We have reached a crisis when upon their action depends the preservation of the Union, according to the letter and spirit of the Constitution; and this once gone, all is lost. – President James Buchanan, 1858, as quoted in Life and liberty in America: or Sketches of a Tour in the United States, 1858 by Charles Mackay which continues:
As the venerable statesman truly observes, the United States incur no danger from foreign aggressions; there is no one to injure them but themselves; and they have nothing to fear but “the just judgments of God.” But this is only a portion of the subject, and the questions still remain, Will they not injure themselves? ….
That the people will increase and multiply and replenish the whole continent no one can doubt: and that in the course of ages North America will be as populous as Europe…. But in speculating upon the future of a people the mind clings to the idea of Empire and Government — and we ask ourselves whether Empire in this noble region will be one or many — central or local — imperial or republican?
Whether the great Republic shall exist undivided, or whether it will fall to pieces from its own weight and unwieldiness, or from some weakness in the chain which shall be the measure and the test of its strength? …
Or whether, in consequence of internal strife, some new Alexander, Charlemagne, or Napoleon of the West, shall arise to make himself lord absolute and hereditary, and at his death leave the inheritance to be scrambled for and divided by his generals? …
That the Union may be disturbed or disrupted at some period near or remote, is an idea familiar to the mind of every inquirer and observer…. It is, after all, the hungry belly of the people, and not the heads of legislators, that tries the strength of political systems: and when all the land is occupied, and has become too dear for the struggling fanner or artizan to purchase; when the starving man or the pauper has a vote equally with the well-fed and the contented proprietor; and when the criminal counts at an election for as much as an honest man — what may be the result of universal suffrage on the constitution of the Republic and the stability of the Union?….
But a greater danger even than this — the most formidable of all the rocks that are ahead — is the growth of peculation and corruption, and the decay of public virtue.
A republic is, theoretically, the purest and most perfect form of Government, but it requires eminently pure men to work it. A corrupt monarchy or despotism may last for a long time without fatal results to the body politic, just as a man may live a long time, and be a very satisfactory citizen, with only one arm, one leg, or one eye.
In despotic countries the people may be virtuous, though the Government is vicious; but a corrupt republic is tainted in its blood, and bears the seeds of death in every pulsation. And on this point Mr. Buchanan seems to have a clearer vision than many of his countrymen…. In reference to this fever in the blood of the State, he thus solemnly warns the citizens in the letter from which quotation has already been made: —
“I shall assume the privilege of advancing years in reference to another growing and dangerous evil. In the last age, although our fathers, like ourselves, were divided into political parties which often had severe conflicts with each other, yet we never heard until within a recent period of the employment of money to carry elections. Should this practice increase until the voters and their representatives in the State and National Legislatures shall become infected, the fountain of free government will be poisoned at its source, and we must end, as history proves, in a military despotism. A democratic republic, all agree, cannot long survive unless sustained by public virtue. When this is corrupted, and the people become venal, there is a canker at the root of the tree of liberty which will cause it to wither and to die.”
If corruption have attained its present growth with a population so scant in 1858, in a country by the cultivation of which ten times the number could live honestly and independently, if they trusted to hard work, and not to intrigue, for the means of subsistence; what will be the extent of corruption fifty years hence? Shall a despotism attempt a remedy worse than the disease? Or will the patient be warned of the evil of his ways, and amend his life in time?
[Taken from -- Life and liberty in America: or Sketches of a Tour in the United States, 1858 by Charles Mackay. Mackay was also the author of the more widely known Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds]