Wisdom from 1814 to Today

Today’s political melee seems at times unbelievable and even unimaginable, but in America’s first few decades, the dangers to democracy were already there to be seen.

In 1814, John Quincy Adams wrote the following to Senator John Taylor of Virginia:

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. […] Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.”

Let us break down what our sixth president wrote to try and figure out what this distinguished man might say about the situation we are in today. (His imagined “words” are indented below.)

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

At the time I wrote this letter, the democracies I had in mind were the Athenian Democracy and the Roman Republic. The former fell out of favor after thinkers like Plato and Aristotle heaped praise upon the political stability of Sparta and disdain on what they saw as the tyranny of the Athenian mob, and the latter became an empire.

Since 1814, I have been proved correct many times over. France has undergone numerous (often bloody) transitions in and out of democracy during its lifetime; Germany was a democracy before Hitler took power in the thirties; and even Russia was briefly a liberal democracy for a few months between the February and October Revolutions. And though democracy may be the dominant political form today (though even that is open for debate), today’s democracies are young by the standards of history’s empires, aristocracies, and monarchies.

“It is vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. […] When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation.”

Remember that a democratic government has the same potential for oppression, corruption, and exploitation as any other form of government. Because governments are merely a collection of human beings, any government can succumb to the same vices as any human. It is obvious from the constant ethics scandals that wrack our government today and the clear influence of money in politics that the United States is not immune from the flaws of other governments. As you can have a corrupt or benevolent monarch, so too can you have a corrupt or benevolent Congress, Court, or President. The vain, greedy, and cruel among us will take whatever paths society gives them to satisfy their worst impulses. Too often this path leads through government, as that is where power resides in almost every human society.

However, one might argue that democracy does provide a check on our worst impulses by forcing our representatives to vote. One person cannot become a tyrant in a democracy; rather, a corrupt democracy requires the majority to be corrupt.

However, our reliance on the majority does nothing to lessen human vice.

“Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.”

While individuals can successfully conquer their worst impulses, large groups cannot. To see how this can be true, look no further than the psychology of the mob. Large groups of people often behave in a way that very few of the individual members would alone. People speak of being swept along, and while the phenomenon is not well understood, there is no question that it occurs. Just as we would fear a tyrant, so too should we fear a corrupt, vain, and selfish mob taking charge of a democracy.

So what is the solution for a democracy on the brink of suicide? How does society take a step back from the ledge?

Adams might say it takes an individual, someone who has mastered his or her worst qualities, who will not succumb to corruption or vanity or greed, whose voice can fly above the noise of the mass and inspire people to follow him or her back into the life of freedom, peace, and prosperity that democracy at its best can give us.

Where are our Roosevelts, Washingtons, and Lincolns? There must be someone in the US today who could emerge.

Therefore, let’s get together and hold the fort against evil forces until then AND try harder to find and elect a leader with ALL the right qualities to set us on a better path for the rest of the century.

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