Story type: Essay
We are so much accustomed to kings and queens and other privileged persons of that sort in this world that it is only on reflection that we wonder how they became so. The mystery is not their continuance, but how did they get a start? We take little help from studying the bees –originally no one could have been born a queen. There must have been not only a selection, but an election, not by ballot, but by consent some way expressed, and the privileged persons got their positions because they were the strongest, or the wisest, or the most cunning. But the descendants of these privileged persons hold the same positions when they are neither strong, nor wise, nor very cunning. This also is a mystery. The persistence of privilege is an unexplained thing in human affairs, and the consent of mankind to be led in government and in fashion by those to whom none of the original conditions of leadership attach is a philosophical anomaly. How many of the living occupants of thrones, dukedoms, earldoms, and such high places are in position on their own merits, or would be put there by common consent? Referring their origin to some sort of an election, their continuance seems to rest simply on forbearance. Here in America we are trying a new experiment; we have adopted the principle of election, but we have supplemented it with the equally authoritative right of deposition. And it is interesting to see how it has worked for a hundred years, for it is human nature to like to be set up, but not to like to be set down. If in our elections we do not always get the best–perhaps few elections ever did–we at least do not perpetuate forever in privilege our mistakes or our good hits.
The celebration in New York, in 1889, of the inauguration of Washington was an instructive spectacle. How much of privilege had been gathered and perpetuated in a century? Was it not an occasion that emphasized our republican democracy? Two things were conspicuous. One was that we did not honor a family, or a dynasty, or a title, but a character; and the other was that we did not exalt any living man, but simply the office of President. It was a demonstration of the power of the people to create their own royalty, and then to put it aside when they have done with it. It was difficult to see how greater honors could have been paid to any man than were given to the President when he embarked at Elizabethport and advanced, through a harbor crowded with decorated vessels, to the great city, the wharves and roofs of which were black with human beings –a holiday city which shook with the tumult of the popular welcome. Wherever he went he drew the swarms in the streets as the moon draws the tide. Republican simplicity need not fear comparison with any royal pageant when the President was received at the Metropolitan, and, in a scene of beauty and opulence that might be the flowering of a thousand years instead of a century, stood upon the steps of the “dais” to greet the devoted Centennial Quadrille, which passed before him with the courageous five, ‘Imperator, morituri te salutamus’. We had done it–we, the people; that was our royalty. Nobody had imposed it on us. It was not even selected out of four hundred. We had taken one of the common people and set him up there, creating for the moment also a sort of royal family and a court for a background, in a splendor just as imposing for the passing hour as an imperial spectacle. We like to show that we can do it, and we like to show also that we can undo it. For at the banquet, where the Elected ate his dinner, not only in the presence of, but with, representatives of all the people of all the States, looked down on by the acknowledged higher power in American life, there sat also with him two men who had lately been in his great position, the centre only a little while ago, as he was at the moment, of every eye in the republic, now only common citizens without a title, without any insignia of rank, able to transmit to posterity no family privilege. If our hearts swelled with pride that we could create something just as good as royalty, that the republic had as many men of distinguished appearance, as much beauty, and as much brilliance of display as any traditional government, we also felicitated ourselves that we could sweep it all away by a vote and reproduce it with new actors next day.
It must be confessed that it was a people’s affair. If at any time there was any idea that it could be controlled only by those who represented names honored for a hundred years, or conspicuous by any social privilege, the idea was swamped in popular feeling. The names that had been elected a hundred years ago did not stay elected unless the present owners were able to distinguish themselves. There is nothing so to be coveted in a country as the perpetuity of honorable names, and the “centennial” showed that we are rich in those that have been honorably borne, but it also showed that the century has gathered no privilege that can count upon permanence.
But there is another aspect of the situation that is quite as serious and satisfactory. Now that the ladies of the present are coming to dress as ladies dressed a hundred years ago, we can make an adequate comparison of beauty. Heaven forbid that we should disparage the women of the Revolutionary period! They looked as well as they could under all the circumstances of a new country and the hardships of an early settlement. Some of them looked exceedingly well–there were beauties in those days as there were giants in Old Testament times. The portraits that have come down to us of some of them excite our admiration, and indeed we have a sort of tradition of the loveliness of the women of that remote period. The gallant men of the time exalted them. Yet it must be admitted by any one who witnessed the public and private gatherings of April, 1889, in New York, contributed to as they were by women from every State, and who is unprejudiced by family associations, that the women of America seem vastly improved in personal appearance since the days when George Washington was a lover: that is to say, the number of beautiful women is greater in proportion to the population, and their beauty and charm are not inferior to those which have been so much extolled in the Revolutionary time. There is no doubt that if George Washington could have been at the Metropolitan ball he would have acknowledged this, and that while he might have had misgivings about some of our political methods, he would have been more proud than ever to be still acknowledged the Father of his Country.