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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PUBLIC OPINION. The power of public opinion has vastly increased in the civilized world in the last century. Even those who affect to scorn it, can not deny this, and the statesman is compelled to take this new "great power" into consideration. It has become the authority of the uneducated masses as well as the study of philosophers. What, then, is public opinion? Whereon does its power rest? Where are its organs? At what does it aim?


—When a religious impulse takes hold of the masses, as in times of the foundation of new, or the reformation of old, religions, and carries them in a definite direction, we do not call the expression of this common religious sentiment "public opinion"; but we are inclined to characterize the general, though sometimes boisterous, utterance of a popular political desire, as a demand of public opinion. Whence this difference? Public opinion always supposes free judgment, which is possible in political affairs, but unusual in religious emotions. Therefore, without cultivation of the reasoning powers and the capability of judging, there can be no public opinion; it can only thrive in freedom. The ancients knew it well and esteemed it highly. Vox populi vox Dei.


—In the middle ages public opinion could make but little progress. Barbarians knew nothing of it, and despotism stifled it. It is neither the opinion of the mighty nor that of a few sages: it is principally the opinion of the great middle classes. In the same proportion as the middle classes give their attention to public affairs and form an opinion on their political interests, the power of public opinion prevails; and the more influential the middle classes become, the more respect public opinion commands. Hence its great significance in the present: for the influence of the middle classes has never been greater in the state than now.


—It is radical exaggeration to declare public opinion infallible, and to ascribe mastery to it as a matter of right. Men with a deep insight into public life and its requirements have never been very numerous, and it is very uncertain whether they can succeed in making their opinion public opinion. The minority of learned men and philosophers seldom agrees with the large majority of the middle classes. The common judgment of the educated classes, even, is almost always superficial. It is impossible for them to know all the particulars and discover all the causes on which the decision of important affairs depends. Public opinion may be disturbed, or may even be artfully misled by the momentary passion of the multitude. A single prominent individual may judge aright where every one about him judges falsely. But, preposterous as such overrating of public opinion may be, the haughty contempt with which many doctrinarians look down upon it, and the vain scorn for it of petty minds, are no less foolish. Even if public opinion is misguided and falls into error, it should not be treated with contempt and sneered at, because it is an intellectual power which has an irresistible influence on the rise and downfall of leading statesmen and on the destiny of nations. It is almost impossible, with the representative constitutions of to-day, that a system opposed to public opinion should long remain dominant. But the value of public opinion has a deeper cause than the external influence it exercises. Do not all political order and all law, in the last analysis, rest upon the common consciousness of nations? and in this is not the wisdom of the Creator manifest, who has given human nature a moral conscience as well as logical intellectual power, so that it may understandingly and morally discriminate between right and wrong, and decide what is useful or injurious to the public welfare? The public conscience, and particularly public opinion, are chiefly developed in the middle classes, and hence so much importance is to be attached to their judgment, where there is question of the interests of the community, i.e., of the state.—"Public opinion", writes Neibuhr, "is that opinion which arises in minds uncontrolled by personal influence—an influence which might mislead those in power—that opinion which, in spite of the difference in individuals and of the very different conditions or situations in which they are placed, is so unanimously expressed, and not merely repeated by one man after another, that it may be taken as an utterance of universal truth and reason, and even as the voice of God himself". public opinion may be compared to the chorus in ancient tragedy, which, observing the actions and sufferings of the dramatis personoæ, gives expression to the emotions and opinions of the common consciousness of all. On the whole, it is equivalent to the verdict of a jury in a case of law.


—Public opinion is formed by innumerable impressions and observations, by deliberations in the various spheres of society. But it is always controlled and determined by the public conscience and the established principles of the nation. It manifests itself in the most varied forms, in free public speech, in the family, in the drawing room and the tavern, in meetings of every kind, and, above all, in the press and the national representations of 'the people. In the latter it becomes even an organic political expression, while otherwise it manifests itself in a more unorganized and changeable manner. It sometimes fluctuates, like life itself, but it is also susceptible of instruction, and often follows the leaders who are competent to communicate ideas to the educated classes and to influence them. Public opinion courts criticism, while it is not unreceptive of enlightenment offered by superior minds. In the same degree that schools and means for the education of the young are provided, the public sense and love of truth and justice increase. Besides, public opinion is subject to the direction of the prevailing spirit of the age, by which it is determined and moved. But, once its judgment has been fixed, determined by the pressure of some general necessity, it becomes a power which crushes all imprudent resistance and which commands attention.


—It is not true, that public opinion reigns, since it can neither rule, nor is it desirous of ruling. It leaves the government to those intrusted with it. It is not a creative, but pre-eminently a controlling, power. It is no part of the public authority, but belongs to the national life. Only exceptionally does it change from its passive attitude to an active one, when the course pursued by those administering public affairs is in opposition to it. It is public power, but not a public force.


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