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Personal ideals

Sir Edwin Arnold, like most Englishmen of conservative proclivities, thinks that we should be better off if we had in this country a better supply of ‘class distinctions.’ He thinks that these distinctions supply to Englishmen ‘respect for authority and certain personal ideals which they follow devotedly.’ There is, no doubt, something to be said in defence of respect for authority, but everything depends upon the selection of the source. As a rule, the rich, the contented, the prosperous, think that the authority should be their own or that of their friends. The poor, the obscure, the discontented, are less satisfied with this assignment. Now it is useless to say that authority in itself is a good thing without reference to its origin or its quality. It is like saying that scales and weights are a good thing, without reference to the question who fixed their value. If you weigh by the [107] scales of a cheating pedler, then the more authority you assign to his weights, the worse for you; better guess at it or measure out by the handful. We read in Knickerbocker's New York that the standard weight of the early settlers in dealing with the Indians was the weight of a Dutchman's foot; and no doubt the Indians were told that it was their duty to pay reverence to this form of authority. In England at the present day the authority is not vested in the foot of a Dutchman, but in the coronet of a German; there seems no other difference. A word from the Prince of Wales in London determines not merely the cut of a livery or the wearing of a kid glove, but the good repute of an artist or the bad repute of an actress. If he beckons a poet across the room, the poet feels honored. Indeed, the late Mrs. George Bancroft, a keen observer, once told me that she never knew an Englishman, however eminent in art or science, who, if he had dined with a duke, could help mentioning the fact to all his acquaintances. But is there anything ennobling in this form of social authority? [108]

Now that the human race has reached some degree of maturity and self-respect, there is no dignity in any tribunal of authority except that which a self-governing nation has created for itself. Such deference, and such alone, is manly. To find such deference at its highest point, we must look for it in that entertained by the American people for its own higher courts—courts which it has created, and could at any period with a little delay abolish, but which it recognizes meanwhile as supreme authority. This same sentiment has never in our day been brought to a test so difficult and a result so triumphant as in 1876, when President Hayes was declared Chief Magistrate. Nearly one-half of the American voters honestly believed at that time that they had been defrauded of their rights; but the decision was made by a court expressly constituted for the purpose, and when made, the decree was selfexecuting, not a soldier being ordered out in its support. It is hard to imagine, and perhaps not desirable to see, a respect for authority more complete than this; for even such respect may be too excessive—as many of us discovered [109] during the fugitive-slave period—and may destroy the very liberties it seeks to preserve.

When it comes to personal ideals, again, it makes all the difference in the world whether the ideals are to be of the genuine kind, or merely composed of a court dress and a few jewels. There is something noble in the reverence for an ideal, even if the object of reverence be ill-selected. There is a fine passage in Heine's fragmentary papers on England, where he suddenly comes, among the London docks, to a great ship just from some Oriental port, breathing of the gorgeous East, and manned with a crew of dark Mohammedans of many tribes. Weary of the land around him, and yearning for the strange world from which they came, he yet could not utter a word of their language, till at last he thought of a mode of greeting. Stretching forth his hands reverently, he cried, ‘Mohammed!’ Joy flashed over their dark faces, and assuming a reverent posture, they answered, ‘Bonaparte!’It matters not whether either of these heroes was a false prophet, he stood for a personal ideal, such as no mere king or nobleman can represent; [110] and such an influence may exist equally under any government. Beaconsfield and Gladstone, Cleveland and Blaine, represent hosts of sincere and unselfish admirers, and, on the other hand, of bitter opponents. If the enthusiasm be greater in England, so is the hostility; no American statesman, not even Jefferson or Jackson, ever was the object of such utter and relentless execration as was commonly poured on Gladstone in England a year or two ago in what is called ‘the best society,’ where Sir Edwin Arnold's ideals are supposed to be most prevalent.

No class distinctions can do anything but obscure such ideals as this. The habit of personal reverence—such reverence, for instance, as the college boy gives to a favorite teacher— is not only independent of all social barriers, but makes them trivial. I remember that, some ten years ago, when I was travelling by rail within sight of Princeton College, a young fellow next me pointed it out eagerly, and said to me, ‘I suppose that there are in that college two of the very greatest thinkers of modern times.’ I asked their names, knowing that one [111] of them would, of course, be Dr. McCosh, and receiving as the other name that of a gentleman of whom I had never heard, and whom I have now forgotten; so that my young friend's compliment may be distributed for what it is worth among all those professors who may wish to claim it. Such and so honorable was the enthusiastic feeling expressed by President Garfield toward Mark Hopkins,—that to sit on the same log with him was to be in a university,—or the feeling that the Harvard students of forty years since had toward James Walker. Compare this boyish enthusiasm with the delight of Sir Walter Scott over the possession of a wineglass out of which George IV. had drunk when Prince Regent; and remember how he carried it home for an heirloom in his family, and sat down on it and broke it after his arrival. Which was the more noble way of getting at a personal ideal? ‘There is no stronger satire on the proud English society of that day,’ says Thackeray, ‘than that they admired George.’ When the history of this age comes to be written by some critic as fearless as the author of ‘The Four Georges,’ does [112] any one doubt that the present Prince of Wales —whom even Punch once represented as following in the steps of his uncle, like Hamlet following the ghost, with ‘Go on! I'll follow thee’—will shift his position as hopelessly as did George the Fourth? ‘Which was the most splendid spectacle ever witnessed,’ asks Thackeray, ‘the opening feast of Prince George in London, or the resignation of Washington?’ After all, it seems, the most eminent of modern English literary men has to turn from a monarchy to a republic to find a splendid spectacle.

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