by Martin Murie
(Swans - July 2, 2007) Philip Greenspan's thorough exposure of the fears and acts of the founding fathers reminded me of George Eliot's novel, Felix Holt, The Radical. The novel was published in 1866. It's a solid critique of voting and politics brought to vivid life 141 years ago.
I like the way Eliot opens: a survey of nineteenth century England as seen from the driver's seat of a Mail, or stage, coach.
...he saw the full-uddered cows driven from the pasture to the early milking. Perhaps it was the shepherd, head-servant of the farm, who drove them, his sheep-dog following with a heedless, un-official air, as of a beadle in undress.
Manufacturing towns alternate with the still-expansive stretches of hedge-rowed England. From the coach-seat view we move to inhabitants, Established or Chapel, Aristocratic landholders, lawyers, artisans, farmers, and mothers and lovers. It's a great surveillance of minds and hearts in the time the Reform bill was being debated. "The Vote" with all its damned familiar tricks, lies and maneuvers dominates the story.
Here is a snippet of what Felix Holt has to say.
I'm a working man myself and don't want to be anything else. But there are two sorts of power. There is the power to do mischief -- to undo what has been done with great expense and labor, to waste and destroy, to be cruel to the weak, to lie and quarrel, and to talk poisonous nonsense ... It never made a joint stool or planted a potato ... It's another sort of power I want us working men to have, and I can plainly see that our all having votes will do little toward it at present.
Holt goes on and on, goaded by the "pleasure of being listened to," lambasting the foolish thought that mere voting will bring the Promised Land.
Now, all the schemes about voting. districts, and annual Parliaments, and the rest, are engines, and the water or steam -- the force that is to work them -- must come out of human nature -- out of men's passions, feelings, desires.
There's much more in this long novel, full of characters examined, including the hero's sexism. Nothing is left unexamined. It's a political document. What a downer, to think that after all these years, we are fundamentally on that same set of pages. A hundred and forty-one years down the pike, which, if you stop to think about it, isn't such a great span of time. Different situations, that goes without saying, but basically what we are struggling against now, as in old England and in many another nation, is the power to delude, to lie, to kill, possessed by those who rule.
As we consider the Constitution of the United States, I think we can make a distinction between what those rascals, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Franklin et al., intended and what the document actually says, or portends, today. We can act upon that distinction. For example, another adjustment is long, long overdue: the Equal Rights Amendment. Let's work on the imperfect document and fix it, with that "other" power, water and steam, the passions of men and women.
Eliot, George; Felix Holt, The Radical, Chicago, M. A. Donohue. "New Edition." No date.
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