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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

The Pursuit of Politics

By Whitelaw Reid (1837–1912)

[The Scholar in Politics. A Commencement Address. 1873.]

WHAT I wish first of all to insist upon is the essential worth, nobility, primacy indeed, of the liberal pursuit of politics. It is simply the highest, the most dignified, the most important of all earthly objects of human study. Next to the relation of man to his Maker, there is nothing so deserving his best attention as his relation to his fellow-men. The welfare of the community is always more important than the welfare of any individual, or number of individuals; and the welfare of the community is the highest object of the science of politics. The course and current of men in masses—that is the most exalted of human studies, and that is the study of the politician. To help individuals is the business of the learned professions. To do the same for communities is the business of politics. To aid in developing a single career may task the best efforts of the teacher. To shape the policy of the nation, to fix the fate of generations—is this not as much higher as the heavens are high above the earth? Make the actual politician as despicable as you may, but the business of politics remains the highest of human concerns….

What is the legitimate function of scholars in this business?

It is a notable tendency of the men of the highest and finest culture everywhere to antagonize existing institutions. Exceptional influences eliminated, the scholar is pretty sure to be opposed to the established. The universities of Germany contain the deadliest foes to the absolute authority of the Kaiser. The scholars of France prepared the way for the first revolution, and were the most dangerous enemies of the imperial adventurer who betrayed the second. Charm he never so wisely, he could never charm the Latin Quarter; make what contributions to literature he would, he could never gain the suffrage of the Academy. While the prevailing parties in our own country were progressive and radical, the temper of our colleges was to the last degree conservative. As our politics settled into the conservative tack, a fresh wind began to blow about the college seats, and literary men at last furnished inspiration for the splendid movement that swept slavery from the statute-book, and made us a free nation….

“The worst legacy,” says Mr. Froude, as his conclusion of the whole matter, “which princes or statesmen could bequeath to their country, would be the resolution of all its perplexities, the establishment once and forever of a finished system, which would neither require nor tolerate improvement.” While the scholars of a land do their duty, no such system will be created. Wise unrest will always be their chief trait. We may set it down as, within certain needful and obvious limitations, the very foremost function of the scholar in politics, To oppose the established.

And the next is like unto it. Always, in a free government, we may expect parties, in their normal state, to stand to each other somewhat in the relation described by Mr. Emerson as existing between the Democratic and Whig parties, both now happily extinct. The one, he said, had the best cause, the other the best men. Always we shall have, under some new name, and with new watchwords, the old Conservative party, dreading change, gathering to itself the respectability of experience and standing and success, having in its ranks most of the men whom the country has proved on the questions of yesterday, and therefore, by that halting, conservative logic which is so natural, on one side so just, and yet so often delusive, prefers to trust on the wholly different questions of to-day and to-morrow. Always, again, we shall have the party of revolt from these philosophers of yesterdays—the party that disputes the established, that demands change, that insists upon new measures for new emergencies, that refuses to recognize the rule of the past as the necessary rule for them. It is the party that gathers to itself all the restless, all the extravagant, all the crack-brained, all the men with hobbies and missions and spheres. Here, too, as of old unto David, gather themselves everyone that is in distress, every one that is in debt, every one that is discontented. And so we have again, just as in the old Democratic days, just as in the old Free-Soil days, just as in the old Republican days, before Republicanism, too, in its turn became powerful and conservative, the disreputable party of conglomerate material, repulsive appearance, and splendid possibilities, the perpetual antagonist of conservatism, the perpetual party of to-morrow. Need I say where it seems to me the American scholar belongs? He has too rarely been found there as yet. Mr. Bright’s Cave of Adullam has not seemed an inviting retreat for the shy, scholastic recluse, or for the well-nurtured favorite of academic audiences. But Mr. Bright and our scholars have alike forgotten their history. The disreputable Adullamites came to rule Israel! As for the scholar, the laws of his intellectual development may be trusted to fix his place. Free thought is necessarily aggressive and critical. The scholar, like the healthy, red-blooded young man, is an inherent, an organic, an inevitable radical. It is his business to reverse the epigram of Emerson, and put the best men and the best cause together. And so we may set down, as a second function of the American scholar in politics, An intellectual leadership of the radicals.

No great continuous class can be always in the wrong; and even the time-honored class of the croakers have reason when they say that in our politics the former times were better than these. We do not have so many great men as formerly in public life. De Tocqueville explains the undeniable fact—far more conspicuous now, indeed, than in his time—by what he calls “the ever-increasing despotism of the majority in the United States.” “This power of the majority,” he continues, “is so absolute and irresistible that one must give up his rights as a citizen, and almost abjure his qualities as a man, if he intends to stray from the track which it prescribes.” The declaration is extravagant, yet who that has seen the ostracism of our best men for views wherein they were only in advance of their times, will doubt that the tyranny of party and the intolerance of independent opinion among political associates constitute at once one of the most alarming symptoms of our politics and one of the evils of our society to be most strenuously resisted? We deify those who put what we think into fine phrases; we anathematize those who, thinking the opposite, put it into equally fine phrases; and we crucify those whom we have deified when they presume to disagree with us….

No citizen can do a higher duty than to resist the majority when he believes it wrong; to assert the right of individual judgment and maintain it; to cherish liberty of thought and speech and action against the tyranny of his own or any party. Till that tyranny, yearly growing more burdensome, as the main object of an old party becomes more and more the retention or the regaining of power, instead of the success of the fresh, vivid principles on which new parties are always organized—till that tyranny is in some measure broken, we shall get few questions considered on their merits, and fail, as we are failing, to bring the strongest men into the service of the State. Here, then, is another task in our politics, for which the scholar is peculiarly fitted by the liberality and independence to which he has been trained; and we may set it down as another of the functions whose discharge we have the right to expect at his hands, To resist the tyranny of party and the intolerance of political opinion, and to maintain actual freedom as well as theoretical liberty of thought.

A great difference between the man of culture and the man without it, is that the first knows the other side. A great curse of our present politics is that your heated partisan never does. He cannot understand how there should be any other side. It seems to him disloyal to have any other side. He is always in doubt about the final salvation of the man who takes the other side, and always sorry that there should be any doubt about it. We have good warrant to expect from the scholar a freedom from prejudice, an open hospitality to new ideas, and an habitual moderation of thought and feeling—in a word, what Mr. Whipple has felicitously called a temper neither stupidly conservative nor malignantly radical, that shall make it among the most valuable of his functions to bring into our politics the element they now so sadly need: Candid consideration of every question on its individual merits; fairness to antagonists and a willingness always to hear the other side.