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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

The Virginian dynasty had failed


much more was established. The "Monroe Doctrine" became, and remains to-day, the corner-stone of American foreign policy. It has been greatly extended in scope, but no American Government has ever, for a moment, wavered in its support. None could afford to do so. To many Englishmen the doctrine itself, and still more the interpretation placed upon it by the United States in later times, seems arrogant--just as to many Americans the British postulate of unchallengeable supremacy at sea seems arrogant. But both claims, arrogant or no, are absolutely indispensable to the nation that puts them forward. If the American Republic were once to allow the principle that European Powers had the right, on any pretext whatever, to extend their borders on the American Continent, then that Republic would either have to perish or to become in all things a European Power, armed to the teeth, ever careful of the balance of power, perpetually seeking alliances and watching rivals. The best way to bring home to an honest but somewhat puzzled American--and there are many such--why we cannot for a moment tolerate what is called by some "the freedom of the seas," is to ask him whether he will give us in return the "freedom" of the American Continent. The answer in both cases is that sane nations do not normally, and with their eyes open, commit suicide.



During the "era of good feeling" in which the Virginian dynasty closed, forces had been growing in the shadow which in a few short years were to transform the Republic. The addition to these forces of a personality completed the transformation which, though it made little or no change in the laws, we may justly call a revolution.

The government of Jefferson and his successors was a government based on popular principles and administered by democratically minded gentlemen. The dreams of an aristocratic republic, which had been the half-avowed objective of Hamilton, were dissipated for ever by the Democratic triumph of 1800. The party which had become identified with such ideas was dead; no politician any longer dared to call himself a Federalist. The dogmas of the Declaration of Independence were everywhere recognized as the foundation of the State, recognized and translated into practice in that government was by consent, and in the main faithfully reflected the general will. But the administration, in the higher branches at least, was exclusively in the hands of gentlemen.

When a word is popularly used in more than one sense, the best course is perhaps to define clearly the sense in which one uses it, and then to use it unvaryingly in that sense. The word "gentleman," then, will here always be used in its strictly impartial class significance without thought of association with the idea of "Good man" or "Quietly conducted person," and without any more intention of compliment than if one said "peasant" or "mechanic." A gentleman is one who has that kind of culture and habit of life which usually go with some measure of inheritance in wealth and status. That, at any rate, is what is meant when it is here said that Jefferson and his immediate successors were gentlemen, while the growing impulses to which they appealed and on which they relied came from men who were not gentlemen.

This peculiar position endured because the intense sincerity and single-mindedness of Jefferson's democracy impressed the populace and made them accept him as their natural leader, while his status as a well-bred Virginian squire, like Washington, veiled the revolution that was really taking place. The mantle of his prestige was large enough to cover not only his friend Madison, but Madison's successor Monroe. But at that point the direct inheritance failed. Among Monroe's possible successors there was no one plainly marked out as the heir of the Jeffersonian tradition. Thus--though no American public man saw it at the time--America had come to a most important parting of the ways. The Virginian dynasty had failed; the chief power in the Federation must now either be scrambled for by the politicians or assumed by the people.

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