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Wilson On Democracy

April 2018

What is democracy that it should be possible, nay natural, to some nations, impossible as yet to others? Why has it been a cordial and a tonic to little Switzerland and to big America, while it has been as yet only a quick intoxicant or a slow poison to France and Spain, a mere maddening draught to the South American states? Why has England approached democratic institutions by slow and steady stages of deliberate and peaceful development, while so many other states have panted towards democracy through constant revolution? Why has democracy existed in America and in Australia virtually from the first, while other states have utterly failed in every effort to establish it? …

Democracy is of course wrongly conceived when treated as merely a body of doctrine, or as simply a form of government. It is a stage of development. It is not created by aspirations or by new faith: it is built up by slow habit. Its process is experience, its basis old wont, its meaning national organic unity and effectual life. It comes, like manhood, as the fruit of youth: immature peoples cannot have it, and the maturity to which it is vouchsafed is the maturity of freedom and self-control, and no other. It is conduct, and its only stable foundation is character. America has democracy because she is free; she is not free because she has democracy. A particular form of government may no more be adopted than a particular type of character may be adopted: both institutions and character must be developed by conscious effort and through transmitted aptitudes. The variety of effects produced by democratic principles, therefore, upon different nations and systems, and even upon the same nation at different periods, is susceptible of instructive explanation. It is not the result of accident merely, nor of good fortune, manifestly, that the English race has been the only race, outside of quiet, closeted Switzerland, the only race, that is, standing forward amidst the fierce contests of national rivalries, that has succeeded in establishing and maintaining the most liberal forms of government. It is, on the contrary, a perfectly natural outcome of organic development. The English alone have approached popular institutions through habit. All other races have rushed prematurely into them through mere impatience with habit: have adopted democracy, instead of cultivating it. …

There is really, when American institutions are compared with English, nothing essentially novel in our political arrangements: they are simply the normal institutions of the Englishman in America. They are, in other words, English institutions as modified by the conditions surrounding settlements effected under corporate charters, in separate but neighbor colonies; above all as dominated by the material, economic, and social conditions attending the advance of the race in America. These conditions it is, not political principles, that have controlled our intellectual as well as our political development.

—Woodrow Wilson, 1889