Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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DECLINE, National. Do humanity, society, civilization and the state pass through the phases which mark the life of the individual? Have they a youth, a maturity and an old age? This is a difficult question, in the solving of which history affords us but little aid. The philosophers, who have touched upon it have accumulated more conjectures and hypotheses than facts.


—How can we decide whether humanity is in its youth or in its old age, when we know only an infinitesimal part of its past, and absolutely nothing of its future? Was humanity contemporary with the first revolutions of our globe? Were some individuals able to escape the destruction produced by the cataclysms whose periodicity is asserted with such assurance that philosophers have even dared accurately to predict their return? These questions must be abandoned as forever insoluble.


—The duration of society seems quite as barren a subject for discussion. Man is a sociable animal. He will, therefore, always seek the society of his fellow men. Solitude is contrary to his nature. Only it seems reasonable to suppose that the bonds of society become complicated and closer with time. Civilization may be considered as a particular state of society, the origin and progress of which men have seen, and whose end can be conceived. The civilizations of Egypt, of Rome and of Athens have disappeared within historic times. Would it be unreasonable to conclude that ours may one day vanish? The future doubtless may hold in reserve surprises of all kinds for our descendants; but there is reason for thinking that a civilization never disappears spontaneously, but always through violence, at home or abroad; that is, through the agency of civil or foreign wars. Up to this time it has almost always been the invasion of barbarians which has obscured the brilliancy of known civilizations. And it is intentionally that we use the word obscured, and not extinguished; for the force of social development, once acquired, is such that the barbarians have generally been absorbed by the conquered, though not without exercising for a time a retrograde influence upon the latter. To render our idea clearer, or to be more exact, let us say that civilization had only been confined to a narrower circle, limited to a smaller number of individuals, but that it lost nothing of its intrinsic quality. While the masses, driven from the temple of light, were wandering in the darkness, a few priests lay hidden in a profound retreat to keep alive the sacred fire and to prepare the way for the renaissance.


—But do nations decline? It is certain that a great number of them have been known to disappear. It is only necessary to know whether the state must perish when its time comes; whether it has youth and an old age; in short, whether its decline is inevitable, or whether it can be avoided.


—The sequence of the different phases of a nation's existence seems to be generally admitted; in the first place, because history tells us of nations which have sprung up, progressed, decayed and ceased to exist; and then, because the ideas of progress and decline have an a priori power over our minds. But the parallel between the individual and great political communities must not be pushed too far. The birth, the growth and the death of man follow laws as uniform as they are unchangeable, moderately influenced by the surroundings of each life. This is not the case with nations; their lot is essentially governed by contingent causes, by numberless circumstances, which form a multitude of combinations. Is it possible to think that every city, founded on a favorable site, is destined to become a Rome or an Athens, a Paris, a London, or a New York? The empire of Charlemagne, divided into two parts produced, on the one hand, united France; on the other, Germany, for a long time divided into fractions. Could the hordes of Tamerlane now conquer Russia? Or can Tunis, the neighbor of Carthage, hope to get the better of Marseilles?


—But if we are forced to admit that a city or a nation, to increase, must be favored by circumstances, if, in addition, we recognize that history has not yet recorded a sufficient number of observations, so that the relative age of a nation can be in some way determined, it is nevertheless evident that there are certain characteristic signs which are unmistakable. For instance, barbarism is always met with in the infancy of a political community: unhappily, it is not necessarily followed by an age of progress. A nation, like a man, may perish before attaining its full development. On the other hand, we have seen nations spring up without passing through this phase so common in antiquity; the American Union, for example.


—Youth, therefore, does not always present the same aspect; age, still less so. How could it be otherwise? May not decline be due to very different causes? May not the political body, like the individual, be attacked by ills markedly diverse? If, in man, it is sometimes the blood or the nerves, sometimes the muscles or the bones, which are impaired; if one organ or another, one or another vital function may be impeded in its action; so society may witness one of its principles abjured, one of its dogmas evaporate, one of its essential elements disappear. Here, it will be religion; there, morality; elsewhere, political organization, authority or liberty; elsewhere still, the principles of political economy which will be the diseased part. In each of these cases the decline will become manifest under a different aspect, the malady will be different, and will demand different remedies, if remedies for it there be.


—To religion belongs by right the first place in our enumeration. And we shall consider it here from the point of view of political history, and not of faith. Religion is the most powerful bond of society. An atheistical state can be conceived of, but society without a religion, never. Still, all the creeds which have exercised an influence upon humanity have not been equally powerful. Some have become elevated, purified, spiritualized; others have become ossified, and have sunk to the point of being no more than a purely mechanical practice. Such, for instance, is that religion of distant Asia, whose priests are not contented to repeat their prayers with the simple aid of a rosary: some write them on a wheel, which they turn with a handle: others make use of a stream of water for this purpose: the prayers are supposed to have been said every time they face the sky. How can these bonzes inspire the people, urge them in the way of progress, fortify them against oppression from within and from without? Such a religion is, so to speak, an intellectual burden: it has no effect except on the minds of the superstitions. And how are the moral wants of enlightened minds in those countries satisfied? Have they really no resource but to return to the abyss of nothingness?


—When the ministers of religion make no other pretense than to govern the beliefs of men and rule over consciences, the dogmas which hinder progress, where progress exists, become subject to imperceptible but steady modification. The words will remain, perhaps; but they can no longer have the same meaning. Moral and material interests being confined within their own special limits, sometimes the one and sometimes the other will contribute most to the advancement of a nation: they will mutually sustain and urge each other onward. But if a theoretic system becomes permanently established, if religion persists in regulating the affairs of this world by the same title that it does spiritual affairs, it will either stop all progress, or it will lose all its influence—two things equally to be deplored. This can not take place without a struggle; and if the nation has not wonderful vitality, if circumstances do not favor it, it will be ruined.


—Morals are very closely connected with religion, but they are not entirely ruled by it. What is understood by morals? Is it a question simply of the habits of life more or less moral, or of the entire social organization? Dissipation, lying, unwillingness to work, unbridled egoism, are some of the causes of decay in every human community. These vices prepare a people for servitude, by depriving them of the energy and the spirit of self-sacrifice necessary to work out their freedom. These vices give all its full effect to a bad political organization.


—We may well say: like people, like institutions. The constitution, the most rational, the best poised, the richest in guarantees, is a dead letter if public spirit does not breathe life into it. What is the use of written laws if no one tries to obey them, or if they are only drawn up to fulfill a formality without any practical import?


—Nevertheless, the form of the government and the part the citizens take in the direction of the affairs of a country, are never indifferent things. If men were influenced only by reason, there would rarely be conflicts between the governing and the governed. The governing would know that their power is just so much the more stable as it is more in sympathy with the people, as it renders them the more service, and the governed would understand that they have nothing to gain by anarchy. But reason has only a relatively feeble influence over human action: it is oftener sentiment or passion which controls it; and sentiment knows only too well how to borrow the language of reason, to accumulate arguments, and to set forth grounds, each more plausible than the other, for its actions. Then, the passions are not the same in the different degrees of the social scale: and if real and serious interests are the same for the governing and the governed, there are often artificial interests, irritated by passion, which run counter to them. Hence must follow strife, open or covert, according to circumstances.


—In such a situation, a good constitution is a safeguard, and sometimes the means by which the two opposing forces are neutralized. In despotic nations, in absolute monarchies, there is no derivative remedy: at a given moment a destructive explosion occurs. In countries politically organized, the people have peaceful aims, the realization of their desires, the satisfaction of their wants. The constitution is there a safety valve.


—The two forces which have been alluded to are authority and liberty: their synthesis is order, embodied in a constitution. The excess of one or the other of these two forces is equally prejudicial to order and to a harmonious organization of the social elements; each must keep within its own bounds. When one encroaches on the other, it destroys the equilibrium necessary to political or social health; disorganization and decay invade the entire state; the edifice loses its adhesive power and crumbles at the first shock.


—The disproportion between these two forces was what caused the downfall of the Roman empire. This disproportion is made manifest in different ways in different countries. It was disclosed in Rome by the necessity forced upon the successors of Augustus to divide their power, or rather, to divide the country. This division was the consequence of the great extent of territory. To govern despotically so vast a country, a man of extraordinary ability is needed, and such a man is rarely found. A small nation, or one with a very free form of government, can more easily endure a mediocre ruler. We are very much disposed to believe that a state is no longer governable when its boundaries have swelled beyond a certain extent, whatever may be the liberty enjoyed by the citizens. From this would follow the practical deduction, that the spirit of conquest is a blind passion: it does not see that it will cause a situation in which political restraints will no longer be able to maintain the social union.


—The great extent of territory was one of the causes of the decline of the old German empire. The Roman empire of the German nation, stretching from the Vosges to the Carpathian mountains, and from the Adriatic to the North sea and to the Baltic, had to be divided between vassals. The emperors not always being able to make their authority respected, it declined, without profit to liberty. The great vassals, instead of becoming or remaining a chamber of peers, with the mission to restrain their sovereign, went to work to dismember the central authority, to the prejudice of the unity of the nation. Little by little the empire became a shadow; and in 1806 it disappeared. Although it was reconstructed in 1871, it was with a less extent of territory, and under conditions that we have not yet seen put to the proof.


—The size of the Chinese empire is also a source of weakness to that country. Where can a government be found strong enough to satisfactorily fulfill the superhuman task of ruling from 350,000,000 to 400,000,000 of people? Because of the disproportion of the forces of authority and those accorded to liberty, Poland, in the eighteenth century, saw her prestige and even her independence vanish. The unanimity of the votes of 40,000 nobles was necessary for a decision to be legal. Could they flatter themselves it could ever be attained? Hence arose wrangles among themselves; and their neighbors took possession of different parts of the country, until nothing remained of it.


—The United States of America stretches over a very great area. The result has been that, between north and south, there were political and economical conditions diverse enough to cause a formidable war (1861-5), which however did not succeed in dissolving the Union. But will she emerge intact from future struggles which may arise, for instance, through the divergent interests of the east and the west? That is the question.


—A bad economical organization can have the same effect as a poorly constructed constitution. The absence of what is called freedom of labor, a faulty distribution of property, can retard the progress of a country, keep it in poverty, and deliver it, under certain combinations of circumstances, over to the mercy of a richer nation. Slavery has been more than once the cause of loss to a state.


—Sometimes, too, the decline of a nation may be due to several causes. Spain suffered for a long time at once from despotism and the inquisition, and her too large colonial possessions weakened her more than they strengthened her. They drew away from her her most vigorous and most enterprising sons; and those who remained in the mother country depended upon the gold and silver which the galleons might bring. How many of those indolent Iberians saw nothing of the cargoes of those galleons except the aims distributed to them at the door of a monastery!


—The example or Spain may prove, perhaps, that a great country can recover, and that national decline does not necessarily mean death. France, also, had her moment of weakness in the eighteenth century; but although her body suffered, her spirit was strong, and was, by a happy reaction, able to cast aside all the causes of the difficulty, but not without dangerous convulsions. Other countries, also, seem to be on the road to renewed life, after having had their development arrested for a long time. This is because our civilization is more vigorous than all those which preceded it; and if, in turn, it perishes or is eclipsed, it will not be before it has had a long career; and as, in our times, there is no external enemy strong enough to combat it, it can perish only through weapons of its own forging.


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