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Review of Democratic Vistas

An original thinker on the other side of the Atlantic, the magnanimous Walt Whitman, has lately been looking through democratic vistas. Having mastered the lessons of the past as much as any man, and scanned the present with a remarkably keen eye, he has turned his mental telescope on the future and sees visions there that we trust will by and by be realised. He tells us that America, filling the present with greatest deeds and problems, cheerfully accepting the past, including feudalism, (as, indeed, the present is but the legitimate birth of the past, including feudalism,) counts for her justification and success almost entirely in the future. Sole among nationalities, the United States have assumed the task to put in forms of lasting power and practicality, on areas of amplitude rivalling the operations of the physical cosmos, the moral and political speculations of ages, long, long deferred, the democratic republican principle, and the theory of development and perfection by voluntary standards and self suppliance. He does not gloss over the appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the States. It is, in fact, to admit and face these dangers he is writing. His eyes are open to the people's crudeness, vices, caprices; but in spite of these he is hopefully confident. Not the least doubtful is he on any prospects of the material success of the American Republic. Quoting Vice-President Colfax, he describes the progress of the Union, which, we should remember, is still in its infancy. From a territorial area of less than nine hundred thousand square miles, it has expanded over four millions and a half,—a space fifteen times larger than Great Britain and France combined, with a shore line, including Alaska, equal to the entire circumference of the earth. In trade and commerce,—railway traffic,—manufacturing, mechanical, and mining industry,—agriculture,—population,—the figures are correspondingly vast, and increasing by something like geometrical progression. But Walt Whitman is not satisfied with this, nor with any earnest or promise of material wealth to his native country. He says Democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil, "until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of arts, poems, schools, theology, displacing all that exists, or that has been produced anywhere in the past, under opposite influences." This is what he thinks is wanted in order to give America a real Unity, a Soul, a Conscience. So far the New World Democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materalistic development, products, and a certain highly deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is an almost complete failure, he confesses, in its social aspects, in any superb general personal character, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and esthetic results. "In vain," says he, "do we march with unprecedented strides to empire so colossal, outvying the antique, beyond Alexander's beyond the proudest sway of Rome. In vain do we annex Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north for Canada and south for Cuba. It is as if we were somehow being endowed with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul." "Everywhere, in ship, street, church, theatre, bar-room, official chair, are pervading flippancy and vulgarity, low cunning infidelity—everywhere, the youth puny, impudent, foppish, prematurely ripe—everywhere an abnormal libidinousness, unhealthy forms, male, female, painted, padded, dyed, chignoned, muddy complexions, bad blood, the capacity for good motherhood deceasing or deceased, shallow notions of beauty, with a range of manners, or rather lack omanners (considering the advantages enjoyed), probably the meanest to be seen in the world." Yet underneath all this, which is shocking enough, the eye of the seer beholds, steadily pressing ahead and strengthening itself, even in the midst of immense tendencies towards aggregation, the image of completeness in separation, of individual personal dignity, of a single person, either male or female, characterised in the main, not from extrinsic acquirements or position, but in the pride of himself or herself alone,—the idea of that Something a man is, standing apart from all else, divine in his own right, and a woman in hers, "sole and untouchable by any claims of authority, or any rule derived from precedent, state-safety, the acts of legislatures, or even from what is called religion, modesty, or art." The purpose of democracy—supplanting old belief in the necessary absoluteness of established dynastic rulership, temporal, ecclesiastical, and scholastic, as furnishing the only security against chaos, crime and ignorance—is, through many transmigrations, and amid endless ridicules, arguments, and ostensible failures, to illustrate, at all hazards, the doctrine or theory that man, properly trained in sanest, highest freedom, may and must become a law, and a series of laws, unto himself, securing and providing for, not only his own personal control, but all his relations to other individuals and to the State; and that, while other theories, as in the past history of nations, have proved wise enough, and indispensable perhaps for their conditions, this, as matters now stand in our civilized world, is the only scheme worth working for, as warranting results like those of Nature's laws, reliable, when once established, to carry on themselves. Few probably are the minds, even in the United States, that fully comprehend as yet the aptness of that phrase, "the Government of the People, by the People, for the People," which Americans inherit from the lips of Abraham Lincoln,—a formula whose verbal shape is homely wit, but whose scope includes both the totality and all minutae of the lesson which the New World is now engaged in learning itself, and will eventually teach to the whole world. Higher than the highest arbitrary rule, it is to train communities through all their grades, beginning with individuals and ending there again, to rule themselves. The problem which America has to solve is the inauguration, growth, acceptance, and unmistakeable supremacy among individuals, cities, States, and the Nation, of Moral Conscience, whose analogy in the material universe is what holds together the world, and every object upon it, and carries its dynamics on forever sure and safe. Its lack, and the persistent shirking of it, in life, sociology, literature, politics, business, and even sermonizing in these times, or any times, still leaves the abysm, the mortal flaw and smutch, mocking civilization to-day, with all its unquestioned triumphs. But Walt Whitman hails with joy the oceanic, variegated, intense practical energy, the clamorous demand for facts, even the business material isms of the current age. For he expects they will at last engender, nourish, and develope ideas of a nobler kind, commensurate with humanity. The mark of progress is the growing mastership of the general inferior self by the superior self, in the individual, the nation, the race. And this is what he thinks, and we concur with him in thinking, America is destined to do, is doing, and will accomplish.

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