The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 12
Spirit of Power
Spirit of Power.
If there is any influence from a potent malignant being, which has pervaded this earth, and infatuated its mightiest as its humblest minds, which has prompted more than any other impulse, its tyrannies and its crimes, and inflicted more than any other cause, the abounding sorrows and privations of human life, it is the spirit of coercive power: this spirit is ingrained in every human bosom, from the lisping infant to the hoary-headed to termer to the tomb. We speak not of power assumed, with a sincere purpose to confer some benefit, or procure some comfort to others: but the gratification of a passion for a capricious and useless rule. We see this propensity in the hasty quarrels of children, and of families; in the ambitious desire for political or religious office, even when not compensated; in the passionate attachment to the selfish and unprofitable practice of slavery; in the stern page 543 opposition to any diminution of authority once acquired or assumed; but it is nowhere so strong or so mischievous, as in the affairs of nations. History, in its records of innumerable wars, tyrannies, and cruelties, can scarcely show one, which, has not proceeded from the desire of sovereigns to extend their dominions, to settle some disputed title to their thrones, or to crush all opposition to their despotic sway; and in all the slaughters, losses and cruelties in these transactions, there is scarcely seen a pretence, or but a pretence, that interest, protection or improvements required them: it was mostly a domineering impassioned exercise of power.
That despots in power should be anxious to strengthen and increase it, is conformable to the natural sentiments of the human mind; but that their ambition should be participated in, and sustained by their subjects and people at large, is wonderful; especially when it is fully felt and acknowledged, that they do not share in the increase of power, acquired by the sovereign through their efforts; but are often, as much oppressed by his victories, as those over whom they are obtained: identifying themselves with the dominion to which they nominally belong, they are blind to the loss of liberty they have sustained, by the subjugation of others. It is true, that in most cases, when these usurpations or aggressions are made to increase or strengthen power, the pretence is, that this aggression is demanded by safety, self-defence, or prevention of anarchy; and such is the delusion generated by this strife for power, that the belief of such necessity is generally sincere; and many noble minds are induced to give their enthusiastic aid to their chief, in view of such supposed necessity, who would shrink from such an action if they perceived the unrighteous ambition by which he was really impelled.
That the alleged causes of martial and political encroachments, are not often real, but mere delusions, is proved by the fact, that they are commonly seen to be so by those who are unconcerned and impartial: every large nation coercing smaller nations into allegiance with it, fully believing itself to be right, while it is believed to be wrong by all others. Thus the Emperor of Russia, (and probably his people,) believed he had a full right to subjugate Poland to his dominion, while the people of all other countries considered him to be in the wrong; thus the Emperor of Austria does not hesitate to assert his right to govern Hungary, without its consent, in disregard of the reproaches of the people of Europe and America. There are no people who so uniformly and so strongly sympathise with nationalities, subjugated by others, as those of Britain, and who, until lately, were more ready to interfere by war for their protection and independence; and yet no nation has been more culpable in encroachments upon other realms. Ireland, Canada, India, and Burmah, have been successively and unwillingly brought under its dominion; and wars, on the slightest pretences, have added islands, fortresses, and parts of realms to its empire.
But the most astonishing example the world ever saw of this infatuation of judgment, produced by the excitement of war, on a whole people, has been exhibited by the United States of America, in their recent civil war. Here is a nation which originated in the secession of page 544 a portion of an empire; which resolutely denied the right of a larger portion to hold them in unwilling subjection, and insisted on the right of independence of every organised community, and which annually celebrates, with almost idolatrous veneration, the efforts by which their own independence was achieved; forgetting the sympathy ever shown by them for Poland, Hungary, and Ireland, the interest even now felt for the cause of invaded Mexico; and yet, with almost unanimous impulse, wishing by the bloodiest war to extinguish every spark of independence in a large portion of their own confederacy; a portion which had never consented to. a full allegiance to it. The passion for power, even Republican rulers, could not brook the least diminution of it, though justified by the more impartial world.
Vain is the reliance on the practice of suffrage, or any republican forms, for the security of private rights against governmental encroachment, while such ample powers are granted to supreme rulers, under a fancied necessity. The supporters of a strong government, whether by arms or votes, in the chimerical fear of an impossible anarchy, and under the impulse of the pride of power, are everywhere fastening chains upon themselves.
J. P. B.Boston, U. S.