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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

Tenets of Liberty

By John Clark Ridpath (1840–1900)

[Born in Putnam Co., Ind., 1840. Died in New York, N. Y., 1900. A Popular History of the United States. 1876.]

TO the thoughtful student of history several things seem necessary to the perpetuity and complete success of American institutions. The first of these is the prevalence of the idea of National Unity. Of this spake Washington in his Farewell Address, warning his countrymen in solemn words to preserve and defend that government which constituted them one people. Of this wrote Hamilton and Adams. For this pleaded Webster in his great orations. Upon this the far-seeing statesmen of the present day, rising above the strifes of party and the turmoils of war, plant themselves as the one thing vital in American politics. The idea that the United States are one Nation, and not thirty-eight nations, is the grand cardinal doctrine of a sound political faith. State pride and sectional attachment are natural passions in the human breast, and are so near akin to patriotism as to be distinguished from it only in the court of a higher reason. But there is a nobler love of country—a patriotism that rises above all places and sections, that knows no County, no State, no North, no South, but only native land; that claims no mountain slope; that clings to no river bank; that worships no range of hills; but lifts the aspiring eye to a continent redeemed from barbarism by common sacrifices and made sacred by the shedding of kindred blood. Such a patriotism is the cable and sheet-anchor of our hope.

A second requisite for the preservation of American institutions is the Universal Secular Education of the People. Monarchies govern their subjects by authority and precedent; republics by right reason and free will. Whether one method or the other will be better, turns wholly upon the intelligence of the governed. If the subject have not the knowledge and discipline necessary to govern himself, it is better that a king, in whom some skill in the science of government is presupposed, should rule him. As between two stupendous evils, the rational tyranny of the intelligent few is preferable to the furious and irrational tyranny of the ignorant many. No force which has moved among men, impelling to bad action, inspiring to crime, overturning order, tearing away the bulwarks of liberty and right, and converting civilization into a waste, has been so full of evil and so powerful to destroy as a blind, ignorant, and factious democracy. A republic without intelligence—even a high degree of intelligence—is a paradox and an impossibility. What means that principle of the Declaration of Independence which declares the consent of the governed to be the true foundation of all just authority? What kind of “consent” is referred to? Manifestly not the passive and unresisting acquiescence of the mind which, like the potter’s clay, receives whatever is impressed upon it; but that active, thinking, resolute, conscious, personal consent which distinguishes the true freeman from the puppet. When the people of the United States rise to the heights of this noble and intelligent self-assertion, the occupation of the party leader—most despicable of all tyrants—will be gone forever; and in order that the people may ascend to that high plane, the means by which intelligence is fostered, right reason exalted, and a calm and rational public opinion produced, must be universally secured. The public Free School is the fountain whose streams shall make glad all the lands of liberty. We must educate or perish.

A third thing necessary to the perpetuity of American liberties is Toleration—toleration in the broadest and most glorious sense. In the colonial times intolerance embittered the lives of our fathers. Until the present day the baleful shadow has been upon the land. The proscriptive vices of the Middle Age have flowed down with the blood of the race and tainted the life that now is, with a suspicion and distrust of freedom. Liberty in the minds of men has meant the privilege of agreeing with the majority. Men have desired free thought, but fear has stood at the door. It remains for the United States to build a highway, broad and free, into every field of liberal inquiry, and to make the poorest of men who walks therein more secure in life and reputation than the soldier who sleeps behind the rampart. Proscription has no part nor lot in the American system. The stake, the gibbet, and the rack, thumb-screws, sword, and pillory, have no place on this side of the sea. Nature is diversified; so are human faculties, beliefs, and practices. Essential freedom is the right to differ; and that right must be sacredly respected. Nor must the privilege of dissent be conceded with coldness and disdain, but openly, cordially, and with goodwill. No loss of rank, abatement of character, or ostracism from society must darken the pathway of the humblest of the seekers after truth. The right of free thought, free inquiry, and free speech, is as clear as the noonday and bounteous as the air and ocean. Without a full and cheerful recognition of this right, America is only a name, her glory a dream, her institutions a mockery.

The fourth idea, essential to the welfare and stability of the Republic, is the Nobility of Labor. It is the mission of the United States to ennoble toil and honor the toiler. In other lands to labor has been considered the lot of serfs and peasants; to gather the fruits and consume them in luxury and war, the business of the great. Since the mediæval times European society has been organized on the basis of a nobility and a people. To be a nobleman was to be distinguished from the people; to be one of the people was to be forever debarred from nobility. Thus has been set on human industry the stigma of perpetual disgrace. Something of this has been transmitted to the new civilization in the West—a certain disposition to renew the old order of lord and laborer. Let the odious distinction perish: the true lord is the laborer and the true laborer the lord. It is the genius of American institutions, in the fulness of time, to wipe the last opprobrious stain from the brow of toil and to crown the toiler with the dignity, lustre, and honor of a full and perfect manhood.