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

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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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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NATIONALITIES, Principle of. The present generation has witnessed the birth of the principle of nationalities, and this new principle has rapidly exercised a great influence on the European situation. Henceforth nationalities will be political elements which must be taken into account, and whether we approve or reject this principle, we can no longer ignore it.


—What is the principle of nationalities? It has been formulated thus: "The right of each nation to form itself into a people, into a separate state" From this proposition a two-fold consequence is drawn: 1, that the mass of a nation has the right to claim—by arms, if necessary—the detached portions, the groups of individuals belonging (or which are supposed to belong) to the same nationality; 2, that each group of individuals has the right to withdraw—even violently—from the state with which it has formed a more or less legal political body, for a greater or less period, in order to unite itself to the nation (or the state) toward which (real or supposed) affinities of nationality attract it.


—We shall examine further on the legitimateness of this principle. It is of importance, first of all, to inquire, what constitutes a nation, great or small? Is it a community of origin or of race? Men seem to think so sometimes, but we have only to remember the Russians and the Poles, both Slaves, or the Germans and the Scandinavians, who are both of Teutonic race, to reject this explanation. There are many races which are made up of a number of nationalities: the Slavic race, for instance, is made up of Russians, Poles Czechs, Ruthenians, Wends, and others. The Teutons, the Celts, the Fins, and many other races, are also subdivided into several branches. Neither is it the state, or political community, which forms the nation. Austria includes many nationalities, and the German nationality is subdivided into several states. Is it language that constitutes the nation? A community of language is considered by many authors as the true bond of nationality, and surely arguments are not wanting in favor of this opinion. Community of language is the result, if not of a community of origin, at least of a prolonged union; it is also the cause of uniformity of manners, views and sentiments. The man whose language is not understood is instinctively considered as a foreigner, and for the uncultured man foreigner and enemy are synonymous. Yet, the Swiss nationality on the one hand, and Belgium on the other, include populations speaking different languages. It might be also asked if geographical position, community of name, religion, interests or history, constitutes nationality; and we might find some fact to be used in support of, and some serious objection to, the hypothesis that either of these elements was the basis of nationality. Indeed, nationality is composed of all these put together. John Stuart Mill thinks that there is a nationality wherever men are united by common sympathies which do not exist between them and other men, sympathies which lead them to act in concert more readily than they would with others, to desire to live under the same government, and to desire that the same government should be exercised by them or by a portion of themselves. The sentiment of nationality may have been produced by various causes; it is sometimes the effect of the identity of race and stock; frequently a community of language and religion contributes to create it, as geographical limits also do. But the most powerful cause of all is the identity of political antecedents, the possession of a national history, and consequently the community of tradition, of pride and humiliation, collective pleasure and regret are attached to the same incidents of the past. Nevertheless none of these circumstances is indispensable, nor absolutely sufficient in itself.


—We find that there is no certain sign by which to characterize a nation strictly. In one place the bond is made to consist in a common origin; in another, in the community of language (wo die deutsche Zunge Klingt); in a third, geographical limits (Belgium, Switzerland); in the cast, even in religion. The nation, therefore, is not a physical body or unity, but a moral body; it is not always determined by external facts nor by them alone, but by sentiment.


—It is important to dwell on this point, because more than one consequence may be drawn from it. For example: the feeling of nationality may exist in the whole nation, or only in the upper or lower classes; it may be dormant or active; it may rest on interests, or be opposed to them; and in each one of these cases it becomes manifest under a different form and with a different energy. Now, the feeling of nationality is weak, strong or exalted, according to the composition of the state. Let us examine, therefore, the different relations and combinations which may be met here. The state may be formed of a single nationality and include the totality of the nation. We do not know whether this case has ever presented itself in history. It did not in Egypt nor Palestine, and we do not kow precisely whether it does in Japan. A state may also be composed chiefly of a compact nationality, and have but a small fraction of inhabitants of foreign origin: such, for example, is France, which easily assimilates those elements which it has already filled with its own spirit. In the two preceding cases, the feeling of nationality will be calm and be almost identical with patriotism. This is especially the case when the state includes populations speaking different languages, but united by bonds of affection and sympathy, as the Swiss and the Belgians. The existence of these two nationalities of recent creation—at least in their actual form—is the more remarkable since each fraction of these states may consider itself as a disjointed member of a great nation (French, German and Italian).


—The feeling of nationality is more or less exalted in states which contain the majority of a nation, one important part of which is detached from, but seeks to unite itself with, the mass of the nation. Such was recently the condition of Italy, such is still the condition of Greece. The same exaltation of the feeling of nationality may appear in states composed of different nationalities whose forces balance one another, as in Austria, or one of which exercises a greater or less supremacy over the others, as in Russia and Turkey.


—Europe presents, in fact, nearly all the combinations which theory can imagine, and this situation could have been established only at a time when the feeling of nationality scarcely existed, and when its principle had not been formulated. What produced this feeling and especially the doctrine based upon it? Reaction against the spirit of conquest.


—We do not think we go too far in maintaining that all political principles originate in some reaction. Anarchy engenders principles of order and authority, and renders even despotism tolerable. Absolute power, on the other hand, makes the want of liberty keenly felt, as well as all the guarantees required by it. It is only when deprived of a good, that we understand its value.


—Conquests have taken place at all times, and in wars between nations difference of nationality envenomed the struggle; but then the feeling of nationality was only an instinct. In our day, nationality is a thought-out feeling, an idea resting on patriotism, the love of liberty and a whole series of moral wants. The development of the instinct of nationality in Europe into a natural and sometimes imperious feeling was delayed first by Christianity which made all christendom appear as a single nation. Christian feeling was, for a time, stronger than patriotism. In the time of the league, religious parties in France had no scruples in joining Spain against their own country. The German princes, on the other hand, did not hesitate to invite foreigners to aid them in their struggles against the emperor. Religious struggles were perhaps the originators of patriotism by causing a reaction.


—The reformation, by breaking the unity of the church, was, in many respects, a great good, from the point of view of the progress of humanity.*63. A variety of worships is indispensable in order to give birth to the idea of liberty of conscience, which itself must precede the liberty of philosophizing, and even to give birth to the liberty of making discoveries in astronomy, in physics, in chemistry, and, above all, in history.


—The spirit of inquiry, it is plain, is essentially aggressive in its nature. When a man has mastered one question, or thinks he has, he passes over naturally to another. Hence religion, philosophy, natural and political sciences, had to be purified in the crucible of inquiry, and the intellectual labor which resulted hastened the reaction which in the eighteenth century rose up against the absolutism of princes, and which broke out in the French revolution of 1789. This revolution was completely foreign to the principle or feeling of nationality; it was even hostile to it. In France, it roused the masses in favor of the unity of the country (République une et indivisible); there arose a feeling of hostility even against provincial traditions, and, to put an end to these traditions, the French departments were created; the accusation of federalism was a death sentence. Now, French federalism and the spirit of nationality have more intimate relations than is supposed. Strange to say, side by side with or in opposition to a patriotism carried to the point of exaltation, cosmopolitan feelings appeared, and French nationality was solemnly granted to eminent foreigners whose reputation had reached France, but who did not think of leaving their native country. Naturalization was readily given, for "nations are brothers," the armies of the republic making war only on tyrants and oppressors.


—And still, whatever may have been said of it, the awakening of the spirit of nationality is derived from the great French revolution in two very different ways. The direct way, natural and glorious, is that which was opened everywhere by the principles of '89. These principles were inscribed on the banner of the oppressed, and, while making them feel more vividly their deprivation of liberty, reminded them that a nation united in spirit almost always attains its ends. The other way may be considered as indirect, since the sentiment of nationality resulted from a reaction against the conquests of Napoleon I. Napoleon caused the birth of a new power by attacking nationality in Russia, by freeing it in Italy, by defying it in Germany and Spain. The sovereigns of these countries were deposed or lowered, and a system of administration was introduced which was French in origin and spirit. The people reacted against these changes. Resistance was popular and spontaneous, for the former governments were absent or powerless; and it was national, for it was directed against foreign institutions.


—In a remarkable article by Reinhold Schmid, published in Germany, we find the following passage: "This unceremonious treatment had the precise effect of rousing the national sentiment of Germany, so long dormant, and after the shameful defeat experienced in 1806 by the established government, an endeavor was made to find in the national spirit new power for the war of deliverance. It was a characteristic sign of the times that when Fichte, who had just declared that nationality was an unimportant thing, a narrow idea which the human mind should reject in order to acquire the conception of cosmopolitan liberty, that Fichte, we say, delivered his celebrated 'Address to the German Nation,' in which he made an appeal to the sentiment of nationality by basing on it alone the hope of safety for the country. The possibility of delivering such a discourse, unpunished, at Berlin, under the eyes of French generals and agents, may serve to characterize the spirit of the Napoleonic government; which did not neglect to persecute without mercy, wherever its power extended, every movement against French domination. This fact proves that in France they did not foresee the dangers threatening their supremacy from this quarter. We know, moreover, that Napoleon considered such aspirations as idle fancies of which he needed to take no account."


—Let us now quote an authority which may be considered as Italian, at least on account of the interests which he defended, J. de Maistre, (Correspondance diplomatique): "Nations are something in the world; it is not permissible to count them for nothing, to trouble them in their customs, their affections, in their dearest interests, * *." And, further on: "It is not hard to unite nations on a geographical chart; but in practice it is very different; there are nations which can not be blended. The Italian mind is in a ferment at this moment."


—We know not whether an idea, once born ever dies. Be this as it may, the idea of nationality did not have time to die out for want of food. After the reaction of Europe against France, came the reaction of Greece against Turkey, that of Poland against Russia, that of Italy against Austria, not to mention facts of minor import. We have just spoken of oppressed nationalities. If these nations had found in their conquerors a spirit of justice and a liberal government, they would perhaps have become accustomed to their new situation in time. Their grievances were numerous, though essentially of the moral order. But it is especially the enlightened classes of a nation which suffer from this kind of grievances, and these classes are too small in number to resist their oppressors successfully. They felt, therefore, the necessity of leaning on the masses, and to rouse their inertia. To overcome their indifference it was necessary to excite them by exalting the national feeling. A book printed in 1821 (l'Italie au dix-neuvième siècle, p. 148) says: "The sentiment of national independence is more general and more deeply engraved in the hearts of nations than the love of constitutional liberty. Nations most subject to despotism have this feeling as much as free nations; the most barbarous peoples have it still more vividly than enlightened nations."


—Up to 1859 the principle of nationalities did not go beyond the domain of theory, or that of internal affairs; the Italian war introduced it into international law. It behooves us now to examine more closely a principle which has already caused terrible wars, and which threatens Europe with more than one shock.—"When the sentiment of nationality exists anywhere," says John Stuart Mill, "there is a prima facie reason to unite all the members of the nationality under the same government, and under a government of their own; this amounts to saying that the question of government should be decided by the governed. It is hard to imagine what a group of men should be free to do, if not to discover with which of the various collective bodies of human beings it may associate itself." If we consider the question under this abstract form, an answer will not be very easily found to it. Once national sovereignty is admitted, and as the nation is composed of individuals, it is evident (abstractly speaking) that each individual has his share of it and may choose his government. There is no contradiction in the words, and still each one feels that the realization of this theory is impossible. It will be thought, perhaps, that we carry the consequences of the principle too far in applying it to individuals. Mill himself applies it only to "groups of men." But what constitutes a group? Ten, a hundred, or a thousand individuals? No international legislator has the power to fix this number. Moreover if it were fixed, "in practice a number of considerations might be opposed to this general principle." This is what Mill says. He finds two such considerations: one geographical, when a small territory is separated from the common centre by other nationalities, or when, as in Hungary, various nationalities form such a mixture that they, of necessity, are obliged to have a common government. The other consideration is purely moral and social. "Experience proves," says Mill, "that is possible for one nationality to be melted and absorbed into another; and when this nationality was originally an inferior or backward portion of the human race, the absorption is greatly to its advantage. No one could suppose that it is not more advantageous for a Breton or for a Basque of French Navarre to be drawn into the current of the ideas and feelings of a highly civilized and cultivated people, to be a member of the French nationality, possessing, on the basis of equality, all the privileges of a French citizen, sharing the advantages of French protection, and the dignity an d prestige of French power, than to sit morosely on his native cliffs, a half-savage specimen of times gone by, moving unceasingly in a narrow intellectual orbit, without sharing or interesting himself in the general movement of the world. The same remark applies to the Welshman or to the Highland Scotch as a member of the English nationality."


—We think the altogether gratuitous supposition of the original inferiority of the Bretons of France or the Britons of England superfluous. Mill might have dispensed with this argument. It is evident that a small group of men always gains from being absorbed by a great nation. This argument presents, besides, a very serious danger, for it might be advanced whenever the stronger wished to conquer the weaker.


—It is important to state here, the impossibility of deducing a strict right from the principle of nationalities. The most liberal author is obliged to admit limitations. This is not all. John Stuart Mill, and the majority of publicists favourable to nationalists, seem to have forgotten that a state is a sort of mutual association in which there is a solidarity among the citizens who compose it. One may admit this doctrine without being a partisan of the social contract. It is solely in virtue of these mutual obligations, of these reciprocal duties, of this solidarity, that military service may be required of citizens and some be called upon to allow themselves to be killed for all. Now, how can we permit a fraction of a nation to separate itself from the state, to the prejudice of all and without the consent of those who are thereby injured? We admit that there may be cases in which we should be able to dispense with this consent; however, in the public law of Europe the consent of those interested has almost always appeared necessary. Was it not necessary to ratify in the Italian Parliament the vote of Savoy and Nice? All constitutions say: Cession of territory can only take place by a law. Cabinets are not deceived in this, but publicists seem sometimes to ignore it. In discussions on the principle of nationalities, men take sides so warmly with one of the parties that they are inclined to neglect to inform themselves what are the rights of the other, and become unjust through excess of justice. No provision of natural law, of that "law superior to all legislative enactment." prevents the union of several nationalities under the same government; once the pact concluded, it can not be dissolved without amply sufficient reason by only one of the parties. Another difficulty might be raised here, which results in a certain degree from the doctrine which we have just indicated. In international congresses it is claimed that decisions should be taken unanimously, and that the vote of one state can never bind the will of another. Might it not be maintained that to be sanctioned by several nations, such a decision needs not a majority to pronounce in a certain sense, but unanimity, as in the case of the verdict of an English Jury? A vote which decides nationality is not to be compared to a purely internal decision. Might it not be maintained that, during the vote, there was a kind of suspension of the social bond? Moreover, the force of this consideration has been recognized implicitly for a long time; in cessions of territory it is left expressly to each inhabitant, individually, to declare to what country he wishes to belong, without being bound by the vote of his neighbor (if a vote has taken place). This is called option.


—We thus see that the principle of nationalities carried too far, leads to absurdity. Nationality is an important political element, but it would be an error to let it dominate all others. To begin with, its source is of doubtful purity; it does not flow generally from justice or the sentiment of personal dignity, but from hatred of the foreigner, and frequently from ignorance. In the opinion of ancient Greece, all foreigners were barbarians; and in that of Rome, enemies. Is it to be believed that there is reason to withdraw from a country where liberty rules, in order to join a nationality of the same race governed by a despot? A group of men who should act in this manner might be considered as "inferior and undeveloped." And justly. Do such men ask themselves what is the object of the state? The state should satisfy certain moral and material wants of men, and if men are connected with a country which gives them these advantages, they should not leave it to join a state which does not give them, whatever be the affinities of race and language.


—The preservation of nationality is of secondary importance. History shows us how often nations have become mixed, changed or modified in character. It seems even that an infusion of fresh blood—even barbarian blood—is necessary to prevent old nations from falling into decay. If purity of race were of use to humanity, Providence or nature would have taken some measure to secure it; while it suffices to be born in a country to share the feelings of its people. We have never understood what interest a small group of individuals without history, embedded in a great and powerful state whose history is their own, could have in obstinately remaining in isolation. On the other hand, a nationality small in number performs an impolitic act in withdrawing from a large state to form an independent community. In the present condition of things it is unreasonable. From another point of view, small states are independent only by sufferance. If the six or seven great powers had a less lively sense of the requirements of justice, or if they could agree on the terms of division, the small states would soon be absorbed. It is not sure that humanity or the progress of civilization would suffer thereby; but it is certain that the creation of new small states would be a derangement of the balance established with such difficulty in Europe, for they would simply change masters. It is of small importance to a conquered city whether its garrison belongs to a neighbor of the east or the west.


—From the point of view of the progress of humanity, the present condition being given, the small states are in a marked inferiority compared with the great. From the shock of ideas light comes. It results that the more members a nationality has—other things being equal—the more it will contribute to the advancement of science, and the more ideas it will create. Besides, the languages of great countries are studied, and their discoveries are not slow in entering the common domain of civilization. But who learns the languages spoken by one or two millions of persons? The inventions of these countries will be lost for humanity, if the enlightened members of these smaller nationalities do not take them to London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna or some other great centre. There are languages which seem sentenced to perish, as there are nationalities which must, it seems, be lost in others. And why should this process of fusion which was so useful, even so necessary, twenty, ten, or five centuries ago, be stopped to-day?


—The union of several nationalities under the same government could not, moreover, be considered as an evil at a time when Switzerland or Belgium are cited as first among the most happy and prosperous countries. Can not each of the fractions of these peoples preserve its originality if it wishes? History shows us, besides, that composite nationalities are superior to nations free of all mixture. Thus, the Romanized Gaul was superior to the druidic Gaul, and the character of modern France dates from the infusion of Germanic blood. The same advantage appears in all states in which the fusion was complete. In countries where the nationalities brought in contact have remained or become hostile through the fault of the government, the mixture has not had its effect; but let equal liberty be given to all, and the peaceable friction of varied aptitudes will produce its usual result.


—The principle of nationalities, as we have formulated it, does not posses absolute legitimateness. While recognizing in each one the right to choose a nationality to which he prefers to belong, we should consider circumstances which exercise a power similar to this right and limit its application, or at least render its exercise harmful to individuals, to nations, and to humanity. In the present state of things, the absolute application of the principle of nationalities is even completely impossible; it would have to struggle against material and moral obstacles sometimes invincible, or at least against powerful interests. One of these interests, with slender right, however, in spite of the number of its partisans, would appear under the form of the theory of natural frontiers, and this theory is an excellent criterion in distinguishing sincere adherents of the principle of nationalities from those who look on it merely as a weapon. The theory of natural frontiers is an argument of the conqueror, and the principle of nationalities is opposed to conquest. But there are persons who are in favor both of the frontiers and of nationalities, according to the wants of the moment. If our doctrine were to be summed up in the form of a proposition, we should perhaps say that, generally, the principle of nationalities is legitimate when it tends to unite, in a compact whole, scattered groups of population, and illegitimate when it tends to divide a state. When the two operations must take place at once, the verdict of history will be in accordance with the circumstances of the case. It will not say, Woe to the conquered, but Woe to the mistaken.


Notes for this chapter

A multiplicity of religions is necessary in order to distinguish religion from dogma, and to avoid confounding the denial of one or another detail of the official creed with atheism.

Footnotes for NATIONALITY

End of Notes

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