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THE PRINCIPLE OF RESPONSIBILITY IN
HENRY L. STIMSON
DELEGATE to the constitutional convention owes it
not only to his fellow delegates but to the people who sent him to the convention that he should approach with open mind those questions of practical remedies with which it is the main business of the convention to deal. His mind should be open to the arguments of his fellow delegates and to those suggestions which we hope will come from the thousands of friends and citizens outside of whom Mr. Root spoke. Particularly in regard to questions of specific remedies, in a state so varied as ours, there is nothing so helpful as discussion and the experience of different minds.
When it comes to certain questions of general principles, however, and analysis of well-known evils, there is perhaps a broader field for preliminary discussion and decision, even among those of us who may be delegates at that convention. One of the most important of those broad principles is the one which the program committee has placed after my namethe principle of responsibility in government.
I remember that the first time I went to the polls to vote I was accompanied by an older member of my family, who on the way explained to me his theory of action as a voter. He said: "I like to vote so that I shall throw my influence to elect a governor of one party and the legislature of the other. I feel that if we only elect, for instance, a Republican assembly and senate and a Democratic governor, I can go home for the rest of the winter and feel that those two will hold each other from doing any harm." It has taken a good many years experience on my part to appreciate the far-reaching nature of
1 Address at the dinner meeting of the Academy of Political Science, November 19, 1914.
that idea and its all-pervasiveness in our country. Looking at it now, it seems to me to represent both the cause and the effect of irresponsible government. In how many departments of our law you can follow and trace the operation of this conception.
On the side of administration it was the idea underlying Jefferson's advocacy of short terms for our executives, for fear of giving them too much power. You must not give a man power to do right for fear he will do wrong. It was the basis of the proposition of a plural executive that Hamilton fought so vigorously against inserting into the federal constitution. The proposal was to divide the office up among different men so that one man would not have all the power of execution; and it required all Hamilton's persuasion—if you have read the seventieth number of the Federalist-calling attention to the bad example of the consuls and decemvirs of Rome to meet the insistence of the argument for a divided executive. Later on, in the thirties and forties, the idea fairly ran riot through our state constitutions. A great wave of liberalism rolled over this country, corresponding to the great wave of democracy in Europe that culminated in the revolution of 1848. Our state constitutions were changed so as to elect everybody, thus making everybody directly responsible, as it was hoped, to the people, and providing that all public officers in that way should be independent of each other, so that no one of them should grasp too many of the powers of government. Multiple elections, rotation in office-you have all heard the many different ways in which the idea expressed itself.
When you pass over from the administrative to the legislative branch of the government, you find it not only in the short terms of our legislators, but far more generally and insidiously in the provisions of recent constitutions which put limitations on legislative power, and embody in our constitutions many arrangements which ought to be merely a part of the statute law, and so within the power of the legislature to change and amend. Dennis Kearney on the sandlots of San Francisco, packing into the California constitution those limitations
which have caused that kind of constitution ever since to be known as a "sand-lot constitution," was merely echoing the same idea of irresponsible government.
When you turn to the relations of the executive and the legislature in the performance of those duties which practically all our state governments provide that they shall perform jointly, we find the same notion again. Although it is recognized that the governor and the legislature must act together in legislation it has been the aim of many constitutions that they shall perform those joint duties in as formal, as distant, and to that extent, as ineffective a way as possible. The governor must not have the right to talk to the legislature except through the formality of a written message; and the legislature must not have the right to ask questions of the governor, except through the formality of calling upon some subordinate for written information. And all this, forsooth, as I have heard it argued with vehemence by some, lest the governor dominate the legislature, and with equal vigor by others, lest the legislature "make a monkey" of the governor.
A theory of government which you can follow through such widely separated heads and through such different authorsa theory which was made philosophy by Montesquieu, and which, as has been said, was made the language of a gentleman by Blackstone, which was brought into American politics by Jefferson, which was spread very widely during the time when the vigorous followers of Andrew Jackson from the West were in command, and which was finally infused into our constitutions by Dennis Kearney-such a theory is not to be treated lightly. And when we consider its origin, there is no wonder that it has been deep-rooted and wide-spread. For ages and centuries it represented the contest against autocracy in government. So long as the law-enacting power of the state claimed his authority by divine right; so long as absolutism was the ruling force in government, every check, every limitation, every spoke that you could put into the wheel represented a distinct gain in the age-long contest for popular government. So long as there was reality and truth in the enacting clause of every British statute, "Be it enacted by
the King's Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice of the Lords, spiritual and temporal, and the Commons," so long it was a real necessity in that struggle to establish the sovereignty of the people.
But now that that struggle has been won, now that that power has been transferred, now that there is no longer any question of the universal recognition of the source of power; now that the executive magistrate is merely the representative of the people, is not the problem considerably changed? It is now not so much a question of putting limitations on the power of the sovereign from above, as it is of making it perfectly certain that when your agent acts wrongly you will know it. Instead of putting limitations on the public officer, the real problem now is to have his action as clear and as public as possible. There is no longer any real danger in giving your agent power, now that the people have power to replace him if they find out that he has done wrong. The danger is they may be cajoled and deceived, and may not know who is responsible. Does there not, therefore, come in by slow degrees the necessity of a new principle which, with the conservative tendency of our race to cling to old traditions, we have not yet fully recognized?
There were keen observers in the very beginning of this country who noticed this new difference in principle. In 1778, only two years after the states became independent, and when they were in the very midst of adopting their first constitutions, that great French statesman, Turgot, in a letter to Dr. Price, in London, made a searching and interesting criticism of our methods. Speaking of our state constitutions, he said:
I see in the greatest number an unreasonable imitation of the usages of England. Instead of bringing all the authorities into one, that of the nation, they have established different bodies. A house of representatives, a council, a governor, because England has a House of Commons, Lords, and a King. They undertake to balance these different authorities as if the same equilibrium of power which has been thought necessary to balance the enormous preponderance of royalty could be of any use in republics, formed upon the equality of all citizens, and as if every article which constitutes different
bodies was not a source of divisions. By striving to escape imaginary dangers they have created real ones.
When we consider, too, the position which our state governments occupy in the federal system, we find that the principle of irresponsibility is peculiarly subject to criticism. The central government exercises such tremendous power that it is a conceivable and fair argument that unless care is taken, although you have destroyed the old king, yet another may be unwittingly created in his place by the people. But it is pretty hard to get up any excitement over one forty-eighth part of a despot; it is pretty hard to be worried over a gubernatorial tyrant. And on the other hand, from the very fact that our states are part of a federal system, their powers are necessarily so limited that if any further division of official responsibility takes place they are likely to be brought to a condition where they cannot attract the service of good men.
What is the main tonic of an independent state which keeps up the character of the personnel in its legislative body? Is it not its relations with foreign states-the right and power to make peace and war, and to conduct diplomatic relations with those states? Those are the matters which make for the dignity of our Congress, and which attract to that body the services of the best men in the country. But in the case of our states those powers do not exist. They are taken away from them. The states are guaranteed not only against foreign difficulty, but even against civil disorder. If the state authorities are unable, through their posse comitatus, or their national guard, to suppress even home disorders, they can call on the President for regular troops. As one writer has expressed it, they are somewhat in the condition of a rich annuitant who has sold the control of his own property in return for an assured income. In the face of these limitations which necessarily exist in our state governments, the problem would seem to be particularly urgent to provide adequate and simplified powers, which will be worthy the attention and the work of the best men in those states, and not to further separate, divide and minimize those powers.