The American Democrat

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Liberty is not a matter of words, but a positive and important condition of society. Its greatest safeguard after placing its foundations on a popular base, is in the checks and balances imposed on the public servants, and all its real friends ought to know that the most insidious attacks are made on it by those who are the largest trustees of authority, in their efforts to increase their power.

The American Democrat: Or, Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America (1838) is a political essay written by James Fenimore Cooper. Originally intended as a textbook on the American republican democracy, the work analyzes the social forces that shape, and can ultimately corrupt such a system.

Quotes[edit]

In all the general concerns, the publick has a right to be treated with candor. Without this manly and truly republican quality, republican because no power exists in the country to intimidate any from its exhibition, the institutions are converted into a stupendous fraud.
Neither is morality to be regulated by the prejudice of sects, or social classes, but it is to be left strictly to the control of the laws, both divine and human. To assume the contrary is to make prejudice, and prejudice of a local origin too, more imperious that the institutions.
  • Man is known to exist in no part of the world, without certain rules for the regulation of his intercourse with those around him. It is a first necessity of his weakness, that laws, founded on the immutable principles of natural justice, should be framed, in order to protect the feeble against the violence of the strong; the honest from the schemes of the dishonest; the temperate and industrious, from the waste and indolence of the dissolute and idle. These laws, though varying in circumstance, possess a common character, being formed on that consciousness of right, which God has bestowed in order that men may judge between good and evil.
    • On Government
  • It follows that the legislature of this country, by the intention of the constitution, wields the highest authority under the least responsibility, and that is the power most to be distrusted. Still, all who possess trusts, are to be diligently watched, for there is no protection against abuses without responsibility, nor any real responsibility, without vigilance.
    • On Distinctive American Principles
  • Liberty is not a matter of words, but a positive and important condition of society. Its greatest safeguard after placing its foundations on a popular base, is in the checks and balances imposed on the public servants, and all its real friends ought to know that the most insidious attacks are made on it by those who are the largest trustees of authority, in their efforts to increase their power.
    • On Distinctive American Principles
  • Equality, in a social sense, may be divided into that of condition, and that of rights. Equality of condition is incompatible with civilization, and is found only to exist in those communities that are but slightly removed from the savage state. In practice, it can only mean a common misery.
    Equality of rights is a peculiar feature of democracies. These rights are properly divided into civil and political, though even these definitions are not to be taken as absolute, or as literally exact.
    • On Equality
  • With an equality of civil rights, all men are equal before the law; all classes of the community being liable equally to taxation, military service, jury duties, and to the other impositions attendant on civilization, and no one being exempted from its control, except on general rules, which are dependent on the good of all, instead of the exemption's belonging to the immunities of individuals, estates, or families. An equality of civil rights may be briefly defined to be an absence of privileges.
    • On Equality
  • Great principles seldom escape working injustice in particular things, and this so much the more, in establishing the relations of a community, for in them many great, and frequently conflicting principles enter, to maintain the more essential features of which sacrifices of parts become necessary.
    • On American Equality
  • The very existence of government at all, infers inequality. The citizen who is preferred to office becomes the superior to those who are not, so long as he is the repository of power, and the child inherits the wealth of the parent as a controlling law of society.
    • On American Equality
  • All that a good government aims at, therefore, is to add no unnecessary and artificial aid to the force of its own unavoidable consequences, and to abstain from fortifying and accumulating social inequality as a means of increasing political inequalities.
    • On American Equality
  • Liberty, like equality, is a word more used than understood. Perfect and absolute liberty is incompatible with the existence of society, as equality of condition. It is impracticable in a state of nature even, since, without the protection of law, the strong would oppose and enslave the weak. We are then to understand by liberty, merely such a state of social compact as permits the members of a community to lay no more restraints on themselves, than are required by their real necessities, and obvious interests. To this definition may be added, that it is a requisite of-liberty, that the body of a nation should retain the power to modify its institutions, as circumstances shall require.
    • On Liberty
  • Having settled what is the foundation of liberty, it remains to be seen by what process a people can exercise this authority over themselves. The usual course is to refer all matters of choice to the decision of majorities. The common axiom of democracies, however, which says that "the majority must rule," is to be received with many limitations. Were the majority of a country to rule without restraint, it is probable as much injustice and oppression would follow, as are found under the dominion of one.
    • On Liberty
  • The principal advantage of a democracy, is a general elevation in the character of the people.
    • Advantages of a Democracy
  • The vulgar charge that the tendency of democracies is to levelling, meaning to drag all down to the level of the lowest, is singularly untrue, its real tendency being to elevate the depressed to a condition not unworthy of their manhood.
    • Advantages of a Democracy
  • Democracies are necessarily controlled by public opinion, and failing of the means of obtaining power more honestly, the fraudulent and ambitious find a motive to mislead, and even to try to corrupt the common sentiment, to attain their ends.
    • On the Disadvantages of Democracy
  • The tendencies of democracies are, in all things, to mediocrity, since the tastes, knowledge and principles of the majority form the tribunal of appeal. This circumstance, while it certainly serves to elevate the average qualities of a nation, renders the introduction of a high standard difficult. Thus do we find in literature, the arts, architecture and in all acquired knowledge, a tendency in America to gravitate towards the common center in this, as in other things; lending a value and estimation to mediocrity that are not elsewhere given.
    • On the Disadvantages of Democracy
  • It is a besetting vice of democracies to substitute public opinion for law. This is the usual form in which masses of men exhibit their tyranny.
    • On the Disadvantages of Democracy
  • Prejudice is the cause of most of the mistakes of bodies of men. It influences our conduct and warps our judgment, in politics, religion, habits, tastes and opinions.
    • On Prejudice
  • America owes most of its social prejudices to the exaggerated religious opinions of the different sects which were so instrumental in establishing the colonies. The quakers, or friends, proscribed the delightful and elevated accomplishment of music, as, indeed, did the puritans, with the exception of psalmody. The latter confined marriage ceremonies to the magistrates, lest religion should be brought into disrepute! Most of those innocent recreations which help the charities, and serve to meliorate manners, were also forbidden, until an unnatural and monastic austerity, with a caustic habit of censoriousness, got to be considered as the only outward signs of that religious hope, which is so peculiarly adapted to render us joyous and benevolent. False and extravagant notions on the subject of manners, never fail to injure a sound morality, by mistaking the shadow for the substance.
    • On Prejudice
  • Another motive peculiar to this country, for freeing the mind from prejudice, is the mixed character of the population. Natives of different sections of the United States, and of various parts of Europe are brought in close contact, and without disposition to bear each other's habits, association becomes unpleasant, and enmities are engendered. It ought never to be forgotten, therefore, that every citizen is entitled to indulge without comment, or persecution, in all his customs and practices that are lawful and moral. Neither is morality to be regulated by the prejudice of sects, or social classes, but it is to be left strictly to the control of the laws, both divine and human. To assume the contrary is to make prejudice, and prejudice of a local origin too, more imperious that the institutions.
    • On Prejudice
  • That one man is not deemed as good as another in the grand moral system of providence, is revealed to us in the Holy Writ, by the scheme of future rewards and punishments, as well as by the whole history of those whom God has favored in this world, for their piety, or punished for their rebellin. As compared with perfect holiness, all men are frail; but, as compared with each other, we are throughout the whole of sacred history made to see, that, in a moral sense, one man is not as good as another. The evil doer is punished, while they who are distinguished for their qualities and acts, are intended to be preferred... We are then to discard all visionary theories on this head, and look at things as they are. All that the most popular institutions attempt, is to prohibit that one race of man shall be made better than another by law, from father to son, which would be defeating the intentions of providence, creating a superiority that exists in neither physical nor moral nature, and substituting a political scheme for the will of God and the force of things. As a principle, one man is as good as another in rights.
    • On Station
  • In Democracies, there is a besetting disposition to make publick opinion stronger than the law. This is the particular form in which tyranny exhibits itself in a popular government; for wherever there is power, there will be found a disposition to abuse it...The most insinuating and dangerous form in which oppression can overshadow a community is that of popular sway.
    • On the Duties of Publick or Political Station
  • The old political saying, that "the people are their own worst enemies," while false as a governing maxim, contains some truth... It is , therefore, a public duty of the citizen to guard against all excesses of popular power, whether inflicted by mere opinion, or under the forms of law. In all his public acts, he should watch himself, as under a government of another sort he would watch his rulers; or as vigilantly as he watches the servants of the community at home ; for, though possessing the power in the last resort, it is not so absolutely an irresponsible power as it first seems, coming from God, and to be wielded on those convictions of right which God has implanted in our breasts, that we may know good from evil.
    • On the Duties of Publick or Political Station
  • The private duties of the citizen, as connected with social station, are founded chiefly on the relations between man and man, though others may be referred to a higher source, being derived directly from the relations between the creature and his creator.
    A regard for the duties of private station, are indispensable to order, and to the intercourse between different members of society. So important have they always been deemed, that the inspired writers, from the Saviour through the greatest of his apostles down, have deemed them worthy of being placed in conspicuous characters, in their code of morals.
    The first direct mandate of God, as delivered on Mt. Sinai, were to impress the Jews with a sense of their duties to their Heavenly Father; the next to impress them with the first of their social duties, that of honor and obedience to their parents.
    • On the Private Duties of Station
  • Knowledge is as necessary to the progress of a people as physical force, for, with our knowledge, the beasts of burthen who now toil for man, would soon compel man to toil for them.
    • On the Private Duties of Station
  • Some men fancy that a democrat can only be one who seeks the level, social, mental and moral, of the majority, a rule that would at once exclude all men of refinement, education, and taste from the class. These persons are enemies of democracy, as they at once render it impracticable. They are usually great sticklers for their own associations and habits, too, though unable to comprehend any of a nature that are superior. They are, in truth, aristocrats in principle, though assuming a contrary pretension; the ground work of all their feelings and arguments being self. Such is not the intention of liberty, whose aim is to leave every man to be the master of his own acts; denying hereditary honors, it is true, as unjust and unnecessary, but not denying the inevitable consequences of civilization. The law of God s the only rule of conduct, in this, as in other matters. Each man should do as he would be done by.
    • An Aristocrat and a Democrat
  • The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people. Sometimes the object is to indulge malignancy, unprincipled and selfish men submitting but to two governing motives, that of doing good to themselves, and that of doing harm to others. The true theatre of a demagogue is a democracy, for the body of the community possessing the power, the master he pretends to serve is best able to reward his efforts. As it is all important to distinguish between those who labor in behalf of the people on the general account, and those who labor in behalf of the people on their own account, some of the rules by which each may be known shall be pointed out.
    The motive of the demagogue may usually be detected in his conduct. The man who is constantly telling the people that they are unerring in judgment, and that they have all power, is a demagogue. Bodies of men being composed of individuals, can no more be raised above the commission of error, than individuals themselves, and, in many situations, they are more likely to err, from self-excitement and the division of responsibility. The power of the people is limited by the fundamental laws, or the constitution, the rights and opinions of the minority, in all but those cases in which a decision becomes indispensable, being just as sacred as the rights and opinions of the majority; else would a democracy be, indeed, what its enemies term it, the worst species of tyranny. In this instance, the people are flattered, in order to be led; as in kingdoms, the prince is blinded to his own defects, in order to extract favor from him.
    • On Demagogues
  • The American doctrinaire is the converse of the American demagogue, and, in this way, is scarcely less injurious to the public. The first deals in poetry, the last in cant. He is as much a visionary on one side, as the extreme theoretical democrat is a visionary on the other.
    • On Demagogues
  • Candor is a proof of both a just frame of mind, and of a good tone of breeding. It is a quality that belongs, equally to the honest man and to the gentleman : to the first, as doing to others as we would ourselves be done by; to the last, as indispensable to the liberality of the character.
    By candor we are not to understand trifling and uncalled for expositions of truth; but a sentiment that proves a conviction of the necessity of speaking truth, when speaking at all; a contempt for all designing evasions of our real opinions; and a deep conviction that he who deceives by necessary implication, deceives willfully.
    In all the general concerns, the publick has a right to be treated with candor. Without this manly and truly republican quality, republican because no power exists in the country to intimidate any from its exhibition, the institutions are converted into a stupendous fraud.
    • On Candor
  • The common faults of American language are an ambition of effect, a want of simplicity, and a turgid abuse of terms.
    • On Language
  • Many words are in a state of mutation, the pronunciation being unsettled even in the best society, a result that must often arise where language is as variable and undetermined as the English.
    • On Language
  • Some changes of language are to be regretted, as they lead to false inferences, and society is always a loser by mistaking names for things.
    • On Language
  • In a popular government, so far from according an entire immunity from penalties to the press, its abuses are those which society is required, by its very safety, to to visit with its heaviest punishments. In a democracy, misleading the publick mind, as regards facts, characters, or principles, is corrupting all that is dear to society at its source, opinion being the fountain whence justice, honors, and the laws, equally flow.
    It is a misfortune that necessity has induced men to accord greater license to this formidable engine, in order to obtain liberty, than can be borne with less important objects in view; for the press, like fire, is an excellent servant, but a terrible master.
    • On the Press
  • The press is equally capable of being mae the instrument of elevating man to the highest point of which his faculties admit, or of depressing him to the lowest.
    • On the Press
  • The history of the press is every where the same. In its infancy it is timid, distrustful, and dependant on truth for success. As it acquires confidence with force, it propagates just opinions with energy; scattering errors and repelling falsehood, until it prevails; when abuses rush in, confounding principles, truths, and all else that is estimable, until it becomes a serious matter of doubt, whether a community derives most good or evil, from the institution.
    • On the Press
  • If newspapers are useful in overthrowing tyrants, it is only to establish a tyranny of their own. The press tyrannizes over publick men, letters, the arts, the stage, and even over private life. Under the pretence of protecting publick morals, it is corrupting them to the core, and under the semblance of maintaining liberty, it is gradually establishing a despotism as ruthless, as grasping, and one that is quite as vulgar as that of any christian state known. With loud professions of freedom of opinion, there is no tolerance; with a parade of patriotism, no sacrifice of interests; and with fulsome panegyrics on propriety, too frequently, no decency.
    • On the American Press
  • A refined simplicity is the characteristic of all high bred deportment, in every country, and a considerate humanity should be the aim of all beneath it.
    • On Deportment
  • In a democracy, as a matter of course, every effort is made to seize upon and create publick opinion, which is, substantially, securing power.
    • On Publick Opinion
  • The Americans … are almost ignorant of the art of music, one of the most elevating, innocent and refining of human tastes, whose influence on the habits and morals of a people is of the most beneficial tendency.
    • On Civilization
  • It is a mistake to suppose commerce favorable to liberty. Its tendency is to a monied aristocracy, and this, in effect, has always been the policy of every community of merchants. Commerce is an enemy of despotic power in the hands of a prince, of church influence, and of hereditary aristocracies, from which facts it has obtained its reputation of sustaining freedom; but, as a class, merchants will always be opposed to the control of majorities.
    • On Commerce
  • Slavery is no more sinful, by the Christian code, than it is sinful to wear a whole coat, while another is in tatters, to eat a better meal than a neighbor, or otherwise to enjoy ease and plenty, while our fellow creatures are suffering and in want.
    • On Slavery
  • It is commonly said that political parties are necessary to liberty. This is one of the mistaken opinions that have been inherited from those who, living under governments in which there is no true political liberty, have fancied that the struggles which are inseparable from their condition, must be common to the conditions of all others.
    • On Party
  • Party is known to encourage prejudice, and to lead men astray in the judgment of character. Thus it is we see one half the nation extolling those that the other half condemns, and condemning those that the other half extols. Both cannot be right, and as passions, interests and prejudices are all enlisted on such occasions, it would be nearer the truth to say that both are wrong.
    Party is an instrument of error, by pledging men to support its policy, instead of supporting the policy of the state. Thus we see party measures almost always in extremes, the resistance of opponents inducing the leaders to ask for more than is necessary.
    Party leads to vicious, corrupt and unprofitable legislation, for the sole purpose of defeating party. Thus have we seen those territorial divisions and regulations which ought to be permanent, as well as other useful laws, altered, for no other end than to influence an election.
    Party, has been a means of entirely destroying that local independence, which elsewhere has given rise to a representation that acts solely for the nation, and which, under other systems is called the country party, every legislator being virtually pledged to support one of two opinions; or, if a shade of opinion between them, a shade that is equally fettered, though the truth be with neither.
  • Party, by feeding the passions and exciting personal interests, overshadows truth, justice, patriotism, and every other publick virtue, completely reversing the order of a democracy, by putting unworthy motives in the place of reason.
    • On Party
  • The great body of the nation has no real interest in party. Every local election should be absolutely independent of great party divisions, and until this be done, the intentions of the American institutions will never be carried out, in their excellence.
    • On Party
  • No freeman, who really loves liberty, and who has a just perception of its dignity, character, action and objects, will ever become a mere party man. He may have his preferences as to measures and man, may act in concert with those who think with himself, on occasions that require concert, but it will be his earnest endeavor to hold himself a free agent, and most of all to keep his mind untrammelled by the prejudices, frauds, and tyranny of factions.
    • On Party
  • Individuality is the aim of political liberty. By leaving to the citizen as much freedom of action and of being, as comports with order and the rights of others, the institutions render him truly a freeman. He is left to pursue his means of happiness in his own manner.
    • On Individuality
  • The habit of seen the public rule, is gradually accustoming the American mind to an interference with private rights that is slowly undermining the individuality of the national character. There is getting to be so much public right, that private right is overshadowed and lost. A danger exists that the ends of liberty will be forgotten altogether in the means.
    • On Individuality
  • All greatness of character is dependent on individuality. The man who has no other existence than that which he partakes in common with all around him, will never have any other than an existence of mediocrity.
    • On Individuality
  • "They say," is the monarch of this country, in a social sense. No one asks "who says it," so long as it is believed that "they say it." Designing men endeavor to persuade the publick, that already "they say," what these designing men wish to be said, and the publick is only too much disposed blindly to join in the cry of "they say."
    This is another consequence of the habit of defering to the control of the publick, over matters in which the publick has no right to interfere.
    Every well meaning man, before he yields his faculties and intelligence to this sort of dictation, should first ask himself "who" is "they," and on what authority "they say" utters its mandates.
    • "They say"
  • In America the taint of sectarianism lies broad upon the land. Not content with acknowledging the supremacy as the Deity, and with erecting temples in his honor, where all can bow down with reverence, the pride and vanity of human reason enter into and pollute our worship, and the houses that should be of God and for God, alone, where he is to be honored with submissive faith, are too often merely schools of metaphysical and useless distinctions. The nation is sectarian, rather than Christian.
    Religion's first lesson is humility; its fruit, charity. In the great and sublime ends of Providence, little things are lost, and least of all is he imbued with a right spirit who believes that insignificant observances, subtleties of doctrine, and minor distinctions, enter into the great essentials of the Christian character. The wisest thing for him who is disposed to cavil at the immaterial habits of his neighbor, to split straws on doctrine, to fancy trifles of importance, and to place the man before principles, would be to distrust himself.
    • On Religion
  • As reason and revelation both tell us that this state of being is but a preparation for another of a still higher and more spiritual order, all the interests of life are of comparatively little importance, when put in the balance against the future.
    • On Religion
  • Christ, in the parable of the vine dressers, has taught us a sublime lesson of justice, by showing that to the things which are not our own, we can have no just claim.
    • On Religion
  • It is a governing principle of nature, that the agency which can produce most good, when perverted from its proper aim, is most productive of evil. It behoves the well-intentioned, therefore, vigilantly to watch the tendency of even their most highly prized institutions, since that which was established in the interests of the right, may so easily become the agent of the wrong.
    The disposition of all power is to abuses, nor does it at all mend the matter that its possessors are a majority. Unrestrained political authority, though it be confided to masses, cannot be trusted without positive limitations, men in bodies being but an aggregation of the passions, weaknesses and interests of men as individuals.
    • Conclusion, p. 191
  • Under every system it is more especially the office of the prudent and candid to guard against the evils peculiar to that particular system, than to declaim against the abuses of others. Thus, in a democracy, instead of decrying monarchs and aristocrats, who are impotent, it is wiser to look into the sore spots of the only form of government that can do any practical injury, and to apply the necessary remedies, than to be glorifying ourselves at the expense of charity, common sense, and not unfrequently of truth.
    • Conclusion
  • Life is made up of positive things, the existence of which it is not only folly, but which it is often unsafe to deny. Nothing is gained by setting up impracticable theories, but alienating opinion from the facts under which we live, all the actual distinctions that are inseparable from the possession of property, learning, breeding, refinement, tastes and principles, existing as well in one form of government, as in another; the only difference between ourselves and other nations, in this particular, lying in the fact that there are no other artificial distinctions than those that are inseparable from the recognised principles and indispensable laws of civilization.
    There is less real inequality in the condition of men than outward circumstances would give reason to believe. If refinement brings additional happiness, it also adds point to misery. Fortunately, the high consolations of religion, in which lies the only lasting and true relief from the cares and seeming injustice of the world, are equally attainable, or, if there be a disadvantage connected with this engrossing interest, it is against those whose lots are vulgarly supposed to be the most desirable.
    • Conclusion

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