The Tragic Conflict: The Civil War and Reconstruction

By William B. Hesseltine | Go to book overview

41
A Changed Government

Henry Adams

That the Government of the United States is passing through a period of transition is one of the common-places of politics. This transition, which few persons deny, illustrates in a scientific point of view the manner in which principles are established. The generation that framed the American form of government meant it to be, not only in mechanism but in theory, a contradiction to opinions commonly accepted in Europe. The men who made the Constitution intended to make by its means an issue with antiquity; and they had a clear conception of the issue itself, and of their own purposes in raising it. These purposes were perhaps chimerical; the hopes then felt were almost certainly delusive. Yet persons who grant the probable failure of the scheme, and expect the recurrence of the great problems in government which were then thought to be solved, cannot but look with satisfaction at the history of the Federal Constitution as the most convincing and the most interesting experiment ever made in the laboratory of political science, even if it demonstrates the impossibility of success through its means.

The great object of terror and suspicion to the people of the thirteen provinces was power; not merely power in the hands of a president or a prince, of one assembly or of several, of many citizens or of few, but power in the abstract, wherever it existed and under whatever name it was known.... Supreme, irresistible authority must exist somewhere in every government-was the European political belief; and England solved her problem by intrusting it to a representative assembly to be used according to the best judgment of the nation. America, on the other hand, asserted that the principle was not true; that no such supreme power need exist in a government; that in the American Government none such should be allowed to exist, because absolute power in any form was inconsistent with

HENRY ADAMS, Historical Essays ( New York, 1891), pp. 367-412.

Originally published in the North American Review ( July, 1870), Adams' review of the first years of the Grant administration dealt extensively with Secretary Boutwell's financial policy, and with foreign affairs. Adams himself had spent the war years in England, where his father, Charles Francis Adams, was the American minister.

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