In his book White-Jacket (1850), part documentary, part satire, part political rumination, and very small part novel, Herman Melville—if indeed he is speaking through his narrator—sounds like a new Moses urging the people of the United States to lead the other nations boldly from the Egypt of a servile past to the Promised Land to come.
“We bear the ark of the liberties of the world,” he says:
God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. In our youth is our strength; in our inexperience, our wisdom. At a period when other nations have but lisped, our deep voice is heard afar. Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings. And let us always remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time in the history of the earth, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America but we give alms to the world.
Melville, of course, is a master of the shell-game of irony, so that in these lines we may well hear the silken tones of his malign Confidence-Man (1859) suggesting to us what we want to believe, that in our case alone is selfishness a charity to the world, because we and not Jesus Christ are mankind’s last best hope.
Nevertheless, I take Melville mostly at his word here, because throughout White-Jacket he is at pains to urge his countrymen to look well at the condition of its navy, and at the laws and customs that govern the common sailors, whom he trenchantly calls “the people.”
About courts-martial, for example, which he compares with the secrecy of the royal Star Chamber and the Spanish Inquisition, and the seaman’s lack of any means of redress of grievances, he concludes that most of the wickedness in which sailors engage is “indirectly to be ascribed to the morally debasing effects of the unjust, despotic, and degrading laws under which the man-of-war’s man lives.” It is strange indeed that a nation whose president will enter a hackney-coach alongside one of the 20 million free men whom he governs, as if he were of no greater stature, must have a naval ship lorded over by a peacock of a Commodore, as gaudy as he is useless, who will hardly deign to brush elbows with a mere petty officer, let alone one of the ordinary rank of seamen.
Along with the cold eye he casts upon the fuss and feathers of rank, and the cruelty it admits or encourages in the officers, Melville gives us a few hearty endorsements of the democratic spirit, such as Walt Whitman or Mark Twain in his sunnier moods would have approved. When the good man-of-war Neversink must welcome his Imperial Majesty Don Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, a man of New England—after misconstruing the imperial family name Braganza as Brigand and then Braggart—cries out to his fellows: “You Emperor—you counter-jumping son of a gun—cock your weather-eye up aloft here, and see your betters! I say, top-mates, he ain’t any Emperor at all—I’m the rightful Emperor. Yes, by the Commodore’s boots! they stole me out of my cradle here in the palace at Rio, and put that green-horn in my place. Ay, you timber-head, you, I’m Don Pedro II, and by good rights you ought to be a main-top-man here, with your fist in a tar-bucket!”
The greatest-souled of the sailors then picks up the song, and tells the New Englander that he need not worry: “But I say, Jonathan, my lad, don’t pipe your eye now about the loss of your crown; for look you, we all wear crowns, from our cradles to our graves,” and he reveals his own, a bald spot about the size of a crown-piece, “on the summit of his curly and classical head.”
So once did sing the sirens of democracy, beckoning the ship of America to wreck upon the rocks of self-satisfaction, and—what Melville would have condemned as sheer romantic imbecility—the dissolving of hierarchical order. It is a song I once loved, and it still stirs me within. It is Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” It is Jefferson Smith from South Dakota, fighting for the Boy Scouts against privilege and power. It is Huck Finn, boy philosopher without knowing it, floating on a raft down the great river with the escaped slave Jim. It is Sergeant Alvin York, pacifist at heart, sharp-shooter from the hills of Tennessee, single-handedly rooting out a nest of German machine guns. It is the same Sergeant York, years later, speaking at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:
By our victory in the last war, we won a lease on liberty, not a deed to it. Now after 23 years, Adolf Hitler tells us that lease is expiring, and after the manner of all leases, we have the privilege of renewing it, or letting it go by default. We are standing at the crossroads of history. The important capitals of the world in a few years will either be Berlin and Moscow, or Washington and London. I, for one, prefer Congress and Parliament to Hitler’s Reichstag and Stalin’s Kremlin. And because we were for a time, side by side, I know this Unknown Soldier does, too.
I wonder whether it is worth my time to look more closely at this old song, when in point of fact nobody sings it anymore. Consider: the previous president celebrated his victory by having himself come forth from a makeshift Greek temple, as if he were Apollo. No president in my lifetime has dared to do what Harry Truman once did, which was to take an early morning stroll along the streets of Washington, accompanied by a couple of bodyguards, but otherwise open to the democratic world.
This betrayal of the soul of democracy is to be found everywhere; the habits of our political rulers are but our own habits magnified. Try to visit a class at the local public school for which you open a yearly vein to pay in taxes, and you might as well try to force your way through the guard at Buckingham Palace. Object to the idiocy, ineptitude, or depravity of the instruction in that school, and you may as well be a flea trying to move an elephant.
The point is not that we suffer these indignities. We take the indignities for granted. Our police are less and less like the men we can trust at the street corner, and more like a standing army whose faces we never see. If we are in business, we submit to regulations whose specifics, in the aggregate, no single person in the nation knows.
“It is one of the genuine marks of servitude,” says Melville, citing the jurist Sir Edward Coke, “to have the law either concealed or precarious.” It is concealed if because of its perplexity and obscurity no one can truly obey it, and it is precarious if for the same reasons it must inevitably be applied according to the partial knowledge or the whim of the enforcers.
We need not confine ourselves to the legal. There is also the customary. Free men honor the good and wise, the benefactors of their nation. Slaves toady to the famous. Free men make their own entertainment. Servile men are content to consume it ready-made. Free men seek out the dangerous space, as Melville sought out the sea. Servile men demand the safe space, where they may suck their thumbs. Free men fight in the open. Servile men sneak about, bear tales, attack the weak like a pack of jackals, and couch their enmity in soft and seductive slogans. Free men raise their own children. Servile men submit their children to be raised by others. Free men take their pedigrees from almighty God. Servile men seek out means of establishing a factitious superiority over their peers or their betters: a diploma, a bank account, a big house, a title, a special status as favored victim.
“A man’s a man for a’ that,” sang the poet Robert Burns, with the soul of a democrat, and, if I understand the sentence correctly, I will agree. But nobody else agrees. George III was but a boy stealing a peach from your lunch by comparison with our plumed and puffed liberty-thieves and governors.
Melville, you should be alive at this time.
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Photo Credit: “Shipwreck,” Francis Danby via Getty Images