Saturday, January 12, 2013

Bow of Achilles by James Froude

AVI recently pointed to the Froude Society, which suggested that people become acquainted with Victorian thinkers, starting with The English in the West Indies, or The Bow of Ulysses by James Anthony Froude (1888).

OK, I'm game. I'm not that up on Victorian-era thought; let me fill in the gap a bit. I found the suggested book on and plowed through it.

Short version: he combines a good and erudite style with interesting observations and a generally humane openness to new views, but includes a startling and repeated insistence on the inferiority of Africans. This he claims is visible in intelligence, in morals, and in culture; and he prophesied disaster if the West Indies were made truly democratic immediately. He claimed that only with years of guidance and uplift could blacks be made capable of participation in government.

I gather that somebody agreed with him at least in part: Jamaica was a Crown Colony until 1957.

He claimed that in the well-governed colonies all the blacks he saw were happy , submoral, content and hardworking when they either were working on their own land or working for a benevolent master (reliable, not stingy, friendly) and lazy otherwise. I hope I may be forgiven for not fully trusting his observations. To the blacks and mulattos and Chinese he was an outsider with none of the letters of introduction he used elsewhere, and I suspect he saw little besides the "happy slave face" that deflects suspicion. (OK, he admits that one of the Jamaican Barbadoes blacks was a Justice and as able a man as you could wish for.)

He was pleased to see how well-educated and disciplined the new British soldiers were, but repeatedly wondered if they were the equals of the old privateer fighters. Over and over he stresses the heroism of the British fighters who won the Indies, and bemoans the drift of the Indies to independence (or the USA).

When he reports on matters of fact, he is probably accurate (although he seems not to believe that a chunk of Port Royals was permanently submerged in the catastrophe), so if he says that quarrels among the blacks were usually verbal while those among the Asians were frequently violent--he's probably right.

But in matters of political theory he is "close but no cigar," hampered as he is by a steadfast racism and an unquestioning hero-worship of the British governors and heroes of old. He is revolted by the stupidity of the current government. (For example, putting a garrison on the steep side of a mountain to get it above the malarial swamp sounded reasonable but it was such a hardship post that they lost soldiers to desertion all the time. ) It doesn't seem to occur to him that earlier administrations were equally stupid, but in different matters.

But the fundamental questions are important and still lively: What are the prerequisites for a democratic government? And if those prerequisites are not there, what sort of government should you install?

On the one side, let Chesterton be the spokesman:

Democracy means government by the uneducated, while aristocracy means government by the badly educated.


This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves -- the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

As spokesmen for the other side consider

John Adams: "Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

or "The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If "Thou shalt not covet," and "Thou shalt not steal," were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free."

Samuel Adams: "[N]either the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt."

Benjamin Franklin: "[O]nly a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."

Unknown (deToqueville?): "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy. "

Edward Djerejian (about Algeria): "One man, one vote, one time. "

We haven't solved this puzzle yet, and I hear a lot of confusion between means and ends, especially among high officials. Good government and freedom are (usually) the desired ends. Democracy is a means.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

I don't know whether Chesterton or Adams is more right, but I want Chesterton to be right.

As for Froude, I saw much the same. There is confirmation bias throughout. He sees some immorality of early British explorers and colonisers but discounts it in the light of their success and courage. For the French or Spanish, little such allowance is given.

Some. Little. He does notice and report evidence against his theories, but they seem not to dent him much.

james said...

I probably should have included Churchill's "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Short term, Singapore's system works OK. But 50 years from now? I doubt it.