On returning to town last Saturday., and looking over the file of the Palladium, I found a letter by “Enquirer” in Thursday's issue which I may assume, without much danger of error, to refer to me. I find nothing discourteous or improper in the inquiry for whom I shall vote for President, and what my reasons are, if anybody cares to ask. I have never made any announcement of my opinions and intentions because it was not for me to assume that anybody cared about them, and also because my course was not, and is not yet, so thoroughly satisfactorily clear before myself that I care to bring my opinion voluntarily before the public. However, now that I am asked, I will reply.
I want to premise one thing. My first responsibility is to the University, and I propose to be true to that before anything else. I shall not compromise that for political influence, and if, as “Enquirer” says, a student and teacher of political science may fairly be asked to give his opinions and his reasons, it is also true that a man who occupies a university chair must be careful, in political activity, whether he pulls down the university or pulls up politics. I have, therefore, carefully limited my practical action in politics to such duties as are incumbent on every citizen, such as will not interfere with my university duties, and such as an independent scholar can pursue without any selfish interest or danger to that broadest influence which he ought to seek to obtain. I therefore write now the simple, frank opinion of an independent man, whose ambition and career lie entirely inside the sphere of the university teacher. Such a man is bound to be honest, dispassionate, and unprejudiced; to seek no friendships and fear no enmities. His opinion, if it is worthy of himself and his position, must be calm, broad, fair, and sincere. I shall aim in the present statement to fulfill this requirement and not to gain any other point.
I observe that most of the public discussions turn upon the antecedents, the acts, and the characters of the one and the other party. Those considerations have no force at all for my mind. I know my neighbors: one of them is a republican by habit and the other a democrat by habit, and neither of them can define his party name. The population is very equally divided between those who are ranged under one banner and those who are ranged under the other. When, therefore, I read the descriptions that party newspapers and party orators give of the opposite party, I look around me for the demons who seek the national ruin and I do not find them. I find neighbors, some of whom are under one banner and some under the other, but in their general tone, and will, and intention, those of one party are just as good and just as bad as those of the other. Especially when I remember that the social distribution of the two parties in the northern states is exactly opposite to what it is in the southern states, it seems to me that the national parties are very equally adjusted in regard to the social, intellectual, and moral elements which they contain. Now an historian, or a foreigner, reading the accounts which the parties give of each other, must infer either that these accounts are all false and that they simply constitute a depraved method of electioneering which obscures the issues and prevents the people from really using sound judgment, or else that they are all true, in which case the people of the United States are so unpatriotic, corrupt, disloyal, unjust, murderous, and venal that it makes little difference what is the result of any political struggle. And if we assume the standpoint of either political party and accept as true what it says of the other, then one-half of the population of this country are scoundrels so lost to honor and patriotism that no mere political victory could prevent bankruptcy in the national morals. If it is true of either party that no reform can be expected of it, then reform is impossible for the nation, for one-half of the people are at least indifferent to it. I discard all this argumentation, therefore, as the kind of appeal to passion and suspicion which befogs judgment. I regard the good sense, sound patriotism, and correct intention of the masses of the people in either party as substantially equal. I regard the evil elements in the parties as substantially equal, and I turn for my grounds of judgment to the considerations which I think genuine.
I find these in men. I cannot trust a party; I can trust a man. I cannot hold a party responsible; I can hold a man responsible. I cannot get an expression of opinion which is single and simple from a party; I can only get that from a man. A party cannot have character, or conscience, or reputation; it cannot repent, nor endure punishment or disgrace. I know very well that we are in the habit of predicating all these things of parties, but I should think our experience had offered the fullest proof that we cannot properly predicate any of these things of a party, except in a broad, half-metaphorical sense, under which all the sharpness and efficiency necessary to practical politics are lost. The proof is, at any rate, satisfactory to me.
The answer will probably here be made that the party elects the man, forms his “backing,” will control his policy, and will not be ignored. I beg to call attention here to the illustration offered of the mischievous ambiguity in the word party. I have been speaking of parties as great bodies of voters, but those who present this objection mean by parties the group of professional politicians who control party machinery. In regard to parties in that sense I can only express my opinion, without entering on any accurate measurement of the heaps of dirt which each has piled on the other, that I, or any other similarly situated private and independent voter, have nothing to choose between them. I therefore pay little heed to platforms and letters; I have been deceived by them until I have lost all confidence in them and regard them much as I do sensational advertisements.
I look at candidates, and it the point be urged about the “backing” of each of the men now before us, I will state just how that appears to me. I have no information other than what the newspapers have given us all. From their story I do not see how any one can feel respect for the candidature of Governor Hayes. It appears that Mr. Cameron was piqued because some members of his delegation violated a sacred political tradition and did not throw the state vote as a unit, and he therefore refused to give the state vote as a unit for their candidate at the decisive moment. The senatorial aspirants could not see the prize go to either one of their own number and agreed only that it should not go to Blaine. These two things combined gave it to Hayes. At the time I expressed the opinion that this course of events, when one reflected that business in hand was the selection of a chief magistrate of the nation, was a “farce.” I did not then, and do not now deny the possibility that Hayes may be the man for the crisis. I cannot deny the possibility that, if you shake up the names of eight million voters in a box and draw one by lot, you may get the one out of the eight million who is best fitted for the Presidency; but we are assumed to be rational beings, making a selection on rational grounds, and I think we did ourselves little credit on that occasion in that point of view. Some of the gentlemen there came home rejoicing and triumphing over the party machine; they defeated the machine in its first intention, but it doubled upon them with its well-known suppleness and activity. Mr. Hayes seems to be the creature of the machine, and to have no other public claim to the Presidency. He must feel that his selection is arbitrary, that he has everything yet to do to justify public confidence that he is the recipient of an “honor.” He cannot act with the assured independence of a man who has advanced by well earned steps, to whom the Presidency comes as the highest trust at the end of a career, to whom it is less an honor than a recognition and concession. If “backing” gives control, I should think that he was subjected to his backing from the outset.
I am well aware that Mr. Tilden has no long career of public service behind him and that the theory of our political system, as I have hinted at it, is not thoroughly fulfilled in him. It is a profound and melancholy reflection, well worth every man's consideration, that our public service does not furnish a number of tried statesmen from whom to select. I restrict myself now, however, to the choice which is the only practical question.
Mr. Tilden's nomination was opposed by all the worst elements of his party and was supported by as honest, pure, and intelligent men as ever led in any political convention in this country. Many of them were young men, representing the hope, strength, faith, and purpose of the younger half of this generation, to which I turned long ago with all my confidence for the national future. I believe that few men now over forty-five appreciate the wide divergence of their political faiths from those of the men now under forty-five. Mr. Tilden's nomination was wrested from this convention by the conviction that he was the real leader of the party, the representative of its strength, the champion of its best principles, and the embodiment of its hope. The party came to him in that sense and took him for its chief because he was its head. That this was not purely and consistently and thoroughly true, belongs to the nature of all political parties and does not invalidate the criticism as a broad and sound one on the action of the convention. It appears to me, therefore, that Mr. Tilden's relation to his party is that of such dependence only as properly exists between leader and followers.
The question of the currency, to me, stands before any other. We must all grow better together. The sovereign's conscience is always hardest to move. He blames his ministers, his army, his people — anybody but himself. It is so also of the sovereign people. We are just now treating some of our old idols very harshly, and we are slow to learn that, if we govern ourselves and have our own way, we must blame ourselves for results. If we are to have any reform which shall be real, it must begin and spread far in the minds and consciences of the sovereign people. We must have a finer honor, a higher tone, a severer standard, a more correct judgment about ourselves. The sovereign people must recognize their own errors and follies and shoulder their own blame; they must repent and amend, discard false notions, accept true ones, and so put the latter in practice as to engender a sound public opinion and an incorruptible public morality. As a political measure to help bring this about, I place the restoration of true value money first of all.
It appears to me that Mr. Tilden has shown a more correct, detailed, statesmanlike knowledge of the evil, the remedy, and the process of cure than any other public man who is eligible. I say statesmanlike knowledge, because I mean to distinguish between a lecture on political economy which would be suitable for me, and the program of a statesman which is what we want from him — a distinction which has rarely been observed in Congress or in the Cabinet.
I am, of course, utterly opposed to the repeal of the resumption act or any part of it, and I disapprove of any concession on that point, in form or substance, by Mr. Tilden or anybody else.
I know that the soft-money democrats have claimed that Mr. Tilden has surrendered on the currency question, and the republicans have hastened to accept their authority as conclusive on that point. Mr. Tilden's opinions on this point are not new, nor were they first placed before the public in his letter, but if he does not in that document lay down hard-money doctrines, then language has no meaning, and I could not express hard-money doctrines myself. The soft-money men have, within a year or two, begun to use some hard-money phrases in forced, artificial, and impossible applications; they find those phrases in Mr. Tilden's letter, and that is the ground on which they claim his surrender.
Mr. Hayes has made a very distinct avowal that he will resist the repeal of the resumption act unless something better is put in its place, and if he is elected I shall certainly await with generous confidence a fulfillment of that pledge. The difficulty is just the one which seems to me radical in his candidature. He may do what he says he will; I am not held to say that he will not. I say only that when I have an act to perform I must look for measures which have been tested; when I want work done, I must look for an agent in regard to whom there is some record, some ground of belief in his ability and fitness. Between two candidates, one of whom is recommended to me on the opinion of his friends, the other of whom has a record of action and achievement under my knowledge and inspection, my most rational expectation of such a performance as I desire attaches to the latter.
I may be told, here, that the President cannot resume specie payments. He certainly cannot do more than his constitutional share. We are now talking about the election of a President for so much of the matter as belongs to him, and the objection is not in point. How much, at any rate, he can leave undone we now see by facts before us. I never judged the resumption act favorably; it did not seem to me to make practical provision for the requisite financial measures. Others, whose opinion is worth far more than mine on a point of law, agree that it is practical in respect to the means it provides; but the administration has not taken those means and nothing has been done. If we get a President who knows what to do, and how to do it, and who has the will to do it, it will be our own fault if we do not elect a Congress to co-operate with him.
I put next in this canvass the matter of administrative reform. Mr. Tilden has been governor of the state which has led in the demoralization of our politics since the beginning of the century. He has had the hardest position for beginning reform, perhaps, which there is in the Union; but he has made, at the risk of his own political fortunes, the only positive and successful steps towards it which I know of in the country. The newspaper exposures of the Tweed ring would have made no more impression on that body than the pattering of rain on the hide of a rhinoceros, and the members of the ring would to-day have been flaunting their stolen wealth in the face of the public if Mr. Tilden had not reduced their guilt to an arithmetical demonstration, available in a court of law. The Canal ring fight is known to everybody. The governor of New York cannot put a man in a state prison because he is convinced that he has stolen public money, and if the judicial system of New York is such that conviction and sentence cannot be secured, it is the judicial system which the people have given themselves by their representatives. If they reform themselves they will raise their standard of fitness in candidates for the legislature. New legislators will make new laws and judicial systems. Public administrators, if dishonest, will then find a surer path to the penitentiary, and their number will diminish; but I do not see how this sequence can be started anywhere but at its beginning.
I have in mind, however, not only these “reform” efforts, but also administrative reform. I will take a single case which floated in a paragraph through the newspapers, occasioning, so far as I ever saw, very little attention, but which had an immense effect on my mind and which I have often urged in private conversation.
It was stated that the politicians of the southern tier of counties of New York were bitterly hostile to Governor Tilden. The reasons were given, two in number: (1) Mr. Tilden had refused to remove the republican superintendent of the asylum at Elmira in order to appoint a democrat; (2) Mr. Tilden had removed, for cause, the corporation counsel of Elmira, who was a democrat, although the common council of city was republican and could elect a republican successor. These were good grounds for the opposition of the “politicians,” but they were an imperative demand on me, if I was an “Independent” and meant what I had been talking about for years, to give him my full, hearty, and efficient support, if it ever came in my way. This was not popular reform; it was administrative reform of the hardest kind. All question of motives, of affiliations, of party antecedents, falls to the ground when I see a public officer doing just what we want done and what we have been vainly begging some public officer to do; and when I see him engaged in a desperate fight on account of it, I care nothing for any such objections. My business is to give him recognition and support, and when we want a man for a larger sphere, I know of no one more fit, or from whom we can, with more confidence, expect what we want. As for motives, I can judge a man's motives only by his acts; I am tired of being asked to believe that a man who has committed some rascality had nevertheless a good motive, and that a man who has done well had only a selfish impulse. That Mr. Tilden is politician enough to be available is only an advantage, since we cannot get an angel with a flaming sword; and I think that we independents have cast worse reproach upon ourselves than our most sarcastic critics, since we have failed to seize upon a chance which offered itself to our demand and have chosen to trust to a groundless faith and a hope for which we cannot give a reason.
In this latter light I must be allowed, without offense, to regard the support of Governor Hayes. It may be accepted upon the testimony of his friends that he is a gentleman of integrity, high character, and spotless honor. Beyond this, however, when the question arises as to whether he has the independent judgment, the original force of mind, the staying-power, which are wanted in the next President of the United States, neither his friends nor any one else can say more than “we believe” that he has. That he has not the wide experience requisite is certain. I repeat what I am not held to say that he has not the former qualities — perhaps he has them. The point is, if I am asked to vote for him, that I have a right to demand to know that he has them, or else, as between him and another who has given guarantees, sound judgment forces me to choose the latter. I received a letter a while ago from a friend of Governor Hayes, who declared that Governor Hayes was a very modest man whose modesty prevented him from accepting the United States Senatorship. I quote it as an instance of what seems to me wrong reasoning on these matters. If Governor Hayes is such a man as is now claimed, it seems to me he is just the man we have sadly needed in the Senate for the last few years, and if he refused to go, he turned his back on the call of public duty. I do not deny his right to refuse, although in general I hold it sound doctrine that a man of good health and independent fortune ought to serve the state when duly and honorably selected; but if Mr. Hayes was ever to be a candidate for the Presidency, he ought to have pursued a public career in the subordinate places which opened to him, he ought to have allowed us to see him in those places, and he ought to have made a record on which we could form a judgment to-day and not be thrown on the say-so of his friends. If he is to be elected, I shall certainly not prejudge him nor allow any prejudice to arise in my mind, but when I look back on former cases in which the campaign enthusiasm has surrounded an untried man with a halo which has subsequently faded into something worse than obscurity, my imagination refuses to act.
Another point in this canvass which very deeply interests me is the condition and future of the South. The campaign seems to be turning more and more to that issue after all, and it seems to be found that distrust of rebels and the old war spirit are still so strong as to be the best available campaign capital. If that is to be so, then I must take sides against any further administration of the affairs of the South by the North acting through the general government. I have had occasion within a year to review the whole history of reconstruction. The effect upon my mind has been shame and blame to myself for the share which I, as a republican, have had in helping to build up the worst legislation of the nineteenth century. I have been shocked to realize by what successive stages we have erected here a system of restrictive and coercive legislation which very few northern republicans know in even its broadest features; and I can only recognize in disorder, riot, misrule, irresponsible official tyranny, and industrial loss, the results which have followed everywhere in history from coercive legislation enacted by one community against another. The republican candidate for the Vice-Presidency devoted his letter of acceptance almost exclusively to the Southern question. He believes that the Southern States are not civilized up to the standard of the Northern States, and he wants to bring them up. I agree with him that they are on a lower grade, but I submit that it is not his business nor ours to civilize them by any political measures. Communities do not take kindly to that kind of school-mastering, and I see in such a spirit only a threat of further interference, further coercion, further resistance, and prolonged trouble. The Southern States have on their hands a race problem of the first magnitude; they will have all they can do to manage it, if they are left free under the natural social and economic laws. They think, generally, that a black man is not the equal of a white man, which is not an essential question in the problem; but the Northern communities, a thousand miles away, insist that they shall first change their minds on that dogmatic point, and proceed to try to coerce their opinions. I think that Southern people are unwise and narrow in very many of their notions, but the only practical question is how to deal with erroneous opinions. Can we ever coerce opinions? Do we not all know rather that if we leave unwise men to pursue their folly, their own experience will teach them, but that if we attempt to impose contrary opinions, we shall only lead them to cling to their errors as the most sacred faiths? I, therefore, desire now, as regards this political question, that the South be left to work out its own social problems under no arbitrary political coercion, but simply under the constraint of social and economic forces. I want the Northern opinions kept to their own sphere of action, and the local self-government left free to act in the South under the plan and intention of our Constitution, without which the Union is impossible. If the Union is really secured and is to last, it must do so under peace between its parts and not under war, either military or political. I therefore condemn the attempt to revive and use the old war passions, suspicion, dread, or hostility. When it is done by demagogues I perceive in it only their natural and disastrous activity; but when it is done by men of principle, who have some knowledge of history, of constitutional law, and of the science of government, I see in it only a proof of how hard it is to resist the current of party opinion, and the consistency of political passion. As for dread of the Southern influence in the general government, I would rather trust to-morrow, either on pecuniary or political questions, to a Congress made up entirely of ex-Confederates, then to one made up of such men as the Southern republican representatives have been since reconstruction. The man who won more of my respect than any other man in the last Congress was Randall Gibson, a democrat and an ex-rebel; if the South has any more such rebel brigadiers I would like to help get them back into politics, especially now that General Butler is going down to fight them.
Finally, in regard to another matter which I have very much at heart, but which is hardly an active issue in the campaign, whatever hope there is for free trade lies in the election of Tilden.
I have not written this to convert anybody, or do anything but state my opinions and feelings fully. I therefore add, with perfect frankness, that there is much in the canvass which I do not like and which makes a decision difficult. I find that this has been the case with independent men in almost every election since that of John Adams. In this case I find it very hard to vote for a Vice-President whom I think unfit for the Presidency, should he be called to it. Moreover, I cannot be thoroughly satisfied where any floating doubt remains in regard to the life-long uprightness of a candidate, but I shall try, even here, to keep my judgment clear. I cannot be carried away by the hot and exaggerated assertion of a campaign charge whose injustice is apparent in its form of statement, which I am not competent to investigate, and which cannot be properly tried by anybody. I cannot be affected by a charge which is no charge, but only a challenge to a man to divulge his private affairs. Above all I shall not commit that folly into which some, trusting in the moral fervor of the Independents, seem anxious to drive them, to hang an important political decision on disapproval of the course of conduct adopted by a man at one or another point of a long business and professional career, to the disregard of all the properly political considerations involved for the present or future. If, then, a decision is forced upon me, I simply judge, on all the information I possess, that Mr. Tilden has more knowledge, ability, skill, and will to do what I want to see done in politics, than Mr. Hayes. Nevertheless, I am not called upon to bind or pledge myself in any way, and I hold myself free to take any course which may, upon further information or reflection, seem best. However the election may result, I shall be guided in my relations to the next administration entirely by its performances in regard to the matters I have here discussed.