Law and Politics: Occasional Papers of Felix Frankfurter, 1913-1938

By Archibald MacLeish; E. F. Prichard Jr. et al. | Go to book overview

The Young Men Go to Washington

This selection appeared as an article in Fortune Magazinefor January, 1936, and is reprinted by courtesy of the editors.

ABOUT ten years ago, one of the most eminent of Europeans, visiting this country, was disturbed to find a photograph of Mussolini, signed by the Duce himself, occupying a proud place in the studies of a leading banker and of a famous university president. This, to the knowing sniff of a statesman, revealed a change of political climate in high places, an ominous loss of robust faith in the traditional ideals of the United States. Our visitor was indeed correct in finding evidences of influential distrust of democracy. It had become the fashion to deify what was called efficiency, to concentrate on the difficulties of democracy, to compare the practical workings of democratic society with the paper advantages of omniscient dictatorship. As long ago as the third century B.C., Aristotle explained definitively how dictatorships come into being and how they maintain themselves, until chaos and ruin overtake their victims. But we learn very little from books. Old forms of tyranny with new labels, sponsored with blood-and-thunder oratory, began to make alluring appeal to people who were not fired by the realization that democracy, especially in a country like ours, is not an automatic device for good government, but a continuous and exacting demand for the exercise of reason on the most extensive scale.

Men learn little from books, but they respond to experience. Better than if contrived as laboratory experiments for our especial benefit, the last two years have disclosed before our eyes the inevitable operations of dictatorship. They have brought to life the exact fidelity of Aristotle's pictures of tyrannies painted more than

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