Source: Century Magazine
Source type: magazine
Document type: editorial
Document title: “The ‘Vanity of Liberty’”
Date of publication: December 1901
Volume number: 63
Issue number: 2
|“The ‘Vanity of Liberty.’” Century Magazine Dec. 1901 v63n2: p. 316.|
|George Washington Cable; freedom of speech; society (criticism).|
|George Washington Cable; William McKinley.|
The “Vanity of Liberty”
A necessary lack of ceremony, an “over-democracy of manners,” a tendency to irreverence—these are a part of the price a country pays for its freedom. There is in America very little of arrogance in “the look from above downward.” We have, indeed, heard an international critic go so far as to declare that the absence of such arrogance in America made our national manners superior to those of any other country. But there is undoubtedly in America not a little of arrogance in the other direction.
There is so much training in a country like ours in the idea of equality that youth is apt to regard itself not only as equal but decidedly superior to age; and the ignorant and feeble, even the vicious, are given to the opinion that they are not merely “as good as,” but actually much “better than,” those whom they are called upon to respect. We have heard it hinted that one reason that there were fewer notorious rascals in high places in English politics than in American was partly because there had been one woman in England, who, for a long lifetime, set a standard of public respect—one person who could not be foully and recklessly abused. The idea was that public opinion was keyed up in England,—to some extent by this means,—given a better tone, or at least made more effective.
If it is at all true that public opinion in England is more effective in keeping out of high politics a certain class of notorious corruptionists,—such, for instance, as “boss” our cities and invade our Senate,—there must be other reasons than the one indicated—reasons having to do, doubtless, with the centralization of an acknowledged single commercial, political, and social metropolis.
The license of speech and print in America, however,—the freedom to abuse grossly and caricature outrageously all public men, including the President of the United States,—has a tendency to confuse the minds of the people, and to interfere with patriotic and disinterested public service. It is right and necessary to criticize our official servants; nothing should be allowed to interfere with this right and duty. But aside from the fear of incitement to assassination, a self-respecting country should put a stop to the treatment of its high officials, on mere difference of political opinion and policy, as if they were outcasts and criminals. Now that the country is starting in, so to speak, with a new President, it is a good time to consider this subject with all seriousness.
Mr. Cable has put his finger upon a national failing—the “vanity of liberty.” Here is food for reflection, and the text for many a timely clerical and lay sermon.