Our American Cousins (3)

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CHAPTER XII.

JACK AS GOOD AS HIS MASTER—FREEDOM OF INTERCOURSE IN WASHINGTON—THE WHITE HOUSE—PRESIDENT ARTHUR—MR. BANCROFT DAVIS—JUDGE HOWE, POSTMASTER-GENERAL—CONGRESS—SENATOR BAYARD ON THE ALABAMA SURPLUS—ASPECT OF THE CHAMBERS.


IT is in Washington, more than anywhere else, perhaps, that the effect of democratic institutions on the habits and customs of the American people are most conspicuously seen.  A story which comes down to us from the first Revolution has been told to illustrate the relations of the French people of that time with those whom they had constituted their leaders.  Wishing to impress a crowd of citizens with his importance, a deputy of the National Assembly is said to have cried out, "Make way for a representative of the people."  "Bah!" replied a voice from the crowd—"we are the people themselves!"  Though in no sense is such a scene likely to occur in Washington, it is noticeable on all hands that the utmost attention is paid to the rights of the sovereign people.  That sovereign, indeed, has almost as many Privileges as the persons to whom his authority has been delegated.  If Jack is not as good as his master in Washington, no such equality prevails anywhere.

    Senators, deputies, and Ministers of State are common objects of the avenues of Washington.  During the sessions of Congress, all the great political leaders of the country gather together in that city, just as our own political leaders gather together in London.  The hotels, the tram-cars, the public offices, the umbrageous walks of the capital, are almost alive with the notabilities of the nation.  Persons acquainted with the outward appearance of conspicuous characters in the great world of politics will point them out to a stranger at almost every turn.  I dined at the same table with a senator from the South; I rode in the same tram-car with a representative from Pennsylvania; I participated in a pleasure excursion with a delegate from Utah; I rubbed shoulders against Ministers of State in the precincts of the public departments; and I was carried from floor to floor of the Capitol in the same elevator with generals who had distinguished themselves in the late war.  It need hardly be said that there was not on the part of any of these 'gentlemen the least affectation of superiority.  So free and affable were their manners that they invited rather than repelled intrusion.  They chatted and joked, hobnobbed and smoked, with everybody who accosted them, and that without fear of losing one atom of dignity by familiar and friendly intercourse with their fellow-citizens.  It really seemed to me that the miserable pride of which we see so much in the old country does not exist even among the leading classes in America.

    The morning after I arrived in Washington I was sauntering around the neighbourhood of the official residence of the President.  Seeing a mansion of slightly greater pretensions than the rest, I inquired of a passing stranger the name of it.  "That, sir," said he, "is the White House.  You can walk right in and look around.  There is nobody to stop you.  It is all open to the public.  Walk right in, sir."  Acting on the advice thus given, I walked right in, looked around, saw all that was to be seen, and then walked out again.  The public rooms in the White House were as open to everybody as the reading-room of a Public Library.  There were no horse guards at the gates, no sentries at the doors, no policemen in the lobbies, no servants in livery in any hart of the premises.  The only officials to be seen were a number of gentlemen sitting at desks in some of the rooms.  These gentlemen, who appeared to be engaged in writing or transcribing public documents, pursued their avocations without noticing the visitors who passed and repassed them, pausing in their labours only when they were applied to for information.  The impression produced by my first visit to the White House was that it is impossible to conceive a greater degree of freedom than is here established in the very residence of the President.

Chester A. Arthur
(1829-86)

    Subsequent visits to the Presidential Mansion simply confirmed that impression.  A gentleman of the press to whom I had been introduced said to me a few hours after the introduction, "Would you like to shake hands with the President?  I know Mr. Arthur very well, and I should be glad to take you to him."  Of course I accepted the offer.  We went together to the White House—my friend and myself.  It was comparatively early in the morning; but the President was engaged with some Cabinet Ministers.  I was therefore requested by one of the clerks whom I had already noticed in the rooms of the White House, and who seemed to have charge of the only ceremonies that were necessary to obtain access to the Chief Magistrate of the Republic, to call again at a later hour.  Returning at the time specified, I found many of the rooms occupied by ladies and gentlemen who were waiting to pay their respects to President Arthur.  When the time came for the reception of visitors, the company filed into an apartment which seemed to be reserved for this purpose.  No restriction whatever was placed in the way of anybody who wished it obtaining audience of the personage who occupies the highest position in the land.  Everybody was free to come, and everybody was welcome who did come.  All that the visitor had to do was to whisper his name and place of abode to the gentleman who acted as clerk of the ceremonies. This gentleman performed the duties of introduction, mentioning, of course, as he did so, the information that had just been whispered to him. The President thereupon shook hands with his visitor, saying, at the same time that he was pleased to make his acquaintance.  Unless one or the other had anything, special to converse about, the ceremony ended here.  Preceding me in the reception-room were a number of gentlemen from one of the distant States, between whom and the President some light and pleasant conversation took place concerning the politics of the locality from which they hailed.  When the name of one of the party was mentioned, Mr. Arthur humorously remarked, "Oh, yes, I believe you are the 'bad boy' of whom we have heard so much."  A very little joke, this, no doubt; but it helped to show the footing on which the President stands with his friends.  The rest of the introductions, so far as I had an opportunity of observing them, were of a more formal character.  When I left the White House, I felt satisfied that the simple ceremonies which I had witnessed were eminently calculated to preserve the harmony of the institutions of America.  President Arthur is so exactly like the photographs we see in our shop windows that most people would recognise him at once.  Without striking one as being a person of the highest intellectual eminence, he yet impresses one with the belief that, being a man of more than average ability, he is quite capable of maintaining. the honour and credit of the Republic.

    Obliging friends in this country furnished me with letters of introduction to various public men in the United States.  I found, however, so much readiness on the part of everybody I met to show me what I wanted, that I did not deem it necessary to present more than a very few of these convenient documents.  Two of them which I did use were addressed to gentlemen of eminence in Washington—Mr. Bancroft Davis, who, it may be remembered, had charge of the American case in the Alabama arbitration, and Judge Howe, the Postmaster-General of the United States.  For both introductions I was indebted to Major Jones, the United States Consul in Newcastle.  Access to public men in America is so exceedingly easy, as may be understood from what I have already said, that I had no difficulty whatever in obtaining intercourse with the gentlemen named.  It was not part of my business to take up Mr. Davis's time, except to explain, with the view of helping to remove all traces of the old antagonism between England and America, what I knew to be the fact, that while the upper classes and the newspapers generally sympathised with the Southern States during the late war, the vast body of the people of this country steadfastly adhered from first to last to the cause of the North.  Mr. Davis scarcely needed to be informed on this subject; for he cited passages of a memorable speech he had heard Bright deliver in the House of Commons when our upper classes were clamouring for the recognition of the Confederate Government.  The Department of State, where I saw Mr. Davis, is one of the finest structures in Washington; but the postal affairs of the United States are managed in a much less imposing edifice.  The rooms occupied by the Postmaster-General in the latter building were indicated by an inscription over a door in one of the corridors.  A clerk who was sitting at a desk outside the door asked me to take a seat, while he handed Major Jones's letter to Judge Howe.  Almost directly I was invited to enter.  Mr. Howe, a tall, slim gentleman, somewhat after the type of the late President Lincoln, expressed himself pleased to see me, inquired kindly about his friend the Major, asked what sort of voyage I had had across the Atlantic, and regretted that his departure next morning for Wisconsin would prevent him from offering me as many courtesies as he could have wished.  I was requested also to take a chair, with a view of continuing the conversation; but I excused myself from occupying any more of the time of an important officer of State, and so withdrew with very pleasing recollections of the affable manners of American public men. [10]

    All the national departments in Washington are accessible to everybody who feels inclined to visit them.  If one has any business of any kind with any member or servant of the Government, admission to him can be immediately obtained.  Where there is anything to be seen of an interesting character—such as at the Weather Bureau, the Bureau of Engraving, or the Department of Agriculture—the clerks engaged there at once place themselves at the service of the visitor for the purpose of explaining what may need explanation.  The same freedom of entry prevails at the Capitol.  There, again, no sentries or constables bar the progress of the stranger.  To persons who have ever had occasion to call upon a member of the House of Commons, where one has to run the gauntlet of I know not how many policemen, who regard all strangers as "suspicious characters," the contrast between Westminster and Washington must appear immense and surprising.  Almost every part of the Capitol, except the floor of the Chambers, is open to the public without ticket or order of any description.  Even the refreshment rooms are free to visitors, so that one may lunch or dine with senators and representatives just as if one were a senator or representative oneself.  The galleries surrounding the Chambers are as free to the public as the rest of the building, except that certain parts are reserved for the use of the ladies.  Even the floor of the Houses, or at least some portion of it, is accessible to outsiders on the introduction of members.  The principle of democratic equality is thus practically applied in the very centre of the Government of the United States.

    The time I spent in Washington did not give me many opportunities of hearing the best political speakers of America.  The House of Representatives, during most of that time, was occupied in discussing the details of a Bank Bill, which, of course, did not allow much scope for political oratory.  I heard, however, one interesting speech in the Senate from Senator Bayard, who was strongly advocating that the surplus moneys accruing from the Alabama Award should be returned to England.  Mr. Bayard's contention, as I afterwards saw from the newspapers, did not receive the support of the majority.  When I told an acquaintance connected with the Washington press (who, by the way, had been with John Brown at Harper's Ferry) that I had heard an able argument in favour of returning the money, he remarked, "No, sir, the country would never allow it.  Nor would Mr. Bayard himself have proposed it if he had not been in opposition."  For all that, I think it greatly to be regretted that the surplus was not sent back, because such a proceeding would have tended very much to strengthen and promote the cause of arbitration generally.

    The mode of conducting the business of Congress struck me as being somewhat more disorderly than what I remembered to have seen (before the days of Irreconcilable Parties) of the mode of conducting the business of our own Parliament.  There was considerable noise and confusion while the details of the Bank Bill were being discussed in the House of Representatives, showing, as I thought, at least as much party spirit as we have in this country.  Moreover, the system of "filibustering," which is sometimes adopted by the minority in Congress, is simply an American name for obstruction.  Still, it is in the power of either branch of the Legislature, when opposition becomes trivial or tiresome, to close debate by resorting to the "previous question," which empowers the presiding officer to put the subject under discussion to the vote at once.  While business of minor importance, or business which does not excite violent antagonism, is being transacted, the members comport themselves in a free and easy fashion—reading newspapers, writing letters, chatting and joking with each other, occasionally leaning back in chairs with their feet elevated on the desks before them, so as to obtain as near an approach to "horizontal refreshment " as the furniture at command will allow.  The utmost order prevails, however, when serious questions are being debated, as I witnessed myself during the speech of Senator Bayard.  One great cause of confusion in both Chambers is the number of message boys who are continually answering the calls (signified by a clap of the hands) of the members.  It sometimes happens, as I observed, that two or three of these lads, when a summons is heard, will indulge in a race to see which of them can reach the caller first.  What surprised me considerably was that little notice was taken of the frolics of the youths by either the officials or the members.

    As I looked down on the assembly from the gallery of either Chamber of Congress, I could not help forming a very high opinion of the ability and general eminence of the men composing the Legislature of America.  Most of them were advanced in years—almost all were distinguished for massive heads and powerful frames.  Physically and intellectually it would not perhaps be possible to find their superiors in any legislative assembly in the world.  There was certainly a total absence of that element of youthful aristocracy which always finds a place, and which I am afraid always will find a place, in our own Houses of Parliament.


 
CHAPTER XIII.

POLITICS—CHARGES OF CORRUPTION—PARTY SPIRIT—POLITICAL NOVELS—"PUCK"—ALBANY POLITICIANS—OPINIONS OF OLD ENGLISH REFORMERS—ARE FREE INSTITUTIONS A FAILURE?—"AMERICA FOR THE AMERICANS."


AMERICAN politics, almost everywhere outside America, are believed to be corrupt—in fact, rotten to the core.  It is many years since I heard applied to them, as a reason for the abstinence of the batter classes of the United States, the old saying, "You cannot touch pitch without being defiled."  This was in the days when slaveowners and sympathisers with slaveowners held the reins of government.  Since that time there has been much less reason for any body of decent citizens to hold themselves apart from political affairs.  Corruption, however, now that blackguardism does not avail, is given as an excuse for negligence in the discharge of political duties.

    It is not in foreign countries only that one hears complaints of the degraded condition of American politics.  Even in America itself the evil is openly discussed.  I talked to very few people in the States who did not allude to the subject—some of them deploring the mischief which dishonesty is doing to the Republic, others deprecating as unfounded the imputations which are frequently levelled against leading politicians, others again declaring that the whole thing was not only greatly exaggerated, but mainly the result of party spirit or puerile spite.  There cannot be much doubt that the evil reputation which America has acquired in this respect is largely due to the manner in which the citizens of the country conduct their political contests.  When politicians accuse each other of the vilest crimes and misdemeanours, of the paltriest thefts and the most gigantic frauds, it can scarcely be surprising if people outside believe that there is something in it.  Elections rarely occur without opposing candidates bespattering each other with mud.  "Imputation," it was once said, "is the life of debate."  Imputation, at any rate, is the life of political contests.  It is so in some degree in our own country; but the mischief prevails to a very much wider extent in America.  The very frequency of elections, too, helps to strengthen and magnify the abominable system.  While we in England have time for rest and repose in the intervals of party conflicts, elections in America are so frequent—this week in one State, next week in another, every four years all over the Union—that there is practically no time left for the popular mind to settle down.  Moreover, little or no attention is paid to charges of base conduct or dishonest practices, for no politician deems it worth while to vindicate his character by appealing to the law.  It thus happens that the most scandalous charges are preferred with impunity, with the natural and necessary result that the very worst side of American politics is presented to the public.

    I have just said that Americans themselves are largely to blame for the unhappy reputation their country has acquired abroad.  Let me mention a few examples in point.  I was advised when in Washington to purchase a book which I was told would give me a good insight into the political and social life of the capital.  That book, though it was recommended to me by an American citizen who had not the least notion that any harm would come of it, or any injury would be done by it to his country, nevertheless presented a picture of intrigue and bribery of the most shameless character.  Another novel, bearing on the same subject, and dealing with the same evils, or supposed evils, is now being sold in vast quantities in England.  The authors of "Democracy" and "Sub Rosa" do not appear to have given any consideration to the effect their repulsive fictions are calculated to produce on the minds of most of those who read them.  Aiming at sensation, they probably bestowed no thought on the defamation of their own country.  The accuracy of the portraits they have drawn of leading statesmen is even more open to dispute than the accuracy of Dickens's portrait of Jefferson Brick as a fair type of American journalists.  Grotesque and ridiculous caricatures must not be taken to be just representations at all.  But even if nothing could be said a against their productions on that score, the authors in question would still be open to rebuke on the ground that it is only dirty birds who foul their own nests.

    An amusing example of the inability of some American writers to see their own follies while pointing out those of their neighbours came under my notice in one of the best satirical publications issued in the States.  I allude to Puck, which is in some respects equal and in others superior to our own Punch.  Its cartoons, which are cleverly coloured, are almost as full of humour as John Tenniel's, while its literary matter is often of the highest class of satirical and serious writing.  Well, Puck of the 7th of June, 1882, copied the following paragraph from the Norristown Herald:—


"A foreigner who wrote an article on the American Congress, in which he said it was composed of pirates, cut-throats, highwaymen, embezzlers, pick-pockets, and other outlaws, admitted that he never was within three thousand miles of Washington, but simply gleaned his information from American newspapers."


    The editor of Puck was apparently quite unconscious of the fact that the Norristown paragraph had been placed in the hands of his printer: for the leading columns of his own paper contained comments which fully warranted the satire contained in it.  It was not, however, to the Congress at Washington, but to the Legislature of New York, which was then sitting at Albany, that the writer referred in bitter and almost malignant terms.  Here are a few passages from Puck's description of the Albany politicians:—


    "Do the voters of the great State of New York realise the character of two-thirds of the men who are supposed to represent them in the Albany Legislature?  They find day after day that measures are carried which are entirely opposed to the interests of the people, while legislation that is absolutely necessary is systematically resisted and defeated.  The public is so accustomed to the process that it is taken as a matter of course.  The Senate and Assembly at Albany are so little in harmony with the citizens, that the citizens have come to lose sight of the fact that they had anything to do with electing members.  It is very difficult, indeed, to properly characterise sonic of these Albany rascals.

    "Suppose we were to say to the keeper of Sing, Sing or Auburn Prison: 'Mr. Keeper, the people of the State of New York want some men to make laws for them, and to protect their interests: what can you do in that way?'  'Well, sir, I think I shall be able to give satisfaction.  I have a very choice collection of sneak thieves and highwaymen.  Then I can furnish you with a desirable line of burglars and perjurers.  I suppose you have little use for murderers or man-slaughterers.  But I can confidently recommend a few very superior embezzlers, forgers, and horse stealers.  The majority of these men have not quite finished their sentences, but in the interests of tile public I think I can let them out.'

    "People would recoil with horror at the thought of such fellows as these representing them; and yet a number of the Albany members are not one whit better than these convicts, and deserve the same punishment.  The history of the Albany Legislature of late years has never been such as the State could be proud of.  Its precious members sell themselves to the highest bidder, or to the man with the longest purse.

    "We doubt if it ever so much as occurred to any of these shameless scoundrels that they were elected and paid a salary by the people for tile purpose of representing the people.  The remedy lies with the people themselves.  Let them, before election day, inquire into the character of the men who are so anxious to serve them at Albany.  Let them refuse to cast their ballots for the thieves, liars, perjurers, rascals, and time-serving vagabonds who have betrayed them at Albany.  Let them scratch the names of Alvord and Sharpe, of Grady and Brodsky, of McClelland and Poucher, and a score of others, whenever they have a chance to do it.  The voter who, with such warning as this, records his vote for any of these men is as bad as they are."


    Foreigners who read the foregoing indictment may certainly be excused for describing the Legislature of New York as composed of "thieves, liars, perjurers, rascals, and time-serving vagabonds," whether they approach within three thousand miles of Albany or not.  And they would at least be able to quote the authority of an American journalist in support of the description.  If the statements of the writer in Puck be true, the condition of politics in the State of New York must be disgraceful to all who tolerate it. If not, then the person who ventures to publish charges so odious and so vile deserves a punishment much stronger than mere public condemnation.

    It was a curious (and to me an almost unaccountable) circumstance that many of the friends I met, who had in earlier years been intimately identified with the popular movements of the old country, were inclined rather to disparage than to praise the political forces of the Republic.  One of them, who had suffered in the Chartist cause, remarked that America would be a good place to live in " if it were not for the politicians and the newspapers."  Another, who had played a prominent part in Newcastle some forty years ago, was still more emphatic in his condemnation of the politicians.  Speaking of one of the great parties, he paused in his argument to explain—"They call themselves Democrats, but they are all thieves!"  A third, who had greatly contributed to educate an earlier generation in the first principles of republican government, was quite as dissatisfied with the institutions of America as any of the rest.  It was not because these gentlemen had renounced the political faith for which they had struggled that they took discouraging views of the country in which they lived.  I was disposed to think the disappointment had arisen not so much from the actual defects in the Western Republic as from the failure of the American people to realise the lofty ideals my friends had formed long, long ago.  All that perhaps can be fairly concluded in the matter is that experience of democratic institutions, as they are understood in America, has failed to demonstrate the immediate practicability of the plans and aspirations which animated and inspired at least some of the men who participated in the greatest political movements of the century.  It was, however, a surprise to me to hear a gentleman from Northumberland express his preference for the monarchical system over the system established in America, notwithstanding that he had left the old country fifteen or twenty years ago an earnest and pronounced Republican.  Too much importance need not perhaps be attached to the conversion in this instance, since another gentleman from the same district, who had in his youth been associated with the Chartist movement in Newcastle, deplored the defects in American politics without losing one atom of his faith in the virtue and value of democratic institutions.  If I might be permitted to draw my own inferences from the sentiments I have here described, I should say that it is not the democratic principle that is at fault, but the manner in which, in a new country, it has been put in practice by men who have there gathered together from every quarter of Europe.

    The failure of the experiment of free institutions in America—so far as it can be considered a failure at all, which has not been proved, and which I for my part do not admit—was attributed by one of the gentlemen I have named to the mischievous action of the naturalisation laws of the United States.  He had, he said, devoted a great part of his life to the advocacy of universal suffrage in England.  Nor did he see anything to regret in the course he had taken; on the contrary, he was proud of the services he had been able to give to the cause of the People's Charter.  But universal suffrage might be a good thing for a country inhabited by a homogeneous race, though a very bad thing for a nation composed of diversified and almost antagonistic elements.  The enormous number of foreigners who land in the States every year, since they are endowed practically at once with political power, is, my friend thought, a political evil.  Born in monarchical countries, trained in monarchical traditions, many of them ignorant of the language of the land in which they are entrusted with the vote, they naturally become, as it seemed to him, the dupes and tools of designing persons who have made politics a trade.  Had these people been compelled to pass a political probation long enough to ensure that they really understood the nature of the duties of a free citizen in a free country, there would, he held, have been a greater security for the safety and honour of the Republic.  This at least was the opinion of a man of great and varied experience in political struggles.

    A small, but probably not an insignificant, section of the natives of America are alive to the dangers likely to evolve from the immense flood of immigration into the States.  The Know-Nothing movement, which some years ago adopted for its motto, "America for the Americans," may some day be revived in stronger force than ever.  If Chinamen can be excluded, it has been asked, why not Germans, Irishmen, and Europeans generally?  No such movement, however, is ever likely to be successful.  At the same time, it is quite among the possibilities of the future that the abuses connected with the naturalisation laws will receive the correction of Congress.


 
CHAPTER XIV.

POLITICS A PROFESSION—HERBERT SPENCER'S COMPLAINT—DEMOCRATIC EQUALITY—IMPUTATIONS AGAINST PUBLIC MEN—COLONEL HINTON'S OPINION—THE SPOILS SYSTEM—RECOGNITION OF MERIT—AMERICAN VERSATILITY—AN ENGLISH PENSIONER-EFFECT OF GREAT POLITICAL ISSUES.


POLITICS in America probably derive some portion of their unpleasant repute from the fact that they are more or less of a profession.  Men devote themselves to political agitation in the States to a much greater extent than they do in this country.  And it happens, of course, that the more assiduous and successful among them receive rewards in the shape of appointments.  There is nothing dishonest or wrong or even blameworthy in this.  Somebody must do the work of the nation.  Why not those who give their time and energies to public questions as well as any others?  The system is only mischievous when politicians seek office for the sake of its emoluments.  If deserving citizens are elevated to important positions in the State, the country will be well and honourably served.  But how or by whom are the deserving to be chosen?  There are two methods generally adopted.  The people make the selection in the one case; the monarch or his ministers in the other.  It is the former method that prevails in America.

    The results of the American method are not, it must be admitted, entirely satisfactory.  But this is equivalent to saying that political perfection is not to be attained by so weak and erring an instrument as the popular voice.  As long as mankind is prone to mistakes, so long will democratic institutions fail to realise the highest hopes of social and political reformers.  An English bishop has said that he would rather have England free than England sober.  Our cousins may say that they would rather see America free than America reproachless.  There is more hope for a nation which blunders in governing itself than there is for a nation which is content to escape blundering by allowing somebody else to govern it.  It is at any rate a nation in the former case—not, as in the latter, a mere collection of human beings.  But blunders are not necessarily avoided even when the responsibility of government is surrendered.  Was France stronger or better for submitting to the despotism of Louis Napoleon?  Nor is it by any means clear that our own system shows more agreeable results than that in vogue in America.  Men are appointed to positions in England for other reasons than devotion to the public service.  Candidates, again, seek seats in Parliament for other purposes than the promotion of the public welfare.  If politics are less of a trade here than they are in America, it does not follow that we are nearer perfection than our cousins.  As to Herbert Spencer's complaint, that "the sovereign people is fast becoming a mere puppet which moves and speaks as the wire-pullers determine," we must not forget that the sovereign people retains the power to depose the wire-pullers whenever it pleases to exercise its authority.

    The great and surprising difference between America and England, so far as the political systems of the two countries are concerned, is this—that the highest positions in the one country are attainable by the man who has brains enough and energy enough to secure them, while in the other none but minor offices, and not many even of them, are within the reach of the common people.  The difference, in fact, is the difference between a democratic and an aristocratic form of government.  No man here dreams of acquiring distinction in the public service unless he has, to begin with, rich or privileged connections to help him forward.  Moreover, there are certain positions he would, not be eligible to fill, without he was first admitted to the sacred ranks of the aristocracy.  Considering that the highest posts in the diplomatic service are restricted to a few noble and wealthy families, it is wonderful that the country should have been, as a rule, so admirably served.  As a contrast to this system of ours, there is no exclusion whatever in the public service of America.  Every post of honour, every office of profit, every position of power, is open to the poorest or most miserable child in the land, provided he can take advantage of the opportunities which are constantly occurring.  The office of President is the only one in the whole United States to which even foreigners may not aspire.  Such is the expansive and all-embracing character of the American Constitution that men who have been driven from their own homes in Europe have become in a moderately short time Senators and Ministers of State in the Western Republic.  It is a common saying in American households, when a new child comes into the world, that the babe, if it happens to be a boy, may become the chief magistrate of the nation.  Every male child, in fact, is a possible President of the Republic.  Abraham Lincoln was a rail-splitter; Ulysses Grant was a tanner; James Abram Garfield rose from a log hut to the White House.  It is such possibilities as these, almost unique in the States, that give to democratic institutions the strength and popularity that they justly possess.

    Democracy in the West, however, has developed into a system of party.  It was, perhaps, not to be expected that it could take any other direction.  But the party system, for all that, is responsible for many of the evils which afflict the body politic.  Men will certainly do for their party what they would probably not do for themselves.  Hence has arisen not only the corruption which actually prevails, but accusations of corruption which does not really exist.  Although it is quite possible that clever and unscrupulous men do sometimes despoil the State, I am convinced that most of the charges that are openly made against public men are entirely unfounded.  Not a few of these imputations are levelled against politicians and others in order to discredit them in the eyes of the people.  If we dismiss the charges of peculation and dishonesty, of trickery and meanness, that are preferred for party purposes, we shall dispose of the great mass of the indictments that have done so much to degrade American politics in the estimation of people at a distance.  Another view of the same question was presented in a conversation I had at Washington with Colonel Richard J. Hinton.  This gentleman was one of the comrades of old John Brown in Kansas.  Joining the Northern Army in the war which followed John Brown's memorable descent on Harper's Ferry, Mr. Hinton rose to the rank his designation indicates.  "There is not really," said Colonel Hinton, "any more corruption in this country than in any other; but it is more talked about in the newspapers and on the Public platforms."  Colonel Hinton's view of the matter, I am satisfied, would be justified by a careful and impartial examination of the facts of the case.

    The open advocacy of what is called the spoils system no doubt gives countenance to the worst charges of American corruption.  The theory of the advocates of the doctrine which was first laid down by Andrew Jackson—"to the victor belongs the spoils"—is based on the assumption that every politician who has helped to secure the success of a political party is entitled to share in the results of that success.  Acting on this theory, the party managers who advocate it bestow offices, great or small, on as many of their friends who have assisted in the party triumph as can possibly be accommodated.  As a matter of fact, the doctrine can never be thoroughly carried out.  If it could be, every postmaster, every revenue officer, every servant of the Republic in any part of the world, would be displaced at each recurring election of a new President.  It is undeniable, however, that men who have efficiently served the Republic in various capacities are known to have retained their positions, unless removed to higher spheres, quite as long as the agents of any Government in Europe.  There are United States Consuls in England, for instance, who have seen, during their residence among us, the officers of all the Continental Governments changed two or three times over.  Nor has the spoils system, so far as it has at present been put in practice, prevented the employment of distinguished men of letters who have really had no connection with parties at all.  Bancroft, Hawthorne, Motley, and Lowell have all at different times represented the Republic abroad.  The dangers of the system, too, have probably been very much exaggerated.  Americans, it is contended, are generally so capable of discharging the ordinary duties of official life, that one man can replace another without causing even inconvenience to the public service.

    There is certainly some ground for this contention.  Our cousins, as a rule, are singularly capable of adapting themselves to any circumstance of life or any occupation of industry.  Some years ago I made the acquaintance of a gentleman from America, who had, in the space of not more than ten years, been successively a doctor in Pennsylvania, a jeweller in New York, a surveyor in Cuba, a promoter of railways in Nicaragua, a traveller for sewing machines in the North of England, a prospector for minerals in Norway, an agent for emigrants in Sweden, a newspaper proprietor in London, and a newspaper correspondent in his own country again.  Since I lost sight of him, he has probably added a dozen other occupations to the foregoing list of versatile accomplishments.  The instance just mentioned is probably not a solitary example of the power which Americans possess of accommodating themselves to any position they may be called upon to fill.  On the contrary, there are few natives who cannot be qualified by a moderate experience to take charge of almost any department of the public service.  It is worth while to recollect in this connection that many of the officers who rose to distinction in the late war had to get their military training, not in schools, but on the battle-field.  Lawyers, journalists, schoolmasters, farmers, tradesmen, mechanics of all kinds, when the crisis of the rebellion occurred, had to learn at one and the same time the rudiments of drill and the theories of strategic warfare.  Butler was a lawyer; Garfield was a schoolmaster; other generals in the Federal ranks left the counter, the desk, or the plough.  With a people so apt to acquire the knowledge and experience needed for the varied situations of life, it is easy to understand that the rapid change of Government officials would not involve very serious consequences.  Nevertheless, the policy of distributing office as rewards to political adherents is open to very obvious objections.  It has already given rise to a party which is not at present very powerful, but which may some day increase in strength so as to command the general support of the people.

    But if the American system produces evils that are to be lamented, it at least does not encourage others which are only too common in our own country.  It was said in the English newspapers in the summer of 1882 that a Government clerk, who had just died, had been for nearly fifty years receiving a pension for an office which was abolished in the year after the first Reform Bill.  During the last fourteen years, his pension had amounted to £850 per annum.  But this was not all.  The fortunate placeman in question, when his first office was abolished, obtained another immediately afterwards, from which he retired twelve years ago on an additional pension of £680 per annum!  So gross and scandalous a case of waste of public money could not, with all the faults of the American system, occur in the United States.

    American politics are so much like the politics of other countries, including our own, that they suffer decline when no great issues are at stake.  The absence of these great issues reduces the political conflict to a mere scramble for office.  As long as no lofty and stirring questions absorb the public mind, whether in England or America, so long must the public mind give itself to the consideration of matters of interest instead of matters of principle.  Yet even in party conflicts noble and enduring sentiments are sometimes heard.  It was Governor Washburne who, describing the weakness of an opponent who had changed from one party to another, uttered this imperishable sentiment:—"A Politician is like a pillar: he is only strong so long as he is straight."  That the American people, all sections and all classes, can ascend to the dignity of a magnificent political movement was proved, as I shall have occasion to show, during the late war.  When other questions of principle, like the questions of Slavery and of Union, shall become ripe for settlement, nobody who knows the citizens of the States can doubt that they will again be equal to the great emergency, again rise above the paltry disputes of the present hour, again demonstrate to the world at large that they are capable of the highest efforts of duty and of patriotism.


 
CHAPTER XV.

LOCAL POLITICS—THE WORST GOVERNED CITY IN THE WORLD—CONDITION OF THE STREETS OF NEW YORK—COST OF THE CITY GOVERNMENT—BOSS TWEED—JOHN KELLY—A CITIZENS' MOVEMENT—TAMMANY HALL—CONTROL OF THE COUNTING—"VOTE EARLY, AND OFTEN"—REPEATERS—BALLOT-STUFFING—POPULAR NEGLIGENCE—THE "NEW YORK HERALD" ON BOSS KELLY—TAMMANY THIEVES—"THE PRINCE OF SIAM."


BEFORE I crossed the Atlantic I was inclined to favour the introduction of national politics into local affairs.  It seemed to me that our friends the Tories, while professing to discountenance the system, nevertheless, whenever a proper occasion offered, really adopted it.  If one party made politics a consideration in selecting and electing candidates for local offices, why not the other?  Besides, men who advocated progress in national affairs would be likely to promote progress in local affairs.  These were some of the reasons which inclined me to think that it would not be a disadvantage were political questions of a general character to form an element in the control of our counties and our towns.  What I saw and heard in America, however, has entirely changed the current of my opinion in this regard.  When I asked persons in New York why it was that the streets were so neglected and the city generally so ill-governed, the almost invariable reply was—"Politics."  And when I afterwards visited Canada, a former member of the Dominion Parliament remarked to me—"Our local governments are perfectly pure; no politics are mixed up with them."

    But politics are not necessarily productive of evil results; for while they enter into all the affairs of public life in the United States, there are some cities in that country which are as well ordered as any in England.  Others, however, are quite the reverse.  There are at least some districts of Chicago which are not particularly clean—nor, I should think, particularly salubrious; but the wonderful growth of the city in that case, coupled with the fact that it has been in great part rebuilt since the great fire of October, 1871, affords some excuse for the authorities.  These authorities, I was told, had been kept so busy in making new streets and in raising the level of old ones, that they had had less time for sweeping and cleaning the parts of the city already formed.  No such excuse, however, avails in New York, which I have already called the worst governed city in the world.  I mean, of course, the worst governed of all cities that are under some sort of popular government.  Constantinople may be worse, and Pekin may be worse; but neither of these cities is under the control of the inhabitants themselves.  The assertion I have made, however, requires some proof.

    The condition of the streets of New York is—I am obliged to use a strong term—almost disgusting.  It is bad in fine weather; it is wretched in wet weather; what it may and must be in winter time, when the snow lies on the roads and sidewalks for weeks together, can be better imagined than described.  Even in spring and summer, when I was in New York, it was a disgrace to free institutions.  I could not help thinking that the citizens of Newcastle, who made such a disturbance a year or two ago because the remains of a snowstorm were not cleared away soon enough, and who ultimately dismissed three of their chief officers because they quarrelled over the subject—I could not help thinking, I say, that the citizens of Newcastle would go into fits if the state of Grey Street for a single week resembled the state of Broadway all the year round.  The roads of the Empire City were full of holes and ruts that must be trying to the horses, and still more trying to the vehicles.  The side walks, it appeared to me, were never swept, and seldom repaired.  It was necessary for the pedestrians to avoid two great dangers—the inequalities in the pavements and the rotting deposits of banana peel which were thrown carelessly about.  Even the side walks in Fifth Avenue and the fashionable streets adjoining that famous and magnificent thoroughfare were as dilapidated as the rest.  New York is the home of the tramway system; yet the tramways in that city are so badly constructed that the rails in many parts are several inches above the level of the road.  The passengers who ride in the tram cars are shaken and jolted about in a manner that reminded me of a ride in a spring cart over a mountain bridle path.  When the driver turned a corner, one had to hold fast by the seat to avoid being flung on to the floor.  These are some of the inconveniences which the New York people complacently and quietly suffer.

    Not only is the work of the authorities grossly neglected, but the citizens are robbed to a frightful extent.  I was startled when Mr. Edward Charlton, a native of Northumberland who has resided in New York for the last twenty years, told me that it costs more to govern that city to-day than it cost to govern the whole United States before the War of Secession.  The taxation is so great that property holders have sometimes been disposed to surrender their lots and all that is built on them rather than pay the demands of the Board of Aldermen.  Once or twice the more honest and reputable portion of the community, rising superior to party considerations, has demanded that the Augean stable of municipal corruption should be swept clean.  The most celebrated of these uprisings took place when the notorious chief of the Tammany Hall faction William M. Tweed, commonly known as Boss Tweed—was deposed, prosecuted, and eventually landed in prison.  Some of Tweed's confederates were compelled at the same time to disgorge a small portion of the funds they had stolen from the municipal treasury.  Though this movement resulted in the displacement of the Tammany thieves, the axe was not laid to the root of the Upas tree of city rascality.  As far as I could gather, the state of New York to-day, under the rule of John Kelly, the reigning Boss of Tammany Hall, is nearly as bad as it was in Tweed's time.  There consequently arose in the Fall of 1882 a new demand for the rescue of the city from the hands of the swindlers who then controlled it.  Sermons were delivered urging the citizens to attend the "primary meetings"—meetings that are held to choose delegates for the conventions which select the candidates for political and municipal offices.  Moreover, a citizens' movement was commenced for the purpose of nominating a Mayor who should be entirely untrammelled by political parties.  The promoters of this movement, which received the approval and which was promised the assistance of all the best people of New York, laid down a series of sensible propositions—that municipal offices should be filled "without reference to partisan affiliations," that "the election of the Mayor as the representative of any partisan political body was calculated to give corrupt politicians an ally in securing legislation injurious to the best interests of the city, thus depriving the citizens of an advocate to stand between them and manifold schemes of legislative depredation," and that "the election of the fittest man, apart from all partisan and political considerations, would afford the surest means of protecting the city against legislative interference in behalf of individuals, parties, or corporations."  The gentlemen who organized this non-party movement held a great meeting in Cooper Institute, at which Mr. Allan Campbell was nominated for the office of Mayor.  For all that, Mr. Franklin Edson, the candidate of the Tammany faction, was elected by a large majority.

    The reason why the agitation on behalf of a purer system of city government utterly failed was because the Tammany leaders wield almost supreme power over the New York masses.  It may be mentioned here that Tammany Hall is the headquarters of a political association which has taken the name of a now extinct Indian tribe.  As one of the friends I have already quoted would have said "They call themselves Democrats, but they are all thieves."  It is the predominance of the Tammany faction that must always render doubtful every attempt to reform the local government of New York.  If Tammany could be overthrown, there might be some chance of improvement.  Till that can be done, it is greatly to be feared that matters will remain in very much the condition they are now.  When Tweed was at the head of the Democrats of New York, he declared that "it did not matter how the people voted, so long as Tammany kept control of the counting."  This declaration was of course a barefaced statement that the right of the people to manage their own affairs was a mere fiction.  It was, according to Tweed and his associates, a right to be evaded, not respected—to be evaded, too, by any set of rascals who are cunning and skilful enough to escape punishment.  The principle on which the supporters of Tammany Hall are supposed to act is embodied in the reputed motto of the party—"Vote early, and often!"  When the Tammany supporters—"repeaters" they are called—do not vote early and often enough, the process known as ballot—stuffing is said to come into play.  The persons who have control of the counting make false and fraudulent returns of the voting.  It thus happens that popular elections, in New York at all events, are very much of a sham.

    Some of the men who obtain power over the greatest city in the Union are little better—indeed no better—than swindlers and scoundrels.  It unfortunately happens that the parties who thus degrade popular institutions, and who bring shame and disgrace upon the Republic itself, are assisted in their operations by large numbers of new arrivals in the country.  Ignorant, more or less drunken, always open to bribery, those of the new arrivals who fall into the hands of political depredators become the means of endangering the liberties of the country that has received and befriended them.  Native Americans, who are not politicians, likewise lend themselves to the shameful work; for a resident in the 16th Ward explained to me, as we were crossing the Atlantic together, that he was not a politician, and had never been to a political meeting in his life, but that he used his influence at elections to defeat particular candidates "who would not give him anything"!

    I have mentioned already that the saloon-keepers of New York form political societies of their own.  Each society bears the name of the grog-dealer himself.  When an election occurs, the members of these bodies, it may be presumed, are quite ready to act and vote in any manner their leader and patron may desire.  It is probably through agencies of this description that the Tammany faction has been able to recover the ground it lost after the overthrow of Tweed.  But how, it may be asked—how does it happen that the honest citizens of New York, who are certainly the major part of the population, do not put down a system which degrades and demoralises everybody connected with it?  Over and over again I myself put this very question to persons with whom I became acquainted. The answers I received may be thus summarised—"Well, you see, we are too busy making money to bother with elections.  Besides, what would be the use of going to the polls?  We know beforehand that we should only be outvoted by repeaters or defrauded by ballot-stuffers."  So, then, it would seem that dishonesty and fraud are allowed to triumph because the men who compose the decent part of the community are too selfish, or too cowardly, or too negligent of public duty, to offer a steady and sustained resistance.  Mr. Herbert Spencer has undoubtedly struck at the root of the evil when he ascribes the demoralisation prevailing in the local affairs of the country to "the easy-going readiness of the people to admit small trespasses, because it would be troublesome, or profitless, or unpopular, to oppose them."

    The New York people and the New York press are of course fully cognisant of the miserable system to which they submit.  It is attacked day after day in the leading columns of the leading journals.  When it was announced that John Kelly had called a meeting at Tammany Hall on the 4th of July, to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, the New York Herald published a sarcastic article on the subject.  As that article, besides being short, is a fair example of the American manner of treating a serious question, I make no apology for quoting it entire:—


"All the Tipperary Injuns of Tammany Hall, with Big Injun Boss Kelly at the head, intend to celebrate the glorious Fourth, and invite the People to come and look on.  The invitation is characteristic.  We find it in these very words in Boss Kelly's own organ:—'On Tuesday the patriotic masses of this city will be called to join with the members of the Tammany Society in appropriately celebrating the one hundred and sixth anniversary of the signing of the immortal Declaration of Independence by Patrick Henry, Charles Carroll, John Hancock, and their noble associates.'  Boss Kelly could, of course, not be expected to know that Patrick Henry was not one of the signers, for a man of his genius is not to be bound down to such trivial facts.  By the way, does Boss Kelly know what the Declaration was all about?  If he knew this, we doubt that he would admire it very ouch.  Does he know that the people declared against George III. 'for taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the powers of our Government'?  Does he know that they complained against the King 'for imposing taxes on us without our consent,' and because 'he has made judges dependent on his will alone,' and 'has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance'?  If Kelly had ever known that these were the objections to George, he would have sympathised with that Prince, and would have said of the colonists, 'Bedad! they were mighty onraysonable.  I've done as much myself."'


    Some idea of the extent of the frauds perpetrated under the rule of Tweed may be gathered from the statement of the same journal that they "inflicted a debt upon the city which imposes an annual interest charge of more than six million dollars."  The method adopted to enrich a corrupt party at the expense of the general community has been thus described:—"Some member of the Ring informed every man who did work for the city that, in order to secure a continuance of the public patronage, and to ensure prompt payment for work already done, it would be advisable for him to make out bills for amounts greater than their true face value.  Of course the increased percentage thus added to the bills was uniformly divided among the members of the Ring."  The foregoing, however, was not the only fraudulent scheme put into operation for the robbery of the public.  Millions of dollars were abstracted from the city treasury on the ground of claims which were concocted for the purpose.  Between the 1st of January, 1868, and the 1st of July, 1871, a sum of more than thirty million dollars was afterwards found to have been stolen.  Altogether, indeed, the loss to the city was estimated at not less than fifty million dollars, equal to ten millions sterling!  Some portion of this enormous amount was subsequently recovered from the thieves.  One man returned 151,000 dollars; another, 406,000 dollars; a third, 558,000 dollars.  John H. Keyser received 476,338 dollars, and disgorged 130,000.  But, after all, barely a million dollars were recovered out of a total of somewhere about fifty millions.  Even then the mischief was merely abated, not removed; for so late as 1880, when John Kelly had command of the finance department, the administration of his office cost the ratepayers "over a thousand dollars a week more than they were called upon to pay under his successor, Allan Campbell."  And peculation, according to all accounts, is still rife.  Curious charges, for instance, are made in connection with the great suspension bridge between Brooklyn and New York, which has cost fabulous sums of money.  "The East River Bridge," writes Henry George, "is a crowning triumph of mechanical skill; but to get it built a leading citizen of Brooklyn had to carry to New York 60,000 dollars in a carpet bag to bribe New York aldermen."  There is sometimes, too, a touch of the peculiar humour of America in the nefarious transactions of the city fathers.  When I left New York, the newspapers were busy discussing what they called the "Prince of Siam Sell."  Alderman Roosevelt, it appeared, had induced the Board of Aldermen to pass a resolution appointing a committee, with himself as chairman, to receive and entertain a son of the King of Siam, who was said to be about to pay a visit to the States.  Questions came to be asked in due course when the "illustrious stranger" was to be expected.  And then it was discovered, not only that the visitor was not coming at all, but that no such person as the Prince of Siam existed!  The general supposition was, as I read in the New York Tribune, "that the sole purpose of the committee was to get charge of an appropriation in view of the coming election."

    While I was discussing with a commercial gentleman in New York the deplorable condition of the city government, he remarked—"We Americans can stand a good deal, and do stand a good deal; but when things get unbearable, we just rise up and stamp them out."  It occurred to me frequently afterwards that it was about time they just rose up and stamped out the corrupt politicians of the Empire City.


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FOOTNOTES.


10.     I regret to state that Judge Howe died somewhat suddenly on the 25th of March 1883, in his sixty-sixth year.

 


 

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