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Ralph Waldo Emerson's Poems

(From Brownson’s Quarterly Review for October, 1875).

            THIS lecture on our public schools as they are now constituted, by the chief-justice of the supreme court of Arizona, is really one of the ablest, most direct, and most conclusive of the various lectures, articles, essays, or pamphlets, that we have seen on the great question it discusses, and which is the great question of the day, especially for Catholics in our country.  It is plain, outspoken, and manly, and presents the question in its simple nakedness, divested of all disguises, free from all sophistry and logomachy, and argues the real issue with a lucidity and force that can hardly by surpassed, and which we have not seen equaled.  No American citizen, who has any fairness of mind, or sense of right, can read it and not feel that the system of public schools as now worked in our country is a monstrous wrong to our Catholic population, whom it taxes for the maintenance of schools for the children of non-Catholics only, and from which their own children are, through fidelity to conscience, debarred from deriving any benefit.  We have said, and we repeat, that we hear many declamations against the public schools with which we do not sympathize, and that much is ascribed to their practical workings which is not true, or, if true in any sense, is so only in exceptional and rare cases.  The public schools are as moral, to say the least, as the average of our non-Catholic countrymen, and they cannot justly be called, as we have heard them called, nurseries of vice and immorality.  We object to them because they do not make religion and morality the basis of education, and because they violate the rights of God and conscience, as well as the equality before the civil power of all religious beliefs or no-beliefs, guarantied by the American constitution.  But they might easily, without in the slightest degree impairing their efficiency, be so modified and worked as to obviate all our objections, and to render the system equally acceptable to all classes of our citizens, and a public blessing.  We Catholics, though in the minority, are American citizens, and have just as much right to have a voice in the organization of the public schools, and just as much right to have it listened to, as have any other class of American citizens.

            The non-Catholic majority run away with the false notion that the country belongs to them, that they own it, and that Catholics residing here are trespassers on their property, or simple squatters on land they do not own, and lie at their mercy.  Some of their representative journals warn us not to claim equality, not to presume to interfere in the public policy of the country, nor to attempt to exert any influence in the framing of its laws and institutions.  They tell us that this is a Protestant country, and that Catholics must be content with simple toleration, and, if they ask for more, they will get less.  This notion, or pretence of Protestants, is an entire mistake.  They no more own the country than we do; it belongs to the whole American people, and all American citizens, whatever their religious beliefs or no religious beliefs, are politically and civilly equal, and have before the civil power equal rights, and equally a voice in making the laws, and determining the public institutions of the land.  We are not here by Protestant tolerance, but by right,--a right as high and as sacred as that by which non-Catholics or Protestants themselves are here.  They are the majority; they have the power, the might, and can oppress us if so disposed, but their might gives them no right to do so.

            The welfare of the state depends on the virtue, morality, and intelligence of the people; and the virtue, morality, and intelligence of the people depend on religion.  Without religion they have no basis, nothing to stand on, no guide, no sanction, no support, and are sure in the hour of trial to fall through, to fail utterly, as the history of the pagan nations of antiquity, as well as the common judgment of mankind in all ages and nations, amply proves.  Education without religion only sharpens the intellect, and fits men to be adroit rogues and swindlers, as we are but too painfully experiencing in our own country, which bids fair, if a remedy be not soon supplied, to become a country of thieves, robbers, cheats, swindlers, and sharpers, if we may believe at all the daily reports of the journals.  An honest man in office, in a place of honor and trust, is a rara avis.  Well, the public schools do not and cannot teach religion, nor effectually even virtue and morality.

            No doubt much may be and is done by Sunday schools and home influences to supply the defects of the public schools; but by no means enough.  The influence of the Sunday school, under the best possible management, in a community where the religious instruction is so scanty, the moral tones so low, as with us, is very restricted; and where the people are so generally devoted to the worship of Mammon or to fashion, so thoroughly engrossed in business or worldly pleasures, home influences in favor of religion are very feeble, and the amount of religious instruction given, except in a comparatively few families, is hardly worth counting.  “Evil communications corrupt good morals,” and the general tone of the American people is, in fact, practically irreligious.  Probably a majority of the American population have never been baptized, and it is only by a stretch of courtesy that Protestantism can be called a religion: for all religion is one and catholic, which Protestantism is not.  The education given in the public schools can hardly rise above the average religion and morality of the majority; and those who regard that average as falling lamentably below the Christian standard, cannot be expected to be satisfied with it, or not to labor to raise by education their own children above it.

            Chief Justice Dunne treats the question from beginning to end with rare practical sagacity, with a perfect comprehension of its legal and constitutional bearings, and with a vivid sense of justice.  He evidently holds that, while the majority have the power, they are bound to exercise it justly, and that the majority have no more right than have the minority to do wrong.  He believes that constitutions are mainly designed for the protection of individuals and minorities; and that the majority, under our form of government, are always able to protect themselves, and need restraints on their arbitrary will.  He also holds that the constitutional guaranties of religious equality before the law were intended to guaranty that equality, and, so far as the civil power is concerned, to place all religious beliefs and no-beliefs on the same footing.  This is, no doubt, true, as regards the intentions of the framers of our constitutions, state and federal.  But, since the rise of the abolition fanaticism, which culminated in our late disastrous civil war, constitutions, when restricting the power of the majority, have been treated as so much waste paper.  Constitutions which are simply written on paper, or engrossed on parchment, and not embodied in the hearts and minds, and especially in the providential organization of the people of a nation, are as worthless, when they impose limitations on the power of the majority, as were the green withes with which the Philistines bound the stalwart limbs of Samson.  We were as strongly opposed to Negro slavery as was William Lloyd Garrison or Wendell Phillips; and if we opposed, as we did, the abolition agitation, it was not from love of slavery, but because we believed the destruction of the constitution a greater evil than that which it sought to redress.  Chief Justice Dunne evidently believes in the inviolability of the constitution, and its binding nature on the majority; he also believes in the obligations of justice, and addresses the ruling majority in Arizona and elsewhere, as if it were sufficient to prove a measure unjust and unconstitutional to induce them to reject it.  But the majority of our countrymen can be moved by no argument of this sort.  They cast constitutions to the winds, and scout the very idea of justice to those who lack the power to enforce it.  They act on the maxim, “The strong are always right; the weak are always wrong.”  They use fine phrases, and abound in generous professions and noble sentiments, while practising the most monstrous injustice; for a more monstrous injustice cannot be conceived than that of imposing a tax, and often a heavy tax, on the minority for the education of children of the majority, and from which the children of the minority are excluded.  There is nothing more outrageous, at least in principle, in Prince Bismarck’s or Kaiser Wilhelm’s treatment of Catholics in Germany.

            It is not answer to this to say the schools are public, and as open to the minority as to the majority: for this is not true.  The Catholic minority happen to have a conscience, which the advocates of these schools have not, and they cannot send their children to these schools without violating their Catholic conscience; and this fact closes them as effectually to us as if we were excluded from them by statute.  The German bishops and priests, dispossessed, imprisoned, or exiled, are so only in obedience to their Catholic conscience.  They could escape all persecution if they consented to violate their conscience, and submit to the infamous civil enactments made in contravention of the laws of God and of the church.  It is barefaced mockery to tell us these schools are as free to us, the Catholic minority, as they are to the non-Catholic majority.  It is no such thing, for they have no conscience against them.  The majority, as Chief Justice Dunne shows, impose upon us a tripe tax.  They tax us to provide for the education of the children of non-Catholics, in which we cannot share with a good conscience, and then compel us to erect school-houses, found and support schools at our own expense, often out of our poverty, for the education of our own children, and then tax these same school-houses and fixtures, while the public school-houses and fixtures are exempt from taxation.  Can there be a more monstrous injustice?  It needs only one step in addition, and that threatens to be soon taken, namely, to forbid us to have schools of our own, and to make attendance on the public schools compulsory.  New York and New Jersey, and, perhaps, some other states, have already enacted laws making education compulsory, and it would be only carrying out the same policy to make it compulsory on us to send our children to the state, or the public, schools.

            Mr. Henry Wilson, vice-president of the United States, and an honored and influential leader of the Republican party, published a few years since in the Atlantic Monthly a remarkable article headed, “The New Departure of the Republican Party,” in which he proposed, as the policy of the party in the future, to place education under the control of the federal government, and to make it uniform throughout the Union, and compulsory.  The proposition was taken up in congress, favorably entertained, and a committee was raised to which it was referred.  Whether that committee, of which, if we recollect aright, one of the Hoars of Massachusetts was chairman, has made a report or not, we do not now recollect; but that a measure so manifestly unconstitutional, and so fraught with danger to the freedom of education and the rights of parents and guardians, as well as of the states, could have been seriously entertained for a moment by congress, shows but too clearly that abolitionism and the civil war have obscured the principles of what was once regarded as American freedom in the minds of representative Americans.  What, perhaps, is still more alarming is, that we have heard no note of warning against the project from the usually vigilant opponents of the Republican party, and are therefore led to conclude that, on a question of this sort, Republicans and Democrats are united.  Democrats and Republicans are not unlikely to be reconciled and made friends, as were Pilate and Herod, when Christ is to be crucified in the persons of Catholics.

            There is a movement throughout the whole civilized world to banish religious instruction from the schools, and completely to secularize education, under the specious pretext of getting rid of superstition and the idle fears it generates.  It began in the old French revolution, and was skillfully organized by the infamous convention that voted the death of the king, Louis XVI.  With your genuine liberals, Christianity is simply superstition, and as such can be tolerated by no free and enlightened state, but is to be thoroughly uprooted and exterminated.  The child at the earliest possible moment must be withdrawn from the priest and placed under enlightened, that is, infidel or heathen masters, who believe on in the earth, and surrounded by purely secular influences.  The motive which operates with the majority in withholding justice from Catholics in this country is, unquestionably, consciously or unconsciously, the same that governed the French convention in its measures for secularizing education.  As in France Protestants, Jansenists, and infidels joined together to the support of the convention against Catholics and the church, so do they united in opposition to Catholics in supporting our public schools.  The real motive for sustaining the system is the belief, that by it they may extirpate Catholic faith and worship from the land.  It were fatuity, not charity, to think otherwise.  Finding that we are withdrawing our children from the public schools, and establishing at our own expense schools of our own, they see clearly that they must fail in their calculations, unless they go further and forbid us to establish Catholic schools, and compel us to send our children to the public schools.  This is the immediate danger.  Can it be averted?

            It can hardly be averted by human means alone, but, with a firm reliance on divine assistance, we think, if Catholics will but be true to themselves, it can be averted; and even the modifications of the public-school system as now worked, which we as Catholics demand, can be obtained.  It is true, we are for the present in a comparatively small minority of the whole population of the country, but a small minority united and determined, and demanding only what is reasonable and just, who must sooner or later obtain success.  The discouraging fact is, that the Catholic minority are not united on this school question, and do not act as “one man.”  They take different views of what is needed; many amongst us are cold or indifferent to the subject, and do not enter heartily into the movement for obtaining our rights.  Some are engrossed in business, not a few are absorbed in politics, place the interests of their party above the interests of their religion, and dare not move lest they forfeit their chance for some petty office for themselves or for their friends.  Catholics in this country have never been accustomed to act in concert as one body, and do not readily united and concentrate their forces for a given object.  They are one in faith and worship, but have never yet been one in striving to obtain their rights in relation to the public schools.  In fact, there is on this subject no unity of purpose, and no concert of action.   

            The first step to be taken is, of course, to effect the union of the entire body of Catholics throughout the country, and to induce them to waive their petty difference and local interests, and to look at the paramount interests of the whole body.  A great wrong is done us as Catholics and citizens, and we must unite, combine, if you will, and act with an eye single to its redress.  If we do this, and labor perseveringly with the earnestness and zeal the greatness of the end demands, we shall in time gain our rights, and induce the majority so to amend the public-school system, that all classes of citizens can cheerfully support it, and share in its benefits.  We demand only our rights; we have no wish to interfere with the rights of others, or to destroy or to impair the efficiency of the public-school system properly worked.  We accept cordially the essential principle of the system, that is, the support of public-schools for all the children of the land, at the public expense, or by a tax levied equally upon all citizens.  We only ask that we may have the portion of the fund which we contribute, to use in the support of schools under our management, and in which we can teach our religion, and make it the basis of the education we give our own children.

            Now let us Catholics, all Catholics throughout the Union, unite as one man in demanding this amendment to the system, and listen to no compromise, and give our suffrages to no party and to no candidate for any office that refuses to do us justice, as was some time since recommended by the venerable bishop of Cleveland in a pastoral address to his diocesans; and we feel sure the majority will ere long be forced to concede our demand.  We thought at the time the recommendation of the illustrious bishop premature and injudicious, but we think so no longer.  We were not duly impressed with the monstrous injustice to Catholics of the public schools, as now managed, and their manifest violation of the religious equality professedly guarantied by the constitution of the Union and nearly all the states.  We have been much enlightened on this point by the masterly lecture by Chief-Justice Dunne.  We had always been averse to carrying any Catholic question to the polls, believing our members to be too few to be successful; but further inquiry has led us to believe that our numbers, though they do not in our judgment amount, as some of our friends pretend, to ten or twelve millions, are much larger than we had supposed.  The great bulk of our Catholic electors are ranged on the side of the so-called Democratic party, and they form so large a portion of that party, that by simply withholding their votes from it, without giving them to the opposing party, they could throw it into a hopeless minority, and utterly defeat the success on which it now confidently counts.  This gives us an advantage which was not apparent to us in the early part of 1873, when we expressed our doubts of the propriety of carrying the school question to the polls.  Catholics in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and some other states, if not strong enough to secure the success of the Democratic party, are yet strong enough to ensure its defeat, if they choose to place the interest of their religion above their party interests, and withhold from it their suffrages.  They can thus force the party to espouse their cause, and, if they accede to power, to grant us justice in regard to the public schools.  Certain it is, as the parties now stand, the Democrats cannot accede to power as a national party without our votes, and it is our duty to let them know that our votes they cannot have unless they pledge themselves to use their power, if they obtain it, to repair the grievous wrong under which we now labor, and to maintain in the civil order the religious equality guarantied by the constitution. 

            The great difficulty is no doubt right here, in getting our Democratic Catholics to withhold their votes from the party, unless it agrees, if able, to do them justice on the school question.  “hic labor, hoc opus est,” for Catholic have long been accustomed in their political action to follow the maxim, “My religion has nothing to do with my politics,” and, without consciously or intentionally placing their politics above their religion, to proceed as if the interests of party were paramount to the interests of their church.  But, after all, this results from want of reflection rather than from any deliberate preference of the temporal to the eternal.  When the question is once brought home to his understanding, and seen to be a question of conscience, no loyal Catholic will hesitate a moment to subordinate his politics to his religion, or refuse his support to any party that refuses to recognize and vindicate the religious equality of Catholics in the public schools, by giving them their share of them, and of the public funds which support them.  In the religious aspect of the case, eternal interests are at stake, the welfare of immortal souls and of unborn generations is at stake: and we Catholics know that the stability, the virtue, the morality, and the intelligence of the republic, and the preservation of civil and religious liberty, are at stake; for these depend on the religious, the Catholic, education of our children.  Since Catholics are the salt of the earth, the church is the divine preservative force in every nation where she exists: no greater calamity could possibly befall our republic than her banishment from its territory.  How, then, can any Catholic for a moment weigh the ephemeral triumph of a party in the balance against the interests of Catholic education?  He is a sorry Catholic, with just Catholicity enough to be damned as a Catholic, and not as a heretic or an infidel, who will do it.

            The great question for us Catholics, and the great question even for our country, is the school question; and the preservation of our children to the church, with their thorough Catholic education, is not less for the interest of the state than it is for the interest of religion.  No state can stand without religion, and religion cannot be preserved in any state without the thorough religious training of each new generation as it appears on the stage.  The Catholic Church alone is able to give a really religious education, and to train children up in the way they should go.  This is one of her chief functions.  The sects in reality have no religion, and can give no religious education, as the public schools amply prove.  It is not the influence of Catholics that has made these schools practically godless.  It is the influence of the unbelieving portion of the American people; of those who reject all positive doctrines, and Christianity itself as a positive religion, or any thing more than a vague generality, or an indefinable abstraction.  If we are debarred from establishing Catholic schools and from giving our children a Catholic education, no religious education will be given to any portion of American children and youth; and debarred we shall be from establishing Catholic schools at our own expense, besides paying a heavy tax for the support of non-Catholic and godless schools, and compelled to send our children to the public schools, if we do not unite and make a vigorous and well-defined effort to prevent it.

            This is a perfectly legitimate exercise of the elective franchise, for politics should always be made subservient to religion and morality.  We combine and act politically, not to deprive others of their rights, or to acquire any control over them, but simply to obtain our own constitutional freedom, of which we are unjustly deprived by the political action of the non-Catholic majority.  We have no wish to prescribe the education non-Catholics must give their children, nor to make a law for their government.  If they are satisfied with the public schools as at present managed, why let them have them, and make the most of them; all we propose by political action is, if possible, to prevent them in future from taxing us to support them, or compelling us to send our own children to them.  We are only proposing to secure for ourselves the liberty they claim for themselves to educate our children in our own way, without being taxed to pay for the education of their children.  We do not seek to tax them to educate our children, we ask not one cent of them: we only ask the privilege, now denied us, of appropriating our own money, what we ourselves contribute, to schools under our own management, in which we can freely train up our own children in our own way.  What demand can be more reasonable or just?

            No doubt, a clamor will be raised against the church by bigots and anti-Catholic demagogues; she will be accused of interfering with politics, of grasping at power, seeking to remodel our institutions, and to destroy our republican freedom.  A frightful hullabaloo, no doubt, will be set up from one end of the land to the other.  But those clamorers would do well to remember that it is the non-Catholic majority, not the church, that has violated the constitution and republican freedom; and that we are only seeking to restore that freedom, and secure respect for the constitution.  It does not become the thief to complain that he is wronged, outraged, when the owner of the goods he has stolen demands, in a legal and peaceful way, their restoration.

            But knowing that we have right and justice on our side, as also the good of religion and of civil society, and that the means we propose to use are legal, constitutional, and perfectly honorable, we must not suffer these clamors, which are false and injurious, to move us from our purpose, or to disturb our equanimity.  Putting our trust in God, whose glory in the salvation of souls we seek, we must suffer no abuse to divert us, no flatteries to beguile us, no worldly interests to seduce us, no obstacles to discourage us, but move quietly and majestically forward, as becomes the servants of him who is King of kings and Lord of lords, to the end on which we have fixed our affections.  We do not pretend that the struggle will be slight or brief, it will be severe and protracted: but the victory will be more than half-won, nay, will be assured, the moment we have got our whole Catholic population united and acting in concert to gain our rights, and make the civil equality of all religious denominations a truth.  We may count with confidence on the blessing of the divine Head of the church: for we shall be engaed in his work, and laboring to promote the glory of his kingdom.

            What we want is Catholic union and concert of action in the defence of promotion of Catholic interests,--a true earnest Catholic spirit, which the unity of our faith and worship ought to inspire and sustain.  This at present is our great want.  We have it not yet, but we are gradually approaching it, and the numerous “Catholic Unions” springing up in all parts of the country tend, or will tend, powerfully to realize it.  We have only to remember that we are Catholics, and that, where there is no unity there is no catholicity:--“We know,” says the blessed apostle whom Jesus loved, “that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren.”  The brethren are the whole household of faith; we must embrace and love all who are of the household of faith; without distinction of race or nation, condition or complexion; we must suffer no local interests, no narrow and unworthy prejudices of race or nation to divide us, and prevent us from regarding the interests of the whole body as those of each one of us individually, or from uniting as “one man” to promote them.