BEING A PORTION OF A PAPER ON “CONSISTENCY,” READ BEFORE THE MONDAY EVENING CLUB IN 1887
(See Chapter clxiii)
. . . I have referred to the fact that when a man retires from his political party he is a traitor — that he is so pronounced in plain language. That is bold; so bold as to deceive many into the fancy that it is true. Desertion, treason — these are the terms applied. Their military form reveals the thought in the man’s mind who uses them: to him a political party is an army. Well, is it? Are the two things identical? Do they even resemble each other? Necessarily a political party is not an army of conscripts, for they are in the ranks by compulsion. Then it must be a regular army or an army of volunteers. Is it a regular army? No, for these enlist for a specified and well-understood term, and can retire without reproach when the term is up. Is it an army of volunteers who have enlisted for the war, and may righteously be shot if they leave before the war is finished? No, it is not even an army in that sense. Those fine military terms are high-sounding, empty lies, and are no more rationally applicable to a political party than they would be to an oyster-bed. The volunteer soldier comes to the recruiting office and strips himself and proves that he is so many feet high, and has sufficiently good teeth, and no fingers gone, and is sufficiently sound in body generally; he is accepted; but not until he has sworn a deep oath or made other solemn form of promise to march under, that flag until that war is done or his term of enlistment completed. What is the process when a voter joins a party? Must he prove that he is sound in any way, mind or body? Must he prove that he knows anything — is capable of anything — whatever? Does he take an oath or make a promise of any sort? — or doesn’t he leave himself entirely free? If he were informed by the political boss that if he join, it must be forever; that he must be that party’s chattel and wear its brass collar the rest of his days — would not that insult him? It goes without saying. He would say some rude, unprintable thing, and turn his back on that preposterous organization. But the political boss puts no conditions upon him at all; and this volunteer makes no promises, enlists for no stated term. He has in no sense become a part of an army; he is in no way restrained of his freedom. Yet he will presently find that his bosses and his newspapers have assumed just the reverse of that: that they have blandly arrogated to themselves an ironclad military authority over him; and within twelve months, if he is an average man, he will have surrendered his liberty, and will actually be silly enough to believe that he cannot leave that party, for any cause whatever, without being a shameful traitor, a deserter, a legitimately dishonored man.
There you have the just measure of that freedom of conscience, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech and action which we hear so much inflated foolishness about as being the precious possession of the republic. Whereas, in truth, the surest way for a man to make of himself a target for almost universal scorn, obloquy, slander, and insult is to stop twaddling about these priceless independencies and attempt to exercise one of them. If he is a preacher half his congregation will clamor for his expulsion — and will expel him, except they find it will injure real estate in the neighborhood; if he is a doctor his own dead will turn against him.
I repeat that the new party-member who supposed himself independent will presently find that the party have somehow got a mortgage on his soul, and that within a year he will recognize the mortgage, deliver up his liberty, and actually believe he cannot retire from that party from any motive howsoever high and right in his own eyes without shame and dishonor.
Is it possible for human wickedness to invent a doctrine more infernal and poisonous than this? Is there imaginable a baser servitude than it imposes? What slave is so degraded as the slave that is proud that he is a slave? What is the essential difference between a lifelong democrat and any other kind of lifelong slave? Is it less humiliating to dance to the lash of one master than another?
This infamous doctrine of allegiance to party plays directly into the hands of politicians of the baser sort — and doubtless for that it was borrowed — or stolen — from the monarchial system. It enables them to foist upon the country officials whom no self-respecting man would vote for if he could but come to understand that loyalty to himself is his first and highest duty, not loyalty to any party name.
Shall you say the best good of the country demands allegiance to party? Shall you also say that it demands that a man kick his truth and his conscience into the gutter and become a mouthing lunatic besides? Oh no, you say; it does not demand that. But what if it produce that in spite of you? There is no obligation upon a man to do things which he ought not to do when drunk, but most men will do them just the same; and so we hear no arguments about obligations in the matter — we only hear men warned to avoid the habit of drinking; get rid of the thing that can betray men into such things.
This is a funny business all around. The same men who enthusiastically preach loyal consistency to church and party are always ready and willing and anxious to persuade a Chinaman or an Indian or a Kanaka to desert his church or a fellow-American to desert his party. The man who deserts to them is all that is high and pure and beautiful — apparently; the man who deserts from them is all that is foul and despicable. This is Consistency — with a capital C.
With the daintiest and self-complacentest sarcasm the lifelong loyalist scoffs at the Independent — or as he calls him, with cutting irony, the Mugwump; makes himself too killingly funny for anything in this world about him. But — the Mugwump can stand it, for there is a great history at his back; stretching down the centuries, and he comes of a mighty ancestry. He knows that in the whole history of the race of men no single great and high and beneficent thing was ever done for the souls and bodies, the hearts and the brains of the children of this world, but a Mugwump started it and Mugwumps carried it to victory: And their names are the stateliest in history: Washington, Garrison, Galileo, Luther, Christ. Loyalty to petrified opinions never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world-end never will.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00