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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Our Political Demagogues

By Nicholas Biddle (1786–1844)

[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1786. Died there, 1844. Address before the Alumni of Nassau Hall. 1835.]

IN our country, too many young men rush into the arena of public life without adequate preparation. They go abroad because their home is cheerless. They fill their minds with the vulgar excitement of what they call politics, for the want of more genial stimulants within. Unable to sustain the rivalry of more disciplined intellects, they soon retire in disgust and mortification, or what is far worse, persevere after distinctions which they can now obtain only by artifice. They accordingly take refuge in leagues and factions, they rejoice in stratagems, they glory in combinations,—weapons all these, by which mediocrity revenges itself on the uncalculating manliness of genius and mines its way to power. Their knowledge of themselves inspires a low estimate of others. They distrust the judgment and the intelligence of the community, on whose passions alone they rely for advancement, and their only study is to watch the shifting currents of popular prejudice, and be ready at a moment’s warning to follow them. For this purpose their theory is to have no principles and to give no opinions, never to do anything so marked as to be inconsistent with doing the direct reverse, and never to say anything not capable of contradictory explanations. They are thus disencumbered for the race, and, as the ancient mathematician could have moved the world if he had had a place to stand on, they are sure of success if they have only room to turn. Accordingly, they worship cunning, which is only the counterfeit of wisdom, and deem themselves sagacious only because they are selfish. They believe that all generous sentiments of love of country, for which they feel no sympathy in their own breasts, are hollow pretences in others—that public life is a game in which success depends on dexterity and that all government is a mere struggle for place. They thus disarm ambition of its only fascination, the desire of authority in order to benefit the country; since they do not seek places to obtain power, but power to obtain places. Such persons may rise to great official stations, for high offices are like the tops of the pyramids, which reptiles can reach as well as eagles. But though they may gain places, they never can gain honors; they may be politicians, they never can become statesmen. The mystery of their success lies in their adroit management of our own weakness, just as the credulity of his audience makes half the juggler’s skill. Personally and singly, objects of indifference, our collected merits are devoutly adored when we acquire the name of “the people.” Our sovereignty, our virtues, our talents, are the daily themes of eulogy: they assure us that we are the best and wisest of the human race, that their highest glory is to be the instruments of our pleasure, and that they will never act nor think nor speak but as we direct them. If we name them to executive stations, they promise to execute only what we desire; if we send them to deliberative bodies, they engage never to deliberate, but to be guided solely by the light of our intuitive wisdom. Startled at first by language, which, when addressed to other sovereigns, we are accustomed to ridicule for its abject sycophancy, constant repetition makes it less incredible. By degrees, although we may not believe all the praise, we cannot doubt the praiser, till at last we become so spoiled by adulation, that truth is unwelcome. If it comes from a stranger, it must be prejudice—if from a native, scarce less than treason; and when some unhappy traveller ventures to smile at follies which we will not see or dare not acknowledge, instead of disregarding it, or being amused by it, or profiting by it, we resent it as an indignity to our sovereign perfections. This childish sensitiveness would be only ludicrous if it did not expose us to the seduction of those who flatter us only till they are able to betray us—as men praise what they mean to sell—treating us like pagan idols, caressed till we have granted away our power, and then scourged for our impotence. Their pursuit of place has alienated them from the walks of honest industry—their anxiety for the public fortunes has dissipated their own. With nothing left either in their minds or means to retreat upon; having no self-esteem, and losing that of others, when they cease to possess authority, they acquire a servile love of sunshine, a dread of being what is called unpopular, that makes them the ready instruments of any chief who promises to be the strongest. They degenerate at last into mere demagogues, wandering about the political common, without a principle or a dollar, and anxious to dispose to the highest bidder of their only remaining possession, their popularity. If successful, they grow giddy with the frequent turns by which they rose, and wither into obscurity. If they miscalculate, if they fall into that fatal error—a minority—retirement, which is synonymous with disgrace, awaits them, while their more fortunate rivals, after flourishing for a season in a gaudy and feverish notoriety, are eclipsed by some fresher demagogue, some more popular man of the people. Such is the melancholy history of many persons, victims of an abortive ambition, whom more cultivation might have rendered useful and honorable citizens.

Above this crowd and beyond them all stands that character which I trust more than one of you will become—a real American statesman.