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In several parts of his work he points to the existence in the United States, in his time, of these several elements, “even in the northern States (especially in Massachusetts), as well as in the middle and southern;" and if he had any fears for the future, it was that “the natural and artificial aristocratical body in every State ” would become too powerful.* He considers, however, that they are sufficiently kept in check by the arrangements of the Constitution, which were, in his opinion, as nearly similar to our own as circumstances permitted, though not so much so as he desired. Upon our own Constitution he pronounces this eulogy :
“I contend that the English Constitution is, in theory, the most stupendous fabric of human invention, both for the adjustment of the balance, and the prevention of its vibrations, and that the Americans ought to be applauded instead of censured for imitating it as far as they have. Not the formation of languages, not the whole art of navigation and ship-building, does more honour to the human understanding than this system of Government. The Americans have not indeed imitated it in giving a negative upon their Legislature to the Executive power; in this respect their balances are incomplete, very much to my mortification.”+
The want of these due adjustments of the balance of power in a State must, he says, lead to continual changes and fluctuations. “The only way to prevent these evils is to establish the several classes and ordinances of the commonwealth in such a manner that they may support themselves; and that they will always be able to do, when each rank has its due share of the administration, when every one knows his proper sphere of action, and whom he can
confide in; and, lastly, when no one has any occasion to wish for a change of Government, either because his ambition is not thoroughly gratified, or that he does not think himself sufficiently secure under such an administration.”*
NOTE III. (TO CHAPTER IX.)
“A Constitution based upon extreme opinions leads infallibly to despotism."
So spoke Niebuhr,t in accordance with all authorities who have dealt with the great question of political government in a truthful and impartial spirit, and on due acquaintance with the lessons of history.
“The tyranny of the majority” is the danger ever impending in free governments, in proportion as they approach to pure democracies.
This danger was present to the minds of the framers of the Constitution of the United States, and led them to bend their most earnest thoughts to devise the means by which the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority” might be prevented from disregarding the interests, and violating the rights of the minority. I
Whatever may be the case up to this time with regard to the working of the general Government and Constitution of the United States, it is indisputable that in the individual States the complaints are frequent of the exercise of this species of tyranny by the majority which, for the
* Vol. ii. p. 250. + Life and Letters of Niebuhr, vol. iii. p. 119. London, 1852. # Federalist, No. 10.
time being, may wield the powers of the State Government.
Mr. Justice Kent argues strongly against the sudden changes in legislation in the individual States, which the alternate succession of opposite parties to power brings with it, each supported, perhaps, only by narrow majorities, and holding office but for a short period. He says:*~
“A mutable legislation is attended with a formidable train of mischiefs to the community. It weakens the Government, and increases the intricacy of the laws, hurts credit, lessens the value of property, and it is an infirmity very incident to republican establishments, and has been a constant source of anxiety and concern to their most enlightened admirers. A disposition to multiply and change laws upon the spur of the occasion, and to be making constant and restless experiments with the statute code, seems to be the natural disease of popular assemblies.”
And he commends the new Constitution of Rhode Island, adopted in 1843, for its tendency to prevent those evils.
“ The Constitution of Rhode Island, which was organised and went into operation in 1843, has constituted the Senate of that State upon conservative principles, while the House of Representatives is constructed upon the basis of population, giving to each city and town a representation in a ratio to its number of inhabitants. The Senate is composed of only one member from each city and town, so that the legislative power cannot be wielded by overwhelming numbers in a few great manufacturing towns or cities, to the oppression of the agricultural towns. It is a salutary and provident check to the tyranny of majorities over minorities." +
* Vol. i. of his Commentaries, p. 227. + Vol. i. p. 227, note.
The following, which I take from a recent American paper, is a somewhat curious instance of an opposite complaint-opposite in terms, but the same in substancewhich shows how naturally men are disposed to be dissatisfied with laws imposed upon them summarily by narrow majorities, and which they may hope shortly, by some equally narrow majority, to repeal.
“Ohio, July, 1853. “ One hundred and eighty-five thousand electors in this State of Ohio have (by their differences and divisions) chosen to be governed by one hundred and seventy thousand for some years past. The minority have ridden rough-shod over the majority, fettering them .... robbing them by unequal taxes,” &c., &c.
I observe, also, in the American papers, complaints that the “ Maine Law," as it is called, forbidding the sale of spirituous liquors, except under certain circumstances, is being forced upon the people of some States by small majorities, in spite of a strong reluctance to it on the part of minorities, on the ground, among others, that such a law exceeds the true province of legislation. In the State of New York, this law passed the Senate by a majority of four only. In Rhode Island it was carried, but the democratic majority is said to have appointed officers hostile to the law, who prevent its being executed. “In Boston, its effect is defeated by the number of licences granted. The new Legislature, chosen in November, 1852, sustained the law. An attempt to repeal it failed, and a bill to make it more stringent failed also ; in the House of Representatives the numbers were equal, and it was lost in the Senate by one vote.”.
The particular law now exciting the disapproval of large minorities, yet forced upon them in opposition, as they
think, to all sound precedent, is of comparatively little importance, except as illustrating the principle, which may be at present contemplated at work on a far larger scale and on vital points, in the rapid advance of pure democracy, even in the older States, over the old mixed and balanced principles of constitutional government, with all the consequences of internal and external policy therein involved. This change must be all the more painful to the party opposing it, because brought about in many instances by narrow majorities and within a short space of time. It may be submitted to, under the conclusion that it is, in that country, a part of “ a general and inevitable law” of social and political change ; but it is not the less discordant to all the feelings, habits, and opinions hitherto recognised as the foundation of their government, and as giving it its title to the respect and confidence of the world. Its ulterior consequences are beyond the ken of the present generation. They might be calculated with somewhat more confidence were not the problem complicated by the continual addition to the population of the United States of such large numbers of the worst subjects of European Governments men bringing with them the most embittered feelings, and the most false and pernicious theories of politics and social life. The actual spread of ultra-democracy in the United States contradicts the theory, and has falsified the expectation, that these importations of extravagant opinion and perverted principle will be absorbed and neutralised by the sounder elements with which they mix. They find too many congenial ingredients, to which they but add a new vigour. It must be many years yet before any one can presume to say which is the most probable-acquiescence in this ultra-democratic predominance, or resistance. M. De Tocqueville has already said that “if the free institutions of America are to be destroyed, it will be owing to