“The Original Parens Patrie in its Practical Workings” The American Sentinel 6, 20, pp. 153-155.

May 14, 1891

THE principles of sovereignty and paternalism announced for the United States Government by the Supreme Court in the decision which was discussed last week, are of more consequence to the American people at this time than appears in the mere enunciation of the principles; though in that, as we have seen, there is accomplished, as far as the Court can go, a total revolution in the principles of government which were established by the makers of the American Union. This can be more clearly illustrated by following the lead suggested by the Court. It will be remembered that the Court cited Rome as one of the authorities for the position which was taken in the decision; and by a brief examination of the Roman governmental system, in its principle and in its workings, in connection with certain claims and movements which are becoming quite popular in this country, the full meaning of that decision can be more clearly discerned.

In the Roman system the government was supreme, absolute, paternal, and divine. “The idea of the State was the highest idea of ethics; and within that was included all actual realization of the highest good; hence the development of all other goods pertaining to humanity was made dependent on this.”—Neander. Man with all that he had was subordinated to the State; be must have no higher aim than to be a servant of the State; he must seek no higher good than that which the State could bestow. “The first principles of their law was the paramount right of the State over the citizen. Whether as head of a family, or as proprietor he had no natural rights of his own; his privileges were created by the law as well as defined by it. The State, in the plenitude of her power, delegated a portion of her own irresponsibility to the citizen, who satisfied the conditions she required, in order to. become the parent of her children; but at the same time she demanded of him the sacrifice of his free agency to her own rude idea of political expediency,“—Merivale.

It is very evident that in such a system there was no place for individuality. The individual was a part of the State. There was no such thing as the rights of the people. The right of the State only was to be considered and that was to be considered absolute. “The more distinguished a Roman became, the less was he a free man. The omnipotence of the law, the despotism of the rule drove him into a narrow circle of thought and action, and his credit and influence depended on the and austerity of his life. The whole duty of man, with the humblest and greatest of the Romans, was to keep his house in order, and be the obedient servant of the State.”—Mommsen.

Thus every Roman citizen was a subject and every Roman subject was a slave. It would be difficult to conceive of a system of government whose principles were more radically opposed to those of the United States, than were these.

As the State was paternal the Emperor was father of the people; and as such he gave to the people land, he fed them he gave them money, in short he dealt with them as a father with his children. But even before there was an emperor this principle was the principle of the government. The only change from, the times before the emperors, to the times of the emperors, was that in the imperial authority there was merged in one man that which before pertained to the government composed of the senate, consulate, tribunate.

In the days of Tiberius Gracchus, B.C. 133, the public lands were leased by the government to capitalists. And though [154] there was a law which forbade any single holding of more than three hundred and thirty-three acres, the law was of ancient standing and had been gradually disregarded until practically it was forgotten, and the capitalists had entirely monopolized the public land which they cultivated by slave labor, and the citizens without capital being unable to compete with capital in control of slave labor, were virtually crowded off the land. Tiberius determined that the monopolies should be broken and that the public lands should be restored to the citizens. It was done, and within two years the commissioners appointed to distribute, the land had settled forty thousand families upon public lands which the monopolists had been obliged to surrender. But the commissioners soon became unpopular. Those who were compelled to resign their lands were exasperated, of course. On the other hand, those to whom the land was given were not in all cases satisfied. It was certain that some would be given better pieces of land than others, and that of itself created jealousy and discontent.

But the greatest trouble was, that in the great majority of cases it was not land that they wanted, in fact it was money that they wanted first of all; and although the land was virtually given to them and well improved at that, they could not get money out of it without work. It had to be personal work, too, because to hire slaves was against the very law, by virtue of which they had received the land; and to hire freemen was impossible; (1) because no freeman would work for a slave’s wages—that in his estimate would be to count himself no better than a slave—and (2) the new landed proprietor could not afford to pay the wages demanded by free labor, because he had to meet the competition of the wealthy land owners who worked their land with slave labor.

The only alternative was for the new landholders to work their land themselves, and do the best they could at it. But as the money did not come as fast as they wished, and as what did come was only by hard work and economical living, many of them heartily wished themselves back amid the stir and bustle of the busy towns working for daily wages, though the wages might be small. The discontented cries soon grew loud enough to give the Senate its desired excuse to suspend the commissioners and then quietly to repeal the law.

Ten years afterward the same thing had to be done over again. This time it was accomplished under the leadership of Caius Gracchus brother of Tiberius; but it was not enough that he should restore the land law that had been secured by his brother. That law, even while it was being worked at its best, was satisfactory to but few of its beneficiaries. The law was restored, it is true, but the prospect of leaving Rome, and going perhaps to some distant part of Italy to engage in hard work, was not much of a temptation to men who had spent any length of time in Rome, involved in its political strifes, and whose principal desire was to obtain money and the means of subsistence with as little work as possible. It required something more than the restoration of the land law to satisfy these, and Caius granted it.

With the “enthusiastic-clapping” of every pair of poor hands in Rome, he secured the passage of a law decreeing that there should be established in Rome, public granaries to be filled and maintained at the cost of the State, and that from these the wheat should be sold to the poor citizens, at a merely nominal price. This law applied only to Rome, because in Rome the elections were held. “The effect was to gather into the city a mob of needy, unemployed voters, living on the charity of the State, to crowd the circus and to clamor at the elections, available no doubt immediately to strengthen the hands of the popular tribune, but certain in the long run to sell themselves to those who could bid highest for their voices.”—Froude.

This same thing was repeated over and over before the government became merged in an emperor. In fact it became necessary to repeat it; because, although it was easy enough to distribute the land, it was not so easy to keep it distributed. Those to whom the land was given lived far beyond their means and as the public granaries were open and the poor citizen could get the main part of his living for nothing those who received the land for nothing were not likely to cultivate habits of economy. Their lands were soon mortgaged and at last forfeited, falling back into the hands of the capitalists who, in the nature of things, at each successive turn became monopolists.

Thus at last the distribution of the land became an old story, the distribution of grain still remained a fixture, and as money had to be paid by the government in order to give to the citizen either land or grain, there next naturally grew up the demand that the money should be given direct to the citizen, and in the eyes of demagogy, political necessity justified this step. Cesar gave to each soldier about one thousand dollars, and to each citizen about twenty dollars with house rent free for a year. In addition to this he provided a magnificent feast for the citizens who were supported by the public grants of grain. Twenty-two thousand tables were spread with the richest viands from which the two hundred thousand State paupers feasted, while from hogsheads the finest wine flowed freely.

Then came Augustus, the Emperor in whom was merged all that pertained to the State and the people. He was parens patrie. So long as Rome was in the full tide of conquest subduing populous and wealthy countries, levying upon them enormous tributes, robbing their treasuries, and rifling their temples, there was always money in the Roman treasury to furnish the lands, the grain, or even the ready money, which occasion might demand. But when the era of conquest ceased, as it did with Augustus, then also ceased the abundant supply of money. So far from the demands ceasing, however, they went on as before. As the demands were imperative, the money had to be secured from some source, and as now it could no longer be secured by conquest, it had to be secured by other means and other means were employed.

During the reign of Augustus there was need of money by many classes. The regular and legal system of taxation did not furnish enough, and logically enough confiscation was the next step. And why not? Was not the Emperor the father of the people? And may not the father divide up the patrimony amongst the children? If some of the children have abundance and others have little or none, may not the father see that there is an equable distribution? It is the father’s office to care for the children. The Emperor in the exercise of his office of parents patrie did just this thing. Accordingly says Suetonius, “as often as large sums of money came into his possession, by means of confiscations, he would lend it free of interest, for a fixed term to such as could give security for double of what was borrowed.” Tiberius continued the same practice, for says the same author, “after the example of Augustus and to satisfy the clamors of the people, he loaned money without interest for three years to all who wanted to borrow.”

But the parens patrie had not enough money to supply all who wanted to borrow; accordingly, “he first compelled all money-lenders to advance two-thirds of their capital on land; and the debtors to pay off at once the same proportion of their debts. And still there were many who wanted to borrow. Five million dollars was yet required, and in order to obtain it he turned his mind to sheer robbery. It is certain that Cneius Lentulus, the augur, a man of vast estate, was so terrified by his threats and importunities that he was obliged to make him his heir…. Several persons, likewise, of the first distinction in Gaul, Spain, Syria, and Greece, had their estates confiscated upon such despicably trifling and Shameless pretensions, that against some of them no other charge was preferred than that they held large sums of ready money as part of their property.”

This was Rome. Such was the system of government to which the Supreme Court of the United States appealed for guidance in the decision which we have considered. And such was the exercise of the dignity of parens patrie by the government which originated it, and from which, through the British copy, the dignity has now [155] been adopted as a distinct feature of the Government of the United States.

We have stated, however, that there is involved in this matter, that which is of greater importance than simply its adoption by the Supreme Court. These very principles are being advocated by certain classes in this country. Some there are who demand that all the land shall be possessed, or rather held in trust, by the Government for the people and distributed for their good. Senator Stanford has already introduced a bill in Congress which proposes to oblige the Government after the manner of Augustus, to lend money—not exactly free of interest but—at two per cent. for thirty years to all who can give security to double the amount borrowed. In the same line with this the Farmers’ Alliance demands that the Government shall build granaries throughout the land and advance money upon the farmers’ crops as well as to loan money upon their land, and upon what ever other kind of security may be offered.

In these schemes there is involved the whole Roman system in its practical workings. If these things were done the Government would inevitably become possessed of a vast amount of land and of grain; and with the Government in possession of such commodities and having obtained possession of means, the next thing, and according to those principles reasonable enough too, would be a demand that the Government should supply grain at a favorable if not a nominal price, to the poorer citizens. But back of all these enterprises, in which it is proposed the Government shall embark, there lies the important question, Where shall the Government obtain the money to lend to all who want to borrow, and to advance upon the crops of those who want to sell? This Government is not engaged in wars of conquest as Rome was, nor has it the opportunity to become so.

It is proposed, indeed, by those who advocate the scheme, that the Government shall issue treasury notes to supply all the demands. But the more of such notes that the Government issues, the less any of them will be worth. A promise of the Government to pay is worth no more than that of a private individual, if it has nothing with which to make the promise good. The Government may print on a piece of paper the promise to pay a dollar or even one thousand dollars; but the only thing that makes that piece of paper worth a dollar, or whatever sum is promised, is the certainty that the Government has that sum of real money with which to make t promise good. But if, without any such certainty, the Government issues a sufficient amount of such notes to supply the demands of all who want to borrow and to all who want to sell, as they demand it, it would be but a little while till none of it was worth anything; and those who invented the scheme would discover this as soon as anybody else. Then they would be ready to demand real money and not mere promises to pay.

But the Government would not have real money sufficient to supply the demand, and even the Government can not make gold and silver. What then? Oh, the monopolists, the millionaires, the money-lenders, and the rich people generally, have vast sums of real money. The people need money, the Government is parens patrie, let this father of the people cause an equable division amongst the children. Will it be said that this would be confiscation? and that it scan not be supposed that our Government would ever employ such means? It is a sufficient answer to say that the Government has already done it. The Edmunds law, by the decision of the Supreme Court of Utah, did confiscate three millions of dollars’ worth of property belonging to the Mormons. The Supreme Court of the United States sustained the decision and confirmed the judgment.

And at the same time, the Court announced the doctrine, that it is not necessary for a corporation to violate its charter to justify the Legislature in dissolving the corporation; but that “Congress for good and sufficient reasons of its own in-dependent of that limitation and of any violation of it, has a full, a perfect right to repeal its charter and abrogate its corporate existence, which of course depends upon its charter.” Let that doctrine be adopted by the States as well as by the United States and what corporation can ever count itself secure? All that is necessary to its dissolution is that the Legislature may have good and sufficient reasons of its own, independent of limitations defined by law, to repeal any charter and abrogate the existence of any corporation. And if it be a public corporation the money is at once confiscated. By the very fact of the dissolution the property is forfeited and escheated to the Government as parens patrie. And as this is accomplished by the application of the ancient instead of the modern doctrine, what is to hinder the adoption and the application likewise of the ancient doctrine in the case of private corporations? If it should be, then private property as well as public, would, upon the dissolution of the corporation, be confiscated to the Government as parens patrie. And, indeed why should not the ancient doctrine be applied in these instances as well as in the other? If Roman and English governmental principles shall be followed in one set of cases, why not in the other?

Everybody knows that these demands from first to last are already being loudly made by different classes in this country. So long as the American principles of government shall prevail all such wild schemes will amount to nothing; but let the European and the Roman principles of government supplant the American, then what is to hinder the carrying into fall effect every item of the different schemes proposed and advocated? This is why we say that the Supreme Court decision, under consideration, means vastly more just at this time than the mere enunciation of the principle which it has adopted.

It is strange enough, indeed, that there should be any class of men who are capable of thinking to any purpose at all who would be so scatter-brained as to make such propositions as those of Senator Stanford, the Farmers’ Alliance and others to the same purpose. But the strangest of all things is that the Supreme Court of the United States, should by decision rendered, announce and establish a principle of this Government, the very principle upon which alone any and all of these scheme could be made effective. And that the Supreme Court should cite in its decision that very government by which these things were done in the practical application of the doctrine of parens patrie, which the decision makes a distinctive; principle of this Government, is astonishing.

A. T. J.

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