels, but the deadlock that opened the way for the scoundrels was caused by its men of principle who were intransigent. “A principle,” said the acid Professor Cornford, “is a rule of inaction which states a valid general reason for not doing in any particular case what, to unprincipled instinct, would appear to be right.” At least it was so in France. Honest men would not, perhaps could not, certainly did not, yield their principles far enough to set up an effective, although imperfect, government.
Everywhere it is when honest men are hopelessly divided that thieves fill all the offices; in America honest men have always been divided, but never hopelessly so, except in 1860; and the result then was the most fearful convulsion that our country has ever experienced. At all other times honest men, while not convinced of a beating at the polls, have retained enough doubt of their own omniscience to await the outcome peacefully; and the experience of a hundred and sixty-seven years has justified them.
Justified they are, too, by the ironical stories with which the history of their nation is studded; for the last has been first, and the first, last so often that only a fool will say of any man or event in public life, “I know beyond per-adventure what must be the outcome of this.” It is something worth keeping in mind these days when the country approaches some of the most difficult and perplexing decisions it has ever been called upon to make. Some of us are bound to be disappointed; but to despair would be to reject the lessons of our own history.
What may seem to be a triumph at the time may lead us to woe immeasurable; but on the other hand, although we may come away with as great a sense of frustration and defeat as possessed the men of 1787, generations to come may credit us with some wonderful work not unworthy of comparison with the Constitution of the United States.
Even though we do the best we can, Destiny may make sport of us; but, even so, we may yet come to a serene time and look upon our opponents in these perilous days in the spirit in which, when both had grown old, (Thomas) Jefferson wrote to John Adams: “beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow-laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right to self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us, and yet passing harmless under our bark, we knew not how we rode through the storm with heart and hand, and made a happy port … And so we have gone on, and so we shall go on, puzzled and prospering beyond example in the history of men.”
— Gerald W. Johnson, “The Cream of the Jest,” 1943