Anglican Church. Visit to the Alms-house of the county. Walk.
Very agreeable evening.|
(Tocqueville, p. 129)
Conversation with Mr. [John Canfield] Spencer
Mr. Spencer is a distinguished man of law. He has been
successively a lawyer, district
member of Congress and is at the moment a member of the New York
legislature. He has been
editors of the Revised Statutes [a periodic official publication of
all the laws of the U.S.]
perspicacity seem to be the guiding lights of his spirit.
Q. Are the members of the two chambers of the various
legislatures chosen in the same way
according to the same rules of eligibility?
A. Yes. In the State of New York in particular there is just
the same type of man filling both
Q. But what then is the point of having two chambers?
A. It is immensely useful and so well appreciated that now
everyone in America accepts it as
an axiom that a single legislative body is a detestable
institution. Pennsylvania, which began by
mistake of having only one assembly, has had to give it up.
Here are the chief advantages of a legislative body with two
houses: the first and most
to make a resolution pass two tests; between the two discussions
time passes to the advantage of
sense and moderation. It is continually happening that the Senate,
although composed of similar
and moved by the same spirit as the legislature, sees the matter in
a different light and corrects
which the former, prejudiced as it is by a first vote, would not be
able to correct.
The second advantage which I see in the institution of our
Senate is that the senators hold
longer than the Representatives and since they are replaced in
batches, always form a body of
within the legislature who are knowledgeable about precedents and
have already been through
They give our legislative assemblies a practical skill and a
sense of continuity which without
would often be lacking.
Q. What generally speaking is the corporate attitude of the
A. People complain that it is conservative. I know that the
opposite complaint is made in
I see these reasons for the difference: first, the body of lawyers
in America have no interest in
Our social organization, as it is now, is the best possible one for
them. Besides I think our civil
a different general principle from yours and that should give our
lawyers an opposite turn of
civil law is entirely founded on precedents.
A judge is completely bound by what another has decided
before. As a result one can almost
that there are no arguments about law with us; everything reduces
itself in some sort to a
question of fact.
One has to know what was decided in a similar case and argue for or
against the application of
You can see that work of that sort is not apt to develop a taste
for theories. Often it even narrows
mind. Your lawyers on the other hand, if I can judge by the reports
of proceedings, feel they
down to the basis of society even in respect of a hole in a
Q. Have the judges any disciplinary powers over them?
A. Yes. They can reprimand them, fine them, strike them off
the roll, and even in extreme
them to prison. Otherwise the judges have no superior standing. Out
of court they are on a
Q. What criticism is made of your judges?
A. The only criticism which I should feel able to make is
that they are a little too fond of
the people, and they will not fight courageously against a view
that they believe is shared by the
We have seen some examples of that in cases with a political side
to them. Usually and in
they are inclined to leniency for this reason and not from their
Q. What influence has the press on public opinion?
A. It has great influence, but it is not exercised in the
same way as in France. For instance we
very little importance to the opinions of journalists. They only
gain influence by the facts they
known and the turn they give to them. Thus they sometimes manage to
mislead public opinion
man or a measure. To sum up, in all countries and under all
governments the press will always be
Q. What limits do you impose on its freedom?
A. We have a very simple principle in this matter. Everything
which is a question of opinion
perfectly free. One could go to print daily in America saying that
monarchy is the best of all
of government. But when a paper publishes libelous facts, when it
gratuitously suggests culpable
then it is prosecuted and generally punished with a heavy fine. I
recently had experience of an
At the time of the case in connection with the disappearance
of Morgan [a Mason who
August, 1826 - fellow masons were accused of drowning him in Lake
Ontario to prevent him
revealing Masonic secrets. The affair gave rise to the formation of
the anti-masonic party], a
printed that the jurors had pronounced their verdict of guilty from
motives of "party spirit." I
the writer of the article and had him punished.
Q. What in your view is the way to diminish the power of the
A. I am completely convinced that the most effective way is
to increase the number of
as much as possible and not to prosecute them except in extreme
cases. Their power gets less as
number gets more, a fact which experience has incontrovertibly
proved to us. I have heard it said
France there were only two or three newspapers that carried weight.
I should suppose that in such
situation the press in an agent of destruction. Besides I think
your social situation will always
action of the press more to be feared with you than with us. Paris
will always exercise immense
over the rest of the kingdom.With us there an immense influence
over the rest of the kingdom.
there are an immense number of factors dividing our interests.
There is no great center of activity; it is almost impossible
to get public opinion excited over
area. New York papers have no more influence over us than those of
the nearest village. Another
reason why the personal opinions of journalists carry very little
weight is the bad use they made
of them in the
first years of Independence. It was then proved that most of them
had been bought by England.
then they have lost public confidence.
Q. Are there influential men who write in your
A. Party leaders often do, but they do not sign their
Q. What causes the religious tolerance prevailing in the
A. Principally the extreme diversity of sects (there is
almost no end to it). If two religions
other, we should be cutting each others' throats. But as none has
as much as a majority, all need
Besides there is a general belief among us, a belief which I
share, that some religion or other
needed by man as a social being. And all the more freer he is. I
have heard it said that in France
has been an attempt to dispense with all definite religion. If that
is so, in spite of all your feeling
you will not quickly see free institutions firmly established, and
you must rest your hopes on the
Q. What do you think can be done so that religion should
regain its natural sway?
A. I think the Catholic religion less suited than the
Protestant to come to terms with ideas of
but if the clergy were completely cut off from all worldly concern,
I think that in time they would
back the power over the mind which naturally belongs to them. I
think that they seem to forget
church without being hostile to it, is the best and perhaps the
only way of serving it. If you act so,
by little you will see public education falling into its hands, and
in time young people will have a
different turn of mind.
Q. Do the clergy control public education with you?
A. Completely. I know of only two exceptions in the State of
New York. That seems to me
Q. What is your poor law?
A. In that as in many matter we long followed the English
example. We have ended by
their system which we thought too costly. This is the new system
introduced in the last few years
State of New York: every county has an almshouse to which vagabonds
are forced by court
and which are also bound to receive those whom an official called
the overseer of the poor sends
having no means of subs istence. A piece of land is attached to the
almshouse, which the
the local people shut up there to cultivate. The object of the law
is that this farmland should in
the expenses of this institution. We have great hopes of succeeding
in this. It is not the place of
the place of residence which is taken to decide where the pauper
should be sent.
Q. How do you manage about public education?
A. The State has special funds of _____ [gap in manuscript]
set aside for this purpose. It
grants from this fund to the local authorities who need them, in
proportion to the efforts they
to make on their own behalf. For it is generally accepted among us
that the State should always
never do everything. It is felt that people who give their money
and who are on the spot, can and
give more careful attention to the way money is spent than is
possible for a central
Moreover one wants to create as many local interests as possible.
This combination of money
State with money from the locality serves both these aims
admirably. Here education rouses
concern. The populace being really king, everyone feels the need to
Q. Have you noticed ill effects from the recent law
abolishing all property qualification for
A. No, just the opposite. The people being completely
satisfied disregards the schemes of