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Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 [1888]

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Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.

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About this Title:

In Democracy in America (1835) the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville interpreted American society through the lens of democratic political theory. A half-century later the Scotsman James Bryce examined “the institutions and the people of America as they are.” Bryce presented his findings in The American Commonwealth, first published in London in three volumes in 1888. This new Liberty Fund two-volume edition is based on the updated third edition of 1941, which encompassed all the changes, corrections, and additions that Bryce entered into the previous editions. Its expanded appendix includes Bryce’s 1887 essay, “The Predictions of Hamilton and De Tocqueville,” and contemporaneous (1889) reviews of The American Commonwealth by Woodrow Wilson and Lord Acton.

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The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.

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This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.

Table of Contents:

Edition: current; Page: [i]
The American Commonwealth
Edition: current; Page: [ii]
lf0004-02_figure_001.jpg r.26
James Bryce
Edition: current; Page: [iii]
James Bryce
The American Commonwealth
With an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell
volume ii
Liberty Fund
Edition: current; Page: [iv]

This book is published by Liberty Fund, Inc., a foundation established to encourage study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.

The cuneiform inscription that serves as our logo and as the design motif for our endpapers is the earliest-known written appearance of the word “freedom” (amagi), or “liberty.” It is taken from a clay document written about 2300 B.C. in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash.

Frontispiece: James Bryce, 1906, Chief Secretary for Ireland. From H. A. L. Fisher, James Bryce: Viscount Bryce of Dechmong, O.M., vol. 1 (London: Macmillan, 1927).

Front cover: The County Election (detail) by George Caleb Bingham. 1851–1852. Oil on canvas, 35-7/16 × 48-3/4″. The Saint Louis Art Museum.

© 1995 by Liberty Fund, Inc. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America.

Liberty Fund, Inc.

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Indianapolis, Indiana 46250–1684.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Bryce, James Bryce Viscount, 1838–1922.

The American commonwealth / James Bryce.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 0–86597–116–1 (set : hardcover : alk. paper).—ISBN

0–86597–117-X (set : pbk. : alk. paper).—ISBN 0–86597–118–8 (vol.

1 : hardcover : acid-free paper).—ISBN 0–86597–119–6 (vol. 1 :

paperback : acid-free paper).—ISBN 0–86597–120-X (vol. 2 :

hardcover : acid-free paper).—ISBN 0–86597–121–8 (vol. 2 :

paperback : acid-free paper)

1. United States—Politics and government. 2. State governments—

United States. 3. United States—Social conditions. I. Title.

JK246.B9 1995

320.473—dc20 95-11187

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Edition: current; Page: [v]
contents Contents fpage="v" lpage="viii"

  • Introductory
  • part i The National Government
  • part ii The State Governments
  • Appendix

    • part iii
    • The Party System

    • 53Political Parties and Their History 683
    • 54The Parties of Today 699
    • 55Composition of the Parties 708
    • 56Further Observations on the Parties 717Edition: current; Page: [vi]
    • 57The Politicians 731
    • 58Why the Best Men Do Not Go Into Politics 743
    • 59Party Organizations 749
    • 60The Machine 754
    • Note on Recent Legislation Regarding Primaries 760
    • 61What the Machine Has to Do 765
    • 62How the Machine Works 773
    • 63Rings and Bosses 782
    • 64Local Extension of Rings and Bosses 794
    • 65Spoils 805
    • 66Elections and Their Machinery 814
    • 67Corruption 824
    • 68The War Against Bossdom 835
    • 69Nominating Conventions 842
    • 70The Nominating Convention at Work 851
    • 71The Presidential Campaign 867
    • 72The Issues in Presidential Elections 876
    • 73Further Observations on Nominations and Elections 883
    • 74Types of American Statesmen 890
    • 75What the People Think of It 898
    • Note on the Party System 904
    • part iv
    • Public Opinion

    • 76The Nature of Public Opinion 909
    • 77Government by Public Opinion 916
    • 78How Public Opinion Rules in America 923
    • 79Organs of Public Opinion 929
    • 80National Characteristics as Moulding Public Opinion 939
    • 81Classes as Influencing Opinion 950
    • 82Local Types of Opinion—East, West, and South 962
    • 83The Action of Public Opinion 971
    • 84The Tyranny of the Majority 986
    • 85The Fatalism of the Multitude 994Edition: current; Page: [vii]
    • 86Wherein Public Opinion Fails 1003
    • 87Wherein Public Opinion Succeeds 1011
    • part v
    • Illustrations and Reflections

    • 88The Tammany Ring in New York City 1023
    • 89The Philadelphia Gas Ring 1047
    • 90Kearneyism in California 1066
    • Epilogue to This and the Two Last Preceding Chapters 1085
    • 91The Home of the Nation 1087
    • 92The Latest Phase of Immigration 1105
    • 93The South Since the War 1124
    • 94Present and Future of the Negro 1143
    • 95Further Reflections on the Negro Problem 1168
    • 96Foreign Policy and Territorial Extension 1190
    • 97The New Transmarine Dominions 1200
    • 98Laissez Faire 1210
    • 99Woman Suffrage 1223
    • 100The Supposed Faults of Democracy 1235
    • 101The True Faults of American Democracy 1250
    • 102The Strength of American Democracy 1261
    • 103How Far American Experience Is Available for Europe 1273
    • part vi
    • Social Institutions

    • 104The Bar 1283
    • 105The Bench 1296
    • 106Railroads 1306
    • 107Wall Street 1317
    • 108The Universities and Colleges 1324
    • 109Further Observations on the Universities 1352Edition: current; Page: [viii]
    • 110The Churches and the Clergy 1370
    • 111The Influence of Religion 1386
    • 112The Position of Women 1399
    • 113Equality 1412
    • 114The Influence of Democracy on Thought 1423
    • 115Creative Intellectual Power 1432
    • 116The Relation of the United States to Europe 1444
    • 117The Absence of a Capital 1453
    • 118American Oratory 1460
    • 119The Pleasantness of American Life 1468
    • 120The Uniformity of American Life 1475
    • 121The Temper of the West 1486
    • 122The Future of Political Institutions 1496
    • 123Social and Economic Future 1508
    • Appendix I
    • Explanation (by Mr. G. Bradford) of the Nominating Machinery and Its Procedure in the State of Massachusetts 1524
    • Remarks by Mr. Denis Kearney on “Kearneyism in California”1526
    • Appendix II
    • “The Predictions of Hamilton and de Tocqueville,” by James Bryce 1530
    • Appendix III
    • “Bryce’s American Commonwealth: A Review,” by Woodrow Wilson 1571
    • Appendix IV
    • “Review of The American Commonwealth,” by Lord Acton 1585
    • Index 1597
Edition: current; Page: [681]


Edition: current; Page: [682] Edition: current; Page: [683]
the party system Political Parties and Their History fpage="683" lpage="698"
chapter 53

Political Parties and Their History

In the preceding chapters I have endeavoured to describe the legal framework of American government as it exists both in the nation and in the states. Beginning from the federal and state constitutions we have seen what sort of a structure has been erected upon them as a foundation, what methods of legislation and administration have been developed, what results these methods have produced. It is only occasionally and incidentally that we have had to consider the influence upon political bodies and methods of those extra-legal groupings of men called political parties. But the spirit and force of party has in America been as essential to the action of the machinery of government as steam is to a locomotive engine; or, to vary the simile, party association and organization are to the organs of government almost what the motor nerves are to the muscles, sinews, and bones of the human body. They transmit the motive power, they determine the directions in which the organs act. A description of them is therefore a necessary complement to an account of the Constitution and government; for it is into the hands of the parties that the working of the government has fallen. Their ingenuity, stimulated by incessant rivalry, has turned many provisions of the Constitution to unforeseen uses, and given to the legal institutions of the country no small part of their present colour.

To describe the party system is, however, much harder than it has been to describe those legal institutions. Hitherto we have been on comparatively firm ground, for we have had definite data to rely upon, and the facts set forth have been mostly patent facts which can be established from books and documents. But now we come to phenomena for a knowledge of which one must trust to a variety of flying and floating sources, to newspaper paragraphs, to the conversation of American acquaintances, to impressions formed on the spot from seeing incidents and hearing stories and anecdotes,Edition: current; Page: [684] the authority for which, though it seemed sufficient at the time, cannot always be remembered. Nor have I the advantage of being able to cite any previous treatise on the subject;1 for though the books and articles dealing with the public life of the United States may be counted by hundreds, I know of no author who has set himself to describe impartially the actual daily working of that part of the vast and intricate political machine which lies outside the Constitution, nor, what is more important still, the influences which sway the men by whom this machine has been constructed and is daily manipulated. The task, however, cannot be declined; for it is that very part of my undertaking which, even though imperfectly performed, may be most serviceable to the student of modern politics. A philosopher in Germany, who had mastered all the treatises on the British Constitution, perused every statute of recent years, and even followed through the newspapers the debates in Parliament, would know far less about the government and politics of England than he might learn by spending a month there conversing with practical politicians, and watching the daily changes of sentiment during a parliamentary crisis or a general election.

So, too, in the United States, the actual working of party government is not only full of interest and instruction, but is so unlike what a student of the federal Constitution could have expected or foreseen, that it is the thing of all others which anyone writing about America ought to try to portray. In the knowledge of a stranger there must, of course, be serious gaps. But since no native American has yet essayed the task of describing the party system of his country, it is better that a stranger should address himself to it, than that the inquiring European should have no means of satisfying his curiosity. And a native American writer, even if he steered clear of partisanship, which I think he might, for in no country does one find a larger number of philosophically judicial observers of politics, would suffer from his own familiarity with many of those very things which a stranger finds perplexing. Thus European and even American readers may find in the sort of perspective which a stranger gets of transatlantic phenomena some compensation for his necessarily inferior knowledge of details.

In America the great moving forces are the parties. The government counts for less than in Europe, the parties count for more; and the fewerEdition: current; Page: [685] have become their principles and the fainter their interest in those principles, the more perfect has become their organization. The less of nature the more of art; the less spontaneity the more mechanism. But before I attempt to describe this organization, something must be said of the doctrines which the parties respectively profess, and the explanation of the doctrines involves a few preliminary words upon the history of party in America.

Although the early colonists carried with them across the sea some of the habits of English political life, and others may have been subsequently imitated from the old country, the parties of the United States are pure home growths, developed by the circumstances of the nation. The English reader who attempts, as Englishmen are apt to do, to identify the great American parties with his own familiar Whigs and Tories, or even to discover a general similarity between them, had better give up the attempt, for it will lead him hopelessly astray. Here and there we find points of analogy rather than of resemblance, but the moment we try to follow out the analogy it breaks down, so different are the issues on which English and American politics have turned.

In the United States, the history of party begins with the Constitutional Convention of 1787 at Philadelphia. In its debates and discussions on the drafting of the Constitution there were revealed two opposite tendencies, which soon afterwards appeared on a larger scale in the state conventions, to which the new instrument was submitted for acceptance. These were the centrifugal and centripetal tendencies—a tendency to maintain both the freedom of the individual citizen and the independence in legislation, in administration, in jurisdiction, indeed in everything except foreign policy and national defence, of the several states; an opposite tendency to subordinate the states to the nation and vest large powers in the central federal authority.

The charge against the Constitution that it endangered states’ rights evoked so much alarm that some states were induced to ratify only by the promise that certain amendments should be added, which were accordingly accepted in the course of the next three years. When the machinery had been set in motion by the choice of George Washington as president, and with him of a Senate and a House of Representatives, the tendencies which had opposed or supported the adoption of the Constitution reappeared not only in Congress but in the president’s cabinet, where Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, counselled a line of action which assumed and required the exercise of large powers by the federal government, while Jefferson, the secretary of state, desired to practically restrict its action to foreign affairs. The advocates of a central national authority had begun to receive the name ofEdition: current; Page: [686] Federalists, and to act pretty constantly together, when an event happened which, while it tightened their union, finally consolidated their opponents also into a party. This was the creation of the French Republic and its declaration of war against England. The Federalists, who were shocked by the excesses of the Terror of 1793, counselled neutrality, and were more than ever inclined to value the principle of authority, and to allow the federal power a wide sphere of action. The party of Jefferson, who had now retired from the administration, were pervaded by sympathy with French ideas, were hostile to England whose attitude continued to be discourteous, and sought to restrict the interference of the central government with the states, and to allow the fullest play to the sentiment of state independence, of local independence, of personal independence. This party took the name of Republicans or Democratic Republicans, and they are the predecessors of the present Democrats. Both parties were, of course, attached to republican government—that is to say, were alike hostile to a monarchy. But the Jeffersonians had more faith in the masses and in leaving things alone, together with less respect for authority, so that in a sort of general way one may say that while one party claimed to be the apostles of liberty, the other represented the principle of order.

These tendencies found occasions for combating one another, not only in foreign policy and in current legislation, but also in the construction and application of the Constitution. Like all documents, and especially documents which have been formed by a series of compromises between opposite views, it was and is susceptible of various interpretations, which the acuteness of both sets of partisans was busy in discovering and expounding. While the piercing intellect of Hamilton developed all those of its provisions which invested the federal Congress and president with far-reaching powers, and sought to build up a system of institutions which should give to these provisions their full effect, Jefferson and his coadjutors appealed to the sentiment of individualism, strong in the masses of the people, and, without venturing to propose alterations in the text of the Constitution, protested against all extensions of its letter, and against all the assumptions of federal authority which such extensions could be made to justify. Thus two parties grew up with tenets, leaders, impulses, sympathies, and hatreds, hatreds which soon became so bitter as not to spare the noble and dignified figure of Washington himself, whom the angry Republicans assailed with invectives the more unbecoming because his official position forbade him to reply.2

Edition: current; Page: [687]

At first the Federalists had the best of it, for the reaction against the weakness of the old Confederation which the Union had superseded disposed sensible men to tolerate a strong central power. The president, though not a member of either party, was, by force of circumstances, as well as owing to the influence of Hamilton, practically with the Federalists. But during the presidency of John Adams, who succeeded Washington, they committed grave errors. When the presidential election of 1800 arrived, it was seen that the logical and oratorical force of Hamilton’s appeals to the reason of the nation told far less than the skill and energy with which Jefferson played on their feelings and prejudices. The Republicans triumphed in the choice of their chief, who retained power for eight years (he was reelected in 1804), to be peaceably succeeded by his friend Madison for another eight years (elected in 1808, reelected in 1812), and his disciple Monroe for eight years more (elected in 1816, reelected in 1820). Their long-continued tenure of office was due not so much to their own merits, for neither Jefferson nor Madison conducted foreign affairs with success, as to the collapse of their antagonists. The Federalists never recovered from the blow given in the election of 1800. They lost Hamilton by death in 1804. No other leader of equal gifts appeared, and the party, which had shown little judgment in the critical years 1810–14, finally disappears from sight after the second peace with England in 1815.

One cannot note the disappearance of this brilliant figure, to Europeans the most interesting in the earlier history of the Republic, without the remark that his countrymen seem to have never, either in his lifetime or afterwards, duly recognized his splendid gifts. Washington is, indeed, a far more perfect character. Washington stands alone and unapproachable, like a snow peak rising above its fellows into the clear air of morning, with a dignity, constancy, and purity which have made him the ideal type of civic virtue to succeeding generations. No greater benefit could have befallen the Republic than to have such a type set from the first before the eye and mind of the people. But Hamilton, of a virtue not so flawless, touches us more nearly, not only by the romance of his early life and his tragic death, but by a certain ardour and impulsiveness, and even tenderness of soul, joined to a courage equal to that of Washington himself. Equally apt for war and for civil government, with a profundity and amplitude of view rare in practical soldiers or statesmen, he stands in the front rank of a generation never surpassed in history, a generation which includes Burke and Fox and Pitt and Grattan, Stein and Hardenberg and William von Humboldt, Wellington and Napoleon. Talleyrand, who seems to have felt for himEdition: current; Page: [688] something as near affection as that cold heart could feel, said, after knowing all the famous men of the time, that only Fox and Napoleon were Hamilton’s equals, and that he had divined Europe, having never seen it.

This period (1788–1824) may be said to constitute the first act in the drama of American party history. The people, accustomed hitherto to care only for their several commonwealths, learn to value and to work their new national institutions. They become familiar with the Constitution itself, as partners get to know, when disputes arise among them, the provisions of the partnership deed under which their business has to be carried on. It is found that the existence of a central federal power does not annihilate the states, so the apprehensions on that score are allayed. It is also discovered that there are unforeseen directions, such for instance as banking and currency and internal communications, through which the federal power can strengthen its hold on the nation. Differences of view and feeling give rise to parties, yet parties are formed by no means solely on the basis of general principles, but owe much to the influence of prominent personalities, of transient issues, of local interests or prejudices. The small farmers and the Southern men generally follow the Republican standard borne aloft by the great state of Virginia, while the strength of the Federalists lies in New England and the Middle states, led sometimes by Massachusetts, sometimes by Pennsylvania. The commercial interests were with the Federalists, as was also the staid solid Puritanism of all classes, headed by the clergy. Someone indeed has described the struggle from 1796 to 1808 as one between Jefferson, who was an avowed freethinker, and the New England ministers; and no doubt the ministers of religion did in the Puritan states exert a political influence approaching that of the Presbyterian clergy in Scotland during the seventeenth century. Jefferson’s importance lies in the fact that he became the representative not merely of democracy, but of local democracy, of the notion that government is hardly wanted at all, that the people are sure to go right if they are left alone, that he who resists authority is prima facie justified in doing so, because authority is prima facie tyrannical, that a country where each local body in its own local area looks after the objects of common concern, raising and administering any such funds as are needed, and is interfered with as little as possible by any external power, comes nearest to the ideal of a truly free people. Some intervention on the part of the state there must be, for the state makes the law and appoints the judges of appeal; but the less one has to do with the state, and a fortiori the less one has to do with the less popular and more encroaching federal authority, so much the better. Jefferson impressed this view on his countrymenEdition: current; Page: [689] with so much force and such personal faith that he became a sort of patron saint of freedom in the eyes of the next generation, who used to name their children after him,3 and to give dinners and deliver high-flown speeches on his birthday, a festival only second in importance to the immortal Fourth of July. He had borrowed from the revolutionists of France even their theatrical ostentation of simplicity. He rejected the ceremonial with which Washington had sustained the chief magistracy of the nation, declaring that to him there was no majesty but that of the people.

As New England was, by its system of local self-government through the town meeting, as well as by the absence of slavery, in some respects the most democratic part of the United States, it may seem surprising that it should have been a stronghold of the Federalists. The reason is to be found partly in its Puritanism, which revolted at the deism or atheism of the French revolutionists, partly in the interests of its shipowners and merchants, who desired above all things a central government which, while strong enough to make and carry out treaties with England and so secure the development of American commerce, should be able also to reform the currency of the country and institute a national banking system. Industrial as well as territorial interests were already beginning to influence politics. That the mercantile and manufacturing classes, with all the advantages given them by their wealth, their intelligence, and their habits of cooperation, should have been vanquished by the agricultural masses, may be ascribed partly to the fact that the democratic impulse of the War of Independence was strong among the citizens who had grown to manhood between 1780 and 1800, partly to the tactical errors of the Federalist leaders, but largely also to the skill which Jefferson showed in organizing the hitherto undisciplined battalions of Republican voters. Thus early in American history was the secret revealed, which Europe is only now discovering, that in free countries with an extended suffrage, numbers without organization are helpless and with it omnipotent.

I have ventured to dwell on this first period, because being the first it shows the origin of tendencies which were to govern the subsequent course of party strife. But as I am not writing a history of the United States I pass by the particular issues over which the two parties wrangled, most of them long since extinct. One remark is however needed as to the view whichEdition: current; Page: [690] each took of the Constitution. Although the Federalists were in general the advocates of a loose and liberal construction of the fundamental instrument, because such a construction opened a wider sphere to federal power, they were ready, whenever their local interests stood in the way, to resist Congress and the executive, alleging that the latter were overstepping their jurisdiction. In 1814 several of the New England states, where the opposition to the war then being waged with England was strongest, sent delegates to a convention at Hartford, which, while discussing the best means for putting an end to the war and restricting the powers of Congress in commercial legislation, was suspected of meditating a secession of trading states from the Union. On the other hand, the Republicans did not hesitate to stretch to their utmost, when they were themselves in power, all the authority which the Constitution could be construed to allow to the executive and the federal government generally. The boldest step which a president has ever taken, the purchase from Napoleon of the vast territories of France west of the Mississippi which went by the name of Louisiana, was taken by Jefferson without the authority of Congress. Congress subsequently gave its sanction. But Jefferson and many of his friends held that under the Constitution even Congress had not the power to acquire new territories to be formed into states. They were therefore in the dilemma of either violating the Constitution or losing a golden opportunity of securing the Republic against the growth on its western frontier of a powerful and possibly hostile foreign state. Some of them tried to refute their former arguments against a lax construction of the Constitution, but many others avowed the dangerous doctrine that if Louisiana could be brought in only by breaking down the walls of the Constitution, broken they must be.4

The disappearance of the Federal party between 1815 and 1820 left the Republicans masters of the field. But in the United States if old parties vanish, nature quickly produces new ones. Sectional divisions soon arose among the men who joined in electing Monroe in 1820, and under the influence of the personal hostility of Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson (chosen president in 1828), two great parties were again formed (about 1830) which some few years later absorbed the minor groups. One of these two parties carried on, under the name of Democrats, the dogmas andEdition: current; Page: [691] traditions of the Jeffersonian Republicans. It was the defender of states’ rights and of a restrictive construction of the Constitution; it leant mainly on the South and the farming classes generally, and it was therefore inclined to free trade. The other section, which called itself at first the National Republican, ultimately the Whig party, represented many of the views of the former Federalists, such as their advocacy of a tariff for the protection of manufactures, and of the expenditure of public money on internal improvements. It was willing to increase the army and navy, and like the Federalists found its chief, though by no means its sole, support in the commercial and manufacturing parts of the country, that is to say, in New England and the Middle states. Meantime a new question far more exciting, far more menacing, had arisen. In 1819, when Missouri applied to be admitted into the Union as a state, a sharp contest broke out in Congress as to whether slavery should be permitted within her limits, nearly all the Northern members voting against slavery, nearly all the Southern members for. The struggle might have threatened the stability of the Union but for the compromise adopted next year, which, while admitting slavery in Missouri, forbade it for the future north of lat. 36° 30′. The danger seemed to have passed, but in its very suddenness there had been something terrible. Jefferson, then over seventy, said that it startled him “like a fire-bell in the night.” After 1840 things grew more serious, for whereas up till that time new states had been admitted substantially in pairs, a slave state balancing a free state, it began to be clear that this must shortly cease, since the remaining territory out of which new states would be formed lay north of the line 36@dg 30@pr. As every state held two seats in the Senate, the then existing balance in that chamber between slave states and free states would evidently soon be overset by the admission of a larger number of the latter. The apprehension of this event, with its probable result of legislation unfriendly to slavery, stimulated the South to the annexation of Texas, and the war with Mexico which led to further annexations, and made them increasingly sensitive to the growth, slow as that growth was, of Abolitionist opinions at the North. The question of the extension of slavery west of the Missouri River had become by 1850 the vital and absorbing question for the people of the United States, and as in that year California, having organized herself without slavery, was knocking at the doors of Congress for admission as a state, it had become an urgent question which evoked the hottest passions, and the victors in which would be victors all along the line. But neither of the two great parties ventured to commit itself either way. The Southern Democrats hesitated to break with those Democrats ofEdition: current; Page: [692] the Northern states who sought to restrict slavery. The Whigs of the North, fearing to alienate the South by any decided action against the growing pretensions of the slaveholders, temporized and suggested compromises which practically served the cause of slavery. Anxious to save at all hazards the Union as it had hitherto stood, they did not perceive that changes of circumstances and feeling were making this effort a hopeless one, and that in trying to keep their party together they were losing hold of the people, and alienating from themselves the men who cared for principle in politics. That this was so presently appeared. The Democratic party had by 1852 passed almost completely under the control of the slaveholders, and was adopting the dogma that Congress enjoyed under the Constitution no power to prohibit slavery in the Territories. This dogma obviously overthrew as unconstitutional the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Whig leaders discredited themselves by Henry Clay’s compromise scheme of 1850, which, while admitting California as a free state, appeased the South by the Fugitive Slave law. They received a crushing defeat at the presidential election of 1852; and what remained of their party finally broke in pieces in 1854 over the bill for organizing Kansas as a Territory in which the question of slaves or no slaves should be left to the people, a bill which of course repealed the Missouri Compromise. Singularly enough, the two great orators of the party, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, both died in 1852, wearied with strife and disappointed in their ambition of reaching the presidential chair. Together with Calhoun, who passed away two years earlier, they are the ornaments of this generation, not indeed rising to the stature of Washington or Hamilton, but more remarkable than any, save one, among the statesmen who have followed them. With them ends the second period in the annals of American parties, which, extending from about 1820 to 1856, includes the rise and fall of the Whig party. Most of the controversies which filled it have become matter for history only. But three large results, besides the general democratization of politics, stand out. One is the detachment of the United States from the affairs of the Old World. Another is the growth of a sense of national life, especially in the Northern and Western states, along with the growth at the same time of a secessionist spirit among the slaveholders. And the third is the development of the complex machinery of party organization, with the adoption of the principle on which that machinery so largely rests, that public office is to be enjoyed only by the adherents of the president for the time being.

The Whig party having begun to fall to pieces, the Democrats seemed for the moment, as they had been once before, left in possession of theEdition: current; Page: [693] field. But this time a new antagonist was quick to appear. The growing boldness of the slave owners had begun to alarm the Northern people when they were startled by the decision of the Supreme Court, pronounced in the case of the slave Dred Scott, which laid down the doctrine that Congress had no power to forbid slavery anywhere, and that a slaveholder might carry his slaves with him where he pleased, seeing that they were mere objects of property, whose possession the Constitution guaranteed.5 This completed the formation out of the wrecks of the Whigs and Know-Nothings, or “American party,” together with the Free Soilers and “Liberty” party, of a new party, which in 1856 had run Fremont as its presidential candidate and taken the name of Republican. At the same time an apple of discord was thrown among the Democrats. In 1860 the latter could not agree upon a candidate for president. The Southern wing pledged themselves to one man, the Northern wing to another; a body of hesitating and semi-detached politicians put forward a third. Thus the Republicans through the divisions of their opponents triumphed in the election of Abraham Lincoln, presently followed by the secession of eleven slave states.

The Republican party, which had started by proclaiming the right of Congress to restrict slavery and had subsequently denounced the Dred Scott decision, was of course throughout the Civil War the defender of the Union and the assertor of federal authority, stretched, as was unavoidable, to lengths previously unheard of. When the war was over, there came the difficult task of reconstructing the now reconquered slave states, and of securing the position in them of the lately liberated Negroes. The outrages perpetrated on the latter, and on white settlers in some parts of the South, required further exertions of federal authority, and made the question of the limit of that authority still a practical one, for the old Democratic party, almost silenced during the war, had now reappeared in full force as the advocate of states’ rights, and the watchful critic of any undue stretches of federal authority. It was found necessary to negative the Dred Scott decision and set at rest all questions relating to slavery and to the political equality of the races by the adoption of three important amendments to the Constitution. The troubles of the South by degrees settled down as the whites regained possession of the state governments and the Northern troops were withdrawn. In the presidential election of 1876 the war question and Negro question had become dead issues, for it was plain that a large andEdition: current; Page: [694] increasing number of the voters were no longer, despite the appeals of the Republican leaders, seriously concerned about them.

This election marks the close of the third period, which embraces the rise and overwhelming predominance of the Republican party. Formed to resist the extension of slavery, led on to destroy it, compelled by circumstances to expand the central authority in a way unthought of before, that party had now worked out its programme and fulfilled its original mission. The old aims were accomplished, but new ones had not yet been substituted, for though new problems had appeared, the party was not prepared with solutions. Similarly the Democratic party had discharged its mission in defending the rights of the reconstructed states, and criticizing excesses of executive power; similarly it too had refused to grapple either with the fresh questions which had begun to arise since the war, or with those older questions which had now reappeared above the subsiding flood of war days. The old parties still stood as organizations, and still claimed to be the exponents of principles. Their respective principles had, however, little direct application to the questions which confronted and divided the nation. A new era was opening which called either for the evolution of new parties, or for the transformation of the old ones by the adoption of tenets and the advocacy of views suited to the needs of the time. But this fourth period, which began with 1876, has not yet seen such a transformation, and we shall therefore find, when we come to examine the existing state of parties, that there is an unreality and lack of vital force in both Republicans and Democrats, powerful as their organizations are.

The foregoing sketch, given only for the sake of explaining the present condition of parties, suggests some observations on the foundations of party in America.

If we look over Europe we shall find that the grounds on which parties have been built and contests waged since the beginning of free governments have been in substance but few. In the hostility of rich and poor, or of capital and labour, in the fears of the haves and the desire of the have-nots, we perceive the most frequent ground, though it is often disguised as a dispute about the extension of the suffrage or some other civic right. Questions relating to the tenure of land have played a large part; so have questions of religion; so too have animosities or jealousies of race; and of course the form of government, whether it shall be a monarchy or a republic, has sometimes been in dispute. None of these grounds of quarrel substantially affected American parties during the three periods we have been examining. No one has ever advocated monarchy, or a restricted suffrage, or a unifiedEdition: current; Page: [695] instead of a federal republic. Nor down to 1876 was there ever any party which could promise more to the poor than its opponents. In 1852 the Know-Nothing party came forward as the organ of native American opinion against recent immigrants, then chiefly the Irish (though German immigration had begun to swell from 1849 onwards), and the not unnatural tendency to resent the power of foreign-born voters has sometimes since appeared in various parts of the country. But as this ‘American’ party, for a time powerful by the absorption of many of the Whigs, failed to face the problem of slavery, and roused jealousy by its secret organization, it soon passed away, though it deserves to be remembered as a force disintegrating the then existing parties. The complete equality of all sects, with the complete neutrality of the government in religious matters, has fortunately kept religious passion outside the sphere of politics. The only exceptions to be noted are the occasionally recurring (though latterly less vehement) outbreaks of hostility to the Roman Catholic church. Nor would these outbreaks have attained political importance but for the strength added to them by the feeling of the native against the foreigner. They have been most serious at times when and in places where there has been an influx of immigrants from Europe large enough to seem to threaten the dominance of American ideas and the permanence of American institutions.

Have the American parties then been formed only upon narrow and local bases, have they contended for transient objects, and can no deeper historical meaning, no longer historical continuity, be claimed for them?

Two permanent oppositions may, I think, be discerned running through the history of the parties, sometimes openly recognized, sometimes concealed by the urgency of a transitory question. One of these is the opposition between a centralized or unified and a federalized government. In every country there are centrifugal and centripetal forces at work, the one or the other of which is for the moment the stronger. There has seldom been a country in which something might not have been gained, in the way of good administration and defensive strength, by a greater concentration of power in the hands of the central government, enabling it to do things which local bodies, or a more restricted central government, could not do equally cheaply or well. Against this gain there is always to be set the danger that such concentration may weaken the vitality of local communities and authorities, and may enable the central power to stunt their development. Sometimes needs of the former kind are more urgent, or the sentiment of the people tends to magnify them; sometimes again the centrifugal forces obtain the upper hand. English history shows several such alternations. But in AmericaEdition: current; Page: [696] the federal form of government has made this permanent and natural opposition specially conspicuous. The salient feature of the Constitution is the effort it makes to establish an equipoise between the force which would carry the planet states off into space and the force which would draw them into the sun of the national government. There have always therefore been minds inclined to take sides upon this fundamental question, and a party has always had something definite and weighty to appeal to when it claims to represent either the autonomy of communities on the one hand, or the majesty and beneficent activity of the national government on the other. The former has been the watchword of the Democratic party. The latter was seldom distinctly avowed, but was generally in fact represented by the Federalists of the first period, the Whigs of the seond, the Republicans of the third.

The other opposition, though it goes deeper and is more pervasive, has been less clearly marked in America, and less consciously admitted by the Americans themselves. It is the opposition between the tendency which makes some men prize the freedom of the individual as the first of social goods, and that which disposes others to insist on checking and regulating his impulses. The opposition of these two tendencies, the love of liberty and the love of order, is permanent and necessary, because it springs from differences in the intellect and feelings of men which one finds in all countries and at all epochs. There are always persons who are struck by the weakness of mankind, by their folly, their passion, their selfishness; and these persons, distrusting the action of average mankind, will always wish to see them guided by wise heads and restrained by strong hands. Such guidance seems the best means of progress, such restraint the only means of security. Those on the other hand who think better of human nature, and have more hope in their own tempers, hold the impulses of the average man to be generally towards justice and peace. They have faith in the power of reason to conquer ignorance, and of generosity to overbear selfishness. They are therefore disposed to leave the individual alone, and to entrust the masses with power. Every sensible man feels in himself the struggle between these two tendencies, and is on his guard not to yield wholly to either, because the one degenerates into tyranny, the other into an anarchy out of which tyranny will eventually spring. The wisest statesman is he who best holds the balance between them.

Each of these tendencies found among the fathers of the American Republic a brilliant and characteristic representative. Hamilton, who had a low opinion of mankind, but a gift and a passion for large constructiveEdition: current; Page: [697] statesmanship, went so far in his advocacy of a strong government as to be suspected of wishing to establish a monarchy after the British pattern. He has left on record his opinion that the free Constitution of England, which he admired in spite of the faults he clearly saw, could not be worked without its corruptions.6 Jefferson carried further than any other person set in an equally responsible place has ever done, his faith that government is either needless or an evil, and that with enough liberty, everything will go well. An insurrection every few years, he said, must be looked for, and even desired, to keep government in order. The Jeffersonian tendency long remained, like a leaven, in the Democratic party, though in applying Jeffersonian doctrines the slaveholders stopped when they came to a black skin. Among the Federalists, and their successors the Whigs, and the more recent Republicans, there has never been wanting a full faith in the power of freedom. The Republicans gave an amazing proof of it when they bestowed the suffrage on the Negroes. Neither they nor any American party has ever professed itself the champion of authority and order. That would be a damaging profession. Nevertheless it is rather towards what I may perhaps venture to call the Federalist-Whig-Republican party than towards the Democrats that those who have valued the principle of authority have been generally drawn. It is for that party that the Puritan spirit, not extinct in America, has felt the greater affinity, for this spirit, having realized the sinfulness of human nature, is inclined to train and control the natural man by laws and force.

The tendency that makes for a strong government being akin to that which makes for a central government, the Federalist-Whig-Republican party, which has, through its long history, and under its varying forms and names, been the advocate of the national principle, found itself for this reason also led, more frequently than the Democrats, to exalt the rights and powers of government. It might be thought that the same cause would have made the Republican party take sides in that profound opposition which we perceive today in all civilized peoples, between the tendency to enlarge the sphere of legislation and state action, and the doctrine of laissez faire. So far, however, this has not happened. There may seem to be more in the character and temper of the Republicans than of the Democrats that leans towards state interference. But when the question arises in a concrete instance neither party is much more likely than the other to oppose such interference. FederalEdition: current; Page: [698] control has been more frequently and further extended through legislation passed by Republican Congresses. But that has happened largely because the Republicans have, since the Civil War, possessed majorities much more often than have the Democrats, so that when the need for legislation arose, it fell to the former to meet that need. Neither party has thought out the subject in its general bearings; neither has shown any more definiteness of policy regarding it than the Tories and the Liberals have done in England.

American students of history may think that I have pressed the antithesis of liberty and authority, as well as that of centrifugal and centripetal tendencies, somewhat too far in making one party a representative of each through the first century of the Republic. I do not deny that at particular moments the party which was usually disposed towards a strong government resisted and decried authority, while the party which specially professed itself the advocate of liberty sought to make authority more stringent. Such deviations are however compatible with the general tendencies I have described. And no one who has gained even a slight knowledge of the history of the United States will fall into the error of supposing that order and authority mean there what they have meant in the monarchies of continental Europe.

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chapter 54

The Parties of Today

There are now two great and several minor parties in the United States. The great parties are the Republicans and the Democrats. What are their principles, their distinctive tenets, their tendencies? Which of them is for tariff reform, for the further extension of civil service reform, for a spirited foreign policy, for the regulation of railroads and telegraphs by legislation, for changes in the currency, for any other of the twenty issues which one hears discussed in the country as seriously involving its welfare?

This is what a European is always asking of intelligent Republicans and intelligent Democrats. He is always asking because he never gets an answer. The replies leave him in deeper perplexity. After some months the truth begins to dawn upon him. Neither party has, as a party, anything definite to say on these issues; neither party has any clean-cut principles, any distinctive tenets. Both have traditions. Both claim to have tendencies. Both have certainly war cries, organizations, interests enlisted in their support. But those interests are in the main the interests of getting or keeping the patronage of the government. Distinctive tenets and policies, points of political doctrine and points of political practice, have all but vanished. They have not been thrown away, but have been stripped away by time and the progress of events, fulfilling some policies, blotting out others. All has been lost, except office or the hope of it.

The phenomenon may be illustrated from the case of England, where party government has existed longer and in a more fully developed form than in any other part of the Old World.1 The essence of the English parties has lain in the existence of two sets of views and tendencies which divideEdition: current; Page: [700] the nation into two sections, the party, let us say, though these general terms are not very safe, and have been less applicable in recent years than they were down to 1874, of movement and the party of standing still, the party of liberty and the party of order. Each section believes in its own views, and is influenced by its peculiar tendencies, recollections, mental associations, to deal in its own peculiar way with every new question as it comes up. The particular dogmas may change: doctrines once held by Whigs alone may now be held by Tories also; doctrines which Whigs would have rejected seventy years ago may now be part of the orthodox programme of the Liberal party. But the tendencies have been permanent and have always so worked upon the various fresh questions and problems which have presented themselves during the last two centuries, that each party has had not only a brilliant concrete life in its famous leaders and zealous members, but also an intellectual and moral life in its principles. These principles have meant something to those who held them, so that when a fresh question arose it was usually possible to predict how each party, how even the average members of each party, would regard and wish to deal with it. Thus even when the leaders have been least worthy and their aims least pure, an English party has felt itself ennobled and inspirited by the sense that it had great objects to fight for, a history and traditions which imposed on it the duty of battling for its distinctive principles. It is because issues have never been lacking which brought these respective principles into operation, forcing the one party to maintain the cause of order and existing institutions, the other that of freedom and what ws deemed progress, that the two English parties have not degenerated into mere factions. Their struggles for office have been redeemed from selfishness by the feeling that office was a means of giving practical effect to their doctrines.

But suppose that in Britain all the questions which divide Tories from Liberals were to be suddenly settled and done with. Britain would be in a difficulty. Her free government has so long been worked by the action and reaction of the ministerialists and the opposition that there would probably continue to be two parties. But they would not be really, in the true old sense of the term, Tories and Liberals; they would be merely Ins and Outs. Their combats would be waged hardly even in name for principles, but only for place. The government of the country, with the honour, power, and emoluments attached to it, would still remain as a prize to be contended for. The followers would still rally to the leaders; and friendship would still bind the members together into organized bodies; while dislike and suspicion would still rouse them against their former adversaries. Thus not only theEdition: current; Page: [701] leaders, who would have something tangible to gain, but even others, who had only their feelings to gratify, would continue to form political clubs, register voters, deliver party harangues, contest elections, just as they do now. The difference would be that each faction would no longer have broad principles—I will not say to invoke, for such principles would probably continue to be invoked as heretofore—but to insist on applying as distinctively its principles to the actual needs of the state. Hence quiet or fastidious men would not join in party struggles; while those who did join would no longer be stimulated by the sense that they were contending for something ideal. Loyalty to a leader whom it was sought to make prime minister would be a poor substitute for loyalty to a faith. If there were no conspicuous leader, attachment to the party would degenerate either into mere hatred of antagonists or into a struggle over places and salaries. And almost the same phenomena would be seen if, although the old issues had not been really determined, both the parties should have so far abandoned their former position that these issues did not divide them, but each professed principles which were, even if different in formal statement, practicably indistinguishable in their application.

This, which conceivably may happen in England under her new political conditions, is what has happened with the American parties. The chief practical issues which once divided them have been settled. Some others have not been settled, but as regards these, the professions of the two parties so far agree that we cannot now speak of any conflict of principles.

When life leaves an organic body it becomes useless, fetid, pestiferous; it is fit to be cast out or buried from sight. What life is to an organism, principles are to a party. When they which are its soul have vanished, its body ought to dissolve, and the elements that formed it be regrouped in some new organism:

  • The times have been
  • That when the brains were out the man would die.

But a party does not always thus die. It may hold together long after its moral life is extinct. Guelfs and Ghibellines warred in Italy for nearly two centuries after the emperor had ceased to threaten the pope, or the pope to befriend the cities of Lombardy. Parties go on contending because their members have formed habits of joint action, and have contracted hatreds and prejudices, and also because the leaders find their advantage in using these habits and playing on these prejudices. The American parties now continue to exist, because they have existed. The mill has been constructed,Edition: current; Page: [702] and its machinery goes on turning, even when there is no grist to grind. But this is not wholly the fault of the men; for the system of government requires and implies parties, just as that of England does. These systems are made to be worked, and always have been worked, by a majority; a majority must be cohesive, gathered into a united and organized body: such a body is a party.

When an ordinary Northern Democrat was asked, say about 1880, to characterize the two parties, he used to say that the Republicans were corrupt and incapable, and would cite instances in which persons prominent in that party, or intimate friends of its leaders, had been concerned in frauds on the government or in disgraceful lobbying transactions in Congress. In 1900 he was more likely to allege that the Republican party is the party of the rich, influenced by the great corporations, whereas the Democrats are the true friends of the people. When you press him for some distinctive principles separating his own party from theirs, he may perhaps refer to Jefferson, and say that the Democrats are the protectors of states’ rights and of local independence, and the Republicans hostile to both. If you go on to inquire what bearing this doctrine of states’ rights has on any presently debated issue he may admit that, for the moment, it has none, but will insist that should any issue involving the rights of the states arise, his party will be, as always, the guardian of American freedom.

This is nearly all that can be predicated about the Democratic party. If a question involving the rights of a state against the federal authority were to emerge, its instinct would lead it to array itself on the side of the state rather than of the central government, supposing that it had no direct motive to do the opposite. Seeing that at no point from the outbreak of the war down to 1913, except in the Fifty-third Congress (1893–95), has it possessed a majority in both houses of Congress as well as the president in power, its devotion to this principle has not been tested, and might not resist the temptation of any interest the other way. However, this is matter of speculation, for at present the states fear no infringement of their rights. So conversely of the Republicans. Their traditions ought to dispose them to support federal power against the states, but their action in a concrete case would probably depend on whether their party was at the time in condition to use that power for its own purposes. If they were in a minority in Congress, they would be little inclined to strengthen Congress against the states. The simplest way of proving or illustrating this will be to run quickly through the questions of present practical interest.

One of those which most interests the people, though of course not allEdition: current; Page: [703] the people, is the regulation or extinction of the liquor traffic. On this neither party has committed or will commit itself. The traditional dogmas of neither cover it, though the Northern Democrats have been rather more disposed to leave men to themselves than the Republicans, and rather less amenable to the influence of ethical sentiment. Practically for both parties the point of consequence is what they can gain or lose. Each has clearly something to lose. The drinking part of the population is chiefly foreign. Now the Irish are mainly Democrats, so the Democratic party in the North has often feared to offend them. The Germans are mainly Republican, so the Republicans are equally bound over to caution.2 It is true that though the parties, as parties, have been, in almost all states, neutral or divided, Temperance men are, in the North and West,3 generally Republicans, whiskey-men and saloonkeepers generally Democrats. The Republicans therefore more frequently attempt to conciliate the anti-liquor party by flattering phrases. They suffer by the starting of a Prohibitionist candidate, since he draws more voting strength away from them than he does from the Democrats.

Free Trade v. Protection is another burning question, and has been so since the early days of the Union. The old controversy as to the constitutional right of Congress to impose a tariff for any purpose but that of raising revenue, has been laid to rest, for whether the people in 1788 meant or did not mean to confer such a power, it has been exerted for so many years, and on so superb a scale, that no one now doubts its legality. Before the war the Democrats were advocates of a tariff for revenue only, i.e., of free trade. A few of them still hold that doctrine in its fulness, but as the majority, though they have frequently declared themselves to favour a reduction of the present system of import duties, have not been clear upon the general principle, the party trumpet has given an uncertain sound. Moreover, Pennsylvania is Protectionist on account of its iron industries; several Southern states have leanings that way for the same reason, or because they desire high import duties on their own products, on sugar for instance, or on timber. Unwilling to alienate the Democrats of such districts, the party has generally sought to remain unpledged, or, at least, in winking with one eye to the men of the Northwest and Southeast who desired toEdition: current; Page: [704] reduce the tariff, it was tempted to wink with the other to the iron men of Pittsburg and the sugar men of the Far South.

This division, however, did not prevent the Democratic party from passing in 1913 an act which largely reduced protective duties. It did not, however, any more than the Republicans, avow pure free trade principles, and though the Republicans have been heretofore the high tariff party, many among them have latterly shown themselves quite as desirous of seeing reductions made in the present rates as are the “revisionist” section of the Democrats.4

Civil service reform long received the lip service of both parties, a lip service expressed by both with equal warmth, and by the average professional politicians of both with equal insincerity. Such reforms as have been effected in the mode of filling up places, have been forced on the parties by public opinion, rather than carried through by either, or else were due to the enlightened views of individual presidents. None of the changes made—and they are perhaps the most beneficial of recent changes—has raised an issue between the parties. The best men in both parties support the Civil Service Commission and would extend the scheme still further; the worst men in both would gladly get rid of it.

The regulation by federal authority of railroads carrying on commerce between the states has attracted great attention for many years. Neither party has had anything distinctive to say upon it in the way either of advocacy or of condemnation. Both have asserted that it is the duty of railways to serve the people, and not to tyrannize over or defraud them, so the Interstate Commerce Acts passed in and since 1887 with this view cannot be called party measures. The discussion of the subject continues, and while some have urged that it is impossible effectively to regulate interstate railroad traffic without regulating all railroad traffic, a few have gone so far as to suggest that the national government ought to acquire all the railroads of the country. But neither party is committed to a particular line of policy. So also both profess themselves eager to restrain the abuse of their powers by corporations, and to put an end to monopolies.

Finances have on the whole been well managed, and debt paid off with surprising speed. But there have been, and are still, serious problems raised by the condition of the currency. In 1896 the great majority of the Democratic party pledged itself to the free coinage of silver; but a section important byEdition: current; Page: [705] its social and intellectual influence seceded and ran a candidate of its own. The schism has been healed by the dropping of the free silver issue, and a Currency Act was passed in 1913,5 the working of which will be closely watched. The matter is not now a party issue.

As regards the extension and government of territories outside the North American continent, the Democratic party did not approve the acquisition of the Philippines, and has announced an intention to withdraw therefrom as soon as conveniently may be, but there has been no controversy between it and the Republicans over the administrative policy to be followed there and in Puerto Rico.

It is the same as regards questions belonging to the sphere of state politics, such as woman suffrage, or ballot reform, or child labour, or an eight-hour law, or convict labour. Neither party has any distinctive attitude on these matters; neither is more likely, or less likely, than the other to pass a measure dealing with them. It is the same with regard to the general doctrine of laissez faire as opposed to governmental interference. Neither Republicans nor Democrats can be said to be friends or foes of state interference: each will advocate it when there seems a practically useful object to be secured, or when the popular voice seems to call for it. It is the same with foreign policy. Both parties are practically agreed not only as to the general principles which ought to rule the conduct of the country, but as to the application of these principles, and this has been shown even in a matter which raised so many difficult questions as the condition of Mexico has done since the fall of President Diaz. The party which opposes the president may at any given moment seek to damage him by defeating some particular proposal he has made, but this it will do as a piece of temporary strategy, not in pursuance of any settled doctrine.

Yet one cannot say that there is today no difference between the two great parties. There is a difference of spirit or sentiment perceptible even by a stranger when, after having mixed for some time with members of the one he begins to mix with those of the other, and doubtless more patent to a native American. It resembles (though it is less marked than) the difference of tone and temper between Tories and Liberals in England. The intellectualEdition: current; Page: [706] view of a Democrat of the better sort has been not quite the same as that of his Republican compeer. Each of course thinks meanly of the other; but while the Democrat has generally deemed the Republican “dangerous” (i.e., likely to undermine the Constitution), the Republican was more apt to think the Democrat (at least in the North) low toned or reckless. So in England your Liberal used to fasten on stupidity as the characteristic fault of the Tory, while the Tory suspected the morals and religion more than he despised the intelligence of the Radical. But these statements, generally true of Democrats and Republicans from the time of the Civil War till near the end of the century, have latterly been less applicable. There is still a contrast between the larger and more radical wing of the Democratic party and the older school of Republicans, but the conservative section of the Democrats differ very little from the conservative Republicans; and there are radical Republicans whose views are shared by plenty of Democrats. This approximation seems to indicate that the time for a reconstruction of parties is approaching; but party organizations are strong things, and often interfere with the course of natural evolution.

It cannot be charged on the American parties that they have drawn towards one another by forsaking their old principles. It is time that has changed the circumstances of the country, and made those old principles inapplicable. An eminent journalist remarked to me in 1908 that the two great parties were like two bottles. Each bore a label denoting the kind of liquor it contained, but each was empty. This at any rate may be said, that the parties may seem to have erred rather by having clung too long to outworn issues, and by neglecting to discover and work out new principles capable of solving the problems which now perplex the country. In a country so full of change and movement as America new questions are always coming up, and must be answered. New troubles surround a government, and a way must be found to escape from them; new diseases attack the nation, and have to be cured. The duty of a great party is to face these, to find answers and remedies, applying to the facts of the hour the doctrines it has lived by, so far as they are still applicable, and when they have ceased to be applicable, thinking out new doctrines conformable to the main principles and tendencies which it represents. This is a work to be accomplished by its ruling minds, while the habit of party loyalty to the leaders powerfully serves to diffuse through the mass of followers the conclusions of the leaders and the reasonings they have employed.

“But,” the European reader may ask, “is it not the interest as well as the duty of a party thus to adapt itself to new conditions? Does it not, in failingEdition: current; Page: [707] to do so, condemn itself to sterility and impotence, ultimately, indeed, to supersession by some new party which the needs of the time have created?”

This is what usually happens in Europe. Probably it will happen in the long run in America also, unless the parties adapt themselves to the new issues, just as the Whig party fell in 1852–57 because it failed to face the problem of slavery. That it happens more slowly may be ascribed partly to the completeness and strength of the party organizations, which make the enthusiasm generated by ideas less necessary, partly to the growing prominence of “social” and “labour” as well as economic questions, on which both parties are equally eager to conciliate the masses, and equally unwilling to proclaim definite views, partly to the fact that several questions on which the two great parties still hesitate to take sides are not presently vital to the well-being of the country. Something is also due to the smaller influence in America than in Europe of individual leaders. English parties, which hesitate long over secondary questions, might hesitate longer than is now their practice over vital ones also, were they not accustomed to look for guidance to their chiefs, and to defer to the opinion which the chiefs deliver. And it is only by courage and the capacity for initiative that the chiefs themselves retain their position.

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chapter 55

Composition of the Parties

The less there is in the tenets of the Republicans and Democrats to make their character intelligible to a European reader, so much the more desirable is it to convey some idea of what may be called their social and local, their racial and ecclesiastical complexions.

The Republican party was formed between 1854 and 1856 chiefly out of the wrecks of the Whig party, with the addition of the Abolitionists and Free Soilers, who, disgusted at the apparent subservience to the South of the leading Northern Whigs, had for some time previously acted as a group by themselves, though some of them had been apt to vote for Whig candidates. They had also recruits from the Free Soil Democrats, who had severed themselves from the bulk of the Democratic party, and some of whom claimed to be true Jeffersonians in joining the party which stood up against the spread of slavery.1 The Republicans were therefore from the first a Northern party, more distinctly so than the Federalists had been at the close of the preceding century, and much more distinctly so than the Whigs, in whom there had been a pretty strong Southern element.

The Whig element brought to the new party solidity, political experience, and a large number of wealthy and influential adherents. The Abolitionist element gave it force and enthusiasm, qualities invaluable for the crisis which came in 1861 with the secession of all save four of the slaveholding states. During the war, it drew to itself nearly all the earnestness, patriotism, religious and moral fervour, which the North and West contained. It is still, in those regions, the party in whose ranks respectable, steady, pious, well-conducted men are to be looked for. If you find yourself dining with oneEdition: current; Page: [709] of “the best people” in any New England city, or in Philadelphia, or in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago, or Minneapolis, you assume that the guest sitting next you is a Republican, almost as confidently as in English county society you would assume your neighbour to be a Tory; that is to say, you may sometimes be wrong, but in four cases out of five you will be right. In New York the presumption is weaker, though even there you will be right three times out of five. One may say that all over the North, the merchants, manufacturers, and professional men of the smaller perhaps even more than of the larger towns, have tended to be Republicans. So too have the farmers, particularly in the upper Mississippi Valley, although there, as well as on the Pacific coast, the growth of what is called “radicalism” has occasionally strengthened the Democratic vote. The working class in the cities is divided, but the more solid part of it, the church-goers and total abstainers, are generally Republicans, while some are inclined to socialism. A number, still considerable, though of course daily diminishing, are veterans of the Civil War; and these naturally rally to the old flag. When turning southwards one reaches the borders of the old slave states, everything is changed. In Baltimore the best people are so generally Democrats that when you meet a Republican in society you ask whether he is not an immigrant from New England. This is less markedly the case in Kentucky and Missouri, but in Virginia, or the Carolinas, or the Gulf states, very few men of good standing belong to the Republican party, which consists of the lately enfranchised Negroes, of a certain number of whites, seldom well regarded, who organize and use the Negro vote, and who in the years that followed the war were making a good thing for themselves out of it; of a number of federal officials (a number very small when the Democrats are in power), who have been put into federal places by their friends at Washington, on the understanding that they are to work for the party, and of a few stray people, perhaps settlers from the North, who have not yet renounced their old affiliations. It is not easy for an educated man to remain a Republican in the South, not only because the people he meets in society are Democrats, but because the Republican party managers are apt to be black sheep.

In such Middle states as New York and New Jersey, to which one may for this purpose add Ohio and Indiana, and on the Pacific slope, the parties are nearly balanced, and if one regards state as well as national elections, the majority of votes is seen to sway now this way now that, as the circumstances of the hour, or local causes, or the merits of individual candidates, may affect the popular mind. Pennsylvania is now, as she hasEdition: current; Page: [710] been since 1860, a Republican state, owing to her interest in a protective tariff. New York, whose legislature has been often Republican, is in presidential elections still to be deemed doubtful. In all these states, the better sort of people are mostly Republicans. It is in that party you look to find the greater number of the philanthropists, the men of culture, the financial magnates and other persons of substance who desire to see things go on quietly, with no shocks given to business confidence by rash legislation. These are great elements of strength. They were gained for the Republican party by its earlier history, which drew into it in the days of the war those patriotic and earnest young men who are now the leading elderly men in their respective neighbourhoods. Against them there was for a time (1884–96) to be set the tendency of a section of the Republican party, a section small in numbers but including some men of character and intelligence, to break away, or, as it is called, “bolt” from the party platform and “ticket.” This section explained its conduct by declaring that the great claims which the party gained on the confidence of the country by its resistance to slavery and its vigorous prosecution of the war had been forfeited by maladministration since the war ended, and by the scandals which had gathered round some of its conspicuous figures. If intelligence and cultivation dispose their possessors to desert at a critical moment, the party would have been stronger without this element, for, as everybody knows, a good party man is he who stands by his friends when they are wrong. That group was mostly reabsorbed into the Republican ranks. But somewhat later another tendency to division appeared in the disposition of some Republicans, especially in the Northwest, to go faster and further, especially in economic legislation, than the moneyed men wished to follow. No open schism has so far resulted, but the antagonism of tendency is manifest.

The Democratic party has suffered in the North and West from exactly the opposite causes to the Republican. It was long discredited by its sympathy with the South, and by the opposition of a considerable section within it (the so-called Copperheads) to the prosecution of the war. This shadow hung heavy over it till the complete pacification of the South and growing prominence of new questions began to call men’s minds away from the war years. From 1869 to 1885 it profited from being in opposition. Saved from the opportunity of abusing patronage, or becoming entangled in administration jobs, it was able to criticize freely the blunders or vices of its opponents. It may however be doubted whether its party managers were, take them all in all, either wiser or purer than those whom they criticized, nor do they seem to have inspired any deeper trust in the minds of impartial citizens. When,Edition: current; Page: [711] as has several times happened, the Democrats have obtained a majority in the House of Representatives, their legislation was not higher in aim or more judicious in the choice of means than that which Republican Congresses have produced. Hence the tendency to fall away from the Republican ranks of 1872–96 enured to the benefit of the Democrats less than might have been expected. In 1896 the emergence of the free silver question as a burning issue produced a serious breach in the party, the consequences of which, though it was to outward appearance healed in the presidential nomination of 1904 did not for some time disappear. The Democratic party includes not only nearly all the talent, education, and wealth of the South, together with the great bulk of the Southern farmers and poorer whites, but also a respectable minority of good men in the Middle states and the Northwest, and a slightly smaller minority in the rural parts of New England.2

In these last-mentioned districts its strength lies chiefly in the cities, a curious contrast to those earlier days when Jefferson was supported by the farmers and Hamilton by the townsfolk.3 But the large cities have now a population unlike anything that existed in those distant days, a vast ignorant fluctuating mass of people, many of them only recently admitted to citizenship, who have little reason for belonging to one party rather than another, but are attracted some by the name of the Democratic party, some by the fact that it is not the party of the well-to-do, some by the leaders belonging to their own races who have risen to influence in its ranks. The adhesion of this mob gives the party a slight flavour of rowdyism, as its old associations used to give it, to a Puritan palate, a slight flavour of irreligion. Not so long ago, a New England deacon—the deacon is in America the type of solid respectability—would have found it as hard to vote for a Democratic candidate as an English archdeacon to vote for a Yorkshire Radical. But these old feelings are wearing away. A new generation of voters has arisen which never saw slavery, and which cares little about Jefferson for good or for evil. This generation takes parties as it finds them. Even among the older voters there has been a sensible change within the recent years. Many of the best Republicans, who remembered the Democrats as the party of which a strong section sympathized with the slaveholdersEdition: current; Page: [712] before the war, and disapproved of the war while it was being waged, looked with horror on the advent to power of a Democratic president. The country, however, has not been ruined by Mr. Cleveland, either then or in his second term, but went on much as before, its elements of good and evil mixed and contending, just as under Republican administrations. The alarm which the moneyed classes felt in 1896 had nothing to do with the old controversies, and the association with the Democratic party of the states where slavery prevailed no longer creates any real pejudice against it in Northern minds.

Race differences have played a considerable part in the composition of the parties, but it is a diminishing part, because in the second and still more in the third generation a citizen is an American first and foremost and loses quickly the race consciousness which his father or grandfather had. Besides the native Americans, there were till about 1890 men of five nationalities in the United States—British, Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, French Canadians.4 Of these, however, the English and Scotch lose their identity almost immediately, being absorbed into the general mass of native citizens. Though very numerous, they have hitherto counted for nothing politically, because English immigrants have either been indifferent to political struggles or have voted from the same motives as an average American. They have to some slight extent remained British subjects, not caring for the suffrage, and those who have adopted the United States as their country have seldom exerted their voting power as a united body.

Far otherwise with the Irish. They retain their national spirit and disposition to act together into the second, rarely however into the third, generation; they are a factor potent in federal and still more potent in city politics. Now the Irish have hitherto been nearly all Democrats. The exodus from Ireland, which had been considerable as far back as 1842, swelled in 1847 (the year after the famine) to vast proportions; and was from the first a source of help to the Democratic party, probably because the latter was less Protestant in sentiment than the Whig party, and was already dominant in the city of New York, where the Irish first became a power in politics. The aversion to the Negro which they soon developed, made them, when the RepublicanEdition: current; Page: [713] party arose, its natural enemies, for the Republicans were, both during and after the war, the Negro’s patrons. Before the war ended the Irish vote had come to form a large part of the Democratic strength, and Irishmen were prominent among the politicians of that party: hence newcomers from Ireland have generally enlisted under its banner. Of late years, however, there have been plenty of Irishmen, and indeed of Irish leaders and bosses, among the Republicans of the great cities; and statesmen of that party often sought to “placate” and attract the Irish vote in ways too familiar to need description. It is now, except in a few cities, far less of a solid vote, Irish immigration having much declined.

The German immigration, excluding of course the early German settlements in Pennsylvania, began rather later than the Irish; and as there was some jealousy between the two races, the fact that the Irish were already Democrats when the Germans arrived, may be one reason why the latter have been more inclined to enrol themselves as Republicans, while another was to be found in the fact that German exiles of 1849 were naturally hostile to slavery. The Germans usually become farmers in the Middle and Western states, where, finding the native farmers mainly Republicans, they imitated the politics of their neighbours. That there are many German Democrats in the great cities may be ascribed to the rather less friendly attitude of the Republicans to the liquor traffic, for the German colonist is faithful to the beer of his fatherland, and, in the case of the Roman Catholic Germans, to the tacit alliance which subsisted in many districts between the Catholic Church and the Democrats. The Germans are a cohesive race, keeping up national sentiment by festivals, gymnastic societies, processions, and national songs, but as they take much less keenly to politics, and are not kept together by priests, their cohesion is more short-lived than that of the Irish. The American-born son of a German is already completely an American in feeling as well as in practical aptitude. The German vote over the whole Union may be roughly estimated as five-ninths Republican, four-ninths Democratic. But it is even more true of the Germans than of the Irish that in the twentieth century they have been ceasing to constitute a “solid vote” in the older sense of the term, and before 1930 politicians may have left off thinking of either race as a distinct voting entity.

The Scandinavians—Swedes and Norwegians, with a few Danes and a handful of Icelanders—now form a large element among the farmers of the Upper Mississippi states, particularly Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. So far as can be judged from the short experience the country has of them, for their immigration did not begin to swell till after the middle ofEdition: current; Page: [714] the nineteenth century, they Americanize even more readily than their Teutonic cousins from the southern side of the Baltic. However, both Swedes and Norwegians are still so far clannish that in these states both parties find it worth while to run for office now and then a candidate of one or other, or candidates of both, of these nationalities, in order to catch the votes of his or their compatriots.5 Nine-tenths of them were Republicans, until the rise of the so-called “People’s Party,” which for the time detached a good many; and some of these have passed into the Democratic ranks. Like the Germans, they came knowing nothing of American politics, but the watchful energy of the native party workers enlisted them under a party banner as soon as they were admitted to civic rights. They make perhaps the best material for sober and industrious agriculturists that America receives, being even readier than the Germans to face hardship, and more content to dispense with alcoholic drinks.

The French Canadians are numerous in New England, and in one or two other Northern states, yet not numerous enough to tell upon politics, especially as they frequently remain British subjects. Their religion disposes those who become citizens to side with the Democratic party, but they can hardly be said to constitute what is called “a vote,” and occasionally “go Republican.”

In the northern half of the country, the Negroes are not generally an important element, but their vote in New York, Ohio, and Indiana is large enough to be worth having whenever the state is doubtful. Gratitude for the favour shown to their race has kept them mostly but not exclusively Republicans. They are seldom admitted to a leading place in party organizations, but it is found expedient in presidential contests to organize a “coloured club” to work for the candidate among the coloured population of a town. In states like Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, where there are plenty of white Republicans, they have voted steadily Republican, unless paid to abstain. In the further South, their mere numbers would have enabled them, were they equal to the whites in intelligence, wealth, and organization, not merely to carry congressional seats, but even in some states to determine a presidential election. But in these three respects they are unspeakably inferior. At first, under the leadership of some white adventurers, mostly ofEdition: current; Page: [715] the “carpetbagger” class, they went almost solid for the Republican party; and occasionally, even since the withdrawal of Federal troops, they have turned the balance in its favour. Presently, however, the Democrats gained the upper hand; and most of the Negroes, losing faith in their former bosses, and discouraged by finding themselves unfit to cope with a superior race, either ceased to vote or found themselves prevented by the whites from doing so. Latterly the seven Southern states have so altered their constitutions as to exclude nine-tenths of the Negroes from the suffrage.6

Religion comes very little into American party except when, as sometimes has happened, the advance of the Roman Catholic church and the idea that she exerts her influence to secure benefits for herself, causes an outburst of Protestant feeling.7 Roman Catholics are usually Democrats, because, except in Maryland, which is Democratic anyhow, they are mainly Irish.8 Congregationalists and Unitarians, being presumably sprung from New England, are apt to be Republicans. Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, have no special party affinities. They are mostly Republicans in the North, Democrats in the South. The Mormons fight for their own hand, and in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona have been wont to cast their votes, under the direction of their hierarchy, for the local party which promised to interfere least with them. Lately in Idaho a party found it worth while to run a Mormon candidate.

The distribution of parties is to some extent geographical. While the South casts a solid Democratic vote, and the strength of the Republicans lies in the Northeast and Northwest, the intermediate position of the Middle states corresponds to their divided political tendencies. The reason is that in America colonization has gone on along parallels of latitude. The tendencies of New England reappear in northern Ohio, northern Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, giving the Republicans a predominance in this vast and swiftly growing Western population, which it takes the whole weight of the solid South to balance. This geographical opposition does not, however, betoken a danger of political severance. The material interests of the agriculturists of the Northwest are not different from those of the South: free trade, for instance, will make as much and no more difference to the wheat grower of Illinois as to the cotton grower of Texas,Edition: current; Page: [716] to the ironworkers of Tennessee as to the ironworkers of Pennsylvania. And the existence of an active Democratic party in the North prevents the victory of either geographical section from being felt as a defeat by the other.

This is an important security against disruption. And a similar security against the risk of civil strife or revolution is to be found in the fact that the parties are not based on or sensibly affected by differences either of wealth or of social position. Their cleavage is not horizontal according to social strata, but vertical. This would be less true if it were stated either of the Northern states separately, or of the Southern states separately: it is true of the Union taken as a whole. It might cease to be true if the new socialist or labour parties were to grow till it absorbed or superseded either of the existing parties. The same feature has characterized English politics as compared with those of most European countries, and has been a main cause of the stability of the English government and of the good feeling between different classes in the community.9

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chapter 56

Further Observations on the Parties

Besides the two great parties which have divided America for thirty years, there are two or three lesser organizations or factions needing a word of mention. About 1820–30 there was a period when one of the two great parties having melted away, the other had become split up into minor sections.1 Parties were numerous and unstable, new ones forming, and after a short career uniting with some other, or vanishing altogether from the scene. This was a phenomenon peculiar to that time, and ceased with the building up about 1832 of the Whig party, which lasted till shortly before the Civil War. But De Tocqueville, who visited America in 1831–32, took it for the normal state of a democratic community, and founded upon it some bold generalizations. A stranger who sees how few principles now exist to hold each of the two great modern parties together will be rather surprised that they have not shown more tendency to split up into minor groups and factions.

What constitutes a party? In America there is a simple test. Any section of men who nominate candidates of their own for the presidency and vice-presidency of the United States are deemed a national party. Adopting this test we shall find that there are now two or three national parties in addition to the Republicans and Democrats.

The first minor party was that of the Greenbackers, who arose soon after the end of the Civil War. They demanded a large issue of greenbacks (i.e, paper money, so called from the colour of the notes issued during the war), alleging that this must benefit the poorer classes, who will obviously be richer when there is more money in the country. It may seem incredibleEdition: current; Page: [718] that there should still be masses of civilized men who believe that money is value, and that a liberal issue of stamped paper can give the poor more bread or better clothes. If there were a large class of debtors, and the idea was to depreciate the currency and let them then pay their debts in it, one could understand the proposal. Such a depreciation existed during and immediately after the Civil War. As wages and prices had risen enormously, people were receiving more money in wages, or for goods sold, than they had received previously, while they were paying fixed charges, such as interest on mortgage debts, in a depreciated paper currency. Thus the small farmers were on the whole gainers, while creditors and persons with fixed incomes were losers. It is true that both farmers and working men were also paying more for whatever they needed, food, clothes, and lodging; still they seemed to have felt more benefit in receiving larger sums than they felt hardship in paying out larger sums. Those who called for a great increase of paper money did not profess to wish to depreciate the currency; nor were they to any great extent supported by a debtor class to which a depreciated currency would be welcome, as a debased coinage served the momentary occasions of mediæval kings. But the recollections of the war time with its abundant employment and high wages clung to many people, and were coupled with a confused notion that the more money there is in circulation so much the more of it will everybody have, and so much the better off will he be, so much the more employment will capital find for labour, and so much the more copious will be the fertilizing stream of wages diffused among the poor.2

The Greenback party, which at first called itself Independent, held a national nominating convention in 1876, at which nineteen states were represented, and nominated candidates for president and vice-president, issuing an emphatic but ungrammatical denunciation of the financial policy of the Republican and Democratic parties. They again put forward candidates in 1880 and 1884, but made a poor show in the voting and presently melted away, some of those who had supported it presently going to recruit the Populist party.

The various Labour or Socialist parties are composed, not of agriculturists like the Greenbackers, but chiefly of working men in cities and mining districts, including many of the recent immigrants. It is not easy to describeEdition: current; Page: [719] the precise tenets of a Labour party, for it includes persons of very various views, some who would be called in Europe pronounced Collectivists, others who wish to restrain the action of railway and telegraph companies and other so-called “monopolists,” and of course many who, while dissatisfied with existing economic conditions, and desiring to see the working classes receive a larger share of the good things of the world, are not prepared to say in what way these conditions can be mended and this result attained. Speaking generally, the reforms advocated by the leaders of the Labour party have included the “nationalization of the land,” the imposition of a progressive income tax,3 the taking over of railroads and telegraphs by the national government, the prevention of the immigration of Chinese and of any other foreign labourers who may come under contract, the restriction of all so-called monopolies, the forfeiture of railroad land grants, the increase of the currency, the free issue of inconvertible paper, and, above all, the statutory restriction of hours of labour. But it must not be supposed that all the leaders, much less all the followers, adopt all these tenets; nor has it been always easy to say who are to be deemed its leaders. It shows a tendency to split up into factions. Its strength has lain in the trade unions of the operative class, and for a time in the enormous organization or league of trade unions that was known as the Knights of Labour; and it is therefore warmly interested in the administration of the various state laws which affect strikes and the practice of boycotting by which strikes often seek to prevail. It has much support from the recent immigrants who fill the great cities, especially the socialistically inclined sections of the Germans, Jews, Pole, Czechs, and other Austro-Hungarian Slavs.

The Labour party did not run a presidential candidate till 1888, and was then divided, so that its strength could not be well estimated. But it has been wont to put forward candidates in state and city elections when it saw a chance. It ran Mr. Henry George for mayor of New York City in 1886, and obtained the unexpected success of polling 67,000 votes against 90,000 given to the regular Democratic, and 60,000 to the regular Republican candidate;4 but this success was not sustained in the contest for the governorship of the state of New York in 1887, when a vote of only 37,000Edition: current; Page: [720] was cast by the Labour party in the city. In 1892 one section, calling itself the Socialist Labour Party, ran a presidential candidate, but obtained only 21,164 votes, 17,956 of which came from New York, the rest from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. In 1900 the party which has since called itself Socialist was founded. Both these parties sometimes put forward candidates in state or city elections. The Socialists are a somewhat incalculable force in state and city politics, seldom strong enough to carry their own candidates, but sometimes able to defeat one of the regular parties by drawing away a part of its voters, or to extort a share of the offices for some of their nominees. It is only in some states, chiefly Northern states, that candidates of this complexion appear at all.

The Prohibitionists, or opponents of the sale of intoxicating liquors, have since 1872 regularly held a national convention for the nomination of a presidential candidate, and put out a ticket, i.e., nominated candidates for president and vice-president. The action of this party has been most frequent in the state legislatures, because the whole question of permitting, restricting, or abolishing the sale of intoxicants is a matter for the states and not for Congress. However, the federal government raises a large revenue by its high import duty on wines, spirits, and malt liquors, and also levies an internal excise. As this revenue was for some years before 1890 no longer needed for the expenses of the national government, it was proposed to distribute it among the states, or apply it to some new and useful purpose, or to reduce both customs duties and the excise. The fear of the first or second of these courses, which would give the manufacture and sale of intoxicants a new lease of life, or of the third, which would greatly increase their consumption, was among the causes which induced the Prohibitionists to enter the arena of national politics; and they further justify their conduct in doing so by proposing to amend the federal Constitution for the purposes of prohibition, and to stop the sale of intoxicants in the Territories and in the District of Columbia, which are under the direct control of Congress.5Edition: current; Page: [721] Their running a candidate for the presidency has been more a demonstration than anything else, as they cast a comparatively weak vote, many even of those who sympathize with them preferring to support one or other of the great parties rather than throw away a vote in the abstract assertion of a principle. One ought indeed to distinguish between the Prohibitionists proper, who wish to stop the sale of intoxicants altogether, and the Temperance men, who are very numerous among Republicans in the North and Democrats in the South, and who, while ready to vote for local option and a high licence law, disappove the attempt to impose absolute prohibition by general legislation.6 The number of persons who are both thoroughgoing Prohibitionists and pure Prohibitionists, that is to say, who are not also Republicans or Democrats, is small, far too small, even when reinforced by a section of the “Temperance men,” and by discontented Republicans or Democrats who may dislike the “regular” candidates of their party, to give the Prohibition ticket a chance of success in any state. The importance of the ticket lies in the fact that in a doubtful state it may draw away enough votes from one of the “regular” candidates to leave him in a minority. Mr. Blaine probably suffered in this way in the election of 1884, most of the votes cast for the Prohibitionist candidate having come from quondam Republicans. On the other hand, a case may be imagined in which the existence of an outlet or safety-valve, such as a Prohibitionist ticket, would prevent the “bolters” from one party from taking the more dangerous course of voting for the candidate of the opposite party. Latterly the party vote has been too small to make much difference.

The strength of the Prohibitionist party lies in the religious and moral earnestness which animates it and makes it for many purposes the successor and representative of the Abolitionists of forty years ago. Clergymen were prominent in its conventions, and women took an active part in its work.Edition: current; Page: [722] Partly from its traditions and temper, partly because it believes that women would be on its side in elections, it advocates the extension to them of the electoral franchise. But it has latterly lost much of its political importance, though temperance has advanced both in the diffusion of its principles and in practice.

A spirit of discontent with the old parties, and vague wish to better by legislation the condition of the agriculturists, caused the growth of what was called at first the Farmers’ Alliance Party, and thereafter the People’s Party, or “Populists.” In 1889 and 1890 it rose suddenly to importance in the West and South, and secured some seats from Western states in the Fifty-second and succeeding Congresses. Its platform agreed in several points with those of the Greenbackers and Labour men, but instead of seeking to “nationalize” the land, it desired to reduce the taxation on real estate and to secure (among other benefits) loans from the public treasury to farmers at low rates of interest. It ran a candidate at the presidential election of 1892 (carrying four states and obtaining one electoral vote in each of two others), but has since then so much declined, that in 1908 only 29,108 votes were cast for the candidate whom it nominated. Although the economic and social conditions of agricultural life in America are likely from time to time to produce similar outbreaks of dissatisfaction, with impatient cries for unpractical remedies, the tendency has of recent years been towards the formation of parties professing views of a more or less Collectivist type. In 1900, 1904, 1908, and 1912 a party calling itself Socialist and another calling itself Socialist Labour ran candidates for the presidency; and in 1908 there also appeared an “Independence Party,” which denounced the Republican and Democratic parties alike. Of these minor new parties the largest vote was in 1912 cast by the Socialist, 901,873. In 1904 its vote had been 402,321. In 1912 the new Progressive party ran its candidates.

The advocates of woman suffrage cannot be reckoned a national party, because the question is one for the states, and because women have no vote in presidential elections (save in ten states). In 1884 a woman was nominated, but did not go to the poll.7

Though the group which went by the name of Mugwumps has disappeared, it had a temporary significance which entitles it to the meed of a melodious tear.8 At the presidential election of 1884 a section of the Republican party,Edition: current; Page: [723] more important by the intelligence and social position of the men who composed it than by its numbers, “bolted” (to use the technical term) from their party, and refused to vote for Mr. Blaine. Some simply abstained, some, obeying the impulse to vote which is strong in good citizens in America, voted for Mr. St. John, the Prohibitionist candidate, though well aware that this was practically the same thing as abstention. The majority, however, voted against their party for Mr. Cleveland, the Democratic candidate; and it seems to have been the transference of their vote which turned the balance in New York State, and thereby determined the issue of the whole election in Mr. Cleveland’s favour. They were therefore not to be reckoned as a national party, according to the American use of the term, because they did not run a ticket of their own, but supported a candidate started by one of the regular parties. The only organization they formed consisted of committees which held meetings and distributed literature during the election, but dissolved when it was over. They maintained no permanent party machinery; and did not act as a distinct section, even for the purposes of agitation, at subsequent presidential elections. Some of them have since been absorbed (especially in New England and New York) into the Democratic party, others have returned to their old affiliations. They were not so much a section as a tendency, persons in whom a growing disposition to a detached independence was for the time embodied. The tendency is now chiefly conspicuous in municipal politics, where it has given birth to Good Government Clubs and other civic associations intended to purify the administration of cities.

The Mugwumps bore no resemblance to any British party. The tendency which called them into being is discernible chiefly in New England and in the cities of the Eastern states generally, but it affects some few persons scattered here and there all over the North and West as far as California. In the South (save in such border cities as St. Louis and Louisville) there were none, because the Southern men who would, had they lived in the North, have taken to Mugwumpism, were in the South Democrats. There did not in 1884 seem to be in the Democratic party, either in North or South, as much material for a secession similar to that of the “bolters” of that year as was then shown to exist among the Republicans. In 1893, however, an enormous “swing-over” in New York State of votes usually Democratic to the Republican side, provoked by the nomination of a man deemed taintedEdition: current; Page: [724] to an important judicial office, showed that the Mugwump element or tendency was to be reckoned with, at least in the Northeastern states, by both parties alike, and in 1896 (as already remarked) many of the richer and more influential gold Democrats “bolted” the party ticket and ran a presidential ticket of their own.

The reader must be reminded of one capital difference between the Republican and Democratic parties and the minor ones which have just been mentioned. The two former are absolutely coextensive with the Union. They exist in every state, and in every corner of every state. They exist even in the Territories, though the inhabitants of Territories have no vote in federal elections. But the four minor parties that held conventions in the elections of and since 1900, did not attempt to maintain organizations all over the Union.9 The Populists, though for the moment strong in the West, had no importance in the Atlantic states. Where these minor parties are strong, or where some question has arisen which keenly interests them, they may run their man for state governor or mayor, or will put out a ticket for state senators or assemblymen; or they will take the often more profitable course of fusing for the nonce with one of the regular parties, giving it their vote in return for having the party nominations to one or more of the elective offices assigned to their own nominee.10 This helps to keep the party going, and gives to its vote a practical result otherwise unattainable.

Is there not, then, some European may ask, a Free Trade party? Not in the American sense of the word “party.” The Democratic party used to stand for a “tariff for revenue only,” and there are still more advocates of a low rate of duties in that party than among their opponents. But there is no political organization which devotes itself to the advocacy of free trade by the usual party methods, much less does anyone think of starting candidates either for the presidency or for Congress upon a pure anti-protectionist platform.

Why, considering the reluctant hesitancy which the old parties have been apt to show in taking up a clear and distinctive attitude upon new questions, and formulating definite proposals regarding them, and considering also that in the immense area of the United States, with its endless variety of economic interests and social conditions, we might expect local diversities of aim and view which would here and there crystallize, and so give rise to many localEdition: current; Page: [725] parties—why are not the parties far more numerous? Why, too, are the parties so persistent? In this changeful country one would look for frequent changes in tenets and methods.

One reason is, that there is at present a strong feeling in America against any sentiment or organization which relies on or appeals to one particular region of the country. Such localism or sectionalism is hateful, because, recalling the disunionist spirit of the South which led to the war, it seems anti-national and unpatriotic. By the mere fact of its springing from a local root, and urging a local interest, a party would set all the rest of the country against it. As a separately organized faction seeking to capture the federal government, it could not succeed against the national parties, because the Union as a whole is so vast that it would be outvoted by one or other of them. But if it is content to remain a mere opinion or demand, not attacking either national party, but willing to bestow the votes it can control on whichever will meet its wishes, it is powerful, because the two great parties will bid against one another for its support by flatteries and concessions. For instance, the question which has interested the masses on the Pacific coast is that of excluding Chinese immigrants, and latterly the Japanese also, because they compete for work with the whites and bring down wages. Now if the “anti-Mongolians” of California, Washington, and Oregon were to create a national party, based on this particular issue, they would be insignificant, for they would have little support over five-sixths of the Union. But by showing that the attitude of the two great parties on this issue will determine their own attitude toward these parties, they control both, for as each desires to secure the vote of California, Washington, and Oregon, each vies with the other in promising and voting for anti-Asiatic legislation. The position of the Irish extremists was similar, except of course that they are a racial and not a geographical “section.” Their power, which Congress has sometimes recognized in a way scarcely compatible with its dignity or with international courtesy, lay in the fact that as the Republicans and Democrats are nearly balanced, the congressional leaders of both desired to “placate” this faction, for which neither had a sincere affection. An Irish party, or a German party, or a Roman Catholic party, which should run its candidates on a sectional platform, would stand self-condemned in American eyes as not being genuinely American. But so long as it is content to seek control over parties and candidates, it exerts an influence out of proportion to its numbers, and checked only by the fear that if it demanded too much, native Americans might rebel, as they did in the famous Know-Nothing or “American” party of 1853–58. The same fate would befall a party based uponEdition: current; Page: [726] some trade interest, such as protection to a particular sort of manufactures, or the stimulation of cattle breeding as against sheep. Such a party might succeed for a time in a state, and might dictate its terms to one or both of the national parties; but when it attempted to be a national party it would become ridiculous and fall.

A second cause of the phenomenon which I am endeavouring to explain may be found in the enormous trouble and expense required to found a new national party. To influence the votes, even to reach the ears, of nearly one hundred millions of people, is an undertaking to be entered on only when some really great cause fires the national imagination, disposes the people to listen, persuades the wealthy to spend freely of their substance. It took six years of intense work to build up the Republican party, which might not even then have triumphed in the election of 1860, but for the split in the ranks of its opponents. The attempt made in 1872 to form a new independent party out of the discontented Republicans and the Democrats failed lamentably. The Independent Republicans of 1884 did not venture to start a programme or candidate of their own, but were prudently satisfied with helping the Democratic candidate, whom they deemed more likely than the Republican nominee to give effect to the doctrine of civil service reform which they were advocating.

The case of these Independents, or Mugwumps, is an illustrative one. For many years past there had been complaints that the two old parties were failing to deal with issues that had grown to be of capital importance, such as the tariff, the currency, the improvements of methods of business in Congress, the purification of the civil service and extinction of the so-called Spoils System. These complaints, however, have not come from the men prominent as practical statesmen or politicians in the parties, but from outsiders, and largely from the men of intellectual cultivation and comparatively high social standing. Very few of such men took an active part in “politics,” however interested they might be in public affairs. They were amateurs as regards the practical work of “running” ward meetings and conventions, of framing “tickets,” and bringing up voters to the poll, in fact of working as well as organizing that vast and complicated machinery which an American party needs. Besides, it is a costly machinery, and they did not see where to find the money. Hence they recoiled from the effort, and aimed at creating a sentiment which might take concrete form in a vote, given for whichever of the parties seemed at any particular time most likely to adopt, even if insincerely, the principles, and push forward, even if reluctantly, the measures which the Independents advocate.

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Why, however, does it so seldom happen that the professional politicians, who “know the ropes,” and know where to get the necessary funds, more frequently seek to wreck a party in order to found a new one more to their mind? Because they are pretty well satisfied with the sphere which existing parties give them, and comprehend from their practical experience how hazardous such an experiment would be.

These considerations may help to explain the remarkable cohesion of parties in America, and the strength of party loyalty, a phenomenon more natural in Europe, where momentous issues inflame men’s passions, and where the bulk of the adherents are ignorant men, caught by watchwords and readily attracted to a leader, than in a republic where no party has any benefit to promise to the people which it may not as well get from the other, and where the native voter is a keen-witted man, with little reverence for the authority of any individual. There is however another reason flowing from the character of the American people. They are extremely fond of associating themselves, and prone to cling to any organization they have once joined. They are sensitive to any charge of disloyalty. They are gregarious, each man more disposed to go with the multitude and do as they do than to take a line of his own,11 and they enjoy “campaigning” for its own sake. These are characteristics which themselves require to be accounted for, but the discussion of them belongs to later chapters. A European is surprised to see prominent politicians supporting, sometimes effusively, a candidate of their own party whom they are known to dislike, merely because he is the party candidate. There is a sort of military discipline about party life which has its good as well as its bad side, for if it sometimes checks the expression of honest disapproval, it also restrains jealousy, abashes self-seeking, prevents recrimination.

Each of the American parties has usually been less under the control of one or two conspicuous leaders than are British parties. So far as this is due to the absence of men whose power over the people rests on the possession of brilliant oratorical or administrative gifts, it is a part of the question why there are not more such men in American public life, why there are fewer striking figures than in the days of Jefferson and Hamilton, of Webster and Calhoun. It is however also due to the peculiarities of the Constitution. The want of concentration of power in the legal government is reflected in the structure of the party system. The separation of the legislative from the executiveEdition: current; Page: [728] department lowers the importance of leadership in parties, as it weakens both these departments. The president, who is presumably among the leading men, cannot properly direct the policy of his party, still less speak for it in public, because he represents the whole nation. His ministers cannot speak to the people through Congress. In neither house of Congress is there necessarily any person recognized as the leader on either side. As neither house has the power over legislation and administration possessed by such an assembly as the French or Italian Chamber, or the English House of Commons, speeches delivered or strategy displayed in it do not tell upon the country with equal force and directness. There remains the stump, and it is more by the stump than in any other way that an American statesman speaks to the people. But what distances to be traversed, what fatigues to be encountered before he can be a living and attractive personality to the electing masses! An English statesman leaves London at two o’clock, and speaks in Birmingham, or Leeds, or Manchester, the same evening. In a few years, every great town knows him like its own mayor, while the active local politicians who frequently run up from their homes to London hear him from the galleries of the House of Commons, wait on him in deputations, are invited to the receptions which his wife gives during the season. Even railways and telegraphs cannot make America a compact country in the same sense that Britain is.

From the Civil War till the end of last century, neither Republicans nor Democrats leaned on and followed any one man as Mr. Gladstone and Lord Beaconsfield, as before them Lords Derby, John Russell, and Palmerston, as still earlier Sir Robert Peel and Lord Melbourne, were followed in England. No one since Mr. Seward exercised even so much authority as Mr. Bright did when out of office, or as Gambetta did in France, or as Mr. Parnell in Ireland, over the sections of opinion which each of these eminent men has represented.

How then are the parties led in Congress and the country? Who directs their policy? Who selects their candidates for the most important posts? These are questions which cannot be adequately answered till the nature of the party machinery has been described. For the moment I must be content to suggest the following as provisional answers:

The most important thing is the selection of candidates. This is done in party meetings called conventions. When a party has any policy, it is settled in such a convention and declared in a document called a platform. When it has no policy, the platform is issued none the less. Party tactics in Congress are decided on by meetings of the party in each house of Congress called caucuses. Leaders have of course much to do with all three processes.Edition: current; Page: [729] But they often efface themselves out of respect to the sentiment of equality, and because power concealed excites less envy.

How do the parties affect social life? At present not very much, at least in the Northern and Middle states, because it is a comparatively slack time in politics. Your dining acquaintances, even your intimate friends, are not necessarily of the same way of voting as yourself, and though of course political views tend to become hereditary, there is nothing to surprise anyone in finding sons belonging to different parties from their fathers. In the South, where the recollections of the great struggle are kept alive by the presence of a Negro voting power which has had to be controlled, things are different; and they were different in the North till the passions of civil strife had abated.

So far, I have spoken of the parties only as national organizations, struggling for and acting on or through the federal government. But it has already been observed (Chapter 46) that they exist also as state and city organizations, contending for the places which states and cities have to give, seeking to control state legislatures and municipal councils. Every circumscription of state and local government, from the state of New York with its nine millions of inhabitants down to the “city” that has just sprung up round a railway junction in the West, has a regular Republican party organization, confronted by a similar Democratic organization, each running its own ticket (i.e., list of candidates) at every election, for any office pertaining to its own circumscription, and each federated, so to speak, to the larger organizations above it, represented in them and working for them in drilling and “energizing” the party within the area which is the sphere of its action.

What have the tenets of such national parties as the Republicans and Democrats to do with the politics of states and cities? Very little with those of states, because a matter for federal legislation is seldom also a matter for state legislation. Still less with those of cities or counties. Cities and counties have not strictly speaking any political questions to deal with; their business is to pave and light, to keep the streets clean, maintain an efficient police and well-barred prisons, administer the poor law and charitable institutions with integrity, judgment, and economy. The laws regulating these matters have been already made by the state, and the city or county authority has nothing to do but administer them. Hence at city and county elections the main objects ought to be to choose honest and careful men of business. It need make no difference to the action of a mayor or school trustee in any concrete question whether he holds Democratic or Republican views.

However, the habit of party warfare has been so strong as to draw allEdition: current; Page: [730] elections into its vortex; nor would either party feel safe if it neglected the means of rallying and drilling its supporters, which state and local contests supply. There is this advantage in the system, that it stimulates the political interest of the people, which is kept alive by this perpetual agitation. But the multiplicity of contests has the effect of making politics too absorbing an occupation for the ordinary citizen who has his profession or business to attend to; while the result claimed by those who in England defend the practice of fighting municipal elections on party lines, viz., that good men are induced to stand for local office for the sake of their party, is the last result desired by the politicians, or expected by anyone. It is this constant labour which the business of politics involves, this ramification of party into all the nooks and corners of local government, that has produced the class of professional politicians, of whom it is now time to speak.

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chapter 57

The Politicians

Institutions are said to form men, but it is no less true that men give to institutions their colour and tendency. It profits little to know the legal rules and methods and observances of government, unless one also knows something of the human beings who tend and direct this machinery, and who, by the spirit in which they work it, may render it the potent instrument of good or evil to the people. These men are the politicians.1

What is one to include under this term? In England it usually denotes those who are actively occupied in administering or legislating, or discussing administration and legislation. That is to say, it includes ministers of the Crown, members of Parliament (though some in the House of Commons and the majority in the House of Lords care little about politics), a few leading journalists, and a small number of miscellaneous persons, writers, lecturers, organizers, agitators, who occupy themselves with trying to influence the public. Sometimes the term is given a wider sweep, being taken to include all who labour for their political party in the constituencies, as, e.g., the chairmen and secretaries of local party associations, and the more active committeemen of the same bodies. The former, whom we may call the inner-circle men, are professional politicians in this sense, and in this sense only, that politics is the main though seldom the sole business of their lives. But at present extremely few of them make anything by it in the way of money. A handful hope to get some post; a somewhat larger number find that a seat in Parliament enables them to push their financial undertakings or make them at least more conspicuous in the commercial world. But the gaining of a livelihood does not come into the view of the great majority atEdition: current; Page: [732] all. The other class, who may be called the outer circle, are not professionals in any sense, being primarily occupied with their own avocations; and none of them, except here and there an organizing secretary, or registration agent, and here and there a paid lecturer, makes any profit out of the work.2 The phenomena of France and Italy and Germany are generally similar, that is to say, those who devote their whole time to politics are a very small class, those who make a living by it an even smaller one.3 Of all the countries of Europe, Greece is that in which persons who spend their life in politics seem to bear the largest proportion to the whole population; and in Greece the pursuit of politics is usually the pursuit of place.

To see why things are different in the United States, why the inner circle is much larger both absolutely and relatively to the outer circle than in Europe, let us go back a little and ask what are the conditions which develop a political class. The point has so important a bearing on the characteristics of American politicians that I do not fear to dwell somewhat fully upon it.

In self-governing communities of the simpler kind—for one may leave absolute monarchies and feudal monarchies on one side—the common affairs are everybody’s business and nobody’s special business. Some few men by their personal qualities get a larger share of authority, and are repeatedly chosen to be archons, or generals, or consuls, or burgomasters, or landammans, but even these rarely give their whole time to the state, and make little or nothing in money out of it. This was the condition of the Greek republics, of early Rome,4 of the cities of mediæval Germany and Italy, of the cantons of Switzerland till very recent times.

When in a large country public affairs become more engrossing to those who are occupied in them, when the sphere of government widens, when administration is more complex and more closely interlaced with the industrial interests of the community and of the world at large, so that there is more to be known and to be considered, the business of a nation fallsEdition: current; Page: [733] into the hands of the men eminent by rank, wealth, and ability, who form a sort of governing class, largely hereditary. The higher civil administration of the state is in their hands; they fill the chief council or legislative chamber and conduct its debates. They have residences in the capital, and though they receive salaries when actually filling an office, and have opportunities for enriching themselves, the majority possess independent means, and pursue politics for the sake of fame, power, or excitement. Those few who have not independent means can follow their business or profession in the capital, or can frequently visit the place where their business is carried on. This was the condition of Rome under the later republic,5 and of England and France till quite lately—indeed it is largely the case in England still—as well as of Prussia and Sweden.6

Let us see what are the conditions of the United States.

There is a relatively small leisured class of persons engaged in no occupation and of wealth sufficient to leave them free for public affairs. So far as such persons are to be found in the country, for some are to be sought abroad, they are to be found in a few great cities.

There is no class with a sort of hereditary prescriptive right to public office, no great families whose names are known to the people, and who, bound together by class sympathy and ties of relationship, help one another by keeping offices in the hands of their own members.

The country is a very large one, and has its political capital in a city without trade, without manufactures, without professional careers. Even the seats of state governments are often placed in comparatively small towns.7 Hence a man cannot carry on his gainful occupation at the same time that he attends to “inner-circle” politics.

Members of Congress and of state legislatures are invariably chosen from the places where they reside. Hence a person belonging to the leisured class of a great city cannot get into the House of Representatives or the legislature of his state except as member for a district of his own city.

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The shortness of terms of office, and the large number of offices filled by election, make elections very frequent. All these elections, with trifling exceptions, are fought on party lines, and the result of a minor one for some petty local office, such as county treasurer, affects one for a more important post, e.g., that of member of Congress. Hence constant vigilance, constant exertions on the spot, are needed. The list of voters must be incessantly looked after, newly admitted or newly settled citizens enrolled, the active local men frequently consulted and kept in good humour, meetings arranged for, tickets (i.e., lists of candidates) for all vacant offices agreed upon. One election is no sooner over than another approaches and has to be provided for, as the English sporting man reckons his year by “events,” and thinks of Newmarket after Ascot, and of Goodwood after Newmarket.

Now what do these conditions amount to? To this—a great deal of hard and dull election and other local political work to be done. Few men of leisure to do it, and still fewer men of leisure likely to care for it. Nobody able to do it in addition to his regular business or profession. Little motive for anybody, whether leisured or not, to do the humbler and local parts of it (i.e., so much as concerns the minor elections), the parts which bring neither fame nor power.

If the work is to be done at all, some inducement, other than fame or power, must clearly be found. Why not, someone will say, the sense of public duty? I will speak of public duty presently; meantime let it suffice to remark that to rely on public duty as the main motive power in politics is to assume a commonwealth of angels. Men such as we know them must have some other inducement. Even in the Christian church there are other than spiritual motives to lead its pastors to spiritual work; nor do all poets write because they seek to express the passion of their souls. In America we discover a palpable inducement to undertake the dull and toilsome work of election politics. It is the inducement of places in the public service. To make them attractive they must be paid. They are paid, nearly all of them, memberships of Congress8 and other federal places, state places (including memberships of state legislatures), city and county places. Here then—and to some extent even in humbler forms, such as the getting of small contracts or even employment as labourers—is the inducement, the remuneration for political work performed in the way of organizing and electioneering. Now add that besides the paid administrative and legislative places which aEdition: current; Page: [735] democracy bestows by election, judicial places are also in most of the states elective, and held for terms of years only; and add further, that the holders of nearly all those administrative places, federal, state, and municipal, which are not held for a fixed term, are liable to be dismissed, as indeed many still are so liable and are in practice dismissed, whenever power changes from one party to another,9 so that those who belong to the party out of office have a direct chance of office when their party comes in. The inducement to undertake political work we have been searching for is at once seen to be adequate, and only too adequate. The men needed for the work are certain to appear because remuneration is provided. Politics has now become a gainful profession, like advocacy, stockbroking, the dry goods trade, or the getting up of companies. People go into it to live by it, primarily for the sake of the salaries attached to the places they count on getting, secondarily in view of the opportunities it affords of making incidental and sometimes illegitimate gains. Every person in a high administrative post, whether federal, state, or municipal, and, above all, every member of Congress, has opportunities of rendering services to wealthy individuals and companies for which they are willing to pay secretly in money or in money’s worth. The better officials and legislators—they are the great majority, except in large cities—resist the temptation. The worst succumb to it, and the prospect of these illicit profits renders a political career distinctly more attractive to an unscrupulous man.

We find therefore that in America all the conditions exist for producing a class of men specially devoted to political work and making a livelihood by it. It is work much of which cannot be done in combination with any other kind of regular work, whether professional or commercial. Even if the man who unites wealth and leisure to high intellectual attainments were a frequent figure in America, he would not take to this work; he would rather be a philanthropist or cultivate arts and letters. It is work which, steadily pursued by an active man, offers an income. Hence a large number of persons are drawn into it, and make it the business of their life; and the fact that they are there as professionals has tended to keep amateurs out of it.

There are, however, two qualifications which must be added to this statement of the facts, and which it is best to add at once. One is that the mere pleasure of politics counts for something. Many people in America asEdition: current; Page: [736] well as in England undertake even the commonplace work of local canvassing and organizing for the sake of a little excitement, a little of the agreeable sense of self-importance, or from that fondness for doing something in association with others which makes a man become secretary to a cricket club or treasurer of a fund raised by subscription for some purpose he may not really care for. And the second qualification is that pecuniary motives operate with less force in rural districts than in cities, because in the former the income obtainable by public office is too small to induce men to work long in the hope of getting it. Let it therefore be understood that what is said in this chapter refers primarily to cities, and of course also to persons aiming at the higher federal and state offices; and that I do not mean to deny that there is plenty of work done by amateurs as well as by professionals.

Having thus seen what are the causes which produce professional politicians, we may return to inquire how large this class is, compared with the corresponding class in the free countries of Europe, whom we have called the inner circle.

In America the inner circle, that is to say, the persons who make political work the chief business of life, for the time being, includes:

  • Firstly. All members of both houses of Congress.
  • Secondly. All federal officeholders except the judges, who are irremovable, and who have sometimes taken no prominent part in politics.
  • Thirdly. A large part of the members of state legislatures. How large a part, it is impossible to determine, for it varies greatly from state to state. I should guess that in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California, Maryland, and Louisiana, half (or more) of the members were professional politicians; in Ohio, Virginia, Illinois, Texas, perhaps less than half; in Georgia, Kentucky, Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, not more than one-third; in Massachusetts, Vermont, and some other states, perhaps even less. But the line between a professional and nonprofessional politician is too indefinite to make any satisfactory estimate possible.
  • Fourthly. Nearly all state officeholders, excluding all judges in a very few states, and many of the judges in the rest.
  • Fifthly. Nearly all holders of paid offices in the greater and in many of the smaller cities, and many holders of paid offices in the counties. There are, however, great differences in this respect between different states, the New England states and the newer states of the Northwest,Edition: current; Page: [737] as well as some Southern states, choosing many of their county officials from men who are not regularly employed on politics, although members of the dominant party.
  • Sixthly. A large number of people who hold no office but want to get one, or perhaps even who desire work under a municipality. This category includes, of course, many of the “workers” of the party which does not command the majority for the time being, in state and municipal affairs, and which has not, through the president, the patronage of federal posts. It also includes many expectants belonging to the party for the time being dominant, who are earning their future places by serving the party in the meantime.10

All the above may fairly be called professional or inner-circle politicians, but of their number I can form no estimate, save that it must be counted by hundreds of thousands, inasmuch as it practically includes nearly all state and local and most federal officeholders as well as most expectants of public office.11

It must be remembered that the “work” of politics means in America the business of winning nominations (of which more anon) and elections, andEdition: current; Page: [738] that this work is incomparably heavier and more complex than in England, because:

(1) The voters are a larger proportion of the population; (2) the government is more complex (federal, state, and local) and the places filled by election are therefore far more numerous; (3) elections come at shorter intervals; (4) the machinery of nominating candidates is far more complete and intricate; (5) the methods of fighting elections require more technical knowledge and skill; (6) ordinary private citizens do less election work, seeing that they are busier than in England, and the professionals exist to do it for them.

I have observed that there are also plenty of men engaged in some trade or profession who interest themselves in politics and work for their party without any definite hope of office or other pecuniary aim. They correspond to what we have called the outer-circle politicians of Europe. It is hard to draw a line between the two classes, because they shade off into one another, there being many farmers or lawyers or saloonkeepers, for instance, who, while pursuing their regular calling, bear a hand in politics, and look to be some time or other rewarded for doing so. When this expectation becomes a considerable part of the motive for exertion, such an one may fairly be called a professional, at least for the time being, for although he has other means of livelihood, he is apt to be impregnated with the habits and sentiments of the professional class.

The proportion between outer-circle and inner-circle men is in the United States a sort of ozonometer by which the purity and healthiness of the political atmosphere may be tested. Looking at the North only, for I have no tolerable data as to the South, and excluding congressmen, the proportion of men who exert themselves in politics without pecuniary motive is largest in New England, in the country parts of New York, in northern Ohio, and the Northwestern states, while the professional politicians most abound in the great cities—New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Boston, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, San Francisco. This is because these cities have the largest masses of ignorant voters, and also because their municipal governments, handling large revenues, offer the largest facilities for illicit gains.

I shall presently return to the outer-circle men. Meantime let us examine the professionals somewhat more closely; and begin with those of the humbler type, whose eye is fixed on a municipal or other local office, and seldom ranges so high as a seat in Congress.

As there are weeds that follow human dwellings, so this species thrives best in cities, and even in the most crowded parts of cities. It is known toEdition: current; Page: [739] the Americans as the “ward politician,” because the city ward is the chief sphere of its activity, and the ward meeting the first scene of its exploits. A statesman of this type usually begins as a saloon- or barkeeper, an occupation which enables him to form a large circle of acquaintances, especially among the “loafer” class who have votes but no reason for using them one way more than another, and whose interest in political issues is therefore as limited as their stock of political knowledge. But he may have started as a lawyer of the lowest kind, or lodginghouse keeper, or have taken to politics after failure in storekeeping. The education of this class is only that of the elementary schools. If they have come after boyhood from Europe, it is not even that. They have of course no comprehension of political questions or zeal for political principles; politics mean to them merely a scramble for places or jobs. They are usually vulgar, sometimes brutal, not so often criminal, or at least the associates of criminals. It is they who move about the populous quarters of the great cities, form groups through whom they can reach and control the ignorant voter, pack meetings with their creatures.

Their methods and their triumphs must be reserved for a later chapter. Those of them who are Irish, an appreciable though diminishing proportion in a few cities, have seldom Irish patriotism to redeem the mercenary quality of their politics. They are too strictly practical for that, being regardful of the wrongs of Ireland only so far as these furnish capital to be used with Irish voters. Their most conspicuous virtues are shrewdness, a sort of rough good-fellowship with one another, and loyalty to their chiefs, from whom they expect promotion in the ranks of the service. The plant thrives in the soil of any party, but its growth is more vigorous in whichever party is for the time dominant in a given city.

English critics, taking their cue from American pessimists, have often described these men as specimens of the whole class of politicians. This is misleading. The men are bad enough both as an actual force and as a symptom. But they are confined to a few great cities, those eleven or twelve I have already mentioned; it is their achievements there, and particularly in New York, where the mass of ignorant immigrants is largest, that have made them famous.

In the smaller cities, and in the country generally, the minor politicians are mostly native Americans, less ignorant and more respectable than these last-mentioned street vultures. The barkeeping element is represented among them, but the bulk are petty lawyers, officials, federal as well as state and county, and people who for want of a better occupation have turned office-seekers,Edition: current; Page: [740] with a fair sprinkling of storekeepers, farmers, and newspaper men. The great majority have some regular avocation, so that they are by no means wholly professionals. Law is of course the business which best fits in with politics. They are only a little below the level of the class to which they belong, which is what would be called in England the lower middle, or in France the petite bourgeoisie, and they often suppose themselves to be fighting for Republican or Democratic principles, even though in fact concerned chiefly with place hunting. It is not so much positive moral defects that are to be charged on them as a slightly sordid and selfish view of politics and a laxity in the use of electioneering methods.

These two classes do the local work and dirty work of politics. They are the rank and file. Above them stand the officers in the political army, the party managers, including the members of Congress and chief men in the state legislatures, and the editors of influential newspapers. Some of these have pushed their way up from the humbler ranks. Others are men of superior ability and education, often college graduates, lawyers who have had practice, less frequently merchants or manufacturers who have slipped into politics from business. There are all sorts among them, creatures clean and unclean, as in the sheet of St. Peter’s vision, but that one may say of politicians in all countries. What characterizes them as compared with the corresponding class in Europe is that their whole time is more frequently given to political work, that most of them draw an income from politics and the rest hope to do so, that they come more largely from the poorer and less cultivated than from the higher ranks of society, and that they include but few men who have pursued any of those economical, social, or constitutional studies which form the basis of politics and legislation, although many are proficients in the arts of popular oratory, of electioneering, and of party management.

They show a high average level of practical cleverness and versatility, and a good deal of legal knowledge. They are usually correct in life, for intoxication as well as sexual immorality is condemned by American more severely than by European opinion, but are often charged with a low tone, with laxity in pecuniary matters, with a propensity to commit or to excuse jobs, with a deficient sense of the dignity which public office confers and the responsibility it implies. I shall elsewhere discuss the validity of these charges, and need only observe here that even if the years since the Civil War have furnished some grounds for accusing the class as a whole, there are many brilliant exceptions, many leading politicians whose honour is as stainless and patriotism as pure as that of the best European statesmen. InEdition: current; Page: [741] this general description I am simply repeating what nonpolitical Americans themselves say. It is possible that with their half-humorous tendency to exaggerate they dwell too much on the darker side of their public life. My own belief is that things are healthier than the newspapers and common talk lead a traveller to believe, and that the blackness of the worst men in the large cities has been allowed to darken the whole class of politicians as the smoke from a few factories will darken the sky over a whole town. However, the sentiment I have described is no doubt the general sentiment. “Politician” is a term of reproach, not merely among the “superfine philosophers” of New England colleges, but among the better sort of citizens over the whole Union. “How did such a job come to be perpetrated?” I remember once asking a casual acquaintance who had been pointing out some scandalous waste of public money. “Why, what can you expect from the politicians?” was the surprised answer.

Assuming these faults to exist, to what causes are they to be ascribed? Granted that politics has to become a gainful profession, may it not still be practised with as much integrity as other professions? Do not the higher qualities of intellect, the ripe fruits of experience and study, win for a man ascendency here as in Europe? Does not the suspicion of dishonour blight his influence with a public which is itself at least as morally exacting as that of any European country? These are questions which can be better answered when the methods of party management have been described, the qualities they evoke appreciated, their reaction on men’s character understood.

It remains to speak of the nonprofessional or outer-circle politicians, those who work for their party without desiring office. These men were numerous and zealous shortly before and during the Civil War, when the great questions of the exclusion of slavery from the Territories and the preservation of the Union kindled the enthusiasm of the noblest spirits of the North, women as well as men. No country ever produced loftier types of dauntless courage and uncompromising devotion to principle than William Lloyd Garrison and his fellow workers in the Abolitionist cause. Office came to Abraham Lincoln, but he would have served his party just as earnestly if there had been no office to reward him.12 Nor was there any want of high-souled patriotism in the South. The people gave their blood freely, and among theEdition: current; Page: [742] leaders there were many who offered up fine characters as well as brilliant talents on an altar which all but themselves deemed unhallowed. When these great issues were finally settled, and the generation whose manhood they filled began to pass away, there was less motive for ordinary citizens to trouble themselves about public affairs. Hence the professional politicians had the field left free; and as they were ready to take the troublesome work of organizing, the ordinary citizen was contented to be superseded, and thought he did enough when he went to the poll for his party. Still there are districts where a good deal of unpaid and disinterested political work is done. In some parts of New England, New York, and Ohio, for instance, citizens of position bestir themselves to rescue the control of local elections from the ward politicians. In the main, however, the action of the outer circle consists in voting, and this the ordinary citizen does more steadily and intelligently than anywhere in Europe, unless perhaps in Switzerland. Doubtless much of the work which outer-circle politicians do in Europe is in America done by professionals. But that lively interest in politics which the English outer circle feels and which is not felt by the English public generally, is in America felt by almost the whole of the nation, that is to say, by the immense majority of native white Americans, and even by the better sort of immigrants, or, in other words, the American outer circle comes far nearer to including the whole nation than does the outer circle of England. Thus the influence which counterworks that of professionals is the influence of public opinion expressing itself constantly through its countless voices in the press, and more distinctly at frequent intervals by the ballot box. I say “counterworks,” because, while in Europe the leaders and still more the average legislators share and help to make public opinion, in the United States the politician stands rather outside, and regards public opinion as a factor to be reckoned with, much as the sailor regards the winds and currents that affect his course. His primary aim, unless he be exceptionally disinterested, is place and income; and it is in this sense that he may be described as a member of a definite profession.

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chapter 58

Why the Best Men Do Not Go Into Politics

“But,” someone will say, who has read the reasons just assigned for the development of a class of professional politicians, “you allow nothing for public spirit. It is easy to show why the prize of numerous places should breed a swarm of office-seekers, not so easy to understand why the office-seekers should be allowed to have this arena of public life in a vast country, a free country, an intelligent country, all to themselves. There ought to be patriotic citizens ready to plunge into the stream and save the boat from drifting towards the rapids. They would surely have the support of the mass of the people who must desire honest and economical administration. If such citizens stand aloof, there are but two explanations possible. Either public life must be so foul that good men cannot enter it, or good men must be sadly wanting in patriotism.”

This kind of observation is so common in European mouths as to need an explicit answer. The answer is twofold.

In the first place, the arena is not wholly left to the professionals. Both the federal and the state legislatures contain a fair proportion of upright and disinterested men, who enter chiefly, or largely, from a sense of public duty, and whose presence keeps the mere professionals in order. So does public opinion, deterring even the bad men from the tricks to which they are prone, and often driving them, when detected in a serious offense, from place and power.

However, this first answer is not a complete answer, for it must be admitted that the proportion of men of intellectual and social eminence who enter public life is smaller in America than it was in each of the free countries of Europe. Does this fact indicate a want of public spirit?

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It is much to be wished that in every country public spirit were the chief motive propelling men into public life. But is it so anywhere now? Has it been so at any time in a nation’s history? Let anyone in England, dropping for the moment that self-righteous attitude of which Englishmen are commonly accused by foreigners, ask himself how many of those whom he knows as mixing in the public life of his own country have entered it from motives primarily patriotic, how many have been actuated by the love of fame or power, the hope of advancing their social pretensions or their business relations. There is nothing necessarily wrong in such forms of ambition; but if we find that they count for much in the public life of one country, and for comparatively little in the public life of another, we must expect to find the latter able to reckon among its statesmen fewer persons of eminent intelligence and energy.

Now there are several conditions present in the United States, conditions both constitutional and social, conditions independent either of political morality or of patriotism, which make the ablest citizens less disposed to enter political life than they would otherwise be, or than persons of the same class are in Europe. I have already referred to some of these, but recapitulate them shortly here because they are specially important in this connection.

The want of a social and commercial capital is such a cause. To be a federal politician you must live in Washington, that is, abandon your circle of home friends, your profession or business, your local public duties. But to live in Paris or London is of itself an attraction to many Englishmen and Frenchmen.

There is no class in America to which public political life comes naturally, scarcely any families with a sort of hereditary right to serve the state. Nobody can get an early and easy start on the strength of his name and connections, as still happens in several European countries.

In Britain or France a man seeking to enter the higher walks of public life has more than five hundred seats for which he may stand. If his own town or county is impossible he goes elsewhere. In the United States he cannot. If his own district is already filled by a member of his own party, there is nothing to be done, unless he will condescend to undermine and supplant at the next nominating convention the sitting member. If he has been elected and happens to lose his own renomination or reelection, he cannot reenter Congress by any other door. The fact that a man has served gives him no claim to be allowed to go on serving. In the West, rotation has been the rule. No wonder that, when a political career is so precarious,Edition: current; Page: [745] men of worth and capacity hesitate to embrace it. They cannot afford to be thrown out of their life’s course by a mere accident.1

Politics have been since the Civil War less interesting or at any rate less exciting, than they have in Europe during the same period. The two kinds of questions which most attract eager or ambitious minds, questions of foreign policy and of domestic constitutional change, were generally absent, happily absent. Currency and tariff questions and financial affairs generally, internal improvements, the regulation of railways and so forth, are important, no doubt, but to some minds not fascinating. How few people in the English or French legislatures have mastered them, or would relish political life if it dealt with little else! There are no class privileges or religious inequalities to be abolished. Religion, so powerful a political force in Europe, is outside politics altogether.

In most European countries there has been for many years past an upward pressure of the poorer or the unprivileged masses, a pressure which has seemed to threaten the wealthier and more particularly the landowning class. Hence members of the latter class have had a strong motive for keeping tight hold of the helm of state. They have felt a direct personal interest in sitting in the legislature and controlling the administration of their country. This has not been so in America. Its great political issues have not been class issues. On the contrary there has been, till within the last few years, so great and general a sense of economic security, whether well or ill founded I do not now inquire, that the wealthy and educated have been content to leave the active work of politics alone.

The division of legislative authority between the federal Congress and the legislatures of the states further lessens the interest and narrows the opportunities of a political career. Some of the most useful members of the English Parliament have been led to enter it by their zeal for philanthropic schemes and social reforms. Others enter because they are interested in foreign politics or in commercial questions. In the United States foreign politics and commercial questions belong to Congress, so no one will be led by them to enter the legislature of his state. Social reforms and philanthropic enterprises belong to the state legislatures, so no one will be led by them to enter Congress. The limited sphere of each body deprives itEdition: current; Page: [746] of the services of many active spirits who would have been attracted by it had it dealt with both these sets of matters, or with the particular set of matters in which their own particular interest happens to lie.

In America there are more easy and attractive openings into other careers than in most European countries. The development of the great West, the making and financing of railways, the starting of industrial or mercantile enterprises in the newer states, offer a tempting field to ambition, ingenuity, and self-confidence. A man without capital or friends has a better chance than in Europe, and as the scale of undertakings is vaster, the prizes are more seductive. Hence much of the practical ability which in the Old World goes to parliamentary politics or to the civil administration of the state, goes in America into business, especially into railways and finance. No class strikes one more by its splendid practical capacity than the class of railroad men. It includes administrative rulers, generals, diplomatists, financiers, of the finest gifts. And in point of fact (as will be more fully shown later) the railroad kings have of late years swayed the fortunes of American citizens more than the politicians.

The fascination which politics have for many people in England is largely a social fascination. Those who belong by birth to the upper classes like to support their position in county society by belonging to the House of Commons, or by procuring either a seat in the House of Lords, or the lord-lieutenancy of their county, or perhaps a post in the royal household. The easiest path to these latter dignities lies through the Commons. Those who spring from the middle class expect to find by means of politics an entrance into a more fashionable society than they have hitherto frequented. Their wives will at least be invited to the party receptions, or they may entertain a party chieftain when he comes to address a meeting in their town. Such inducements scarcely exist in America. A congressman, a city mayor, even a state governor, gains nothing socially by his position. There is indeed, except in a few large cities with exclusive sets, really nothing in the nature of a social prize set before social ambition, while the career of political ambition is even in those cities wholly disjoined from social success. The only exception to this rule occurs in Washington, where a senator or cabinet minister enjoys ex officio a certain social rank.2

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None of these causes is discreditable to America, yet, taken together, they go far to account for the large development of the professional element among politicians. Putting the thing broadly, one may say that in America, while politics are relatively less interesting than in Europe and lead to less, other careers are relatively more interesting and lead to more.3

It may however be alleged that I have omitted one significant ground for the distaste of “the best people” for public life, viz., the bad company they would have to keep, the general vulgarity of tone in politics, the exposure to invective or ribaldry by hostile speakers and a reckless press.

I omit this ground because it seems insignificant. In every country a politician has to associate with men whom he despises and distrusts, and those whom he most despises and distrusts are sometimes those whose so-called social rank is highest—the sons or nephews of great nobles. In every country he is exposed to misrepresentation and abuse, and the most galling misrepresentations are not the coarse and incredible ones, but those which have a semblance of probability, which delicately discolour his motives and ingeniously pervert his words. A statesman must soon learn, even in decorous England or punctilious France or polished Italy, to disregard all this, and rely upon his conscience for his peace of mind, and upon his conduct for the respect of his countrymen. If he can do so in England or France or Italy, he may do so in America also. No more there than in Europe has any upright man been written down, for though the American press is unsparing, the American people are shrewd, and sometimes believe too little rather than too much evil of a man whom the press assails. Although therefore one hears the pseudo-European American complain of newspaper violence, and allege that it keeps him and his friends from doing their duty by their country, and although it sometimes happens that the fear of newspaper attacks deters a good citizen from exposing some job or jobber, still I could not learn the name of any able and high-minded man of whom it could be truly said that through this cause his gifts and virtues had been reserved for private life. The roughness of politics has, no doubt, some influence on the view which wealthy Americans take of a public career, but these are just the Americans who think that European politics are worked, to use the common phrase, “with kid gloves,” and they are not the class most inclined anyhow to come to the front for the service of the nation. Without denying that there is recklessness in the American press, and a want of refinementEdition: current; Page: [748] in politics generally, I do not believe that these phenomena have anything like the importance which European visitors are taught, and willingly learn, to attribute to them. Far more weight is to be laid upon the difficulties which the organization of the party system, to be described in the following chapters, throws in the way of men who seek to enter public life. There is, as we shall see, much that is disagreeable, much that is even humiliating, in the initial stages of a political career, and doubtless many a pilgrim turns back after a short experience of this Slough of Despond.

To explain the causes which keep so much of the finest intellect of the country away from national business is one thing, to deny the unfortunate results would be quite another. Unfortunate they certainly are. But the downward tendency observable since the end of the Civil War seems to have been arrested. When the war was over, the Union saved, and the curse of slavery gone forever, there came a season of contentment and of lassitude. A nation which had surmounted such dangers seemed to have nothing more to fear. Those who had fought with tongue and pen and rifle, might now rest on their laurels. After long-continued strain and effort, the wearied nerve and muscle sought repose. It was repose from political warfare only. For the end of the war coincided with the opening of a time of swift material growth and abounding material prosperity, in which industry and the development of the West absorbed more and more of the energy of the people. Hence a neglect of the details of politics by the better class of voters such as had never been seen before. Later years have brought a revival of interest in public affairs, and especially in the management of cities. There is more speaking and writing and thinking, practical and definite thinking, upon the principles of government than at any previous epoch. Good citizens are beginning to put their hands to the machinery of government; and those who do so are, more largely than formerly, young men, who have not contracted the bad habits which the practice of politics engendered among many of their elders, and who will in a few years have become an even more potent force than they are now.4 If the path to Congress and the state legislatures and the higher municipal offices were cleared of the stumbling blocks and dirt heaps which now encumber it, cunningly placed there by the professional politicians, a great change would soon pass upon the composition of legislative bodies, and a new spirit be felt in the management of state and municipal as well as of national affairs.

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chapter 59

Party Organizations

The Americans are, to use their favourite expression, a highly executive people, with a greater ingenuity in inventing means, and a greater promptitude in adapting means to an end, than any European race. Nowhere are large undertakings organized so skilfully; nowhere is there so much order with so much complexity; nowhere such quickness in correcting a suddenly discovered defect, in supplying a suddenly arisen demand.

Government by popular vote, both local and national, is older in America than in continental Europe. It is far more complete than even in England. It deals with larger masses of men. Its methods have engaged a greater share of attention, enlisted more inventive skill in their service, than anywhere else in the world. They have therefore become more elaborate and, so far as mere mechanism goes, more perfect than elsewhere.

The greatest discovery ever made in the art of war was when men began to perceive that organization and discipline count for more than numbers. This discovery gave the Spartan infantry a long career of victory in Greece, and the Swiss infantry a not less brilliant renown in the later Middle Ages. The Americans made a similar discovery in politics between 1820 and 1840. By degrees, for even in America great truths do not burst full-grown upon the world, it was perceived that the victories of the ballot box, no less than of the sword, must be won by the cohesion and disciplined docility of the troops, and that these merits can only be secured by skilful organization and long-continued training. Both parties flung themselves into the task, and the result has been an extremely complicated system of party machinery, firm yet flexible, delicate yet quickly set up and capable of working well in the roughest communities.1 Strong necessity, long practice, and the fierceEdition: current; Page: [750] competition of the two great parties, have enabled this executive people to surpass itself in the sphere of electioneering politics. Yet the principles are so simple that it will be the narrator’s fault if they are not understood.

One preliminary word upon the object of a party organization. To a European politician, by which I mean one who knows politics but does not know America, the aims of a party organization, be it local or general, seem to be four in number:

  • Union—to keep the party together and prevent it from wasting its strength by dissensions and schisms
  • Recruiting—to bring in new voters, e.g., immigrants when they obtain citizenship, young men as they reach the age of suffrage, newcomers, or residents hitherto indifferent or hostile
  • Enthusiasm—to excite the voters by the sympathy of numbers, and the sense of a common purpose, rousing them by speeches or literature
  • Instruction—to give the voters some knowledge of the political issues they have to decide, to inform them of the virtues of their leaders, and the crimes of their opponents

These aims, or at least the first three of them, are pursued by the party organizations of America with eminent success. But they are less important than a fifth object which has been little regarded in Europe, though in America it is the mainspring of the whole mechanism. This is the selection of party candidates; and it is important not only because the elective places are far more numerous than in any European country, but because they are tenable for short terms, so that elections frequently recur. Since the parties, having of late had few really distinctive principles, and therefore no well-defined aims in the direction of legislation or administration, exist practically for the sake of filling certain offices, and carrying on the machinery of government, the choice of those members of the party whom the party is to reward, and who are to strengthen it by the winning of the offices, becomes a main end of its being.

There are three ways by which in self-governing countries candidates may be brought before electors. One is for the candidate to offer himself, appealing to his fellow citizens on the strength of his personal merits, or family connections, or wealth, or local influence. This was the practice in most British constituencies till our own time; and seems to be the practice over parliamentary Europe still. It was not uncommon in the Southern states before the Civil War. Another is for a group or junto of influential men to put a candidate forward, intriguing secretly for him or openly recommending him to the electors. This also largely prevailed in England, where, inEdition: current; Page: [751] counties, four or five of the chief landowners used to agree as to the one of themselves who should stand for the county, or perhaps chose the eldest son of a duke or marquis as the person whom rank designated.2 So in Scotch boroughs a knot of active bailies and other citizens combined to bring out a candidate, but generally kept their action secret, for “the clique” was always a term of reproach. The practice is common in France now, where the committees of each party recommend a candidate.

The third system is that in which the candidate is chosen neither by himself nor by the self-elected group, but by the people themselves, i.e., by the members of a party, whether assembled in mass or acting through representatives chosen for the purpose. This plan offers several advantages. It promises to secure a good candidate, because presumably the people will choose a suitable man. It encourages the candidate, by giving him the weight of party support, and therefore tends to induce good men to come forward. It secures the union of the party, because a previous vote has determined that the candidate is the man whom the majority prefer, and the minority are therefore likely, having had their say and been fairly outvoted, to fall into line and support him. This is the system which now prevails from Maine to California, and is indeed the keystone of transatlantic politics. But there is a further reason for it than those I have mentioned.

That no American dreams of offering himself for a post unless he has been chosen by his party, or some section thereof, is due not to the fact that few persons have the local preeminence which the social conditions of Europe bestow on the leading landowners of a neighbourhood, or on some great merchants or employers in a town, nor again to the modesty which makes an Englishman hesitate to appear as a candidate for Parliament until he has got up a requisition to himself to stand, but to the notion that the popular mind and will are and must be all in all, that the people must not only create the office-bearer by their votes, but even designate the persons for whom votes may be given. For a man to put himself before the voters is deemed presumptuous, because an encroachment on their right to say whom they will even so much as consider. The theory of popular sovereignty requires that the ruling majority must name its own standard-bearers and servants, the candidates, must define its own platform, must in every way express its own mind and will. Were it to leave these matters to the initiative of candidates offering themselves, or candidates put forward byEdition: current; Page: [752] an unauthorized clique, it would subject itself to them, would be passive instead of active, would cease to be worshipped as the source of power. A system for selecting candidates is therefore not a mere contrivance for preventing party dissensions, but an essential feature of matured democracy.

It was not however till democracy came to maturity that the system was perfected. As far back as the middle of the eighteenth century it was the custom in Massachusetts, and probably in other colonies, for a coterie of leading citizens to put forward candidates for the offices of the town or colony, and their nominations, although clothed with no authority but that of the individuals making them, were generally accepted. This lasted on after the Revolution, for the structure of society still retained a certain aristocratic quality. Clubs sprang up which, especially in New York State, became the organs of groups and parties, brought out candidates, and conducted election campaigns; while in New England the clergy and the men of substance continued to act as leaders. Presently, as the democratic spirit grew, and people would no longer acquiesce in self-appointed chiefs, the legislatures began to be recognized as the bodies to make nominations for the higher federal and state offices. Each party in Congress nominated the candidate to be run for the presidency, each party in a state legislature the candidate for governor, and often for other posts also. This lasted during the first two or three decades of the nineteenth century, till the electoral suffrage began to be generally lowered, and a generation which had imbibed Jeffersonian principles had come to manhood, a generation so filled with the spirit of democratic equality that it would recognize neither the natural leaders whom social position and superior intelligence indicated, nor the official leadership of legislative bodies. As party struggles grew more bitter, a party organization became necessary, which better satisfied the claims of petty local leaders, which knit the voters in each district together and concentrated their efforts, while it expressed the absolute equality of all voters, and the right of each to share in determining his candidate and his party platform. The building up of this new organization was completed for the Democratic party about the year 1835, for the Whig party not till some years later. When the Republican party arose about 1854, it reproduced so closely, or developed on lines so similar, the methods which experience had approved, that the differences between the systems of the two great parties are now unimportant, and may be disregarded in the sketch I have to give.

The essential feature of the system is that it is from bottom to top strictly representative. This is because it has power, and power can flow only fromEdition: current; Page: [753] the people. An organization which exists, like the political associations of Britain, almost entirely for the sake of canvassing, conducting registration, diffusing literature, getting up courses of lectures, holding meetings and passing resolutions, has little or no power. Its object is to excite, or to persuade, or to manage such business as the defective registration system of the country leaves to be fulfilled by voluntary agencies. So too in America the committees or leagues which undertake to create or stimulate opinion have no power, and need not be strictly representative. But when an organization which the party is in the habit of obeying, chooses a party candidate, it exerts power, power often of the highest import, because it practically narrows the choice of a party, that is, of about a half of the people, to one particular person out of the many for whom they might be inclined to vote.3 Such power would not be yielded to any but a representative body, and it is yielded to the bodies I shall describe because they are, at least in theory, representative, and are therefore deemed to have the weight of the people behind them.

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chapter 60

The Machine

The organization of an American party consists of two distinct, but intimately connected, sets of bodies, the one permanent, the other temporary. The function of the one is to manage party business, of the other to nominate party candidates.1

The first of these is a system of managing committees. In some states every election district has such a committee, whose functions cover the political work of the district. Thus in country places there is a township committee, in cities a ward committee. There is a committee for every city, for every district, and for every county. In other states it is only the larger areas, cities, counties, and congressional or state assembly districts that have committees. There is, of course, a committee for each state, with a general supervision of such political work as has to be done in the state as a whole. There is a national committee for the political business of the party in the Union as a whole, and especially for the presidential contest.2 The whole country is covered by this network of committees, each with a sphere of action corresponding to some constituency or local election area, so that the proper function of a city committee, for instance, is to attend to elections for city offices, of a ward committee to elections for ward offices, of a district committee to elections for district offices. Of course the city committee, while supervising the general conduct of city elections, looks to each ward organization to give special attention to the elections in its own ward; and the state committee will in state elections expect similar helpEdition: current; Page: [755] from, and be entitled to issue directions to, all bodies acting for the minor areas—districts, counties, townships, cities, and wards—comprised in the state. The smaller local committees are in fact autonomous for their special local purposes, but subordinate in so far as they serve the larger purposes common to the whole party. The ordinary business of these committees is to raise and apply funds for election purposes and for political agitation generally, to organize meetings when necessary, to prepare lists of voters, to disseminate political tracts and other information, to look after the press, to attend to the admission of immigrants as citizens and their enrolment on th party lists.3 At election times they have also to superintend the canvass, to procure and distribute tickets at the polls (unless this is, under recent legislation, done by a public authority), to allot money for various election services, to see that voters are brought up to the poll; but they are often aided, or virtually superseded, in this work by “campaign committees” specially created for the occasion. Finally, they have to convoke at the proper times those nominating assemblies which form the other parallel but distinct half of the party organization.

These committees are permanent bodies, that is to say, they are always in existence and capable of being called into activity at short notice. They are reappointed annually by the primary (hereinafter described) or convention (as the case may be) for their local area, and of course their composition may be completely changed on a reappointment. In practice it is but little changed, the same men continuing to serve year after year, because they hold the strings in their hands, because they know most and care most about the party business. In particular, the chairman is apt to be practically a permanent official, and (if the committee be one for a populous area) a powerful and important official, who has large sums to disburse and quite an army of workers under his orders. The chairmanship of the organizing committee of the county and city of New York, for instance, is a post of great responsibility and influence, in which high executive gifts find a worthy sphere for their exercise.

One function and one only—besides that of adopting platforms—is beyond the competence of these committees—the choice of candidates. That belongs to the other and parallel division of the party organization, the nominating assemblies.

Every election district, by which I mean every local area or constituencyEdition: current; Page: [756] which chooses a person for any office or post, administrative, legislative, or judicial, has a party meeting to select the party candidate for that office. This is called nominating. If the district is not subdivided, i.e., does not contain any lesser districts, its meeting is called a primary. A primary has two duties. One is to select the candidates for its own local district offices. Thus in the country a township primary4 nominates the candidates for township offices, in a city a ward primary nominates those for ward offices (if any). The other duty is to elect delegates to the nominating meetings of larger areas, such as the county or congressional district in which the township is situated, or the city to which the ward belongs. The primary is composed of all the party voters resident within the bounds of the township or ward. They are not too numerous, for in practice the majority do not attend, to meet in one room, and they are assumed to be all alike interested. But as the party voters in such a large area as a county, congressional district, or city, are too numerous to be able to meet and deliberate in one room, they must act through representatives, and entrust the choice of candidates for office to a body called a nominating convention.5 This body is composed of delegates from all the primaries within its limits, chosen at those primaries for the sole purpose of sitting in the convention and of there selecting the candidates.

Sometimes a convention of this kind has itself to choose delegates to proceed to a still higher convention for a larger area. The greatest of all nominating bodies, that which is called the national convention and nominates the party candidate for the presidency, is entirely composed of delegates from other conventions, no primary being directly represented in it. As a rule, however, there are only two sets of nominating authorities, the primary which selects candidates for its own petty offices, the convention composed of the delegates from all the primaries in the local circumscriptions of the district for which the convention acts.

A primary, of course, sends delegates to a number of different conventions, because its area, let us say the township or ward, is included in a number of different election districts, each of which has its own convention. Thus the same primary will in a city choose delegates to at least the following conventions, and probably to one or two others:6 (a) To the city convention,Edition: current; Page: [757] which nominates the mayor and other city officers; (b) to the assembly district convention, which nominates candidates for the lower house of the state legislature; (c) to the senatorial district convention, which nominates candidates for the state senate; (d) to the congressional district convention, which nominates candidates for Congress; (e) to the state convention, which nominates candidates for the governorship and other state offices. Sometimes, however, the nominating body for an assembly district is a primary and not a convention. In New York City the assembly district is the unit, and each of the thirty districts has its primary.

This seems complex: but it is a reflection of the complexity of government, there being everywhere three authorities, federal, state, and local (this last further subdivided), covering the same ground, yet the two former quite independent of one another, and the third for many purposes distinct from the second.

The course of business is as follows. A township or ward primary is summoned by the local party managing committee, who fix the hour and place of meeting, or if there be not such a committee, then by some permanent officer of the organization in manner prescribed by the bye-laws. A primary for a larger area is usually summoned by the county committee. If candidates have to be chosen for local offices, various names are submitted and either accepted without a division or put to the vote, the person who gets most votes being declared chosen to be the party candidate. He is said to have received the party nomination. The selection of delegates to the various conventions is conducted in the same way. The local committee has usually prepared beforehand a list of names of persons to be chosen to serve as delegates, but any voter present may bring forward other names. All names, if not accepted by general consent, are then voted on. At the close of the proceedings the chairman signs the list of delegates chosen to the approaching convention or conventions, if more than one, and adjourns the meeting sine die.

The delegates so chosen proceed in due course to their respective conventions, which are usually held a few days after the primaries, and a somewhat longer period before the elections for offices.7 The convention is summoned by the managing committee for the district it exists for, andEdition: current; Page: [758] when a sufficient number of delegates are present, someone proposes a temporary chairman, or the delegate appointed for the purpose by the committee of the district for which the convention is being held “calls the meeting to order” as temporary chairman. This person names a committee on credentials, which forthwith examines the credentials presented by the delegates from the primaries, and admits those whom it deems duly accredited. Then a permanent chairman is proposed and placed in the chair, and the convention is held to be “organized,” i.e., duly constituted. The managing committee have almost always arranged beforehand who shall be proposed as candidates for the party nominations, and their nominees are usually adopted. However, any delegate may propose any person he thinks fit, being a recognized member of the party, and carry him on a vote if he can. The person adopted by a majority of delegates’ votes becomes the party candidate, and is said to have “received the nomination.” The convention sometimes, but not always, also amuses itself by passing resolutions expressive of its political sentiments; or if it is a state convention or a national convention, it adopts a platform, touching on, or purporting to deal with, the main questions of the day. It then, having fulfilled its mission, adjourns sine die, and the rest of the election business falls to the managing committee. It must be remembered that primaries and conventions, unlike the local party associations of England, are convoked but once, make their nominations, and vanish. They are swans which sing their one song and die.

The national convention held every fourth year before a presidential election needs a fuller description, which I shall give presently. Meantime three features of the system just outlined may be adverted to.

Every voter belonging to the party in the local area for which the primary is held, is presumably entitled to appear and vote in it. In rural districts, where everybody knows everybody else, there is no difficulty about admission, for if a Democrat came into a Republican primary, or a Republican from North Adams tried to vote in the Republican primary of Lafayetteville, he would be recognized as an intruder and expelled. But in cities where people do not know their neighbours by headmark, it becomes necessary to have regular lists of the party voters entitled to a voice in the primary. These are made up by the local committee, which may exclude persons whom, though they call themselves Republicans (or Democrats, as the case may be), it deems not loyal members of the party. The usual test is, Did the claimant vote the party ticket at the last important election, generally the presidential election, or that for the state governorship? If he did not,Edition: current; Page: [759] he may be excluded. Sometimes, however, the local rules of the party require everyone admitted to the list of party voters to be admitted by the votes of the existing members, who may reject him at their pleasure, and also exact from each member two pledges, to obey the local committee, and to support the party nominations, the breach of either pledge being punishable by expulsion. In many primaries voters supposed to be disagreeably independent are kept out either by the votes of the existing members or by the application of these strict tests. Thus it happens that three-fourths or even four-fifths of the party voters in a primary area may not be on the list and entitled to raise their voice in the primary for the selection of candidates or delegates. Another regulation, restricting nominations to those who are enrolled members of the regular organization, makes persons so kept off the list ineligible as party candidates.

Every member of a nominating meeting, be it a primary or a convention of delegates, is deemed to be bound by the vote of the majority to support the candidate whom the majority select, whether or no an express pledge to that effect has been given. And in the case of a convention, a delegate is generally held to bind those whom he represents, i.e., the voters at the primary which sent him. Of course no compulsion is possible, but long usage and an idea of fair play have created a sentiment of honour (so-called) and party loyalty strong enough, with most people and in all but extreme cases, to secure for the party’s candidate the support of the whole party organization in the district.8 It is felt that the party must be kept together, and that he who has come into the nominating meeting hoping to carry his own candidate must abide by the decision of the majority. The vote of a majority has a sacredness in America not yet reached in Europe.

As respects the freedom left to delegates to vote at their own pleasure or under the instructions of their primary, and to vote individually or as a solid body, the practice is not uniform. Sometimes they are sent up to the nominating convention without instructions, even without the obligation to “go solid.” Sometimes they are expressly directed, or it is distinctly understood by them and by the primary, that they are to support the claims of a particular person to be selected as candidate, or that they are at any rate to vote all together for one person. Occasionally they are even given a list arranged in order of preference, and told to vote for A. B., failing him for C. D., failing him for E. F., these being persons whose names haveEdition: current; Page: [760] already been mentioned as probable candidates for the nomination. This, however, would only happen in the case of the greater offices, such as those of member of Congress or governor of a state. The point is in practice less important than it seems, because in most cases, whether there be any specific and avowed instruction or not, it is well settled beforehand by those who manage the choice of delegates what candidate any set of delegates are to support, or at least whose lead they are to follow in the nominating convention.

Note further how complex is the machinery needed to enable the party to concentrate its force in support of its candidates for all these places, and how large the number of persons constituting the machinery. Three sets of offices, municipal or county, state, federal, have to be filled; three different sets of nominating bodies are therefore needed. If we add together all the members of all the conventions included in these three sets, the number of persons needed to serve as delegates will be found to reach a high total, even if some of them serve in more than one convention. Men whose time is valuable will refuse the post of delegate, gladly leaving to others who desire it the duty of selecting candidates for offices to which they seldom themselves aspire. However, as we shall see, such men are but rarely permitted to become delegates, even when they desire the function.

“Why these tedious details?” the European reader may exclaim. “Of what consequence can they be compared to the Constitution and laws of the country?” Patience! These details have more significance and make more difference to the working of the government than many of the provisions of the Constitution itself. The mariner feels the trade winds which sweep over the surface of the Pacific and does not perceive the coral insects which are at work beneath its waves, but it is by the labour of these insects that islands grow, and reefs are built upon which ships perish.

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Note on Recent Legislation Regarding Primaries

Soon after 1890 the sins of the machine, and the abuse of the system of nomination by primaries and conventions described in this and succeeding chapters, led to an effort to cure those abuses and to secure the ordinary citizen in his freedom of selecting candidates for office by bringing party nominations under the authority of the law and surrounding them with safeguards similar to those which surround elections. Thus statutes have been enacted in nearly all the states which deal to a greater or less extent with the times and manner of holding primary meetings for the nomination of party candidates for office and of delegates for party conventions.Edition: current; Page: [761] Oklahoma, the latest of the new states of the Union, entered the Union with a constitution containing four important constitutional provisions on the subject of primary elections. (See these in Appendix to Vol. I.)

The regulations imposed upon the holding of these party meetings differ widely in the several states. They range from minor provisions concerning the dates of primaries, the preparation of the ballots, and the regularization of the methods of counting, up to sweeping and drastic measures, such as are found in Oregon and Wisconson, for instance, requiring the nomination of nearly all party candidates (including United States senators) at public primaries conducted under official supervision.

It would be impossible to give within moderate compass a full account of these statutes for they vary from state to state and are often complicated in their provisions. Moreover, they are frequently changed. All that can be done here is to summarize the tendencies they disclose, and to indicate briefly those features in the system of party nomination which are now being made subject to legislative interference.

Many laws fix the dates on which primaries should be held for all the political parties and also prescribe conditions as to the times at which the primaries and conventions shall be summoned.

The determination of who may vote at a primary and who are to be deemed legitimate and regular members of a particular party entitled to vote at its primaries is a vexed question on which no uniformity of practice exists. Broadly speaking there are two systems. Under the “open primary” plan the use of the so-called “Australian” secret ballot enables the voter to vote a party primary ticket without declaring to which party he belongs, though, to prevent him from voting for more than one party at a primary, it is generally provided that ballots cast for any person as candidate for a nomination are to be counted for that person only as a candidate of the party upon whose ticket his name is written. In Wisconsin, for instance, the primary is secret, and the voter may cast his ballot as he pleases. Under the “closed primary” plan the voter is subjected to some test determining his party affiliation, and can vote only for the candidates of that party. In some states he is required to enrol himself as a member of some particular party if he wishes to take part in the proceedings of the primary. So in California, under a statute of 1909, the voter must declare the political party with which he intends to affiliate, otherwise he cannot vote at the primary; and it is provided that at the primary he shall receive the ballot of that party and of no other. So in Minnesota the voter must declare his allegiance before he receives the party ballot. In some states he must even announce his intention to support the party at the election next following; in some he must bind himself to support the persons nominated at the primary (so in Louisiana and Texas). Other states allow the authorities of the party themselves to fix the test of membership in a party which shall qualify the person to cast a primary vote.

Many states have a separate official ballot for each party at the primary, but others are content to regulate the colour, size, etc., of the party ballot.

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Those states which require all parties to hold their primaries on the same day generally require them to use the same polling place and official ballot boxes.

The conduct of primaries is now generally placed under the supervision of regular officials being the same as those who conduct the elections: and the hours of opening and closing the primary, as well as the particular method of voting at it are prescribed.

The official expenses of primaries are borne by the same public authority which bears the general election expenses.

For the prevention of corruption and other offences at primaries the usual precautions against bribery and fraudulent voting at elections are prescribed.

The extent to which the primaries are used for the nomination of candidates varies from state to state. In general it is only delegates to conventions and members of political committees who are required to be selected by ballot. Sometimes it is left to the local committee of the party to determine whether or not the primary shall be used for nomination to local offices. The laws of Wisconsin, Oregon, Nebraska, and several other states require the primary to be used for the nomination of United States senators, who, of course, have to be elected by the legislature, and of all other officers except presidential electors, school superintendents and certain judicial persons.

Many legal questions have arisen and many decisions have been delivered upon these enactments when it has been alleged that provisions of a particular primary law are unconstitutional.

The further extension of the principle of legislative control over the operations of political parties has become a leading question in the politics of not a few states. Oregon, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Oklahoma might seem to have gone as far as it is possible to go in this direction, but, as has already been observed, many states are continuing to make experiments in the matter. A succinct account of the condition of legislation on the subject in 1908 may be found in a Report of the Connecticut State Commissioners of January 1909. In 1914 every state had laws under which some candidates were nominated in direct primaries, and a majority had established statewide direct primaries applicable to all or nearly all offices except (in a few cases) judgeships.

Regarding the practical value of these primary laws as a means of relieving the good average citizen from the yoke of party machines, opinion has not yet settled itself. The new laws were disliked, and in some states opposed, by the professional politicians; and this naturally confirmed the reformers in their expectation of good results. In some states, however, it is alleged that the professionals have succeeded in manipulating the new system so as practically to reestablish their own control, although, of course, at the cost of more trouble to themselves than they had previously to take. In other states this does not seem to have happened; and the voters think themselves more free than formerly. The extreme complexity of some primary laws, and the long and elaborately constructed ballot placed before theEdition: current; Page: [763] voter, do give ground for the apprehension that the professional politicians may lay hold of and work a system which, in some of its forms, no one but an expert can master. And it is also feared that the expense of working primaries, which are practically another set of elections, may prove a heavy burden both on the public revenue, so far as it is chargeable thereon, and upon the candidates, who will have to spend money in a good many ways, some perhaps illegitimate. As President Lowell says (Public Opinion and Popular Government, p. 150): “Under the usual system of direct primaries a special organization to solicit the nomination is normally a necessity, even when the only question is between the rival ambitions of individuals. Such an organization is very expensive and can hardly be undertaken unless the candidate or his friends are prepared to spend money freely. The contests for nomination at the direct primaries in Wisconsin in 1909 are said to have cost the candidates $802,659.”

That provision of many of these laws which requires a voter at a primary to declare himself beforehand a member of the political party, or even binds him to support the primary’s nominee, seems in itself objectionable, but has in some states been thought needed as a protection against tricks. May it not, however, be thought that such a provision unduly limits the voter’s freedom? Why should the citizen be obliged to put himself into a sheep pen and feel himself bound legally, or, if not legally, yet to some extent morally, to support a particular party candidate at a future election? Who can tell what persons may be selected, or what further light may be thrown on the records of those persons, or what aspect the issues will have assumed on the following day?

Apart, however, from this objection, Europeans whose habit of regarding party organization as a purely voluntary matter and parties as fluid and changing, not solid and permanent entities, makes them averse to any legal recognition of parties as concrete and authoritative bodies existing within the community, are disposed to ask whether these laws may not be a sort of counsel of despair, an abandonment by the good citizens of their old hope of extinguishing or superseding the machine altogether by the voluntary and unfettered action of the voters themselves. Were those citizens who have no interest except in good government, those who value their party only because it is a means of giving effect to their views of the true needs and aims of the nation, to take hold themselves, and by their own constant presence and activity make meetings for the nomination of candidates serve their proper purpose of selecting those men whom they feel to be their best men, this recourse to state regulation and supervision might be dispensed with. In Britain, however, parties are so much less organized and so much less powerful as organizations than they are in the United States that the reflections which occur to an English mind may be deemed inapplicable to American conditions; and it is plain that in many states the reformers hold these primary laws to be a long step toward the overthrow of the machine and of the evils associated with its action.

Pending further experience of the working of these measures, the variety of whichEdition: current; Page: [764] gives ground for hope that one form may ultimately approve itself as the best, all that it seems safe to say is that the rapid adoption by one state after another of the plan of invoking the law to restore to voters their freedom in the choice of candidates shows that the evils of the old system have become widely recognized, and that the spirit of reform, now thoroughly awakened, will doubtless persist until some solid and lasting improvements have been secured.

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chapter 61

What the Machine Has to Do

The system I have described is simple in principle, and would be simple in working if applied in a European country where elective offices are few. The complexity which makes it puzzle many Americans, and bewilder all Europeans, arises from the extraordinary number of elections to which it is applied, and from the way in which the conventions for different election districts cross and overlap one another. A few instances may serve to convey to the reader some impression of this profusion of elections and intricacy of nominating machinery.

In Europe a citizen rarely votes more than twice or thrice a year, sometimes less often, and usually for only one person at a time. Thus in England any householder, say at Manchester or Liverpool, votes once a year for a town councillor (if there is a contest in his ward); once in four (on an average) for a member of the House of Commons.1 Allowing for the frequent cases in which there is no municipal contest in his ward, he will not on an average vote more than one and a half times each year. It is much the same in Scotland, nor do elections seem to be more frequent in France, Germany, or Italy, or even perhaps in Switzerland.

In the United States, however, the number of elective offices is so enormous and the terms of office usually so short that the voter is not only very frequently called upon to go to the polls, but has a very large number of candidates placed before him from among whom he must choose those whom he prefers.2 Moreover, besides the voting at the regular election, heEdition: current; Page: [766] ought also to vote at primaries, i.e., to vote to select the candidates from among whom he is subsequently to choose those whom he desires to have as officers; while in many states the law now fixes the day and manner in which he ought to do so. And as if this was not burden enough, he has also, in a good many states, to vote also on a number of legislative propositions which the law requires to be submitted to him for his decision instead of their being left to state legislatures or city councils. As Professor Beard well observes:3

The glaring absurdity of this system can best be illustrated by concrete examples, which bring home the details of the voters’ task. I have before me the ballot for the thirteenth and thirty-fourth wards of the sixth congressional district of Chicago in 1906. It is two feet and two inches by eighteen and one-half inches; and it contains 334 names distributed with more or less evenness as candidates for the following offices:

State treasurer, state superintendent of public instruction, trustees of the University of Illinois, representatives in Congress, state senator, representatives in the state Assembly, sheriff, county treasurer, county clerk, clerk of the probate court, clerk of the criminal court, clerk of the circuit court, county superintendent of schools, judge of the county court, judge of the probate court, members of the board of assessors, member of the board of review, president of the board of county commissioners, county commissioners (ten to be elected on general ticket), trustees of the sanitary district of Chicago (three to be elected), clerk of the municipal court, bailiff of the municipal court, chief justice of the municipal court, judges of the municipal court (nine to be elected), judges of the municipal court for the four-year term (nine to be elected), judges of the municipal court for the two-year term (nine to be elected).

In Sioux City, Iowa, the following nine elections were held in 1908:

  • January 21. Special election on the commission plan of government.
  • February 24. City primary. Regular biennial election. Candidates nominated for eighteen city offices.
  • March 9. School election. Regular annual. Two directors and a school treasurerEdition: current; Page: [767] elected. A tax proposition to appropriate $60,000 for a school-house fund also voted on.
  • March 30. City election. Regular biennial. Eight officers and a council of ten elected, each voter voting for eleven candidates.
  • May 28. Special election on traction franchise. Franchise defeated.
  • June 2. Regular biennial election. Candidates nominated for twenty-eight different national, state and local offices.
  • August 11. Second special election on traction franchise.
  • November 3. General election. Regular. Forty-three officials voted for, including thirteen presidential electors, twelve state officers, one congressman, one state senator, two state representatives, nine county and five township officers. Amendment to state constitution also voted on.
  • November 17. Special election on the Perry Creek and the Bacon Creek conduit and the gas franchise.

Surely the people of the United States believe, with the inhabitants of Lilliput, “that the common size of human understandings is fitted to some station or other, and that Providence never intended to make the management of public affairs a mystery.”

It is not only the elections that bother us. The primaries, whether under the convention or direct nomination systems are, if possible, more complicated; and, as everybody knows, whoever controls the primaries controls the strategic point in our whole election system. If all of the voters, moved by the appeals of the good government people and stung by the taunts of the bosses, were to appear at the primaries of their parties, they would not be able to change the actual operation of the nomination system; for the preliminary work of the nominations, owing to the intricacies of the process, must be done by the experts—a fact too often overlooked by those who advocate direct nominations as a cure for boss rule. Within the cycle of four years, every party voter in every election district in New York City, with minor variations, must vote from one to four times for the following party candidates:

(1) Members of the city committee; (2) members of the county committee; (3) members of the assembly district committee; (4) delegates to an aldermanic district convention; (5) delegates to a municipal court district convention; (6) delegates to a borough convention; (7) delegates to a city convention; (8) delegates to a county convention; (9) delegates to a judicial district convention; (10) delegates to an assembly district convention; (11) delegates to a senatorial district convention; (12) delegates to a congressional district convention; (13) delegates to an assembly district convention.

The best way to demonstrate the colossal task set before the bewildered New York voter is to describe an actual primary ballot—the Democratic ballot for theEdition: current; Page: [768] thirty-second assembly district. It is eight and one-half inches by two feet four inches. It contains the names of 835 candidates: 417 for members of the county general committee, 104 for delegates to the county convention, 40 for delegates to the first district municipal court convention, 65 for delegates to the second district municipal court convention, 104 for delegates to the thirty-second assembly district convention and 105 for delegates to the thirty-fourth, thirty-fifth and thirty-sixth aldermanic district conventions.

Let us now take another illustration from Massachusetts, and regard the system from another side by observing how many sets of delegates a primary will have to send to the several nominating conventions which cover the local area to which the primary belongs.4

A Massachusetts primary will choose the following sets of persons, including committee-men, candidates, and delegates:

  • 1.Ward and city committees in cities, and town committees in towns.5
  • 2.In cities, candidates for common council and board of aldermen, so in towns, candidates for town officers, i.e. selectmen, school committee, overseers of poor, town clerk and treasurer, assessors of taxes, etc.
  • 3.In cities, delegates to a convention to nominate city officers.
  • 4.Delegates to a convention to nominate county officers.
  • 5.Candidates for representatives to State legislature, or delegates to a convention to nominate the same.
  • 6.Delegates to a convention for nominating candidates for State Senate.
  • 7.Delegates to a convention for nominating candidates for State Governor’s council.
  • 8.Delegates to a convention for nominating candidates for State offices (e.g. Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, etc.).

The above are annual. Then every two years—

  • 9.Delegates to a congressional district convention for nominating candidates for representatives to Congress.

Then every four years—

  • 10.Delegates to a district convention for nominating other delegates (corresponding to the members of Congress) to the national Presidential Convention of the party; andEdition: current; Page: [769]
  • 11.Delegates to a general convention for nominating four delegates at large (corresponding to United States senators) to national Presidential Convention.6

In New York City many posts have recently been made appointive, yet at the November elections there were in 1908 eighty-six candidates for the offices to be filled by election. In 1909 when a mayor was to be chosen, there were eighty-one candidates, although the party lists had been so far united that a good many of the candidates on several of these lists were the same. The ballot paper was 3 feet 9 1/2 inches long and 15 inches wide and had eighteen columns of candidates besides a nineteenth in which the voter might place the names, under the respective offices, of the persons he desired to vote for who were not on the printed lists of candidates. So at Chicago in the November election of 1908, there were on the ballot paper (exclusive of the names of presidential electors) the names of 195 candidates, nominated to fill 46 posts in the state and the county, as well as the municipal judgeships, but no other city offices. However, I need not weary the reader with further examples, for the facts above stated are fairly illustrative of what goes on over the whole Union.

It is hard to keep one’s head through this mazy whirl of offices, elections, and primaries or nominating conventions. In America itself one finds few ordinary citizens who can state the details of the system, though these are of course familiar to professional politicians.

The first thing that strikes a European who contemplates this organization is the great mass of work it has to do. In Ohio, for instance, there are, if we count in such unpaid offices as are important in the eyes of politicians, on an average more than twenty offices to be filled annually by election. Primaries or conventions have to select candidates for all of these. Managing committees have to organize the primaries, ‘run’ the conventions, conduct the elections. Here is ample occupation for a class of professional men.

What are the results which one may expect this abundance of offices and elections to produce?

Where the business is that of selecting delegates and, in the particular state, the selection of candidates is made by the older kind of primaries and conventions, it will be hard to find an adequate number of men of any mark or superior intelligence to act as delegates. The bulk will be persons unlikely to possess, still more unlikely to exercise, a careful or independent judgment. The functions of delegate being in the case of most conventions humble andEdition: current; Page: [770] uninteresting, because the offices are unattractive to good men, persons whose time is valuable will not, even if they do exist in sufficient numbers, seek it. Hence the best citizens, i.e., the men of position and intelligence, will leave the field open to inferior persons who have any private or personal reason for desiring to become delegates. I do not mean to imply that there is necessarily any evil in this as regards most of the offices, but mention the fact to explain why few men of good social position think of the office of delegate, except to the national convention once in four years, as one of trust or honour.

If on the other hand the new statutory primaries have in the particular state superseded conventions, then the attendance at these primaries and the choice of candidates there is a serious task thrown on the voter for which his knowledge of the persons from whom candidates are to be selected may be quite inadequate. As Professor Beard remarks:

The direct nomination device will duplicate the present complicated mechanism and render it necessary to have abler experts who understand not only the mysteries of the regular election law but the added mysteries of the primary law as well. . . . The primary law is in most States a booklet of no mean proportions and taken in connection with the ordinary election law is enough to stagger the experienced student to say nothing of the inexperienced voter for whose guidance it is devised.

The number of places to be filled by election being very large, ordinary citizens will find it hard to form an opinion as to the men best qualified for the offices. Their minds will be distracted among the multiplicity of places. In large cities particularly, where people know little about their neighbours, the names of most candidates will be unknown to them, and there will be no materials, except the recommendation of a party organization, available for determining the respective fitness of the candidates put forward by the several parties. Most of the elected officials are poorly paid. Even the governor of a great state may receive no more than $5,000 to $8,000 a year, the lower officials much less. The duties of most offices require no conspicuous ability, but can be discharged by any honest man of good sense and business habits. Hence they will not (unless where they carry large fees or important patronage) be sought by persons of ability and energy, because such persons can do better for themselves in private business; it will be hard to say which of many candidates is the best; the selection will rouse little stir among the people at large.

Those who have had experience of public meetings know that to make them go off well, it is as desirable to have the proceedings prearranged asEdition: current; Page: [771] it is to have a play rehearsed. You must select beforehand not only your chairman, but also your speakers. Your resolutions must be ready framed; you must be prepared to meet the case of an adverse resolution or hostile amendment. This is still more advisable where the meeting is intended to transact some business, instead of merely expressing its opinion; and when certain persons are to be selected for any duty, prearrangement becomes not merely convenient but indispensable in the interests of the meeting itself, and of the business which it has to dispatch. “Does not prearrangement practically curtail the freedom of the meeting?” Certainly it does. But the alternative is confusion and a hasty unconsidered decision. Crowds need to be led; if you do not lead them they will go astray, will follow the most plausible speaker, will break into factions and accomplish nothing. Hence if a primary is to discharge properly its function of selecting candidates for office or a number of delegates to a nominating convention, it is necessary to have a list of candidates or delegates settled beforehand. And for the reasons already given, the more numerous the offices and the delegates, and the less important the duties they have to discharge, so much the more necessary is it to have such lists settled; and so much the more likely to be accepted by those present is the list proposed. On the other hand the new statutory primary intended to secure the freedom of the voter is also so complex a matter that preliminary steps must be taken by experts familiar with the law and practice governing it.

The reasons have already been stated which make the list of candidates put forth by a primary or by a nominating convention carry great weight with the voters. They are the chosen standard-bearers of the party. A European may remark that the citizens are not bound by the nomination; they may still vote for whom they will. If a bad candidate is nominated, he may be passed over. That is easy enough where, as in England, there are only one or two offices to be filled at an election, where these few offices are important enough to excite general interest, and where therefore the candidates are likely to be men of mark. But in America the offices are numerous, they are mostly unimportant, and the candidates are usually obscure. Accordingly guidance is not merely welcome, but essential. Even in England the voters may in large boroughs know little of the names submitted and be puzzled how to cast his vote, and the party as a whole votes for the person who receives the party nomination from the organization authorized to express the party view. Hence the high importance attached to “getting the nomination” which in so many places is equivalent to an election; hence the care bestowed on constructing the nominating machinery;Edition: current; Page: [772] hence the need for prearranging the lists of delegates to be submitted to the primary, and of candidates to come before the convention.

I have sought in this chapter first to state how the nominating machine is constituted, and what work it has to do, then to suggest some of the consequences which the quantity and nature of that work may be expected to entail. We may now go on to see how in practice the work turns out to be done.

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chapter 62

How the Machine Works

Nothing seems fairer or more conformable to the genius of democratic institutions than the system I have described, whereby the choice of party candidates for office is vested in the mass of the party itself. A plan which selects the candidate likely to command the greatest support prevents the dissension and consequent waste of strength which the appearance of rival candidates of the same party involves; while the popular character of that method excludes the dictation of a clique, and recognizes the sovereignty of the people. It is a method simple, uniform, and agreeable throughout to its leading principle.

To understand how it actually works one must distinguish between two kinds of constituencies or voting areas. One kind is to be found in the great cities—places whose population exceeds, speaking roughly, 100,000 souls, of which there were in 1910 fifty in the United States. The other kind includes constituencies in small cities and rural districts. What I have to say will refer chiefly to the Northern states—i.e., the former free states, because the phenomena of the Southern states are still exceptional, owing to the vast population of ignorant Negroes, among whom the whites, or rather the better sort of whites, still stand as an aristocracy.

The tests by which one may try the results of the system of selecting candidates are two. Is the choice of candidates for office really free—i.e., does it represent the unbiased wish and mind of the voters generally? Are the offices filled by men of probity and capacity sufficient for the duties?

In the country generally, i.e., in the rural districts and small cities, both these tests are tolerably well satisfied. It is true that many of the voters do not attend the primaries. The selection of delegates and candidates is left to be made by that section of the population which chiefly interests itself in politics; and in this section local attorneys and office-seekers have muchEdition: current; Page: [774] influence. The persons who seek the post of delegate, as well as those who seek office, are seldom the most energetic and intelligent citizens; but that is because these men have something better to do. An observer from Europe who looks to see men of rank and culture holding the same place in state and local government as they do in England, especially rural England, or in Italy, or even in parts of rural France and Switzerland, will be disappointed. But democracies must be democratic. Equality will have its perfect work; and you cannot expect citizens who are pervaded by its spirit to go cap in hand to their richer neighbours begging them to act as delegates, or city or county officials, or congressmen. This much may be said, that although there is in America no difference of rank in the European sense, superior wealth or intelligence does not prejudice a man’s candidature, and in most places improves its chances. If such men are not commonly chosen, it is for the same reason which makes them comparatively scarce among the town councillors of English municipalities.

In these primaries1 and conventions the business is always prearranged—that is to say, the local party committee come prepared with their list of delegates or candidates. This list is usually, but not invariably, accepted, or if serious opposition appears, alterations may be made to disarm it and preserve the unity of the party. The delegates and candidates chosen are generally the members of the local committee, their friends or creatures. Except in very small places, they are rarely the best men. But neither are they the worst. In moderately sized communities men’s characters are known, and the presence of a bad man in office brings on his fellow citizens evils which they are not too numerous to feel individually. Hence tolerable nominations are made, the general sentiment of the locality is not outraged; and although the nominating machinery is worked rather in the name of the people than by the people, the people are willing to have it so, knowing that they can interfere if necessary to prevent serious harm.

In large cities the results are different because the circumstances are different. We find there, besides the conditions previously enumerated—viz., numerous offices, frequent elections, universal suffrage, an absence of stimulating issues—three others of great moment:

  • A vast population of ignorant immigrants;
  • The leading men all intensely occupied with business;Edition: current; Page: [775]
  • Communities so large that people know little of one another, and that the interest of each individual in good government is comparatively small.

Anyone can see how these conditions affect the problem. The immigrants are entitled to obtain a vote after three or four years’ residence at most (often less), but they are not fit for the suffrage.2 They know nothing of the institutions of the country, of its statesmen, of its political issues. Those especially who come from Central and Southern Europe bring little knowledge of the methods of free government, and from Ireland they used to bring a suspicion of all government. Incompetent to give an intelligent vote, but soon finding that their vote has a value, they fall into the hands of the party organizations, whose officers enrol them in their lists, and undertake to fetch them to the polls. I was long ago taken to watch the process of citizen-making in New York. Droves of squalid men, who looked as if they had just emerged from an emigrant ship, and had perhaps done so only a few weeks before, for the law prescribing a certain term of residence is frequently violated, were brought up to a magistrate by the ward agent of the party which had captured them, declared their allegiance to the United States, and were forthwith placed on the roll.3 Such a sacrifice of common sense to abstract principles has seldom been made by any country. Nobody pretends that such persons are fit for civic duty, or will be dangerous if kept for a time in pupilage, but neither party will incur the odium of proposing to exclude them. The real reason for admitting them, besides democratic theory, has been either that the locally dominant party expected to gain their votes,4 or that neither of the parties wished to incur such odium as might attach to those who seemed to be debarring residents from full civic rights. It is an afterthought to argue that they will sooner become good citizens by being immediately made full citizens. A stranger must not presume to say that the Americans have been imprudent, but he may doubt whether the possible ultimate gain compensates the direct and certain danger.

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In these great transatlantic cities, population is far less settled and permanent than in the cities of Europe. In New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Francisco, a very small part of the inhabitants are natives of the city, or have resided in it for twenty years. Hence they know but little of one another, or even of those who would in Europe be called the leading men. There are scarcely any old families, families associated with the city,5 whose name recommends one of their scions to the confidence of his fellow citizens. There are few persons who have had any chance of becoming generally known, except through their wealth; and the wealthy have neither time nor taste for political work. Political work is a bigger and heavier affair than in small communities; hence ordinary citizens cannot attend to it in addition to their regular business. Moreover, the population is so large that an individual citizen feels himself a drop in the ocean. His power of affecting public affairs by his own intervention seems insignificant. His pecuniary loss through overtaxation, or jobbery, or malversation, is trivial in comparison with the trouble of trying to prevent such evils.

As party machinery is in great cities most easily perverted, so the temptation to pervert it is there strongest, because the prizes are great. The offices are well paid, the patronage is large, the opportunities for jobs, commissions on contracts, pickings, and even stealings, are enormous. Hence it is well worth the while of unscrupulous men to gain control of the machinery by which these prizes may be won.6

Such men, the professional politicians of the great cities, have two objects in view. One is to seize the local city and county offices. A great city of course controls the county in which it is situated. The other is so to command the local party vote as to make good terms with the party managers of the state, and get from them a share in state offices, together with such legislation as is desired from the state legislature, and similarly to make good terms with the federal party managers, thus securing a share in federal offices, and the means of influencing legislation in Congress. How do the city professionals move towards these objects?

There are two stages in an election campaign. The first is to nominateEdition: current; Page: [777] the candidates you desire; the second to carry them at the polls. The first of these is often the more important, because in many cities the party majority inclines so decidedly one way or the other (e.g., most districts of New York City are steadily Democratic, while Philadelphia is Republican), that nomination is in the case of the dominant party equivalent to election. Now to nominate your candidates you must, above all things, secure the primaries. They require and deserve unsparing exertion, for everything turns upon them.7

The first thing is to have the kind of primary you want. Now the composition of a primary is determined by the roll or “check list,” as it is called, of ward voters entitled to appear in it. This is prepared by the managing committee of the ward, who are naturally desirous to have on it only such men as they can trust or control. They are aided in securing this by the rules requiring members to be admitted by the votes of those already on the list, and exact from persons admitted a pledge to obey the committee, and abide by the party nominations.8 Men of independent temper often refuse this pledge, and are excluded. Many of the ward voters do not apply for admission. Of those who do apply and take the pledge, some can be plausibly rejected by the primary on the ground that they have on some recent occasion failed to vote the party ticket. Thus it is easy for an active committee to obtain a subservient primary, composed of persons in sympathy with it or obedient to it. In point of fact the rolls of membership of many primaries are largely bogus rolls. Names of former members are kept on when these men have left the district or died; names are put on of men who do not belong to the district at all, and both sets of names are so much “voting stock,” applicable at the will and needs of the local party managers,Edition: current; Page: [778] who can admit the latter to vote, and “recognize” men personating the former. In fact, their control of the lists enables them to have practically whatever primary they desire.9

The next thing is to get the delegates chosen whom you wish for. The committee when it summons the primary settles in secret conclave the names of the delegates to be proposed, of course selecting men it can trust, particularly officeholders bound to the party which has put them in, and “workers” whom the prospect of office will keep faithful. When the meeting assembles a chairman is suggested by the committee and usually accepted. Then the list of delegates, which the committee has brought down cut and dry, is put forward. If the meeting is entirely composed of professionals, officeholders, and their friends, it is accepted without debate. If opponents are present, they may propose other names, but the official majority is almost always sufficient to carry the official list, and the chairman is prepared to exert, in favour of his friends, his power of ruling points of order. In extreme cases a disturbance will be got up, in the midst of which the chairman may plausibly declare the official list carried, or the meeting is adjourned in the hope that the opposition will not be at the trouble of coming next time, a hope likely to be realized, if the opposition consists of respectable citizens who dislike spending an evening in such company. Sometimes the professionals will bring in roughs from other districts to shout down opponents, and if necessary threaten them. One way or another the “regular” list of delegates is almost invariably carried against the “good citizens.” When however there are two hostile factions of professionals, each anxious to secure nominations for its friends, the struggle is sharper and its issue more doubtful. Fraud is likely to be used on both sides; andEdition: current; Page: [779] fraud often provokes violence.10 It is a significant illustration of the difference between the party system in America and Europe that in the former foul play is quite as likely, and violence more likely, to occur at party nominating meetings than in the actual elections where two opposing parties are confronted.

The scene now shifts to the nominating convention, which is also summoned by the appropriate committee. When it is “called to order” a temporary chairman is installed, the importance of whose position consists in his having (usually) the naming of a committee on credentials, or contested seats, which examines the titles of the delegates from the various primaries to vote in the convention. Being himself in the interest of the professionals, he names a committee in their interest, and this committee does what it can to exclude delegates who are suspected of an intention to oppose the candidates whom the professionals have prearranged. The primaries have almost always been so carefully packed, and so skilfully “run,” that a majority of trusty delegates has been secured; but sometimes a few primaries have sent delegates belonging to another faction of the party, or to some independent section of the party, and then there may be trouble. Occasionally two sets of delegates appear, each claiming to represent their primary. The dispute generally ends by the exclusion of the Independents or of the hostile faction, the committee discovering a flaw in their credentials, but sometimes, though rarely, the case is so clear that they must be admitted. In doubtful cases a partisan chairman is valuable, for, as it is expressed, “he is a solid 8 to 7 man all the time.” When the credentials have been examined the convention is deemed to be duly organized, a permanent chairman is appointed, and the business of nominating candidates proceeds. A spokesman of the professionals proposes A. B. in a speech, dwelling on his services to the party. If the convention has been properly packed, he is nominated by acclamation. If there be a rival faction represented, or if independent citizens who dislike him have been sent up by some primary which the professionals have failed to secure, another candidate is proposed and a vote taken. Here also there is often room for a partial chairman to influence the result; here,Edition: current; Page: [780] as in the primary, a tumult or a hocus pocus may in extreme cases be got up to enable the chairman to decide in favour of his allies.

Americans are, however, so well versed in the rules which govern public meetings, and so prepared to encounter all sorts of tricks, that the managers do not consider success certain unless they have a majority behind them. This they almost certainly have; at least it reflects discredit on their handling of the primaries if they have not. The chief hope of an opposition therefore is not to carry its own candidate but so to frighten the professionals as to make them abandon theirs, and substitute some less objectionable name. The candidate chosen, who, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, is the person predetermined by the managers, becomes the party nominee, entitled to the support of the whole party. He has received “the regular nomination.” If there are other offices whereto nominations have to be made, the convention goes on to these, which being despatched, it adjourns and disappears forever.

I once witnessed such a convention, a state convention, held at Rochester, New York, by the Democrats of New York State, at that time being under the control of the Tammany Ring of New York City. The most prominent figure was the famous Mr. William M. Tweed, then in the zenith of his power. There was, however, little or nothing in the public proceedings from which an observer could learn anything of the subterranean forces at work. During the morning, a tremendous coming and going and chattering and clattering of crowds of men who looked at once sordid and flashy, faces shrewd but mean and sometimes brutal, vulgar figures in good coats forming into small groups and talking eagerly, and then dissolving to form fresh groups, a universal camaraderie, with no touch of friendship about it; something between a betting ring and the flags outside the Liverpool Exchange. It reminded one of the swarming of bees in tree boughs, a ceaseless humming and buzzing which betokens immense excitement over proceedings which the bystander does not comprehend. After some hours all this settled down; the meeting was duly organized; speeches were made, all dull and thinly declamatory, except one by an eloquent Irishman; the candidates for state offices were proposed and carried by acclamation; and the business ended. Everything had evidently been prearranged; and the discontented, if any there were, had been talked over during the swarming hours.

After each of the greater conventions it is usual to hold one or more public gatherings, at which the candidates chosen are solemnly adopted by the crowd present, and rousing speeches are delivered. Such a gathering,Edition: current; Page: [781] called a “ratification” meeting, has no practical importance, being attended only by those prepared to support the nominations made. The candidate is now launched, and what remains is to win the election.

The above may be thought, as it is thought by many Americans, a travesty of popular choice. Observing the forms of consulting the voters, it substantially ignores them, and forces on them persons whom they do not know, and would dislike if they knew them. It substitutes for the party voters generally a small number of professionals and their creatures, extracts prearranged nominations from packed meetings, and calls this consulting the pleasure of the sovereign people.11

Yet every feature of the machine is the result of patent causes. The elective offices are so numerous that ordinary citizens cannot watch them, and cease to care who gets them. The conventions come so often that busy men cannot serve in them. The minor offices are so unattractive that able men do not stand for them. The primary lists are so contrived that only a fraction of the party get on them; and of this fraction many are too lazy or too busy or too careless to attend. The mass of the voters are ignorant; knowing nothing about the personal merits of the candidates, they are ready to follow their leaders like sheep. Even the better class, however they may grumble, are swayed by the inveterate habit of party loyalty, and prefer a bad candidate of their own party to a (probably no better) candidate of the other party. It is less trouble to put up with impure officials, costly city government, a jobbing state legislature, an inferior sort of congressman, than to sacrifice one’s own business in the effort to set things right. Thus the machine works on, and grinds out places, power, and the opportunities for illicit gain to those who manage it.

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chapter 63

Rings and Bosses

This is the external aspect of the machine; these the phenomena which a visitor taken round to see a number of primaries and nominating conventions would record. But the reader will ask, How is the machine run? What are the inner springs that move it? What is the source of the power the committees wield? What force of cohesion keeps leaders and followers together? What kind of government prevails among this army of professional politicians?

The source of power and the cohesive force is the desire for office, and for office as a means of gain. This one cause is sufficient to account for everything, when it acts, as it does in these cities, under the condition of the suffrage of a host of ignorant and pliable voters.

Those who in great cities form the committees and work the machine are persons whose chief aim in life is to make their living by office. Such a man generally begins by acquiring influence among a knot of voters who live in his neighbourhood, or work under the same employer, or frequent the same grog shop or beer saloon, which perhaps he keeps himself. He becomes a member of his primary, attends regularly, attaches himself to some leader in that body, and is forward to render service by voting as his leader wishes, and by doing duty at elections. He has entered the large and active class called, technically, “workers,” or more affectionately, “the boys.” Soon he becomes conspicuous in the primary, being recognized as controlling the votes of others—“owning them” is the technical term—and is chosen delegate to a convention. Loyalty to the party there and continued service at elections mark him out for further promotion. He is appointed to some petty office in one of the city departments, and presently is himself nominated for an elective office. By this time he has also found his way on to the ward committee, whence by degrees he rises to sit on the centralEdition: current; Page: [783] committee, having carefully nursed his local connection and surrounded himself with a band of adherents, who are called his “heelers,” and whose loyalty to him in the primary, secured by the hope of “something good,” gives weight to his words. Once a member of the central committee he discovers what everybody who gets on in the world discovers sooner or later, by how few persons the world is governed. He is one of a small knot of persons who pull the wires for the whole city, controlling the primaries, selecting candidates, “running” conventions, organizing elections, treating on behalf of the party in the city with the leaders of the party in the state. Each of this knot, which is probably smaller than the committee, because every committee includes some ciphers put on to support a leader, and which may include one or two strong men not on the committee, has acquired in his upward course a knowledge of men and their weaknesses, a familiarity with the wheels, shafts, and bands of the party machine, together with a skill in working it. Each can command some primaries, each has attached to himself a group of dependents who owe some place to him, or hope for some place from him. The aim of the knot is not only to get good posts for themselves, but to rivet their yoke upon the city by garrisoning the departments with their own creatures, and so controlling elections to the state legislature that they can procure such statutes as they desire, and prevent the passing of statutes likely to expose or injure them. They cement their dominion by combination, each placing his influence at the disposal of the others, and settle all important measures in secret conclave.

Such a combination is called a ring.

The power of such a combination is immense, for it ramifies over the whole city. There are, in New York City, for instance, more than forty thousand persons employed by the city authorities (without counting the eleven thousand school teachers), the large majority dismissible by their superiors at short notice and without cause assigned. Of the large number employed by the national government in the customhouse, post office, and other branches of the federal service,1 many are similarly dismissible by the proper federal authority; and there are also state servants, responsible to and dismissible by the state authority. If the same party happens to be supreme in city politics, in the federal government, and in the state government, all this army of employees is expected to work for the party leaders of the city,Edition: current; Page: [784] in city primaries, conventions, and elections, and is virtually amenable to the orders of these leaders.2 If the other party holds the reins of federal government and state government, then the city wire-pullers have at any rate their own ten thousand or more, while other thousands swell the army of “workers” for the opposite party. Add those who expect to get offices, and it will be seen how great and how disciplined a force is available to garrison the city and how effective it becomes under strict discipline. Yet it is not larger than is needed, for the work is heavy. Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem.

In a ring there is usually some one person who holds more strings in his hand than do the others. Like them he has worked himself up to power from small beginnings, gradually extending the range of his influence over the mass of workers, and knitting close bonds with influential men outside as well as inside politics, perhaps with great financiers or railway magnates, whom he can oblige, and who can furnish him with funds. At length his superior skill, courage, and force of will make him, as such gifts always do make their possessor, dominant among his fellows. An army led by a council seldom conquers; it must have a commander in chief, who settles disputes, decides in emergencies, inspires fear or attachment. The head of the ring is such a commander. He dispenses places, rewards the loyal, punishes the mutinous, concocts schemes, negotiates treaties. He generally avoids publicity, preferring the substance to the pomp of power, and is all the more dangerous because he sits, like a spider, hidden in the midst of his web. He is a boss.

Although the career I have sketched is that whereby most bosses have risen to greatness, some attain it by a shorter path. There have been brilliant instances of persons stepping at once on to the higher rungs of the ladder in virtue of their audacity and energy, especially if coupled with oratorical power. The first theatre of such a man’s successes may have been the stump rather than the primary; he will then become potent in conventions, and either by hectoring or by plausible address, for both have their value, spring into popular favour, and make himself necessary to the party managers. ItEdition: current; Page: [785] is of course a gain to a ring to have among them a man of popular gifts, because he helps to conceal the odious features of their rule, gilding it by his rhetoric, and winning the applause of the masses who stand outside the circle of workers. However, the position of the rhetorical boss is less firmly rooted than that of the intriguing boss, and there have been instances of his suddenly falling to rise no more.

A great city is the best soil for the growth of a boss, because it contains the largest masses of manageable voters as well as numerous offices, and plentiful opportunities for jobbing. But a whole state sometimes falls under the dominion of one intriguer. To govern so large a territory needs high abilities; and the state boss is always an able man, somewhat more of a politician, in the European sense, than a city boss need be. He dictates state nominations, and through his lieutenants controls state and sometimes congressional conventions, being in diplomatic relations with the chief city bosses and local rings in different parts of the state. His power over them mainly springs from his influence with the federal executive and in Congress. He is usually, almost necessarily, a member of Congress, probably a senator, and can procure, or at any rate can hinder, such legislation as the local leaders desire or dislike. The president cannot ignore him, and the president’s ministers, however little they may like him, find it worth while to gratify him with federal appointments for persons he recommends, because the local votes he controls may make all the difference to their own prospects of getting some day a nomination for the presidency. Thus he uses his congressional position to secure state influence, and his state influence to strengthen his federal position. Sometimes, however, he is rebuffed by the powers at Washington and then his state thanes fly from him. Sometimes he quarrels with a powerful city boss, and then honest men come by their own.

It must not be supposed that the members of rings, or the great boss himself, are wicked men. They are the offspring of a system. Their morality is that of their surroundings. They see a door open to wealth and power, and they walk in. The obligations of patriotism or duty to the public are not disregarded by them, for these obligations have never been present to their minds. A state boss is usually a native American and a person of some education, who avoids the grosser forms of corruption, though he has to wink at them when practised by his friends. He may be a man of personal integrity.3 A city boss is often of foreign birth and humble origin; he hasEdition: current; Page: [786] grown up in an atmosphere of oaths and cocktails. Ideas of honour and purity are as strange to him as ideas about the nature of the currency and the incidence of taxation. Politics is merely a means for getting and distributing places. “What,” said an ingenuous delegate at one of the national conventions at Chicago in 1880, “what are we here for except the offices?” It is no wonder if he helps himself from the city treasury and allows his minions to do so. Sometimes he does not rob, and like Clive, wonders at his own moderation. And even the city boss improves as he rises in the world. Like a tree growing out of a dust heap, the higher he gets, the cleaner do his boughs and leaves become. America is a country where vulgarity is sealed off more easily than in England, and where the general air of good nature softens the asperities of power. Some city bosses are men from whose decorous exterior and unobtrusive manners no one would divine either their sordid beginnings or their noxious trade. As for the state boss, whose talents are probably greater to begin with, he must be of very coarse metal if he does not take a polish from the society of Washington.

A city ring works somewhat as follows. When the annual or biennial city or state elections come round, its members meet to discuss the apportionment of offices. Each may desire something for himself, unless indeed he is already fully provided for, and anyhow desires something for his friends. The common sort are provided for with small places in the gift of some official, down to the place of a policeman or doorkeeper or messenger, which is thought good enough for a common “ward worker.” Better men receive clerkships or the promise of a place in the customhouse or post office to be obtained from the federal authorities. Men still more important aspire to the elective posts, seats in the state legislature, a city aldermanship or commissionership, perhaps even a seat in Congress. All the posts that will have to be filled at the coming elections are considered with the object of bringing out a party ticket, i.e., a list of candidates to be supported by the party at the polls when its various nominations have been successfully run through the proper conventions. Some leading man, or probably the boss himself, sketches out an allotment of places; and when this allotment has been worked out fully, it results in a slate, i.e., a complete draft list of candidates to be proposed for the various offices.4 It may happen that theEdition: current; Page: [787] slate does not meet everybody’s wishes. Some member of the ring or some local boss—most members of a ring are bosses each in his own district, as the members of a cabinet are heads of the departments of state, or as the cardinals are bishops of dioceses near Rome and priests and deacons of her parish churches—may complain that he and his friends have not been adequately provided for, and may demand more. In that case the slate will probably be modified a little to ensure good feeling and content; and it will then be presented to the convention.

But there is sometimes a more serious difficulty to surmount. A party in a state or city may be divided into two or more factions. Success in the election will be possible only by uniting these factions upon the same nominees for office. Occasionally the factions may each make its list and then come together in the party convention to fight out their differences. But the more prudent course is for the chiefs of each faction to arrange matters in a private conference. Each comes wishing to get the most he can for his clansmen, but feels the need for a compromise. By a process of “dickering” (i.e., bargaining by way of barter), various offers and suggestions being made all round, a list is settled on which the high contracting parties agree. This is a deal, or trade, a treaty which terminates hostilities for the time, and brings about “harmony.” The list so settled is now a slate, unless some discontented magnate objects and threatens to withdraw. To do so is called “breaking the slate.” If such a “sorehead” persists, a schism may follow, with horrible disaster to the party; but usually a new slate is prepared and finally agreed upon. The accepted slate is now ready to be turned by the machine into a ticket, and nothing further remains but the comparatively easy process of getting the proper delegates chosen by packed primaries, and running the various parts of the ticket through the conventions to which the respective nominations belong. Internal dissension among the chiefs is the one great danger; the party must at all hazards be kept together, for the power of a united party is enormous. It has not only a large but a thoroughly trained and disciplined army in its officeholders and office-seekers; and it can concentrate its force upon any point where opposition is threatened to the regular party nominations.5 All these officeholders and office-seekersEdition: current; Page: [788] have not only the spirit of self-interest to rouse them, but the bridle of fear to check any stirrings of independence. Discipline is very strict in this army. Even city politicians must have a moral code and moral standard. It is not the code of an ordinary unprofessional citizen. It does not forbid falsehood, or malversation, or ballot stuffing, or “repeating.” But it denounces apathy or cowardice, disobedience, and above all, treason to the party. Its typical virtue is “solidity,” unity of heart, mind, and effort among the workers, unquestioning loyalty to the party leaders, and devotion to the party ticket. He who takes his own course is a kicker or bolter; and is punished not only sternly but vindictively. The path of promotion is closed to him; he is turned out of the primary, and forbidden to hope for a delegacy to a convention; he is dismissed from any office he holds which the ring can command. Dark stories are even told of a secret police which will pursue the culprit who has betrayed his party, and of mysterious disappearances of men whose testimony against the ring was feared. Whether there is any foundation for such tales I do not undertake to say. But true it is that the bond between the party chiefs and their followers is very close and very seldom broken. What the client was to his patron at Rome, what the vassal was to his lord in the Middle Ages, that the “heelers” and “workers” are to their boss in these great transatlantic cities. They render a personal feudal service, which their suzerain repays with the gift of a livelihood; and the relation is all the more cordial because the lord bestows what costs him nothing, while the vassal feels that he can keep his post only by the favour of the lord.

European readers must again be cautioned against drawing for themselves too dark a picture of the boss. He is not a demon. He is not regarded with horror even by those “good citizens” who strive to shake off his yoke. He is not necessarily either corrupt or mendacious, though he grasps at place, power, and wealth. He is a leader to whom certain peculiar social and political conditions have given a character dissimilar from the party leaders whom Europe knows. It is worth while to point out in what the dissimilarity consists.

A boss needs fewer showy gifts than a European demagogue. His special theatre is neither the halls of the legislature nor the platform, but the committee-room. A power of rough and ready repartee, or a turn for florid declamation, will help him; but he can dispense with both. What he needs are the arts of intrigue and that knowledge of men which teaches him when to bully, when to cajole, whom to attract by the hope of gain, whom by appeals to party loyalty. Nor are so-called social gifts unimportant. The lower sort of city politicians congregate in clubs and barrooms; and as muchEdition: current; Page: [789] of the cohesive strength of the smaller party organizations arises from their being also social bodies, so also much of the power which liquor dealers exercise is due to the fact that “heelers” and “workers” spend their evenings in drinking places, and that meetings for political purposes are held there. Of the 1,007 primaries and conventions of all parties held in New York City preparatory to the elections of 1884, 633 took place in liquor saloons.6 A boss ought therefore to be hail fellow well met with those who frequent these places, not fastidious in his tastes, fond of a drink and willing to stand one, jovial in manners, and ready to oblige even a humble friend.

The aim of a boss is not so much fame as power, and not so much power over the conduct of affairs as over persons. Patronage is what he chiefly seeks, patronage understood in the largest sense in which it covers the disposal of lucrative contracts and other modes of enrichment as well as salaried places. The dependants who surround him desire wealth, or at least a livelihood; his business is to find this for them, and in doing so he strengthens his own position.7 It is as the bestower of riches that he holds his position, like the leader of a band of condottieri in the fifteenth century.

The interest of a boss in political questions is usually quite secondary. Here and there one may be found who is a politician in the European sense, who, whether sincerely or not, purports and professes to be interested in some principle or measure affecting the welfare of the country. But the attachment of the ringster is usually given wholly to the concrete party, that is to the men who compose it, regarded as officeholders or office-seekers; and there is often not even a profession of zeal for any party doctrine. As a noted politician once happily observed, “There are no politics in politics.” Among bosses, therefore, there is little warmth of party spirit. The typical boss regards the boss of the other party much as counsel for the plaintiff regards counsel for the defendant. They are professionally opposed, but not necessarily personally hostile. Between bosses there need be no more enmityEdition: current; Page: [790] than results from the fact that the one has got what the other wishes to have. Accordingly it sometimes happens that there is a good understanding between the chiefs of opposite parties in cities; they will even go the length of making a joint “deal,” i.e., of arranging for a distribution of offices whereby some of the friends of one shall get places, the residue being left for the friends of the other.8 A well-organized city party has usually a disposable vote which can be so cast under the directions of the managers as to effect this, or any other desired result. The appearance of hostility must, of course, be maintained for the benefit of the public; but as it is for the interest of both parties to make and keep these private bargains, they are usually kept when made, though of course it is seldom possible to prove the fact.

The real hostility of the boss is not to the opposite party, but to other factions within his own party. Often he has a rival leading some other organization, and demanding, in respect of the votes which that organization controls, a share of the good things going. The greatest cities can support more than one faction within the same party; thus New York has long had three Democratic organizations, two of which are powerful and often angrily hostile. If neither can crush the other, it finds itself obliged to treat, and to consent to lose part of the spoils to its rival. Still more bitter, however, is the hatred of boss and ring towards those members of the party who do not desire and are not to be appeased by a share of the spoils, but who agitate for what they call reform. They are natural and permanent enemies; nothing but the extinction of the boss himself and of bossdom altogether will satisfy them. They are moreover the common enemies of both parties, that is, of bossdom in both parties. Hence in ring-governed cities professionals of both parties will sometimes unite against the reformers, or will rather let their opponents secure a place than win it for themselves by the help of the “independent vote.” Devotion to “party government,” as they understand it, can hardly go farther.

This great army of workers is mobilized for elections, the methods of which form a wide and instructive department of political science. Here I refer only to their financial side, because that is intimately connected with the machine. Elections need money, in America a great deal of money. Where, then, does the money come from, seeing that the politicians themselves belong to, or emerge from, a needy class?

The revenues of a ring, that is, their collective, or, as one may say, corporate revenues, available for party purposes, flow from five sources.

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I. The first is public subscriptions. For important elections such as the biennial elections of state officers, or perhaps for that of the state legislature, a “campaign fund,” as it is called, is raised by an appeal to wealthy members of the party. So strong is party feeling that many respond, even though they suspect the men who compose the ring, disapprove its methods, and have no great liking for the candidates.

II. Contributions are sometimes privately obtained from rich men and especially from corporations (though statutes are now attempting to prevent this) who, though not directly connected with the ring, may expect something from its action. Contractors, for instance, have an interest in getting pieces of work from the city authorities. Railroad men have an interest in preventing state legislation hostile to their lines. Both, therefore, may be willing to help those who can so effectively help them. This source of income is only available for important elections. Its incidental mischief in enabling wealth to control a legislature through a ring is serious.

III. An exceptionally audacious ring will sometimes make an appropriation from the city or (more rarely) from the state treasury for the purposes not of the city or the state, but of its own election funds. It is not thought necessary to bring such an appropriation into the regular accounts to be laid before the public; in fact, pains are taken to prevent the item from appearing, and the accounts have often to be manipulated for that purpose. The justification, if any, of conduct not authorized by the law, must be sought in precedent, in the belief that the other side would do the same, and in the benefits which the ring expects to confer upon the city it administers. It is a method of course available only when ring officials have the control of public funds, and cannot be resorted to by an opposition.

IV. A tax used to be levied upon the officeholders of the party, varying from one to four or even five per cent upon the amount of their annual salaries. The aggregate annual salaries of the city officials in New York City amounted to $11,000,000, and those of the two thousand five hundred federal officials, who, if of the same party, might also be required to contribute,9 to $2,500,000. An assessment at two per cent on these amounts would produce over $220,000 and $50,000 respectively, quite a respectable sum for election expenses in a single city.10 Even policemen in cities, evenEdition: current; Page: [792] office boys and workmen in federal dockyards, have been assessed by their party. As a tenant had in the days of feudalism to make occasional money payments to his lord in addition to the military service he rendered, so now the American vassal must render his aids in money as well as give knightly service at the primaries, in the canvass, at the polls. His liabilities are indeed heavier than those of the feudal tenant, for the latter could relieve himself from duty in the field by the payment of scutage, while under the machine a money payment never discharges from the obligation to serve in the army of “workers.” Forfeiture and the being proclaimed as “nithing,” are, as in the days of the Anglo-Norman kings, the penalty for failure to discharge the duties by which the vassal holds. Efforts which began with an order issued by President Hayes in 1877 applying to federal offices have been made to prevent by administrative action and by legislation the levying of this tribute on federal officials, but it is believed that the evil has not yet been extirpated. Indeed, some officials do not wait to be “assessed,” but think they “earn merit” (as the Buddhists say) by sending in their contributions ultroneously before any suggestion reaches them.

V. Another useful expedient has been borrowed from European monarchies in the sale of nominations and occasionally of offices themselves.11 A person who seeks to be nominated as candidate for one of the more important offices, such as a judgeship or a seat in the state Senate, or in Congress, is often required to contribute to the election fund a sum proportioned to the importance of the place he seeks, the excuse given for the practice being the cost of elections; and the same principle is occasionally applied to the gift of nonelective offices, the right of appointing to which is vested in some official member of a ring—e.g., a mayor. The price of a nomination for a seat in the state legislature is said to run from $500 up to $1,000, and for one of the better judgeships as high as $5,000; but this is largely matter of conjecture.12 Of course much less will be given if the prospects ofEdition: current; Page: [793] carrying the election are doubtful: the prices quoted must be taken to represent cases where the party majority makes success certain. Naturally, the salaries of officials have to be raised in order to enable them to bear this charge, so that in the long run it may be thrown upon the public; and an eminent boss of New York City defended, before a committee of the legislature, the large salaries paid to aldermen, on the ground that “heavy demands were made on them by their party.”13

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the party system Local Extension of Rings and Bosses fpage="794" lpage="804"
chapter 64

Local Extension of Rings and Bosses

To determine the extent to which the ring and boss system sketched in the preceding chapters prevails over the United States would be difficult even for an American, because it would require a minute knowledge of the local affairs of all the states and cities. Much more, then, is it difficult for a European. I can do no more than indicate generally the results of the inquiries I have made, commending the details of the question to some future investigator.

It has been pointed out that rings and bosses are the product not of democracy, but of a particular form of democratic government, acting under certain peculiar conditions. They belong to democratic government, as the old logicians would say, not simpliciter but secundum quid: they are not of its essence, but are merely separable accidents. We have seen that these conditions are:

  • The existence of a Spoils System (= paid offices given and taken away for party reasons);
  • Opportunities for illicit gains arising out of the possession of office;
  • The presence of a mass of ignorant and pliable voters;
  • The insufficient participation in politics of the “good citizens.”

If these be the true causes or conditions producing the phenomenon, we may expect to find it most fully developed in the places where the conditions exist in fullest measure, less so where they are more limited, absent where they do not exist.

A short examination of the facts will show that such is the case.

It may be thought that the Spoils System is a constant, existing everywhere, and therefore not admitting of the application of this method of concomitant variations. That system does no doubt prevail over every state of the Union,Edition: current; Page: [795] but it is not everywhere an equally potent factor, for in some cities the offices are much better paid than in others, and the revenues which their occupants control are larger. In some small communities the offices, or most of them, are not paid at all. Hence this factor also may be said to vary.

We may therefore say with truth that all of the four conditions above named are most fully present in great cities. Some of the offices are highly paid; many give facilities for lucrative jobbing; and the unpaid officers are sometimes the most apt to abuse these facilities. The voters are so numerous that a strong and active organization is needed to drill them; the majority so ignorant as to be easily led. The best citizens are engrossed in business and cannot give to political work the continuous attention it demands. Such are the phenomena of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and New Orleans. In these cities ring-and-bossdom has attained its amplest growth, overshadowing the whole field of politics.

Of the first two of these I need not speak in detail here, proposing to refer to their phenomena in later chapters, but Chicago, often shockingly misgoverned, has latterly improved and seems likely to improve further under the vigilant action of a group of public-spirited citizens. As regards certain other cities, I subjoin some remarks with which I was favoured in 1887 by leading citizens resident therein, in reply to interrogatories which I addressed to them; and have in each case added a few words to bring the story down through more recent years. Knowing how apt a stranger is to imagine a greater uniformity than exists, I desire to enable the reader to understand to what extent the description I have given is generally true, and with what local diversities its general truth is compatible. And as the remarks quoted illustrate the phenomena of city misgovernment in general, they have the interest which belongs to original and contemporaneous historical authorities.

Cincinnati (Ohio), population in 1890, 296,908, in 1910, 364,463:

Our Ring is in a less formal shape than is sometimes seen, but dishonest men of both parties do in fact combine for common profits at the public expense. As regards a Boss, there is at this moment an interregnum, but some ambitious men are observed to be making progress towards that dignity. Rings are both the effect and the cause of peculation. They are the result of the general law of combination to further the interest of the combiners.

Where a Ring exists it can always exclude from office a good citizen known to be hostile to it. But a good easy man who will not fight and will make a reputable figurehead may be an excellent investment.

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The large cities are the great sufferers from the Spoils System, because in them power gives the greatest opportunity for profit and peculation. In them also it is easy to make a more or less open combination of keepers of tippling shops and the “bummers,” etc., who congregate in them. Here, too, is the natural home of the class of vagabonds who will profess devotion to the party or the man who will pay them, and who combine to levy blackmail upon every candidate, and in turn are ready to stuff ballot-boxes, to buy votes, to “repeat,” etc. These scoundrels “live by politics” in their way, and force their services upon more prominent men, till there comes to be a sort of “solidarity” in which men of national reputation find themselves morally compromised by being obliged to recognize this sort of fraternity, and directly or indirectly to make themselves responsible for the methods of these “henchmen” and followers. They dare not break with this class because its enmity would defeat their ambitions, and the more unscrupulous of them make fullest use of the co-operation, only rendering a little homage to decency by seeking to do it through intermediaries, so as not too disgustingly to dirty their own hands.

In such a condition of things the cities become the prey of the “criminal class” in politics, in order to ensure the discipline and organization in State and national politics which are necessary to the distinguished leaders for success. As a result it goes almost without saying that every considerable city has its rings and its actual or would-be bosses. There are occasional “revolutions of the palace,” in which bosses are deposed, or “choked off,” because they are growing too fat on the spoils, and there is no such permanence of tenure as to enable the uninitiated always to tell what boss or what ring is in power. They do not publish an Almanach de Gotha, but we feel and know that the process of plunder continues. A man of genius in this way, like a Tweed or a Kelly, comes occasionally to the front, but even in the absence of a ruler of this sort the ward politicians can always tell where the decisive influences reside.

The size of the city in which the system reaches full bloom depends upon its business and general character. Small towns with a proportionately large manufacturing population are better fields for rings than more homogeneous communities built up as centres of mercantile trade. The tendency however is to organize an official body of “workers” in even the smallest community; and the selfishness of man naturally leads to the doctrine that those who do the work shall live by it. Thus, from the profits of “rotation in office” and the exercise of intrigue and trick to get the place of the present incumbent, there is the facilis descensus to regarding the profits of peculation and the plunder of the public as a legitimate corrective for the too slow accumulation from legal pay. Certain salaries and fees in local offices are notoriously kept high, so that the incumbent may freely “bleed” for party use, or, what is the same thing, for the use of party “bummers.” Thus we have had clerks of courts and sheriffs getting many times as much pay as the judges on the bench, etc. From this, jobbing in contracts,Edition: current; Page: [797] bribery, and unblushing stealing are reached by such easy steps that perhaps the local politician is hardly conscious of the progress in his moral education.

It would not be fitting to insert here equally free comments on the conditions of today. But in 1912 Cincinnati was described by competent observers as suffering from the old evils, and it is no secret that she had been long ruled by a boss of eminent capacity.

St. Louis (Missouri), population in 1890, 451,770; in 1910, 687,029:

There are always Rings in both parties more or less active according to circumstances.

Two or perhaps three men are the recognized Bosses of the Democratic party (which is in the majority), one man of the Republican.

The Rings are the cause of both peculation and jobbery, although St. Louis has had no “big steal.”

A good citizen seeking office would be excluded by the action of the Rings in our large cities, except in times of excitement, when good people are aroused to a proper sense of duty.1

In 1909 St. Louis had no recognized boss, and had enjoyed for some years an exceptionally good mayor. There was, however, a good deal of ring power, acting on or through the city councils. Attempts were being made in 1912 to enact a new charter.

Louisville (Kentucky), population in 1880, 161,129; in 1910, 223,928:

It can hardly be said that there is a regular Ring in Louisville. There are corrupt combinations, but they are continually shifting. The higher places in these combinations are occupied by Democrats, these being the ruling party, but they always contain some Republicans.

The only Boss there is in Louisville today is the Louisville Gas Company. It works mainly through the Democratic party, as it is easier to bribe the “Republican” negroes into the support of Democratic candidates than white Democrats to support Republicans.

There is very little peculation in Kentucky now—no great disclosure for over five years; but there is a great deal of jobbery.

The effect of the combinations is of course towards excluding good and capable men from office and to make room for mere favourites and local politicians.2

In 1909 Louisville was stated to be suffering from rings, but in aEdition: current; Page: [798] comparatively mild form. A civic uprising in 1906 had given her for three years an upright and capable mayor.

Minneapolis (Minnesota), population in 1890, 164,738:

There has been for several years past a very disreputable Ring, which has come into power by capturing the machinery of the Democratic party, through (1) diligent work in the ward caucuses; (2) by its active alliance with the liquor dealers, gamblers, and so forth, and the support of “lewd fellows of the baser sort,” regardless of national political preferences; (3) by a skilful and plausible championship of “labor” and a capture of the labor vote.

The Boss of this gang is thoroughly disliked and distrusted by the responsible and reputable element of his party in Minnesota, but they tolerate him on account of his popularity and because they cannot break him down. He has operated chiefly through control of the police system. Instead of suppressing gambling houses, for example, he, being a high official, has allowed several of them to run under police protection, himself sharing in their large gains. Until recently the liquor saloon licences have been $500 (£100) a year. He and the heads of the police department have allowed a number of places to retail liquor somewhat secretly outside the police patrol limits, within which we restrict the liquor traffic, and from these illicit publicans the Ring has collected large sums of money.

The Ring has seemed to control the majority in the Common Council, but the system of direct taxation and of checking expenditure is so open, and the scrutiny of the press and public so constant, that there has been little opportunity for actual plunder. In the awarding of contracts there is sometimes a savour of jobbery, and several of the councilmen are not above taking bribes. But they have been able to do comparatively little mischief; in fact, nothing outrageous has occurred outside of the police department. The Ring has lately obtained control of the (elective) Park Board, and some disreputable jobs have resulted. So there have been malpractices in the department of health and hospitals, in the management of the water system and in the giving away of a street railway franchise. But we are not a badly-plundered city by any means; and we have just succeeded in taking the control of the police out of the hands of the Ring officials and vested it in a Metropolitan Police Board, with excellent results. Two of the Ring are now under indictment of the county grand jury for malpractices in office.

In 1910, population 301,408, things had improved in Minneapolis. A trustworthy correspondent wrote in 1909:

Old party lines, while not exactly obliterated, have become indistinct in all elections, whether municipal, state, or national. In fact the hold of the party over its members has become a very uncertain thing and consequently the control of the party machinery no longer suffices to bring victory at the polls. No one boss or political ring can frame a set of candidates and force it on a party since theEdition: current; Page: [799] voters have now a direct vote upon all candidates for office, except those elected for the State, at which, under the primary law, it is a common practice for voters belonging to the minority party to participate in the nomination of the candidates in the majority party. The practice is contrary to law, and to indulge in it the voter must forego the right of taking part in the nomination of candidates of his own party. The Voters’ League, which attempts to prevent the election of incompetent men to the city Councils and to the Board of County Commissioners by publishing the records of all candidates for office and by making recommendations to voters irrespective of party conditions, has also been a force in local politics.

Minneapolis has no real political boss. There have been political rings, and these still exist, but in a modified form. The real power in politics in the city is believed to be in the hands of some prominent corporations.

St. Paul, population in 1890, 133,156, in 1910, 214,744:

There is no regular Ring in St. Paul. It has for many years been in the hands of a clique of municipal Democratic politicians, who are fairly good citizens, and have committed no very outrageous depredations. The city is run upon a narrow partisan plan, but in its main policies and expenditures the views of leading citizens as formulated in the Chamber of Commerce almost invariably prevail.

The Rings of Western cities (adds my informant) are not deliberately organized for plunder or jobbery. They grow out of our party politics. Certain of the worse elements of a party find that their superior diligence and skill in the manipulation of precinct and ward caucuses put them in control of the local machinery of their party organization. The success of their party gives them control of municipal affairs. They are generally men who are not engaged in successful trade or professional life, and make city politics their business. They soon find it profitable to engage in various small schemes and jobs for profit, but do not usually perpetrate anything very bold or bad.

I have taken the two cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul because they illustrate the differences which one often finds between places whose population and other conditions seem very similar. The centres of these two cities are only ten miles apart; their suburbs have begun to touch; they will soon be, in a material sense, one city. Minneapolis is younger, and has grown far more rapidly, and the manufacturing element in its population is larger. But in most respects it resembles its elder sister—they are extremely jealous of one another—so closely that an Old World observer who has not realized the swiftness with which phenomena come and go in the West is surprised to find the political maladies of the one so much graver than those of the other.

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It has been seen how things stood in 1887. In 1893 they had changed for the better in both cities. The boss of Minneapolis had vanished, and the party opposed to that he had adorned was in power. The municipal administration, if not free from reproach, was comparatively free from scandals. St. Paul showed a marked improvement. A mayor had been elected on a “reform ticket,” and the municipal clique formerly dominant had been broken up. But no one could feel sure that these gains would be preserved.

In 1909 Minneapolis having (as above reported) done much to reform her ways, it was stated that the situation in St. Paul had changed much less. The former political clique still held power. A boss had for some time been reigning, but the police administration was described as efficient. Such are the vicissitudes of cities.

The great city of San Francisco, capital of the “Pacific slope,” with a population in 1910 of 416,912 people, was for years ruled by a formidable boss who, through an energetic lieutenant, commanded the fire department of the city, and used its 350 paid employees as a sort of prætorian guard. He controlled the city elections, dominated the officials, was a power in state politics, tampered with the administration of the criminal law. At last steps were taken to have him and his grand vizier indicted for peculation, whereupon they both fled to Canada, and the city escaped the yoke. But the conditions which produced bossdom remaining, it fell before long under a still worse yoke. In 1907 there was a local revolution, due to the discovery of corruption on the part of prominent officials for which two were imprisoned, but the phenomena of that uprising and the events that have followed cannot yet be with propriety described in these pages. In 1913 there was an honest government.

Pittsburg, population (in 1910) 533,905, has had a chequered history. No city has been more swayed by bosses of ability and audacity. Lately a strong and able mayor gave it a good administration, the results of which have tended to raise the standard which the people expect; but whether that standard will be maintained seems still doubtful. In 1910 several members of the city government were convicted of corruption.

In cities of the second rank (say from 10,000 to 100,000 inhabitants) some of the same mischiefs exist, but on a smaller scale. The opportunities for jobbing are limited. The offices are moderately paid. The population of new immigrants, politically incompetent, and therefore easily pervertible, bears a smaller ratio to the native Americans. The men prominent by their wealth or capacity are more likely to be known to the mass of the voters, and may have more leisure to join in local politics. Hence, although weEdition: current; Page: [801] find rings in many of these cities, they are less powerful, less audacious, less corrupt. There are, of course, differences between one city and another, differences sometimes explicable by its history and the character of its population. A very high authority wrote to me in 1887 from Michigan, a state above the average:

I have heard no charge of the reign of Bosses or Rings for the “purposes of peculation” in any of the cities or towns of Michigan or Indiana, or indeed in more than a few of our cities generally, and those for the most part are the large cities. In certain cases rings or bosses have managed political campaigns for partisan purposes, and sometimes to such an extent, say in Detroit, that good citizens have been excluded from office or have declined to run. But robbery was not the aim of the rings. In not a few of our cities the liquor-saloon keepers have combined to “run politics” so as to gain control and secure a municipal management friendly to them. That is in part the explanation of the great uprising of the Prohibition party.

Detroit (population in 1910, 465,766) was described in 1909 as improving steadily, owing to an aroused public sentiment for good government which is forcing higher standards on the professional politicians.

Denver, now a city of 213,381, has obtained an unenviable notoriety for the prevalence of corrupt influences in its politics, but the administration of its affairs seems to be efficient.

The cities of New York State seem to suffer more than those of New England or the West. Albany (a place of 100,000 people) has long groaned under its rings, but as the seat of the New York legislature it is a focus of intrigue. Buffalo (with 400,000) has a large population of foreign origin and obeys a boss. Rochester and Troy are ruled by local cliques; the latter is full of fellows who go to serve as “repeaters” at Albany elections. Syracuse is smaller and said to be more pure than Rochester, but has of late years shown some serious symptoms of the same disease. Cleveland is a larger place than any of these, but having, like the rest of northern Ohio, a better quality of population, its rings have never carried things with a high hand, nor stolen public money, and it is fortunate in having a strong nonpolitical commercial organization of good citizens who keep an eye on the city government. The same may be said to such New England cities as Providence, Augusta, Hartford, Worcester, Lowell, though neither Boston nor New Haven have been free from rings. The system more or less exists in all these, but the bosses have not ventured to exclude respectable outsiders from office, nor have they robbed the city, debauched the legislature,Edition: current; Page: [802] retained their power by election frauds after the manner of their great models in New York and Philadelphia. And this seems to hold true also of the Western and Southern cities of moderate size. A seaside suburb of one great Eastern city once produced a singularly audacious boss, who combined that position with those of head of the police and superintendent of the principal Sunday school. He had tampered freely with the election returns, giving his support sometimes to one party sometimes to another, and had apparently been able to “turn over” the vote of the place at his pleasure. A rising of the “good citizens” at last succeeded in procuring his conviction and imprisonment for election offences.

As regards Ohio a judicious authority said:

Rings are much less likely to exist in the smaller cities, though a population of 30,000 or 40,000 may occasionally support them. We should hardly find them in a city below 10,000: any corruption there would be occasional, not systematic.

As regards Missouri I am informed that:

We have few or no rings in cities under 60,000 inhabitants. The smaller cities are not favourable to such kinds of control. Men know one another too well. There is no large floating irresponsible following as in large cities.

A similar answer from Kentucky adds that rings have nevertheless been heard of in cities so small as Lexington when it had 22,000 inhabitants and Frankfort with less than half that population. In these three states the facts seem to be still much as formerly stated.

In quite small towns and in the rural districts—in fact, whenever there is not a municipality, but government is either by a town meeting and selectmen or by township or county officials—the dangerous conditions are reduced to their minimum. The new immigrants are not generally planted in large masses but scattered among the native population, whose habits and modes of thinking they soon acquire. The Germans and Scandinavians who settle in the country districts have been among the best of their race, and form a valuable element. The country voter, whether native or foreign, is exposed to fewer temptations than his brother of the city, and is less easy either to lead or to drive. He is parsimonious, and pays his county or town officials on a niggardly scale. A boss has therefore no occupation in such a place. His talents would be wasted. If a ring exists in a small city it is little more than a clique of local lawyers who combine to get hold of the local offices, each in his turn, and to secure a seat for one of themselves in the state legislature, where there may be pickings to be had. It is not easy to drawEdition: current; Page: [803] the line between such a clique, which one may find all the world over, and a true ring; but by whichever name we call the weed, it does little harm to the crop. Here and there, however, one meets with a genuine boss even in these seats of rural innocence. I know a New England town, with a population of about ten thousand people, which was long ruled by such a local wire-puller. I do not think he stole. But he had gathered a party of voters round him, by whose help he carried the offices, and got a chance of perpetrating jobs which enriched himself and supplied work for his supporters. The circumstances, however, are exceptional. Within the taxing area of the town there lie many villas of wealthy merchants, who do business in a neighbouring city, but are taxed on their summer residences here. The funds which this town has to deal with were therefore much larger than would be the case in most towns of its size, while many of the rich taxpayers are not citizens here, but vote in the city where they live during the winter.3 Hence they could not go to the town meeting to beard the boss, but had to grin and pay while they watched his gambols.

Speaking generally, the country places and the smaller cities are not ring-ridden. There is a tendency everywhere for the local party organizations to fall into the hands of a few men, perhaps of one man. But this happens not so much from an intent to exclude others and misuse power, as because the work is left to those who have some sort of interest in doing it, that, namely, of being themselves nominated to an office. Such persons are seldom professional office-seekers, but lawyers, farmers, or storekeepers, who are glad to add something to their income, and have the importance, not so contemptible in a village, of sitting in the state legislature. Nor does much harm result. The administration is fairly good; the taxpayers are not robbed. If a leading citizen, who does not belong to the managing circle, wishes to get a nomination, he will probably succeed; in fact, no one will care to exclude him. In many places there is a nonparty “citizens’ committee” which takes things out of the hands of the two organizations by running as candidates respectable men irrespective of party. Such candidates generally succeed if the local party managers have offended public sentiment by bad nominations. In short, the materials for real ring government do not exist, and its methods are inapplicable, outside the large cities. No one needs to fear it, or does fear it.

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What has been said refers chiefly to the Northern, Middle, and Western states. The circumstances of the South are different, but they illustrate equally well the general laws of ring growth. In the Southern cities there is scarcely any population of European immigrants. The lowest class consists of Negroes and “poor whites.” The Negroes are ignorant, and would be dangerously plastic material in the hands of unscrupulous wire-pullers, as was amply shown after the Civil War. But they have hitherto mostly belonged to the Republican party, and the Democratic party has so completely regained its ascendency that the bosses who controlled the Negro vote can do nothing. In most parts of the South the men of ability and standing have interested themselves in politics so far as to dictate the lines of party action. Their position when self-government was restored and the carpetbaggers had to be overthrown forced them to exertion. Sometimes they use or tolerate a ring, but they do not suffer it to do serious mischief, and it is usually glad to nominate one of them, or anyone whom they recommend. The old traditions of social leadership survive better in the South than in the North, so that the poorer part of the white population is more apt to follow the suggestions of eminent local citizens and to place them at its head when they will accept the position. Moreover, the South is a comparatively poor country. Less is to be gained from office (including membership of a legislature), either in the way of salary or indirectly through jobbing contracts or influencing legislation. The prizes in the profession of politics being fewer, the profession is not prosecuted with the same earnestness and perfection of organization. There are, however, some cities where conditions similar to those of large Northern cities reappear, and there ring-and-bossdom reappears also. New Orleans is the best example—it has a strong ring— and in Arkansas and Texas, where there never was a plantation aristocracy like that of the slave states on the Atlantic coast, rings are pretty numerous, though, as the cities are small and seldom rich, their exploits attract little attention. That in Galveston fell when the commission form of city government was adopted.

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chapter 65


An illustration of Oxenstjerna’s dictum regarding the wisdom with which the world is governed may be found in the fact that the greatest changes are often those introduced with the least notion of their consequence, and the most fatal those which encounter least resistance. So the system of removals from federal office which began in the days of Andrew Jackson, though disapproved of by several among the leading statesmen of the time, including Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, excited comparatively little attention in the country, nor did its advocates foresee a tithe of its far-reaching results.

The Constitution of the United States vests the right of appointing to federal offices in the president, requiring the consent of the Senate in the case of the more important, and permitting Congress to vest the appointment of inferior officers in the president alone, in the courts, or in the heads of departments. It was assumed that this clause gave officials a tenure at the pleasure of the president, i.e., that he had the legal right of removing them without cause assigned. But the earlier presidents considered the tenure as being practically for life or during good behaviour, and did not remove, except for some solid reason, persons appointed by their predecessors. Washington in his eight years displaced only nine persons, and all for cause, John Adams nine in four years, and those not on political grounds. Jefferson in his eight years removed thirty-nine, but many of these were persons whom Adams had unfairly put in just before quitting office; and in the twenty years that followed (1808–28) there were but sixteen removals. In 1820, however, a bill was run through Congress fixing four years as the term for a large number of the more important offices, and making those terms expire shortly after the inauguration of a president. This was ominous of evil, and called forth the displeasure of both Jefferson and Madison. The president, however, and his heads of departments, did not remove, so theEdition: current; Page: [806] tenure of good behaviour generally remained. But a new era began with the hot and heady Jackson, who reached the presidential chair in 1829. He was a rough Westerner, a man of the people, borne into power by a popular movement, incensed against all who were connected with his predecessor, a warm friend and a bitter enemy, anxious to repay services rendered to himself. Penetrated by extreme theories of equality, he proclaimed in his message that rotation in office was a principle in the Republican creed, and obeyed both his doctrine and his passions by displacing five hundred postmasters in his first year, and appointing partisans in their room. The plan of using office as a mere engine in partisan warfare had already been tried in New York, where the stress of party contests had led to an early development of many devices in party organization; and it was a New York adherent of Jackson, Marcy, who, speaking in the Senate in 1832, condensed the new doctrine in a phrase that has become famous—“To the victor belong the spoils.”1

From 1828 till a few years ago the rule with both parties has been that on a change of president nearly all federal offices, from the embassies to European courts down to village postmasterships, are deemed to be vacant. The present holders may of course be continued or reappointed (if their term has expired); and if the new president belongs to the same party as his predecessor, many of them will be; but they are not held to have either a legal or a moral claim. The choice of the president or departmental head has been absolutely free, no qualifications, except the citizenship of the nominee, being required, nor any check imposed on him, except that the Senate’s consent is needed to the more important posts.2

The want of knowledge on the part of the president and his ministers of the persons who applied for places at a distance, obliged them to seek information and advice from those who, belonging to the neighborhood, could give it. It was natural for the senators from a state or the representative in Congress from a district within which a vacant office lay, to recommend to the president candidates for it, natural for the president or his ministersEdition: current; Page: [807] to be guided by this recommendation, of course, in both cases, only when they belonged to the same party as the president. Thus the executive became accustomed to admit the rights the politicians claimed, and suffered its patronage to be prostituted to the purpose of rewarding local party service and conciliating local party support. Now and then a president, or a strong minister controlling the president, has proved restive; yet the usage continues, being grounded on the natural wish of the executive to have the goodwill and help of the senators in getting treaties and appointments confirmed, and on the feeling that the party in every district must be strengthened by a distribution of good things, in the way which the local leader thinks most serviceable. The essential features of the system are, that a place in the public service is held at the absolute pleasure of the appointing authority; that it is invariably bestowed from party motives on a party man, as a reward for party services (whether of the appointee or of someone who pushes him); that no man expects to hold it any longer than his party holds power; and that he has therefore the strongest personal reasons for fighting in the party ranks. Thus the conception of office among politicians came to be not the ideal one, of its involving a duty to the community, nor the “practical” one, of its being a snug berth in which a man may live if he does not positively neglect his work, but the perverted one, of its being a salary paid in respect of party services, past, present, and future.

The politicians, however, could hardly have riveted this system on the country but for certain notions which had become current among the mass of the people. “Rotation in office” was, and indeed by most men still is, held to be conformable to the genius of a democracy. It gives every man an equal chance of power and salary, resembling herein the Athenian and Florentine system of choosing officers by lot. It is supposed to stimulate men to exertion, to foster a laudable ambition to serve the country or the neighbourhood, to prevent the growth of an official caste, with its habits of routine, its stiffness, its arrogance. It recognizes that equality which is so dear to the American mind, bidding an official remember that he is the servant of the people and not their master, like the bureaucrats of Europe. It forbids him to fancy that he has any right to be where he is, any ground for expecting to stay there. It ministers in an odd kind of way to that fondness for novelty and change in persons and surroundings which is natural in the constantly moving communities of the West. The habit which grew up of electing state and city officers for short terms tended in the same direction. If those whom the people itself chose were to hold office only for a year or two, why should those who were appointed by federal authorityEdition: current; Page: [808] have a more stable tenure? And the use of patronage for political purposes was further justified by the example of England, whose government was believed by the Americans of Jackson and Van Buren generation to be worked, as it had been largely worked, by the Patronage Secretary of the Treasury in his function of distributing places to members of the House of Commons, and honours (such as orders, and steps in the peerage) to members of the House of Lords, ecclesiastical preferments to the relatives of both.3

Another and a potent reason why the rotation plan commended itself to the Americans is to be found in the belief that one man is as good as another, and will do well enough any work you set him to, a belief happily expressed by their old enemy King George III when he said that “every man is good enough for any place he can get.” In America a smart man is expected to be able to do anything that he turns his hand to, and the fact that a man has worked himself into a place is some evidence of his smartness. He is a “practical man.” This is at bottom George III’s idea; if you are clever enough to make people give you a place, you are clever enough to discharge its duties, or to conceal the fact that you are not discharging them. It may be added that most of these federal places, and those which come most before the eyes of the ordinary citizen, require little special fitness. Any careful and honest man does fairly well for a tide-waiter or a lighthouse keeper. Able and active men had no great interest in advocating appointment by merit or security of tenure, for they seldom wanted places themselves; and they had, or thought they had, an interest in jobbing their poor relatives and unprosperous friends into the public service. It is true that the relative or friend ran the risk of being turned out. But hope is stronger than fear. The prospect of getting a place affects ten people for one who is affected by the prospect of losing it, for aspirants are many and places relatively few.

Hitherto we have been considering federal offices only, the immense majority whereof are such petty posts as those of postmaster in a village, customhouse officer at a seaport, and so forth, although they also include clerkships in the departments at Washington, foreign ambassadorships and consulates, and governorships of the Territories. The system of rotation had however laid such a hold on the mind of the country that it soon extended itself over state offices and city offices also, in so far as such officesEdition: current; Page: [809] remained appointive, and were not, like the higher administrative posts and (in most of the states and the larger cities) the judicial offices, handed over to popular election. Thus, down to that very recent time of which I shall speak presently, appointment by favour and tenure at the pleasure of the appointer became the rule in every sphere and branch of government, national, state, and municipal. It may seem strange that a people so eminently practical as the Americans acquiesced in a system which perverts public office from its proper function of serving the public, destroys the prospect of that skill which comes with experience, and gives nobody the least security that he will gain a higher post, or even retain the one he holds, by displaying conspicuous efficiency. The explanation is that administration used to be conducted in a happy-go-lucky way, that the citizens, accustomed to help themselves, relied very little on their functionaries, and did not care whether they were skilful or not, and that it was so easy and so common for a man who fell out of one kind of business to take to and make his living by another that deprivation seemed to involve little hardship. However, the main reason was that there was no party and no set of persons specially interested in putting an end to the system, whereas there soon came to be a set specially concerned to defend it. It developed, I might almost say created, the class of professional politicians, and they maintained it, because it exactly suited them. That great and growing volume of political work to be done in managing primaries, conventions, and elections for the city, state, and national governments, whereof I have already spoken, and which the advance of democratic sentiment and the needs of party warfare evolved from 1820 down to about 1850, needed men who should give to it constant and undivided attention. These men the plan of rotation in office provided. Persons who had nothing to gain for themselves would soon have tired of the work. The members of a permanent civil service would have had no motive for interfering in politics, because the political defeat of a public officer’s friends would have left his position the same as before, and the civil service not being all of one party, but composed of persons appointed at different times by executives of different hues, would not have acted together as a whole. Those, however, whose bread and butter depend on their party may be trusted to work for their party, to enlist recruits, look after the organization, play electioneering tricks from which ordinary party spirit might recoil. The class of professional politicians was therefore the first crop which the Spoils System, the system of using public office as private prize of war, bore. Bosses were the second crop. In the old Scandinavian poetry the special title of the king or chieftain is “the giver ofEdition: current; Page: [810] rings.” He attracts followers and rewards the services, whether of the warrior or the skald, by liberal gifts. So the boss wins and holds power by the bestowal of patronage. Places are the guerdon of victory in election warfare; he divides this spoil before as well as after the battle, promising the higher elective offices to the strongest among his fighting men, and dispensing the minor appointive offices which lie in his own gift, or that of his lieutenants, to combatants of less note but equal loyalty. Thus the chieftain consolidates, extends, fortifies his power by rewarding his supporters. He garrisons the outposts with his squires and henchmen, who are bound fast to him by the hope of getting something more, and the fear of losing what they have. Most of these appointive offices are too poorly paid to attract able men; but they form a stepping-stone to the higher ones obtained by popular election; and the desire to get them and keep them provides that numerous rank and file which the American system requires to work the machine. In a country like England office is an object of desire to a few prominent men, but only to a few, because the places which are vacated on a change of government are less then sixty in all, while vacancies in other places happen only by death or promotion. Hence an insignificant number of persons out of the whole population have a personal pecuniary interest in the triumph of their party. In England, therefore, one has what may be called the general officers and headquarters staff of an army of professional politicians, but few subalterns and no privates. And in England most of these general officers are rich men, independent of official salaries. In America the privates are proportioned in number to the officers. They are a great host. As nearly all live by politics, they are held together by a strong personal motive. When their party is kept out of the spoils of the federal government, as the Democrats were out from 1861 till 1885, they have a second chance in the state spoils, a third chance in the city spoils; and the prospect of winning at least one of these two latter sets of places maintains their discipline and whets their appetite, however slight may be their chance of capturing the federal offices.

It is these spoilsmen who have depraved and distorted the mechanism of politics. It is they who pack the primaries and run the conventions so as to destroy the freedom of popular choice, they who contrived and executed the election frauds which disgrace some states and cities—repeating and ballot stuffing, obstruction of the polls, and fraudulent countings in.4

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In making every administrative appointment a matter of party claim and personal favour, the system has lowered the general tone of public morals, for it has taught men to neglect the interests of the community, and made insincerity ripen into cynicism. Nobody supposes that merit has anything to do with promotion, or believes the pretext alleged for an appointment. Politics has been turned into the art of distributing salaries so as to secure the maximum of support from friends with the minimum of offence to opponents. To this art able men have been forced to bend their minds; on this presidents and ministers have spent those hours which were demanded by the real problems of the country.5 The rising politician must think of obscure supporters seeking petty places as well as of those greater appointments by which his knowledge of men and his honesty deserve to be judged. It is hardly a caricature in Mr. Lowell’s satire when the intending presidential candidate writes to his maritime friend in New England,

  • If you git me inside the White House,
  • Your head with ile I’ll kinder ’nint,
  • By gittin’ you inside the light-house,
  • Down to the end of Jaalam pint.

After this, it seems a small thing to add that rotation in office has not improved the quality of the civil service. Men selected for their services at elections or in primaries have not proved the most capable servants of the public. As most of the posts they fill need nothing more than such ordinary business qualities as the average American possesses, the mischief has not come home to the citizens generally, but it has sometimes been serious in the higher grades, such as the departments at Washington and some of the greater customhouses.6 Moreover, the official is not free to attend to his official duties. More important, because more influential on his fortunes, is the duty to his party of looking after its interests at the election, and his duty to his chiefs, the boss and ring, of seeing that the candidate they favour gets the party nomination. Such an official, whom democratic theory seeks to remind of his dependence on the public, does not feel himself bound to the public, but to the city boss or senator or congressman who has procured his appointment. Gratitude, duty, service, are all for the patron. So far fromEdition: current; Page: [812] making the official zealous in the performance of his functions, insecurity of tenure has discouraged sedulous application to work, since it is not by such application that office is retained and promotion won. The administration of some among the public departments in federal and city government is more behind that of private enterprises than is the case in European countries; the ingenuity and executive talent which the nation justly boasts, are least visible in national or municipal business. In short, the civil service is not in America, and cannot, under the system of rotation, become a career. Place-hunting is the career, and an office is not a public trust, but a means of requiting party services, and also, under the method of assessments previously described, a source whence party funds may be raised for election purposes.

Some of these evils were observed as far back as 1853, when an act was passed by Congress requiring clerks appointed to the departments at Washington to pass a qualifying examination.7 Neither this nor subsequent legislative efforts in the same direction produced any improvement, for the men in office who ought to have given effect to the law were hostile to it. Similar causes defeated the system of competitive examination, inaugurated by an act of Congress in 1871, when the present agitation for civil service reform had begun to lay hold of the public mind. Mr. Hayes (1877–81) was the first president who seems to have honestly desired to reform the civil service, but the opposition of the politicians, and the indifference of Congress, which had legislated merely in deference to the pressure of enlightened opinion outside, proved too much for him. A real step in advance was, however, made in 1883, by the passage of the so-called Pendleton Act, which instituted a board of civil service commissioners (to be named by the president), directing them to apply a system of competitive examinations to a considerable number of offices in the departments at Washington, and a smaller number in other parts of the country. President Arthur named a good commission, and under the rules framed by it progress was made. The action of succeeding presidents has been matter of some controversy; but while admitting that less has been done in the way of reform than might have been desired, it is no less true that much more has been done than it would have been safe to expect in 1883. Both Mr. Cleveland and Mr. Roosevelt largely extended the scope of the act. In the so-called “classified service,” to which the examination system is applied,Edition: current; Page: [813] some removals for political reasons have from time to time been made, but the percentage of such removals is far smaller than in the unclassified service. Honest efforts have been made by recent presidents to prevent the intrusion of politics and to enforce the rule that civil servants in the classified service shall not take an active part in campaigns.

The act of 1883 originally applied to only 14,000 posts. It has since been so extended that now out of 367,794 employees in the civil service, 234,940 are subject to competitive examination under civil service rules. Of those not subject to examination, 9,105 are presidential appointees, 7,202 of whom are first, second and third class postmasters, 37,712 are fourth class postmasters, and the bulk of the remainder minor employees, largely labourers.8 The salaries of those covered by the act amount to very much more than half of the total sum paid in salaries by the government. Its moral effect, however, has been even greater than this proportion represents, and entitles it to the description given of it at the time as “a sad blow to the pessimists.” Public sentiment is more and more favourable, and though the lower sort of “professionals” were incensed at so great an interference with their methods, and Congress now and then (as in the case of the census bill of 1909) shows imperfect sympathy with the principle, all, or nearly all, the leading men in both parties seem now disposed to support it. It strengthens the hands of any president who may desire reform, and has stimulated the civil service reform movement in states and municipalities. Between 1883 and 1910 seven states (New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado, New Jersey and Ohio) had adopted the merit system, which has also been adopted by nearly one hundred cities. Nevertheless, there remain a great many posts, even in the higher national civil service, within the spoils category which in European countries would be permanent nonpolitical posts.

Some time must yet pass before the result of these changes upon the purification of politics can be fairly judged. It is for the present enough to say that while the state of things above described was generally true both of federal and of state and city administration from 1830 till 1883, there is now reason to hope that the practice of appointing for short terms, and of refusing to reappoint, or of dismissing in order to fill vacancies with political adherents, has been shaken. Nor can it be doubted that the extension of examinations will tend more and more to exclude mere spoilsmen from the public service.

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chapter 66

Elections and Their Machinery

I cannot attempt to describe the complicated and varying election laws of the different states. But the methods of conducting elections have so largely influenced the development of machine politics, and the recent changes in them have made so much stir and seem likely to have such considerable results, that the subject must not pass unnoticed.

All expenses of preparing the polling places and of paying the clerks and other election officers who receive and count the votes, are borne by the community, not (as in Britain) by the candidates.

All elections, whether for city, state, or federal offices, are in all states conducted by ballot, which, however, was introduced, and was long regarded, not so much as a device for preventing bribery or intimidation, but rather as the quickest and easiest mode of taking the votes of a multitude. Secrecy had not been specially aimed at, nor in point of fact generally secured.

An election is a far more complicated affair in America than in Europe. The number of elective offices is greater, and as terms of office are shorter, the number of offices to be voted for in any given year is much greater. To save the expense of numerous distinct pollings, it was long usual, though by no means universal, to take the pollings for a variety of offices at the same time, that is to say, to elect federal officials (presidential electors and congressmen), state officials, county officials, and city officials on one and the same day and at the same polling booths. Presidential electors are chosen only once in four years, congressmen once in two. But the number of state and county and city places to be filled is so large that a voter seldom goes to the polling booth without having to cast his vote for at least eight or ten persons, candidates for different offices, and sometimes he may vote for thirty or more.

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This gave rise to the system of slip tickets. A slip ticket is a list, printed on a long strip of paper, of the persons standing in the same interest, that is to say, recommended by the same party or political group for the posts to be filled up at any election.1 For many years, the universal practice was for each such voting ticket to be printed and issued by a party organization, and to be then distributed at the polling booths by the party agents to the voters and placed by them in the box. The voter usually voted the ticket as he received it, that is to say, he voted en bloc for all the names it contained. It was indeed open to him to modify it by striking out certain names (“scratching”) and writing in others, or by placing over a name a bit of paper, gummed at the back for the purpose (called a “paster”), on which was printed the name of some other candidate. But the always potent tendency to vote the party list as a whole was naturally stronger when that whole list found itself on the same piece of paper in the voter’s hands than it would have been had the paper contained in alphabetical order the names of all the candidates whomsoever, making it necessary to pick and choose among them. This, however, was the least of the evils incident to the system. When (as often happened) the two great parties had bad names on their respective state or city tickets, the obvious remedy was the formation of a “citizens”’ or “independent” organization to run better men. The heavy expense of printing and distributing the tickets was a serious obstacle to the making of such independent nominations, while the “regular” ticket distributers did all in their power to impede the distribution of these “independent tickets,” and generally to confuse and mislead the independent voter. The expenses which the regular parties had to bear were made by their leaders a pretext for levying “election assessments” on candidates, and thereby (see ante, p. 791) of virtually selling nominations. And, finally, the absence of secrecy, for the voter could be followed by watchful eyes from the moment when he received the party ticket from the party distributer till he dropped it into the box, opened a wide door to bribery and intimidation. A growing sense of these mischiefs roused at length the zeal of reformers. In 1885 a bill for the introduction of a really secret ballot was presented to the legislature of Michigan, and in 1888 such a measure, resembling in its outlines the ballot laws of Australia and those of the United Kingdom, was enacted in Massachusetts. The unprecedented scale on which money was illegitimately used in the presidential election of 1888 provoked generalEdition: current; Page: [816] alarm, and strengthened the hands of reformers so much that secret, or, as they are called, “Australian,” official ballot laws are now in force in all the states except Georgia and South Carolina; but in Tennessee and North Carolina the ballot law is not statewide, i.e., applies to certain counties only. Missouri and New Jersey have halfway measures embodying certain features of the Australian system.2 It may cause surprise that the Southern states, communities which lived in alarm at the large Negro vote, did not sooner seize so simple a method of virtually excluding the bulk of that vote, but the reason is doubtless to be found in the fact that a secret ballot, unaccompanied by provisions for illiterate voters, would have excluded many whites also. Georgia and South Carolina may probably ere long follow their sisters in the enactment of secret ballot laws, and the strength of the movement is witnessed by the fact that in eleven states provisions on the subject have been embodied in the constitutions.

The new laws of these forty-six states are of varying merit. Nearly all the laws provide for the official printing of the voting papers, for the inclusion of the names of all candidates upon the same paper, so that the voter must himself place his mark against those he desires to support, and for the depositing of the paper in the box by the voter in such manner as to protect him from observation. Thus secrecy has been nearly everywhere secured, and while independent candidates have a better chance, a heavy blow has been struck at bribery and intimidation. The practice of “peddling” the ballots at the polling place by the agents of the parties, which had reached portentous dimensions in New York, has in most places disappeared, while the extinction of the head of expenses incurred for this purpose, as well as for ballot printing, has diminished the pretext for levying assessments. Elections are far more orderly than they were, because more secret, and because the attendant crowd of those who peddle and hang about the polls, disposed to turbulence and ready for intimidation, has been much reduced. And it is an incidental gain that the most ignorant class of voters, who in the North are usually recent immigrants, have been in some states deprived of their votes, in others stimulated (as happened to the more intelligent Negroes in parts of the South) to improve their education, and fit themselves to vote. Even where provision is made for the voting of illiterates, a certain disgrace, which citizens desire to escape, attaches to him who is forced to have recourse to this provision. No one proposes to revert to the old system, nor has the ingenuity of artful politicians succeeded, to any great extent, in evading the salutary provisions of the new statutes.

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So much for what may be called the machinery of voting. There are, however, several other questions that may be asked regarding an election system. One is, whether it is honestly carried out by the officials? To this question no general answer can be given, because there are the widest possible differences between different states; differences due chiefly to the variations in their election laws, but partly also to the condition of the public conscience. In some states the official conduct of elections is now believed to be absolutely pure, owing, one is told, to the excellence of a minutely careful law. In others, frauds, such as ballot stuffing and false counting, are said to be common, not only in city, but also in state and more rarely in federal elections. I have no data to determine how widely frauds prevail, for their existence can rarely be proved, and they often escape detection. They are sometimes suspected where they do not exist. It is however clear that in some states they are frequent enough to constitute a serious reproach.3

Another question is: Does the election machinery prevent intimidation, bribery, personation, repeating, and the other frauds which the agents of candidates or parties seek to perpetrate? Here, too, there are great differences between one state and city and another, differences due both to the laws and to the character of the population. Of intimidation there is now but little, save in a few cities, where roughs, or occasionally even the police, are said to molest a voter supposed to belong to the other party, or to be inclined to desert their own party. But till the enactment of the secret ballot laws, it sometimes happened that employers endeavoured to send their workingmen to the polls in a body in order to secure their votes; and the dislike to this was one of the motives which won popular favour for these laws. Repeating and personation are not rare in dense populations, where the agents and officials do not, and cannot, know the voters’ faces; and these frauds are sometimes organized on a grand scale by bringing bands of roughs from one city to another.

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Bribery is a sporadic disease, but often intense when it occurs. Most parts of the Union are pure, as pure as Scotland, where since 1868 there has been only one election petition for alleged bribery. Other parts are no better than the small boroughs of Southern England were before the Corrupt Practices Act of 1883.4 No place, however, not even the poorest ward in New York City, sinks below the level of such constituencies as Yarmouth or Sandwich used to be in England. Bribery is seldom practised in America in the same way as it used to be at Rome, by distributing small sums among a large mass of poor electors, or even, as in many English boroughs, among a section of voters (not always the poorest) known to be venal, and accustomed to reserve their votes till shortly before the close of the poll. The American practice has been to give sums of from $20 to $50 to an active local “worker,” who undertakes to bring up a certain number of voters, perhaps twenty or thirty, whom he “owns” or can get at. He is not required to account for the money, and spends a comparatively small part of it in direct bribes, though something in drinks to the lower sort of elector. This kind of expenditure belongs to the category rather of paid canvassing than of bribery, yet sometimes the true European species occurs. In a New Hampshire rural town not long ago, $10 were paid to each of two hundred doubtful voters. In some districts of New York the friends of a candidate will undertake, in case he is returned, to pay the rent of the poorest voters who occupy tenement houses, and the candidate subsequently makes up the amount.5 The expenses of congressional and presidential elections are often heavy, and though the larger part goes in organization and demonstrations, meetings, torchlight processions, and so forth, a part is likely to go in some illicit way. A member of Congress for a poor district in a great city told me that his expenses ran from $8,000 up to $10,000, which is just about whatEdition: current; Page: [819] a parliamentary contest used to cost in an English borough constituency of equal area. In America the number of voters in a congressional district is more than five times as great as in an average English constituency, but the official expenses of polling booths and clerks are not borne by the candidate. In a corrupt district along the Hudson River above New York I have heard of as much as $50,000 being spent at a single congressional election, when in some other districts of the state the expenses did not exceed $2,000. In a presidential election great sums are spent in doubtful, or, as they are called, “pivotal,” states. Indiana was “drenched with money” in 1880, much of it contributed by great corporations, and a large part doubtless went in bribery. What part ever does go it is the harder to determine, because elections are rarely impeached on this ground, both parties tacitly agreeing that bygones shall be bygones. The election of 1888 was one of the worst on record, so large was the expenditure in doubtful states. In that year well-informed Americans came to perceive that bribery at elections was a growing evil in their country, though even now they think it less noxious than either bossism or election frauds.

This alarm has favoured the movement for the enactment of laws against corrupt practices. More than half the states have now passed such statutes. New York requires every candidate and the treasurer of every political committee to file an itemized statement of receipts and expenditure. Every payment exceeding $5 must be accounted for in detail; and expenditures are restricted to certain purposes. The provisions vary from state to state; on the whole they seem to be working for good. The practice, so general in America, of conducting elections by a party committee, which makes its payments on behalf of all the candidates running in the same interests, renders it more difficult than it is in Britain to fix a definite limit to the expenditure, either by a candidate himself or upon the conduct of the election. However, some of the new laws attempt this, fixing a low scale for “campaign expenditures,” and imposing severe penalties on the receiver as well as giver of any bribe, whether to vote or to refrain from voting, a form in which bribery seems to be pretty frequent. Other but much lighter penalties are imposed on the practice of treating. It seems probable that the blow struck at electoral corruption by the secret ballot laws will be followed up by a general limitation of expenditures. Another important advance has been made by a federal law which requires the publication of the sums received by party committees in federal elections, and by another which seeks to end the pernicious habit into which large corporations had fallen of making contributions, usually kept secret, to party campaign expenditure.

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On the whole the shadows have not darkened; the presidential election of 1912 cost relatively less than preceding contests had done for many years. The Republican National Committee returned its total receipts at $904,828, while those of the Democratic National Committee were $1,159,446, and those of the Progressive National Committee $676,672. These figures, however, do not include the sums received and expended by state committees, part of which went to the conduct of the national campaign.

It is always difficult to estimate the exact value of laws which propose to effect by mechanical methods reforms which in themselves are largely moral. This much, however, may be said, that while in all countries there is a proportion (varying from age to age and country to country) of good men who will act honourably whatever the law, and similarly a proportion of bad men who will try to break or evade the best laws, there is also a considerable number of men standing between these two classes, whose tendency to evil is not too strong to be repressed by law, and in whom a moral sense is sufficiently present to be capable of stimulation and education by a good law. Although it is true that you cannot make men moral by a statute, you can arm good citizens with weapons which improve their chances in the unceasing conflict with the various forms in which political dishonesty appears. The value of weapons, however, depends upon the energy of those who use them. These improved ballot acts and corrupt practices acts need to be vigorously enforced, for the disposition, of which there have been some signs, to waive the penalties they impose, and to treat election frauds and other similar offences as trivial matters, would go far to nullify the effect to be expected from the statutes.

Strong arguments have been adduced in favour of another reform in election laws, viz., the trial of contested elections, not, as now, by the legislative body to which the candidate claims to have been chosen, but by a court of law. The determinations of a legislature are almost invariably coloured by party feeling, and are usually decided by a party majority in favour of the contestant whose admission would increase their strength. Hence they obtain little respect, while corrupt or illegal practices do not receive their due condemnation in the avoidance of the election they have tainted. Against these considerations there must be set the danger that the judges who try such cases may sometimes show, or be thought to show, political partisanship, and that the credit of the bench may thus suffer. The experience of England, where disputed parliamentary elections have since 1867 been tried by judges of the superior courts, and municipal elections since 1883 by county court judges, does not wholly dispose of thisEdition: current; Page: [821] apprehension; for it happens every now and then that judges are accused of partiality, or at least of an unconscious bias. Still, British opinion prefers the present system to the old one under which committee of the House of Commons tried election petitions. In the United States the validity of the election of an executive officer sometimes comes before the courts, and the courts, as a rule, decide such cases with fairness. The balance of reason and authority seems to lie with those who, like ex-Speaker Reed, have advocated the change. It was proposed as a constitutional amendment by the legislature of New York to the voters in 1892, but rejected. Latterly it seems to have dropped out of sight.

Not satisfied, however, with the purification of election methods, some few reformers go further, and have proposed to render the ballot box a more complete representation of the will of the people by making voting compulsory. The idea is not quite new; in some Greek states citizens were compelled to attend the assembly; similar provisions were to be found in parts of the United States in last century, while in modern Switzerland several cantons fine electors who fail to vote at elections or when laws are proposed under a referendum. The Swiss evidence as to the merits of the plan is not uniform. In St. Gallen, for instance, where it was introduced so far back as 1835, it seems to have worked well, while in Solothurn it proved ineffective, and was ultimately abolished. On the whole, however, the effect would seem to have been to bring out a comparatively heavy vote, sometimes reaching 83 and even 84 per cent of the registered electors, though it deserves to be noticed that the cantons in which the plan exists are, speaking generally, those in which political life is anyhow most active.6 In the United States, however, abstention from voting does not appear to be a very serious, and certainly is not a growing, evil. City and state elections sometimes fail to draw even three-fourths of the voters to the polls; but in the presidential election of 1880, a year coinciding with that of the national census, and therefore suitable for investigation, 84 per cent of the qualified voters in the whole United States actually tendered their votes, while of the remaining 16 per cent fully three-fourths can be accounted for by illness, old age, necessary causes of absence, and, in the case of the Southern Negroes, intimidation, leaving not more than 4 per cent out of the total number of voters who may seem to have stayed away from pure indifference.7 ThisEdition: current; Page: [822] was a good result as compared with Germany, or with the United Kingdom, where 77 per cent is considered a pretty high proportion to secure, though at some recent British elections the figure has gone above 80 per cent. In the presidential election of 1892 the total number of votes cast showed only about half the increase on 1888 which the estimated growth of population ought to have given. This abstention, however, may have been largely due not to indifference, but to an unwillingness in one party to support the party candidate. In the election of 1900 the percentages varied much in different states, but do not seem to have reached on an average, 80 per cent. In 1912 the total popular vote was about a million and a half more than in 1900. The increased proportion of the population of aliens and disfranchised Negroes makes it difficult to form an estimate.

The plan of compelling men to vote on pain of being fined or incurring some disability is not likely to be adopted, and one of the arguments against it is indicated by the cause suggested for the abstentions of 1892. It is not desirable to deprive electors displeased by the nomination of a candidate of the power of protesting against him by declining to vote at all. At present, when bad nominations are made, independent voters can express their disapproval by refusing to vote for these candidates. Were voting compulsory, they would probably, so strong is party spirit, vote for these bad men rather than for their opponents, not to add that the opponents might be equally objectionable. Thus the power of party leaders and of the machine generally might be increased. I doubt, however, whether such a law as suggested could, if enacted, be effectively enforced; and it is not well to add another to the list of half-executed statutes.

The abuse of the right of appointing election officers can hardly be called a corrupt practice; yet it has in some places and notably in New York City, caused serious mischiefs. There elections were for a time under the control of the Police Board, but this plan gave rise to great abuses, and now elections have by statute been placed in charge of a special board of four commissioners, two of whom must be Republicans, two Democrats, there being also in each district four election inspectors, again two Republicans and two Democrats, with a ballot clerk from each party.8 The selection of shops or other buildings as polling places is made by the board on the recommendation of the parties, each being allowed a half share.

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The particular form of evil here described, now checked in some states, still flourishes like a green bay tree in others. But on the whole, as will have been gathered from this chapter, the record of recent progress is encouraging, and not least encouraging in this, that the less honest politicians themselves have been forced to accept and pass measures of reform which public opinion, previously apathetic or ignorant, had been aroused by a few energetic voices to demand.

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the party system Corruption fpage="824" lpage="834"
chapter 67


No impression regarding American politics is more generally diffused in Europe than that contained in the question which the traveller who has returned from the United States becomes so weary of being asked, “Isn’t everybody corrupt there?” It is an impression for which the Americans themselves, with their airy way of talking about their own country, their fondness for broad effects, their enjoyment of a good story and humorous pleasure in exaggerations generally, are largely responsible. European visitors who, generally belonging to the wealthier classes, are generally reactionary in politics, and glad to find occasion for disparaging popular government, eagerly catch up and repeat the stories they are told in New York or San Francisco. European readers take literally the highly coloured pictures of some American novels and assume that the descriptions there given of certain men and groups “inside politics”—descriptions legitimate enough in a novel—hold true of all men and groups following that unsavoury trade. Europeans, moreover, and Englishmen certainly not less than other Europeans, have a useful knack of forgetting their own shortcomings when contemplating those of their neighbours; so you may hear men wax eloquent over the depravity of transatlantic politicians who will sail very near the wind in giving deceptive pledges to their own constituents, who will support flagrant jobs done on behalf of their own party, who will accept favours from, and dine with, and receive at their own houses, financial speculators and members of the legislature whose aims are just as base, and whose standard is just as low as those of the worst congressman that ever came to push his fortune in Washington.

I am sensible of the extreme difficulty of estimating the amount of corruption that prevails in the United States. If a native American does not know—as few do—how deep it goes nor how widely it is spread, muchEdition: current; Page: [825] less can a stranger. I have, however, submitted the impressions I formed to the judgment of some fair-minded and experienced American friends, and am assured by them that these impressions are substantially correct; that is to say, that they give a view of the facts such as they have themselves formed from an observation incomparably wider than that of a European traveller could be.

The word “corruption” needs to be analyzed.1 It is used to cover several different kinds of political unsoundness.

One sense, the most obvious, is the taking or giving of money bribes. Another sense is the taking or giving of bribes in kind, e.g., the allotment of a certain quantity of stock or shares in a company, or of an interest in a profitable contract, or of a land grant. The offence is essentially the same as where a money bribe passes, but to most people it does not seem the same, partly because the taking of money is a more unmistakable selling of one’s self, partly because it is usually uncertain how the bribe given in kind will turn out, and a man excuses himself by thinking that its value will depend on how he develops the interest he has obtained. A third sense of the word includes the doing of a job, e.g., promising a contractor that he shall have the clothing of the police or the cleaning of the city thoroughfares in return for his political support; giving official advertisements to a particular newspaper which puffs you; promising a railroad president, whose subscription to party funds is hoped for, to secure the defeat of a bill seeking to regulate the freight charges of his road or threatening its land grants. These cases shade off into those of the last preceding group, but they seem less black, because the act done is one which would probably be done anyhow by someone else from no better motive, and because the turpitude consists not in getting a private gain but in misusing a public position to secure a man’s own political advancement. Hence the virtue that will resist a bribe will often succumb to these temptations.

There is also the sense in which the bestowal of places of power and profit from personal motives is said to be a corrupt exercise of patronage. Opinion has in all countries been lenient to such action when the place is given as a reward of party services, but the line between a party and a personal service cannot be easily drawn.

Then, lastly, one sometimes hears the term stretched to cover insincerityEdition: current; Page: [826] in professions of political faith. To give pledges and advocate measures which one inwardly dislikes and deems opposed to the public interest is a form of misconduct which seems far less gross than to sell one’s vote or influence, but it may be, in a given instance, no less injurious to the state.

Although these two latter sets of cases do not fall within the proper meaning and common use of the word “corruption,” it seems worthwhile to mention them, because derelictions of duty which a man thinks trivial in the form with which custom has made him familiar in his own country, where perhaps they are matter for merriment, shock him when they appear in a different form in another country. They get mixed up in his mind with venality, and are cited to prove that the country is corrupt and its politicians profligate. A European who does not blame a minister for making a man governor of a colony because he has done some backstairs parliamentary work, will be shocked at seeing in New York someone put into the customhouse in order that he may organize primaries in the district of the congressman who has got him the place. English members of Parliament condemn the senator who moves a resolution intended to “placate” the Irish vote, while they forget their own professions of ardent interest in schemes which they think economically unsound but likely to rouse the flagging interest of the agricultural labourer. Distinguishing these senses in which the word “corruption” is used, let us attempt to inquire how far it is chargeable on the men who compose each of the branches of the American federal and state government.

No president has ever been seriously charged with pecuniary corruption. The presidents have been men very different in their moral standard, and sometimes neither scrupulous nor patriotic, but money or money’s worth they have never touched for themselves, great as the temptations must have been to persons with small means and heavy expenses. They have doubtless often made bad appointments from party motives, have sought to strengthen themselves by the use of their patronage, have talked insincerely and tolerated jobs; but all these things have also been done within the last thirty years by sundry English, French, and Italian prime ministers, some of whom have since been canonized.

The standard of honour maintained by the presidents has not always been maintained by the leading members of recent administrations, several of whom have been suspected of complicity in railroad jobs, and even in frauds upon the revenue. They may not have, probably they did not, put any part of the plunder into their own pockets, but they have winked at the misdeeds of their subordinates, and allowed the party funds to be replenished, not byEdition: current; Page: [827] direct malversation, yet by rendering services to influential individuals or corporations which a strict sense of public duty would have forbidden. On the other hand, it is fair to say that there seems to be no case since the war—although there was a bad case in President Buchanan’s cabinet just before the war—in which a member of the cabinet has received money, or its equivalent, as a price of either an executive act or an appointment, while inferior officials, who have been detected in so doing (and this occasionally happens), have been dismissed and disgraced.2

Next, as to Congress. It is particularly hard to discover the truth about Congress, for few of the abundant suspicions excited and accusations brought against senators or members of the House have been, or could have been, sifted to the bottom. Among nearly five hundred men there will be the clean and the unclean. The opportunities for private gain are large, the chances of detection small; few members keep their seats for five or six successive congresses, and one-third are changed every two years, so the temptation to make hay while the sun shines is all the stronger.

There are several forms which temptation takes in the federal legislature. One is afforded by the position a member holds on a committee. All bills and many resolutions are referred to some one of the committees, and it is in the committee-room that their fate is practically decided. In a small body each member has great power, and the exercise of power (as observed already)3 is safeguarded by little responsibility. He may materially advance a bill promoted by an influential manufacturer, or financier, or railroad president. He may obstruct it. He may help, or may oppose, a bill directed against a railroad or other wealthy corporation, which has something to gain or lose from federal legislation.4 No small part of the business of Congress is what would be called in England private business; and although the individual railroads which come directly into relation with the Federal government are not numerous—the great transcontinental lines which have received land grants or other subventions are the most important—questions affecting these roads have frequently come up and have involved largeEdition: current; Page: [828] amounts of money. The tariff on imports opens another enormous sphere in which legislative intervention affects private pecuniary interests; for it makes all the difference to many sets of manufacturers whether duties on certain classes of goods are raised, or maintained, or lowered. Hence the doors of Congress are besieged by a whole army of commercial or railroad men and their agents, to whom, since they have come to form a sort of profession, the name of lobbyists is given.5 Many congressmen are personally interested, and lobby for themselves among their colleagues from the vantage ground of their official positions.

Thus a vast deal of solicitation and bargaining goes on. Lobbyists offer considerations for help in passing a bill which is desired or in stopping a bill which is feared. Two members, each of whom has a bill to get through, or one of whom desires to prevent his railroad from being interfered with while the other wishes the tariff on an article which he manufactures kept up, make a compact by which each aids the other. This is logrolling: You help me to roll my log, which is too heavy for my unaided strength, and I help you to roll yours. Sometimes a member brings in a bill directed against some railroad or other great corporation, merely in order to levy blackmail upon it. This is technically called a strike. An eminent railroad president told me that for some years a certain senator regularly practised this trick. When he had brought in his bill he came straight to New York, called at the railroad offices, and asked the president what he would give him to withdraw the bill. That the Capitol and the hotels at Washington are a nest of such intrigues and machinations, while Congress is sitting, is admitted on all hands; but how many of the members are tainted no one can tell. Sometimes when money passes it goes not to the member of Congress himself, but to some boss who can and does put pressure on him. Sometimes, again, a lobbyist will demand a sum for the purpose of bribing a member who is really honest, and, having ascertained that the member is going to vote in the way desired, will keep the sum in his own pocket. Bribery often takes the form of a transfer of stocks or shares, nor have even free passes on railroads been scorned by some of the more needy legislators. The abuse on this head had grown so serious that the bestowal of passes was forbidden [on interstate lines] by federal statute in 1887 and is now forbidden by the constitutions of many states.6 In 1883 portions of a correspondence in theEdition: current; Page: [829] years 1876–78 between Mr. Huntington, one of the proprietors and directors of the Central (now Southern) Pacific Railroad, who then represented that powerful corporation at Washington, and one of his agents in California, were published; and from these it appeared that the company, whose land grants were frequently threatened by hostile bills, and which was exposed to the competition of rival enterprises, which (because they were to run through Territories) Congress was asked to sanction, defended itself by constant dealings with senators and representatives—dealings in the course of which it offered money and bonds to those whose support it needed.7

It does not seem, from what one hears on the spot, that money is often given, or, I should rather say, it seems that the men to whom it is given are few in number. But considerations of some kind pretty often pass,8 so that corruption in both the first and second of the above senses must be admitted to exist and to affect a portion, though only a small portion of Congress.9 A position of some delicacy is occupied by eminent lawyers who sit in Congress and receive retainers from powerful corporations whose interests may be affected by congressional legislation, retainers for which they are often not expected to render any forensic service.10 There are various ways in which members of Congress can use their position to advance their personal interests. They have access to the executive, and can obtain favours from it; not so much because the executive cares what legislation they pass, for it has little to do with legislation, but that the members of the cabinet are on their promotion, and anxious to stand well with persons whose influence covers any considerable local area, who may perhaps be even able to control the delegation of a state in a nominatingEdition: current; Page: [830] convention. Hence a senator or congressman may now and then sway the executive towards a course it would not otherwise have taken, and the resulting gain to himself, or to some person who has invoked his influence, may be an illicit gain, probably not in the form of money, but as a job out of which something may be made. Again, it has been hitherto an important part of a member’s duty to obtain places for his constituents in the federal civil service. There are still many such places not subject to the civil service rules. Here there has lain a vast field, if not for pecuniary gain, for appointments are not sold, yet for the gratification of personal and party interests. Nor does the mischief stop with the making of inferior appointments, for the habit of ignoring public duty which is formed blunts men’s sense of honour, and makes them more apt to yield to some grosser form of temptation. Similar causes produced similar effects during last century in England, and it is said that the French legislature now suffers from the like malady, members of the chamber being incessantly occupied in wheedling or threatening the executive into conferring places or decorations upon their constituents.

The rank and file of the federal civil service attain a level of integrity as high as that of England or Germany. The state civil service is comparatively small, and in most states one hears little said against it; yet cases of defaulting state treasurers are not uncommon. Taking one part of the country with another, a citizen who has business with a government department, such as the customs or excise, or with a state treasurer’s office, or with a poor-law or school authority, has as much expectation of finding honest men to deal with as he has of finding trustworthy agents to conduct a piece of private commercial business. Instances of dishonesty are more noticed when they occur in a public department, but they seem to be little (if at all) more frequent.11

It is hard to form a general judgment regarding the state legislatures, because they differ so much among themselves. Those of Massachusetts, Vermont, and several of the Northwestern states, such as Michigan, are pure, i.e., the members who would take a bribe are but few, and those who would push through a job for some other sort of consideration a comparatively small fraction of the whole.12 Even in the Northwest, however, a wealthy man has great advantages in securing a federal senatorship at the hands of the legislature.13 Some states, including New York and Pennsylvania, haveEdition: current; Page: [831] so bad a name that people profess to be surprised when a good act passes, and a strong governor is kept constantly at work vetoing bills corruptly obtained. Several causes have contributed to degrade the legislature of New York State. The Assembly having but 150 members, and the Senate 51, each member is worth buying. There are in the state, besides New York, several considerable ring-governed cities whence bad members come. There are also immensely powerful corporations, such as the great railroads which traverse it on their way to the West. Great corporations are the bane of state politics, for their management is secret, being usually in the hands of one or two capitalists, and their wealth is so large that they can offer bribes at which ordinary virtue grows pale. They have, moreover, in many cases this excuse, that it is only by the use of money they can ward off the attacks constantly made upon them by demagogues or blackmailers. The Assembly includes many honest men, and a few rich men who do not need a douceur, but the proportion of tainted men is large enough to pollute the whole lump. Of what the bribetaker gets he keeps a part for himself, using the rest to buy the doubtful votes of purchaseable people; to others he promises his assistance when they need it, and when by such logrolling he has secured a considerable backing, he goes to the honest men, among whom, of course, he has a considerable acquaintance, puts he matter to them in a plausible way—they are probably plain farmers from the rural districts—and so gains his majority. Each great corporation keeps an agent at Albany, the capital of the state, who has authority to buy off the promoters of hostile bills, and to employ the requisite professional lobbyists. Such a lobbyist, who may or may not be himself a member, bargains for a sum down, $5,000 or $10,000, in case he succeeds in getting the bill in question passed or defeated, as the case may be; and when the session ends he comes for his money, and no questions are asked. This sort of thing now goes on, or has lately gone on, in several other states, though nowhere on so grand a scale. Virginia, Maryland, California, Illinois, Missouri, are all more or less impure; Louisiana, under the influence of its lottery company (now happily at an end), was even worse than New York.14 But the lowest point was reached in some of the Southern states shortly after the war, when, the Negroes having received the suffrage, the white inhabitants were still excluded as rebels, and the executive government was conducted by Northern carpetbaggers under the protection of Federal troops. In some states the treasury was pilfered; huge state debts were run up; Negroes voted farms to themselves;Edition: current; Page: [832] all kinds of robbery and jobbery went on unchecked. South Carolina, for instance, was a perfect Tartarus of corruption, as much below the Hades of Illinois or Missouri as the heaven of ideal purity is above the ordinary earth of Boston and Westminister.15 In its legislature there was an old darkey, jet black and with venerable white hair, a Methodist preacher, and influential among his brother statesmen, who kept a stall for legislation, where he dealt in statutes at prices varying from $100 to $400. Since those days there has been a peaceful revolution for the better at the South, but some of its legislative bodies have still much leeway to make up.

Of city governments I have spoken in previous chapters. They are usually worse when the population begins to exceed 100,000, and includes a large proportion of recent immigrants. They are generally pure in smaller places, that is to say, they are as pure as those of an average English, French, or German city.

The form which corruption usually takes in the populous cities is the sale of “franchises” (especially monopolies in the use of public thoroughfares)—a frequent and scandalous practice16—the jobbing of contracts, and the bestowal of places upon personal adherents, both of them faults not unknown in large European municipalities, and said to be specially rife in Paris, though no rifer than under Louis Napoleon, when the reconstruction of the city under Prefect Haussman provided unequalled opportunities for the enrichment of individuals at the public expense. English small local authorities, and even, though much more rarely, town councils, do some quiet jobbery. No European city has, however, witnessed scandals approaching those of New York, where the public was in 1869–70 robbed on a vast scale, and accounts were systematically cooked to conceal the thefts,17 or the malversations that occurred in connection with the Philadelphia City Hall and with the erection of the Pennsylvania State Capitol at Harrisburg.

On a review of the whole matter, the following conclusions may be found not very wide of the truth.

Bribery exists in Congress, but is confined to a few members, say 5 per cent of the whole number. It is more common in the legislatures of a few, but only a few, states, practically absent from the higher walks of the federal civil service, rare among the chief state officials, not frequent amongEdition: current; Page: [833] the lower officials, unknown among the federal judges, rare among state judges.18

The taking of other considerations than money, such as a share in a lucrative contract, or a railway pass, or a “good thing” to be secured for a friend, prevails among legislators to a somewhat larger extent. Being less coarsely palpable than the receipt of money, it is thought more venial. One may roughly conjecture that from 15 to 20 per cent of the members of Congress and perhaps rather more of an average state legislature would allow themselves to be influenced by inducements of this kind.

Malversation of public funds occurs occasionally in cities, rarely among federal or state officers.

Jobbery of various kinds, i.e., the misuse of a public position for the benefit of individuals, is not rare, and in large cities common. It is often disguised as a desire to render some service to the party, and the same excuse is sometimes found for a misappropriation of public money.

Patronage is usually dispensed with a view to party considerations or to win personal support. But this remark is equally true of England and France, the chief difference being that owing to the short terms and frequent removals the quantity of patronage is relatively greater in the United States.

If this is not a bright picture, neither is it so dark as that which most Europeans have drawn, and which the loose language of many Americans sanctions. What makes it seem dark is the contrast between the deficiencies which the government shows in this respect, and the excellence, on the one hand of the frame of the Constitution, on the other of the tone and sentiment of the people. The European reader may, however, complain that the picture is vague in its outlines. I cannot make it more definite. The facts are not easy to ascertain, and it is hard to say what standard one is to apply to them. In the case of America men are inclined to apply an ideal standard, because she is a republic, professing to have made a new departure in politics, and setting before her a higher ideal than most European monarchies. Yet it must be remembered that in a new and large country, where the temptations are enormous and the persons tempted have many of them no social position to forfeit, the conditions are not the most favourable to virtue. If, recognizing the fact that the path of the politician is in all countries thickly set with snares, we leave ideals out of sight and try America by theEdition: current; Page: [834] average concrete standard of Europe, we shall find that while her legislative bodies fall much below the level of purity maintained in England and Germany, and also below that of France and Italy, the body of her higher federal officials, in spite of the evils flowing from an uncertain tenure, is not, in point of integrity, at this moment markedly inferior to the administrations of most European countries. This is perhaps less generally true of most of the state officials; and it certainly cannot be said of those who administer the business of the larger cities, for the standard of purity has there sunk to a point lower than that which the municipalities of any European country show.

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chapter 68

The War Against Bossdom

It must not be supposed the inhabitants of ring-ruled cities tamely submit to their tyrants. The Americans are indeed, what with their good nature and what with the preoccupation of the most active men in their private business, a long-suffering people. But patience has its limits, and when a ring has pushed paternal government too far, an insurrection may break out. Rings have generally the sense to scent the coming storm, and to avert it by making two or three good nominations, and promising a reduction of taxes. Sometimes, however, they hold on their course fearless and shameless, and then the storm breaks upon them.

There are several forms which a reform movement or other popular rising takes. The recent history of great cities supplies examples of each. The first form is an attack upon the primaries.1 They are the key of a ring’s position, and when they have been captured their batteries can be turned against the ring itself. When an assault upon the bosses is resolved upon, the first thing is to form a committee. It issues a manifesto calling on all good citizens to attend the primaries of their respective wards, and there vote for delegates opposed to the ring. The newspapers take the matter up, and repeat the exhortation. As each primary is held, on the night fixed by the ward committee of the regular (that is, the ring) organization, some of the reformers appear at it, and propose a list of delegates, between whom and the ring’s list a vote of the members of the primary is taken. This may succeed in some of the primaries, but rarely in a majority of them; because (as explained in a previous chapter) the rolls seldom or never include the whole party voters of the ward, having been prepared by the professionalsEdition: current; Page: [836] in their own interest. Sometimes only one-fourth or one-fifth of the voters are on the primary roll, and these are of course the men on whom the ring can rely. Hence, even if the good citizens of the district, obeying the call of patriotism and the reform committee, present themselves at the primary, they may find so few of their number on the roll that they will be outvoted by the ringsters. But the most serious difficulty is the apathy of the respectable, steady-going part of the population to turn out in sufficient numbers. They have their engagements of business or pleasure to attend to, or it is a snowy night and their wives persuade them to stay indoors. The well-conducted men of small means are an eminently domestic class, who think they do quite enough for the city and the nation if they vote at the polls. It is still more difficult to induce the rich to interest themselves in confessedly disagreeable work. They find themselves at a primary in strange and uncongenial surroundings. Accustomed to be treated with deference in their countinghouse or manufactory, they are jostled by a rough crowd, and find that their servants or workmen are probably better known and more influential than they are themselves. They recognize by sight few of the persons present, for, in a city, acquaintance does not go by proximity of residence, and are therefore at a disadvantage for combined action, whereas the professional politicians are a regiment where every private in each company knows his fellow private and obeys the officers. Hence, the best, perhaps the only chance of capturing a primary is by the action of a group of active young men who will take the trouble of organizing the movement by beating up the members of the party who reside in the district, and bearding the local bosses in the meeting. It is a rough and toilsome piece of work, but young men find a compensation in the fun which is to be had out of the fight; and when a victory is won, theirs is the credit. To carry a few primaries is only the first step. The contest has to be renewed in the convention, where the odds are still in favour of the professionals, who “know the ropes” and may possibly outwit even a majority of reform delegates. The managing committee is in their hands, and they can generally secure a chairman in their interests. Experience has accordingly shown that this method of attacking the machine very rarely succeeds; and though the duty of attending the primaries continues to be preached, the advice shares the fate of most sermons. Once in a way, the respectable voter will rouse himself, but he cannot be trusted to continue to do so year after year. He is like those citizen-soldiers of ancient Greece who would turn out for a summer inroad into the enemy’s country, but refused to keep the field through the autumn and winter.

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A second expedient, which may be tried instead of the first, or resorted to after the first has been tried and failed, is to make an independent list of nominations and run a separate set of candidates. If this strategy be resolved on, the primaries are left unheeded; but when the election approaches, a committee is formed which issues a list of candidates for some or all of the vacant offices in opposition to the “regular” list issued by the party convention, and conducts the agitation on their behalf. This saves all trouble in primaries or conventions, but involves much trouble in elections, because a complete campaign corps has to be organized, and a campaign fund raised.2 Moreover, the average voter, not having followed politics closely enough to comprehend his true duty and interest, and yielding to his established party habits, inclines, especially in state and federal elections, to vote the “regular ticket.” He starts with a certain prejudice against those who are “troubling Israel” by dividing the party, because he sees that in all probability the result will be not to carry the independent ticket, but to let in the candidates of the opposite party. Hence the bolting independents can rarely hope to carry so large a part of their own party with them as to win the election. The result of their action will rather be to bring in the candidates of the other side, who may be no better than the men on the ticket of their own ring. Accordingly, reformers have become reluctant to take this course, for though it has the merit of relieving their feelings, it exposes them to odium, involves great labour, and effects nothing more than may be obtained by one or other of the two methods which I have next to describe.

The third plan is to abstain from voting for the names on your party ticket to which you object. This is scratching. You are spared the trouble of running candidates of your own, but your abstention, if the parties are nearly balanced, causes the defeat of the bad candidates whom your own party puts forward, and brings in those of the other party. This is a good plan when you want to frighten a ring, and yet cannot get the more timid reformers to go the length of voting either an independent ticket or the ticket of the other party. It is employed when a ring ticket is not bad all through, but contains some fair names mingled with some names of corrupt orEdition: current; Page: [838] dangerous men. You scratch the latter and thereby cause their defeat; the others, receiving the full strength of the party, are carried.

If, however, indignation against a dominant ring has risen so high as to overcome the party predilections of ordinary citizens, if it is desired to administer condign and certain punishment to those who have abused the patience of the people, the reformers will take a more decided course. They urge their friends to vote the ticket of the opposite party, either entire or at least all the better names on it, thus ensuring its victory. This is an efficient method, but a desperate one, for you put into power a ring of the party which you have been opposing all your life, and whose members are possibly quite as corrupt as those of the ring which controls your own party. The gain you look for is not therefore the immediate gain of securing better city government, but the ultimate gain of raising the general practice of politics by the punishment of evildoers. Hence, whenever there is time to do so, the best policy is for the reformers to make overtures to the opposite party, and induce them by the promise of support to nominate better candidates than they would have nominated if left to themselves. A group of bolters afraid of being called traitors to their party, will shrink from this course; and if they are weak in numbers, their approaches may be repulsed by the opposition. But the scheme is always worth trying, and has several times been crowned with success. By it the reforming party among the Democrats of Baltimore once managed to defeat their ring in an election of judges. They settled in conference with the Republicans a nonpartisan ticket, which gave the Republicans (who were a minority) a better share of the bench than they could have got by fighting alone, and which substituted respectable Democrats for the objectionable names on the regular Democratic ticket. A similar combination of the reform Republicans in Philadelphia with the Democrats, who in that city are in a permanent minority, led to the defeat of the Republican Gas Ring (whereof more in a later chapter). This method has the advantage of saving expense, because the bolters can use the existing machinery of the opposite party, which organizes the meetings and circulates the literature. It is on the whole the most promising strategy, but needs tact as well as vigour on the part of the independent leaders. Nor will the opposite party always accept the proffered help. Sometimes it fears the gifts of the Greeks, sometimes it hopes to win unhelped, and therefore will not sacrifice any of its candidates to the scruples of the reformers. Sometimes its chiefs dislike the idea of reform so heartily as to prefer defeat at the hands of a ring of the other party to a victory which might weaken the hold of professionals upon the machine and lead to a general purification of politics.

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If the opposite party refuses the overtures of the reformers who are “kicking” against their own machine, or will not purify the ticket sufficiently to satisfy them, there remains the chance of forming a third party out of the best men of both the regular organizations, and starting a third set of candidates. This is an extension and improvement of the first of the four enumerated methods, and has the greater promise of success because it draws votes from both parties instead of from one only. It has been frequently employed of late years in cities, generally of the second order, by running what is called a “citizens’ ticket.”

Of course bolters who desert their own party at a city election do not intend permanently to separate themselves from it. Probably they will vote its ticket at the next state or presidential election. Their object is to shake the power of their local boss, and if they cannot overthrow the ring, at least to frighten it into better behavior. This they often effect. After the defeat of some notorious candidates, the jobs are apt to be less flagrant. But such repentances are like those of the sick wolf in the fable, and experience proves that when the public vigilance has been relaxed, the ringsters of both parties return to their wallowing in the mire.

The difficulties of getting good citizens to maintain a steady war against the professionals have been found so great, and in particular the attempt to break their control of the primaries has so often failed, that remedies have been sought in legislation. Not a few states have extended the penalties attached to bribery and frauds at public elections to similar offences committed at primaries and nominating conventions, deeming these acts to be, as in fact they are, scarcely less hurtful to the community when practised at purely voluntary and private gatherings than when employed at elections, seeing that the average electors follow the regular nomination like so many sheep: it is the candidate’s party label, not his own character, that is voted for. And now, as already observed, by the laws regulating primaries passed in almost every state, bribery or any sort of fraud practised at a primary election is made an offence punishable as if it was a final election.3 Similar provisions protect the delegate to a convention from the candidate, the candidate from the delegate, and the party from both. Minnesota led the way by a set of stringent regulations, making the annulment or destruction of any ballots cast at a party meeting held for the purpose of choosing either candidates or delegates, or the wrongfully preventing persons from voting who are entitled to vote, or personation, or “any other fraud or wrong tending to defeat or affect the result of the election,” a misdemeanourEdition: current; Page: [840] punishable by a fine not exceeding $3,000, or three years’ imprisonment, or both penalties combined.4 Europeans are surprised that legislation should not only recognize parties, but should actually attempt to regulate the internal proceedings of a political party at a perfectly voluntary gathering of its own members, a gathering whose resolutions no one is bound to obey or regard in any way. But it was because the machine had succeeded in nullifying the freedom of the voter that statutes were framed to protect even his voluntary acion as a member of a party. That such a plan should be tried at all is a phenomenon to be seriously pondered by those who are accustomed to point to America as the country where the principle of leaving things alone has worked most widely and usefully; and it is the strongest evidence of the immense vigour of these party organizations, and of the authority their nominations exert, that reformers, foiled in the effort to purify them by appeals to the conscience and public spirit of the voter himself, should be driven to invoke the arm of the law.

The struggle between the professional politicians and the reformers has been going on in the great cities, with varying fortune, since 1870. As illustrations of the incidents that mark it will be found in subsequent chapters, I will here say only that in the onslaughts on the rings, which most elections bring round, the reformers, though they seldom capture the citadel, often destroy some of the outworks, and frighten the garrison into a more cautious and moderate use of their power. After an election in which an “independent ticket” has received considerable support, the bosses are disposed to make better nominations, and, as an eminent New York professional (the late Mr. Fernando Wood) said, “to pander a little to the moral sense of the community.” Every campaign teaches the reformers where the enemy’s weak points lie, and gives them more of that technical skill which has hitherto been the strength of the professionals. It is a warfare of volunteers against disciplined troops, but the volunteers, since they are fighting for the taxpayers at large, would secure so great a preponderance of numbers, if they could but move the whole body of respectable citizens, that their triumph will evidently depend in the long run upon their own constancy and earnestness. If their zeal does not flag; if they do not suffer themselves to be disheartened by frequent repulses; if, not relying too absolutely on any one remedy, they attack the enemy at every point, using every social and educational as well as legal appliance, the example of their disinterested public spirit, as well as the cogency of their arguments, cannot fail to tellEdition: current; Page: [841] on the voters; and no boss, however adroit, no ring, however strongly entrenched, will be able to withstand them. The war, however, will not be over when the enemy has been routed. Although much may be done by legislative remedies, such as new election laws, new provisions against corruption, a reconstruction of the frame of city government, and a purification of the civil service, there are certain internal and, so to speak, natural causes of mischief, the removal of which will need patience and unremitting diligence. In great cities—for it is throughout chiefly of cities that we have to think—a large section of the voters will, for many years to come, be comparatively ignorant of the methods of free government which they are set to work. They will be ignorant even of their own interests, failing to perceive that wasteful expenditure injures those who do not pay direct taxes, as well as those who do. Retaining some of the feelings which their European experience has tended to produce, they will distrust appeals coming from the best-educated classes, and be inclined to listen to loose-tongued demagogues. Once they have joined a party they will vote at the bidding of its local leaders, however personally unworthy.5 While this section remains numerous, rings and bosses will always have materials ready to their hands. There is, however, reason to expect that with the progress of time this section will become relatively smaller. And even now, large as it is, it could be overthrown and bossdom extirpated, were the better citizens to maintain unbroken through a series of elections that unity and vigour of action of which they have at rare moments, and under the impulse of urgent duty, shown themselves capable. In America, as everywhere else in the world, the commonwealth suffers more often from apathy or shortsightedness in the richer classes, who ought to lead, than from ignorance or recklessness in the humbler classes, who are generally ready to follow when they are wisely and patriotically led.

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chapter 69

National Nominating Conventions

In every American election there are two acts of choice, two periods of contest. The first is the selection of the candidate from within the party by the party; the other is the struggle between the parties for the post. Frequently the former of these is more important, more keenly fought over, than the latter, for there are many districts in which the predominance of one party is so marked that its candidate is sure of success, and therefore the choice of a candidate is virtually the choice of the officer or representative.

Preceding chapters have described the machinery which exists for choosing and nominating a candidate. The process was similar, and, subject to the variations introduced by the recent primary laws, is still similar in every state of the Union, and through all elections to office, from the lowest to the highest, from that of common councilman for a city ward up to that of president of the United States. But, of course, the higher the office, and the larger the area over which the election extends, the greater are the efforts made to secure the nomination, and the hotter the passions it excites. The choice of a candidate for the presidency is so striking and peculiar a feature of the American system that it deserves a full examination.

Like most political institutions, the system of nominating the president by a popular convention is the result of a long process of evolution.

In the first two elections, those of 17891 and 1792, there was no need for nominations of candidates, because the whole nation wished and expected George Washington to be elected. So too, when in 1796 Washington declared his retirement, the dominant feeling of one party was for John Adams, thatEdition: current; Page: [843] of the other for Thomas Jefferson, and nobody thought of setting out formally what was so generally understood.

In 1800, however, the year of the fourth election, there was somewhat less unanimity. The prevailing sentiment of the Federalists went for reelecting Adams, and the small conclave of Federalist members of Congress which met to promote his interest was deemed scarcely necessary. The (Democratic) Republicans, however, while united in desiring to make Jefferson president, hesitated as to their candidate for the vice-presidency, and a meeting of Republican members of Congress was therefore called to recommend Aaron Burr for this office. It was a small meeting and a secret meeting, but it is memorable not only as the first congressional caucus but as the first attempt to arrange in any way a party nomination.

In 1804 a more regular gathering for the same purpose was held. All the Republican members of Congress were summoned to meet; and they unanimously nominated Jefferson for president, and George Clinton of New York for vice-president. So in 1808 nearly all the Republican majority in both houses of Congress met and formally nominated Madison and Clinton. The same course was followed in 1812, and again in 1816. But the objections which were from the first made to this action of the party in Congress, as being an arrogant usurpation of the rights of the people—for no one dreamed of leaving freedom to the presidential electors—gained rather than lost strength on each successive occasion, so much so that in 1820 the few who met made no nomination,2 and in 1824, out of the Democratic members of both houses of Congress summoned to the “nominating caucus,” as it was called, only sixty-six attended, many of the remainder having announced their disapproval of the practice.3 The nominee of this caucus came in only third at the polls, and this failure gave the coup de grâce to a plan which the levelling tendencies of the time, and the disposition to refer everything to the arbitrament of the masses, would in any case have soon extinguished. No congressional caucus was ever again held for the choice of candidates.

A new method, however, was not at once discovered. In 1828 Jackson was recommended as candidate by the legislature of Tennessee and by a number of popular gatherings in different places, while his opponentsEdition: current; Page: [844] accepted, without any formal nomination, the then president, J. Q. Adams, as their candidate. In 1831, however, assemblies were held by two great parties (the Anti-Masons and the National Republicans, afterwards called Whigs) consisting of delegates from most of the states; and each of these conventions nominated its candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency. A third “national convention” of young men, which met in 1832, adopted the Whig nominations, and added to them a series of ten resolutions, constituting the first political platform ever put forth by a nominating body. The friends of Jackson followed suit by holding their national convention which nominated him and Van Buren. For the election of 1836, a similar convention was held by the Jacksonian Democrats, none by their opponents. But for that of 1840, national conventions of delegates from nearly all the states were held by both Democrats and Whigs, as well as by the (then young and very small) party of the Abolitionists. This precedent has been followed in every subsequent contest, so that the national nominating conventions of the great parties are now as much a part of the regular machinery of politics as the rules which the Constitution itself prescribes for the election. The establishment of the system coincides with and represents the complete social democratization of politics in Jackson’s time. It suits both the professionals, for whom it finds occupation and whose power it secures, and the ordinary citizen who, not having time himself to attend to politics, likes to think that his right of selecting candidates is duly recognized in the selection of candidates by delegates whom he is entitled to vote for. But the system was soon seen to be liable to fall under the control of selfish intriguers and therefore prejudicial to the chances of able and independent men. As early as 1844 Calhoun refused to allow his name to be submitted to a nominating convention, observing that he would never have joined in breaking down the old congressional caucus had he foreseen that its successor would prove so much more pernicious.

Thus from 1789 till 1800 there were no formal nominations; from 1800 till 1824, nominations were made by congressional caucuses; from 1824 to 1840, nominations irregularly made by state legislatures and popular meetings were gradually ripening towards the method of a special gathering of delegates from the whole country. This last plan has held its ground since 1840, but its workng is beginning to be affected by the new plan of primary votings.4

Its perfection, however, was not reached at once. The early conventionsEdition: current; Page: [845] were to a large extent mass meetings.5 The later and present ones are regularly constituted representative bodies, composed exclusively of delegates, each of whom has been duly elected at a party meeting in his own state, and brings with him his credentials. It would be tedious to trace the process whereby the present system was created, so I shall be content with describing it in outline as it now stands.

The Constitution provides that each state shall choose as many presidential electors as it has persons representing it in Congress, i.e., two electors to correspond to the two senators from each state, and as many more as the state sends members to the House of Representatives. Thus Delaware and Idaho have each three electoral votes, because they have each only one representative besides their two senators. New York has thirty-nine electoral votes; two corresponding to its two senators, thirty-seven corresponding to its thirty-seven representatives in the House.

Now in the nominating convention each state is allowed twice as many delegates as it has electoral votes, e.g., Delaware and Idaho have each six delegates, New York has seventy-eight. The delegates are chosen by local conventions in their several states, viz., two for each congressional district by the party convention of that district, and four for the whole state (called delegates-at-large) by the state convention. As each convention is composed of delegates from primaries, it is the composition of the primaries which determines that of the local conventions, and the composition of the local conventions which determines that of the national. To every delegate there is added a person called his “alternate,” chosen by the local convention at the same time, and empowered to replace him in case he cannot be present in the national convention. If the delegate is present to vote the alternate is silent; if from any cause the delegate is absent, the alternate steps into his shoes.

Respecting the freedom of the delegate to vote for whom he will, there have been differences both of doctrine and of practice. A local convention or state convention may instruct its delegates which aspirant6 shall be their first choice, or even, in case he cannot be carried, for whom their subsequent votes shall be cast. Such instructions are frequently given, and still moreEdition: current; Page: [846] frequently implied, because a delegate is often chosen expressly as being the supporter of one or other of the aspirants whose names are most prominent. But the delegate is not absolutely bound to follow his instructions. He may vote even on the first ballot for some other aspirant than the one desired by his own local or state convention. Much more, of course, may he, though not so instructed, change his vote when it is plain that that aspirant will not succeed. His vote is always a valid one, even when given in the teeth of his instructions; but how far he will be held censurable for breaking them depends on a variety of circumstances. His motives may be corrupt; perhaps something has been given him. They may be pardonable; a party chief may have put pressure on him, or he may desire to be on the safe side, and go with the majority. They may be laudable; he really seeks to do the best for the party, or has been convinced by facts lately brought to his knowledge that the man for whom he is instructed is unworthy. Where motives are doubtful, it may be charitable, but it is not safe, to assume that they are of the higher order. Each “state delegation” has its chairman, and is expected to keep together during the convention. It usually travels together to the place of meeting; takes rooms in the same hotel; has a recognized headquarters there; sits in a particular place allotted to it in the convention hall; holds meetings of its members during the progress of the convention to decide on the course which it shall from time to time take. These meetings, if the state be a large and doubtful one, excite great interest, and the sharp-eared reporter prowls round them, eager to learn how the votes will go. Each state delegation votes by its chairman, who announces how his delegates vote; but if his report is challenged, the roll of delegates is called, and they vote individually. Whether the votes of a state delegation shall be given solid for the aspirant whom the majority of the delegation favours, or by the delegates individually according to their preferences, is a point which has excited bitter controversy. The present practice of the Republican party (so settled in 1876 and again in 1880) allows the delegates to vote individually, even when they have been instructed by a state convention to cast a solid vote. The Democratic party, on the other hand, sustains any such instruction given to the delegation, and records the vote of all the state delegates for the aspirant whom the majority among them approve. This is the so-called unit rule. If, however, the state convention has not imposed the unit rule, the delegates vote individually.

For the sake of keeping up party life in the Territories and in the federal District of Columbia, delegates from them have been admitted to the national convention, although the Territories and District (and of course the transmarine possessions) have no votes in a presidential election. SuchEdition: current; Page: [847] delegates still attend from Hawaii and Alaska and the District; and even from Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands. Delegations of states which are known to be in the hands of the opposite party, and whose preference of one aspirant to another will not really tell upon the result of the presidential election, are admitted to vote equally with the delegations of the states sure to go for the party which holds the convention.7 This arrangement is justified on the ground that it sustains the interest and energy of the party in states where it is in a minority. But it permits the choice to be determined by districts whose own action will in no wise affect the election itself, and the delegates from these districts are apt to belong to a lower class of politicians, and to be swayed by more sordid motives than those who come from states where the party holds a majority.8

So much for the composition of the national convention; we may now go on to describe its proceedings.

It is held in the summer immediately preceding a presidential election, usually in June or July, the election falling in November. A large city is always chosen, in order to obtain adequate hotel accommodation, and easy railroad access. Formerly, conventions were commonly held in Baltimore or Philadelphia, but since the centre of population has shifted to the Mississippi Valley, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Denver, Minneapolis, and especially Chicago, have become the favourite spots.

Business begins by the “calling of the convention to order” by the chairman of the national party committee. Then a temporary chairman is nominated, and, if opposed, voted on; the vote sometimes giving an indication of the respective strength of the factions present. Then the secretaries and the clerks are appointed, and the rules which are to govern the business are adopted. After this, the committees, particularly those on credentials and resolutions, are nominated, and the convention adjourns till their report can be presented.

The next sitting usually opens, after the customary prayer, with the appointment of the permanent chairman, who inaugurates the proceedingsEdition: current; Page: [848] with a speech. Then the report of the committee on resolutions (if completed) is presented. It contains what is called the platform, a long series of resolutions embodying the principles and programme of the party, which has usually been so drawn as to conciliate every section, and avoid or treat with prudent ambiguity those questions on which opinion within the party is divided. Any delegate who objects to a resolution can move to strike it out or amend it; but it is generally “sustained” in the shape it has received from the practised hands of the committee.

Next follows the nomination of aspirants for the post of party candidate. The roll of states is called, and when a state is reached to which an aspirant intended to be nominated belongs, a prominent delegate from that state mounts the platform, and proposes him in a speech extolling his merits, and sometimes indirectly disparaging the other aspirants. Another delegate seconds the nomination, sometimes a third follows; and then the roll call goes on till all the states have been despatched, and all the aspirants nominated.9 The average number of nominations is seven or eight; it rarely exceeds twelve.10 In 1908 there were only eight at the Republican, three at the Democratic, convention, and it was well understood in each case that only one person had a chance of success.

Thus the final stage is reached, for which all else has been but preparation—that of balloting between the aspirants. The clerks call the roll of states from Alabama to Wyoming, and as each is called the chairman of its delegation announces the votes, e.g., six for A, five for B, three for C, unless, of course, under the unit rule, the whole vote is cast for that one aspirant whom the majority of the delegation supports. When all have voted, the totals are made up and announced. If one competitor has an absolute majority of the whole number voting, according to the Republican rule, a majority of two-thirds of the number voting, according to the Democratic rule, he has been duly chosen, and nothing remains but formally to make his nomination unanimous. If, however, as has happened often, no one obtains the requisite majority, the roll is called again, in order that individual delegates and delegations (if the unit rule prevails) may have the opportunity of changing their votes; and the process is repeated until some one of the aspirants put forward has received the required number of votes. Sometimes many roll calls take place. In 1852 the Democrats nominated Franklin PierceEdition: current; Page: [849] on the forty-ninth ballot, and the Whigs General Scott on the fifty-third. In 1880, thirty-six ballots were taken before General Garfield was nominated. But, in 1835, Martin Van Buren; in 1844, Henry Clay; in 1868 and 1872, Ulysses S. Grant; in 1888 Mr. Cleveland, were unanimously nominated, the three former by acclamation, the latter on the first ballot. In 1884 Mr. Blaine was nominated by the Republicans on the fourth ballot, Mr. Cleveland by the Democrats on the second; in 1888, Mr. Harrison on the eighth. In 1896 Mr. McKinley was nominated on the first ballot and Mr. Bryan on the fifth. In 1892 both Mr. Harrison (then president) and Mr. Cleveland were nominated on the first ballot, each of them by an overwhelming majority. Similarly in 1904 both Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Parker and in 1908 both Mr. Taft and Mr. Bryan were each of them nominated on the first ballot. Thus it sometimes happens that the voting is over in an hour or two, while at other times it may last for days. In 1912 Mr. Taft was nominated by the Republicans on the first ballot after an embittered struggle over the credentials of certain delegates. Three hundred forty-three delegates abstained from voting and a month later held a convention of their own, at which a new party, called Progressive, was formed, and Mr. Roosevelt was nominated for the presidency. At the Democratic convention in the same year Mr. Woodrow Wilson was nominated on the forty-sixth ballot.

When a candidate for the presidency has been thus found, the convention proceeds similarly to determine its candidate for the vice-presidency. The inferiority of the office, and the exhaustion which has by this time overcome the delegates, make the second struggle a less exciting and protracted one. Frequently one of the defeated aspirants is consoled by this minor nomination, especially if he has retired at the nick of time in favour of the rival who has been chosen. The work of the convention is then complete,11 and votes of thanks to the chairman and other officials conclude the proceedings. The two nominees are now the party candidates, entitled to the support of the party organizations and of loyal party men over the length and breadth of the Union.

Entitled to that support, but not necessarily sure to receive it. Even in America, party discipline cannot compel an individual voter to cast his ballot for the party nominee. All that the convention can do is to recommend the candidate to the party; all that opinion can do is to brand as a kicker or bolter whoever breaks away; all that the local party organization can do is to strike the bolter off its lists. But how stands it, the reader will ask, withEdition: current; Page: [850] the delegates who have been present in the convention, have had their chance of carrying their man, and have been beaten? Are they not held absolutely bound to support the candidate chosen?

This is a question which has excited much controversy. The constant impulse and effort of the successful majority have been to impose such an obligation on the defeated minority, and the chief motive which has prevented it from being invariably formally enforced by a rule or resolution of the convention has been the fear that it might precipitate hostilities, might induce men of independent character, or strongly opposed to some particular aspirant, to refuse to attend as delegates, or to secede early in the proceedings when they saw that a person whom they disapproved was likely to win.

At the Republican National Convention at Chicago in June 1880 an attempt was successfully made to impose the obligation by the following resolution, commonly called the “Ironclad Pledge”:

“That every member of this convention is bound in honour to support its nominee, whoever that nominee may be, and that no man should hold his seat here who is not ready so to agree.”

This was carried by 716 votes to 3. But at the Republican National Convention at Chicago in June 1884, when a similar resolution was presented, the opposition developed was strong enough to compel its withdrawal; and in point of fact, several conspicuous delegates at that convention strenuously opposed its nominee at the subsequent presidential election, themselves voting, and inducing others to vote, for the candidate of the Democratic party.

The general tendency towards a reform of the nominating system as a whole has recently led to the enactment in fifteen states of laws enabling the voters of each party to declare at a primary state election their preference for a particular aspirant as the candidate of their party, and requiring the delegates chosen by the party to give their votes in the party convention accordingly. Should this method of ascertaining the wishes of the majority of each party come to prevail over the whole Union, the present convention system will be profoundly changed. There will then be practically an election of candidates by the people. Great efforts will of course be made in every state to win for one or other among the party aspirants the position of party candidate, but the character of those efforts will be different. There will be more public meetings, at many of which the aspirants will doubtless present their respective claims. There may possibly be less underground intrigue. Time alone can shew how the new plan will work, and whether it will eliminate all aspirants except those who possess conspicuous popular gifts.

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chapter 70

The Nominating Convention at Work

We have examined the composition of a national convention and the normal order of business in it. The more difficult task remains of describing the actual character and features of such an assembly, the motives which sway it, the temper it displays, the passions it elicits, the wiles by which its members are lured or driven to their goal.

A national convention has two objects, the formal declaration of the principles, views, and practical proposals of the party, and the choice of its candidates for the executive headship of the nation.

Of these objects the former has in critical times, such as the two elections preceding the Civil War, been of great importance. In the Democratic Convention at Charleston in 1860, a debate on resolutions led to a secession, and to the break-up of the Democratic party,1 and in 1896 there were contests in both conventions over the treatment to be given to the currency question, the struggle being especially warm among the Democrats. So in 1908 a short but significant debate arose in the Republican convention over amendments of a “radical” character. But, with such occasional exceptions as last hereinbefore mentioned, the adoption of platforms, drafted in a somewhat vague and pompous style by the committee, has been almost a matter of form. Some observations on these enunciations of doctrine will be found in another chapter.2

The second object is of absorbing interest and importance, because theEdition: current; Page: [852] presidency is the great prize of politics, the goal of every statesman’s ambition. The president can by his veto stop legislation adverse to the wishes of the party he represents. The president is the supreme dispenser of patronage.

One may therefore say that the task of a convention is to choose the party candidate. And it is a task difficult enough to tax all the resources of the host of delegates and their leaders. Who is the man fittest to be adopted as candidate? Not even a novice in politics will suppose that it is the best man, i.e., the wisest, strongest, and most upright. Plainly, it is the man most likely to win, the man who, to use the technical term, is most “available.” What a party wants is not a good president but a good candidate. The party managers have therefore to look out for the person likely to gain most support, and at the same time excite least opposition. Their search is rendered more troublesome by the fact that many of them, being themselves either aspirants or the close allies of aspirants, are not disinterested, and are distrusted by their fellow searchers.

Many things have to be considered. The ability of a statesman, the length of time he has been before the people, his oratorical gifts, his “magnetism,” his family connections, his face and figure, the purity of his private life, his “record” (the chronicle of his conduct) as regards integrity—all these are matters needing to be weighed. Account must be taken of the personal jealousies and hatreds which a man has excited. To have incurred the enmity of a leading statesman, of a powerful boss or ring, or of an influential newspaper, is serious. Several such feuds may be fatal.

Finally, much depends on the state whence a possible candidate comes. Local feeling leads a state to support one of its own citizens; it increases the vote of his own party in that state, and reduces the vote of the opposite party. Where the state is decidedly of one political colour, e.g., so steadily Republican as Vermont, so steadily Democratic as Maryland, this consideration is weak, for the choice of a Democratic candidate from the former, or of a Republican candidate from the latter, would not make the difference of the state’s vote. It is therefore from a doubtful state that a candidate may with most advantage be selected; and the larger the doubtful state the better. California, with her ten electoral votes, is just worth “placating”; Indiana, with her fifteen votes, more so; New York, with her thirty-nine votes, most so of all. Hence an aspirant who belongs to a great and doubtful state is prima facie the most eligible candidate.

Aspirants hoping to obtain the party nomination from a national conventionEdition: current; Page: [853] may be divided into three classes, the two last of which, as will appear presently, are not mutually exclusive, viz.:

Favourites Dark Horses Favourite Sons

A favourite is always a politician well known over the Union, and drawing support from all or most of its sections. He may be a man who has distinguished himself in Congress, or in some high executive post, or in the politics of some state so large that its politics are matter of knowledge and interest to the whole nation. He is usually a person of conspicuous gifts, whether as a speaker, or a party manager, or an administrator. The drawback to him is that in making friends he has also made enemies.

A dark horse is a person not very widely known in the country at large, but known rather for good than for evil. He has probably sat in Congress, been useful on committees, and gained some credit among those who dealt with him in Washington. Or he has approved himself a safe and assiduous party man in the political campaigns of his own and neighbouring states, yet without reaching national prominence. Sometimes he is a really able man, but without the special talents that win popularity. Still, speaking generally, the note of the dark horse is respectability, verging on colourlessness; and he is therefore a good sort of person to fall back upon when able but dangerous favourites have proved impossible. That native mediocrity rather than adverse fortune has prevented him from winning fame is proved by the fact that the dark horses who have reached the White House, if they have seldom turned out bad presidents, have even more seldom turned out distinguished ones.

A favourite son is a politician respected or admired in his own state, but little regarded beyond it. He may not be, like the dark horse, little known to the nation at large, but he has not fixed its eye or filled its ear. He is usually a man who has sat in the state legislature; filled with credit the post of state governor; perhaps gone as senator or representative to Washington, and there approved himself an active promoter of local interests. Probably he possesses the qualities which gain local popularity—geniality, activity, sympathy with the dominant sentiment and habits of his state; or while endowed with gifts excellent in their way, he has lacked the audacity and tenacity which push a man to the front through a jostling crowd. More rarely he is a demagogue who has raised himself by flattering the masses of his state on some local questions, or a skilful handler of party organizations who has made local bosses and spoilsmen believe that their interests areEdition: current; Page: [854] safe in his hands. Anyhow, his personality is such as to be more effective with neighbours than with the nation, as a lamp whose glow fills the side chapel of a cathedral sinks to a spark of light when carried into the nave.

A favourite son may be also a dark horse; that is to say, he may be well known in his own state, but so little known out of it as to be an unlikely candidate. But he need not be. The types are different, for as there are favourite sons whom the nation knows but does not care for, so there are dark horses whose reputation, such as it is, has not been made in state affairs, and who rely very little on state favour.

There are seldom more than two, never more than three favourites in the running at the same convention. Favourite sons are more numerous—it is not uncommon to have four or five, or even six, though perhaps not all these are actually started in the race. The number of dark horses is practically unlimited, because many talked of beforehand are not actually started, while others not considered before the convention begins are discovered as it goes on. This happened in the leading and most instructive case of James A. Garfield, who was not voted for at all on the first ballot in the Republican Convention of 1880, and had, on no ballot up to the thirty-fourth, received more than two votes. On the thirty-sixth3 he was nominated by 399. So, in 1852, Pierce was scarcely known to the people when he was sprung on the convention. So, in 1868, Horatio Seymour, who had been so little thought of as a candidate that he was chairman of the Democratic Convention, was first voted for on the twenty-second ballot. He refused to be nominated, but was induced to leave the chair and nominated on that very ballot.

To carry the analysis farther, it may be observed that four sets of motives are at work upon those who direct or vote in a convention, acting with different degrees of force on different persons. There is the wish to carry a particular aspirant. There is the wish to defeat a particular aspirant, a wish sometimes stronger than any predilection. There is the desire to get something for one’s self out of the struggle—e.g., by trading one’s vote or influence for the prospect of a federal office. There is the wish to find the man who, be he good or bad, friend or foe, will give the party its best chance of victory. These motives cross one another, get mixed, vary in relative strength from hour to hour as the convention goes on and new possibilities are disclosed. To forecast their joint effect on the minds of particular persons and sections of a party needs wide knowledge and eminent acuteness. To play upon them is a matter of the finest skill.

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The proceedings of a nominating convention can be best understood by regarding the three periods into which they fall: the transactions which precede the opening of its sittings; the preliminary business of passing rules and resolutions and delivering the nominating speeches; and, finally, the balloting.

A president has scarcely been elected before the newspapers begin to discuss his probable successor. Little, however, is done towards the ascertainment of candidates till about a year before the next election, when the factions of the chief aspirants prepare to fall into line, newspapers take up their parable in favour of one or other, and bosses begin the work of “subsoiling,” i.e., manipulating primaries and local conventions so as to secure the choice of such delegates to the next national convention as they desire. In most of the conventions which appoint delegates, the claims of the several aspirants are canvassed, and the delegates chosen are usually chosen in the interest of one particular aspirant. The newspapers, with their quick sense of what is beginning to stir in men’s thoughts, redouble their advocacy, and the “boom” of one or two of the probable favourites is thus fairly started. Before the delegates leave their homes for the national convention, most of them have fixed on their candidate, many having indeed received positive instructions as to how their vote shall be cast. All appears to be spontaneous, but in reality both the choice of particular men as delegates, and the instructions given, are usually the result of untiring underground work among local politicians, directed, or even personally conducted, by two or three skilful agents and emissaries of a leading aspirant, or of the knot which seeks to run him. Sometimes the result of the convention turns on the skill shown in sending up “handpicked” delegates.

Four or five days before the day fixed for the opening of the convention the delegations begin to flock into the city where it is to be held. Some come attended by a host of friends and camp followers, and are received at the depot (railway terminus) by the politicians of the city, with a band of music and an admiring crowd. Thus Tammany Hall, the famous Democratic club of New York City, came six hundred strong to Chicago in July 1884, filling two special trains.4 A great crowd met it at the station, and it marched, following its boss, from the cars to its headquarters at the Palmer House, in procession, each member wearing his badge, just as the retainers of Earl Warwick the kingmaker used to follow him through the streets of LondonEdition: current; Page: [856] with the bear and ragged staff upon their sleeves. Less than twenty of the six hundred were delegates; the rest ordinary members of the organization, who had accompanied to give it moral and vocal support.5

Before the great day dawns many thousands of politicians, newspapermen, and sightseers have filled to overflowing every hotel in the city, and crowded the main thoroughfares so that the streetcars can scarcely penetrate the throng. It is like a mediæval pilgrimage, or the mustering of a great army. When the chief delegations have arrived the work begins in earnest. Not only each large delegation, but the faction of each leading aspirant to the candidacy, has its headquarters, where the managers hold perpetual session, reckoning up their numbers, starting rumours meant to exaggerate their resources, and dishearten their opponents, organizing raids upon the less experienced delegates as they arrive. Some fill the entrance halls and bars of the hotels, talk to the busy reporters, extemporize meetings with tumultuous cheering for their favourite. The common “worker” is good enough to raise the boom by these devices. Meanwhile, the more skilful leaders begin (as it is expressed) to “plough around” among the delegations of the newer Western and Southern states, usually (at least among the Republicans) more malleable, because they come from regions where the strength of the factions supporting the various aspirants is less accurately known, and are themselves more easily “captured” by bold assertions or seductive promises. Sometimes an expert intriguer will “break into” one of these wavering delegations, and make havoc like a fox in a hen roost. “Missionaries” are sent out to bring over individuals; embassies are accredited from one delegation to another to endeavour to arrange combinations by coaxing the weaker party to drop its own aspirant, and add its votes to those of the stronger party. All is conducted with perfect order and good humour, for the least approach to violence would recoil upon its authors; and the only breach of courtesy is where a delegation refuses to receive the ambassadors of an organization whose evil fame has made it odious.

It is against etiquette for the aspirants themselves to appear in the convention,6 whether from some lingering respect for the notion that a man must not ask the people to choose him, but accept the proffered honour, or on the principle that the attorney who conducts his own case has a fool forEdition: current; Page: [857] a client. But from Washington, if he is an official or a senator, or perhaps from his own home, or possibly even from his room in the city, each aspirant keeps up hourly communication with his managers in the convention, having probably a private telegraph or telephone wire laid on for the purpose. Not only may officials, including the president himself, become aspirants, but federal officeholders may be, and very largely are, delegates, especially among the Southern Republicans when that party is in power.7 They have the strongest personal interest in the issue; and the heads of departments can, by promises of places, exert a potent influence. One hears in America, just as one used to hear in France under Louis Napoleon or Marshal MacMahon, of the “candidate of the Administration.”

As the hour when the convention is to open approaches, each faction strains its energy to the utmost. The larger delegations hold meetings to determine their course in the event of the man they chiefly favour proving “unavailable.” Conferences take place between different delegations. Lists are published in the newspapers of the strength of each aspirant. Sea and land are compassed to gain one influential delegate, who “owns” other delegates. If he resists other persuasions, he is “switched on” to the private wire of some magnate at Washington, who “talks to him,” and suggests inducements more effective than those he has hitherto withstood. The air is thick with tales of plots and treasons, so that no politician trusts his neighbour, for rumour spares none.

At length the period of expectation and preparation is over, and the summer sun rises upon the fateful day to which every politician in the party has looked forward for three years. Long before the time (usually 11 A.M.) fixed for the beginning of business, every part of the hall, erected specially for the gathering—a hall often large enough to hold from ten to fifteen thousand persons—is crowded.8 The delegates—who in 1912 were 1,078 in the Republican Convention and 1,086 in the Democratic—are a mere drop in the ocean of faces. Eminent politicians from every state of the Union, senators and representatives from Washington not a few, journalists and reporters, ladies, sightseers from distant cities, as well as a swarm of partisans from the city itself, press in; some semblance of order being kept by the sergeant-at-arms and his marshals. Some wear devices, sometimes the badge of their state, or of their organization; sometimes the colours or emblem of their favorite aspirant. Each state delegation has its allotted placeEdition: current; Page: [858] marked by the flag of the state floating from a pole, or a board bearing its name raised aloft; but leaders may be seen passing from one group to another, while the spectators listen to the band playing popular airs, and cheer any well-known figure that enters.

When the assembly is “called to order,” a prayer is offered—each day’s sitting begins with a prayer by some clergyman of local eminence,9 the susceptibilities of various denominations being duly respected in the selection—and business proceeds according to the order described in last chapter. First come the preliminaries, appointment of committees and chairmen, then the platform, and probably on the second day, but perhaps later, the nominations and balloting, the latter sometimes extending over several days. There is usually both a forenoon and an afternoon session.

A European is astonished to see nearly one thousand men prepare to transact the two most difficult pieces of business an assembly can undertake, the solemn consideration of their principles, and the selection of the person they wish to place at the head of the nation, in the sight and hearing of twelve or fourteen thousand other men and women. Observation of what follows does not lessen the astonishment. The convention presents in sharp contrast and frequent alternation, the two most striking features of Americans in public—their orderliness and their excitability. Everything is done according to strict rule, with a scrupulous observance of small formalities which European meetings would ignore or despise. Points of order almost too fine for a parliament are taken, argued, decided on by the chair, to whom everyone bows. Yet the passions that sway the multitude are constantly bursting forth in storms of cheering or hissing at an allusion to a favourite aspirant or an obnoxious name, and five or six speakers often take the floor together, shouting and gesticulating at each other till the chairman obtains a hearing for one of them. Of course it depends on the chairman whether or no the convention sinks into a mob. A chairman with a weak voice, or a want of prompt decision, or a suspicion of partisanship, may bring the assembly to the verge of disaster, and it has more than once happened that when the confusion that prevailed would have led to an irregular vote which might have been subsequently disputed, the action of the manager acting for the winning horse has, by waiving some point of order or consenting to an adjournment, saved the party from disruption. Even in the noisiest scenes good sense, with a feeling for the need of fair play—fair play according to the rules of the game, which do not exclude some dodges repugnant to anEdition: current; Page: [859] honourable man—will often reassert itself, and pull back the vehicle from the edge of the precipice.

The chief interest of the earlier proceedings lies in the indications which speeches and votings give of the relative strength of the factions. Sometimes a division on the choice of a chairman, or on the adoption of a rule, reveals the tendencies of the majority, or of influential leaders, in a way which sends the chances of an aspirant swiftly up or down the barometer of opinion. So when the nominating speeches come, it is not so much their eloquence that helps a nominee as the warmth with which the audience receives them, the volume of cheering and the length of time, perhaps an hour or more, during which the transport lasts. As might be guessed from the size of the audience which he addresses, an orator is expected to “soar into the blue empyrean” at once. The rhetoric is usually pompous and impassioned, but few are those who can make themselves heard by the whole of the multitude. To read a speech, even a short speech, from copious notes, is neither irregular nor rare.

While forenoon and evening, perhaps even late evening, are occupied with the sittings of the convention, canvassing and intrigue go on more briskly than ever during the rest of the day and night. Conferences are held between delegations anxious to arrange for a union of forces on one candidate.10 Divided delegations hold meetings of their own members, meetings often long and stormy, behind closed doors, outside which a curious crowd listens to the angry voices within, and snatches at the reports which the dispersing members give of the result. Sometimes the whole issue of the convention hinges on the action of the delegates of a great state, which, like New York, under the unit rule, can throw seventy-eight votes into the trembling scale. It may even happen, although this is against a well-settled custom, that a brazen aspirant himself goes the round of several delegations and tries to harangue them into supporting him.

Sometimes it is well known beforehand whom the convention will nominate. One aspirant may be so generally popular with the whole party that the delegates have nothing to do but register a foregone conclusion. Or it may happen that the leaders of the party have reached an agreement which a majority of the delegates can be relied on to carry out. Such cases,Edition: current; Page: [860] however, have hitherto been infrequent, and in what follows I describe the more usual phenomenon of a struggle between contending factions and aspirants prolonged until the moment comes for the convention to decide.

As it rarely happens that any aspirant is able to command at starting a majority of the whole convention, the object of his friends is to arrange a combination whereby he may gather from the supporters of other aspirants votes sufficient to make up the requisite majority, be it two-thirds, according to the Democratic rule, or a little more than a half, according to the Republican. Let us take the total number of votes at 1,000—a trifle below the figure in 1912. There are usually two aspirants commanding each from 280 to 350, one or two others with from 50 to 120, and the rest with much smaller figures, 20 to 40 each. A combination can succeed in one of two ways: (a) one of the stronger aspirants may pick up votes, sometimes quickly, sometimes by slow degrees, from the weaker candidates, sufficient to overpower the rival favourite; (b) each of the strongest aspirants may hold his forces so well together that after repeated ballotings it becomes clear that neither can win against the resistance of the other. Neither faction will, however, give way, because there is usually bitterness between them, because each would feel humiliated, and because each aspirant has so many friends that his patronage will no more than suffice for the clients to whom he is pledged already. Hence one or other of the baffled favourites suddenly transfers the votes he commands to some one of the weaker men, who then so rapidly “develops strength” that the rest of the minor factions go over to him, and he obtains the requisite majority.11 Experience has so well prepared the tacticians for one or other of these issues that the game is always played with a view to them. The first effort of the managers of a favourite is to capture the minor groups of delegates who support one or other of the favourite sons and dark horses. Not till this proves hopeless do they decide to sell themselves as dear as they can by taking up and carrying to victory a dark horse or perhaps even a favourite son, thereby retaining the pleasure of defeating the rival favourite, while at the same time establishing a claim for themselves and their faction on the aspirant whom they carry.12

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It may be asked why a dark horse often prevails against the favourites, seeing that either of the latter has a much larger number of delegates in his favour. Ought not the wish of a very large group to have so much weight with the minor groups as to induce them to come over and carry the man whom a powerful section of the party obviously desires? The reason why this does not happen is that a favourite is often as much hated by one strong section as he is liked by another, and if the hostile section is not strong enough to keep him out by its unaided vote, it is sure to be able to do so by transferring itself to some other aspirant. Moreover, a favourite has often less chance with the minor groups than a dark horse may have. He has not the charm of novelty. His “ins and outs” are known; the delegations weighed his merits before they left their own state, and if they, or the state convention that instructed them, decided against him then, they are slow to adopt him now. They have formed a habit of “antagonizing” him, whereas they have no hostility to some new and hitherto inconspicuous aspirant.

Let us now suppose resolutions and nominating speeches despatched, and the curtain raised for the third act of the convention. The chairman raps loudly with his gavel,13 announcing the call of states for the vote. A hush falls on the multitude, a long deep breath is drawn, tally books are opened and pencils grasped, while the clerk reads slowly the names of state after state. As each is called, the chairman of its delegation rises and announces the votes it gives, bursts of cheering from each faction in the audience welcoming the votes given to the object of its wishes. Inasmuch as the disposition of most of the delegates has become known beforehand, not only to the managers, but to the public through the press, the loudest welcome is given to a delegate or delegation whose vote turns out better than had been predicted.

In the first scene of this third and decisive act the favourites have, of course, the leading parts. Their object is to produce an impression of overwhelming strength, so the whole of this strength is displayed, unless, as occasionally happens, an astute manager holds back a few votes. This is also the bright hour of the favourite sons. Each receives the vote of his state, but each usually finds that he has little to expect from external help, and his friends begin to consider into what other camp they had better march over. The dark horses are in the background, nor is it yet possible to say which (if any) of them will come to the front.

The first ballot seldom decides much, yet it gives a new aspect to theEdition: current; Page: [862] battlefield, for the dispositions of some groups of voters who had remained doubtful is now revealed, and the managers of each aspirant are better able to tell, from the way in which certain delegations are divided, in what quarters they are most likely to gain or lose votes on the subsequent ballots. They whisper hastily together, and try, in the few moments they have before the second ballot is upon them, to prepare some new line of defence or attack.

The second ballot, taken in the same way, sometimes reveals even more than the first. The smaller and more timid delegations, smitten with the sense of their weakness, despairing of their own aspirant, and anxious to be on the winning side, begin to give way; or if this does not happen on the second ballot, it may do so on the third. Rifts open in their ranks, individuals or groups of delegates go over to one of the stronger candidates, some having all along meant to do so, and thrown their first vote merely to obey instructions received or fulfil the letter of a promise given. The gain of even twenty or thirty votes for one of the leading candidates over his strength on the preceding ballot so much inspirits his friends, and is so likely to bring fresh recruits to his standard, that a wily manager will often, on the first ballot, throw away some of his votes on a harmless antagonist that he may by rallying them increase the total of his candidate on the second, and so convey the impression of growing strength.

The breathing space between each ballot and that which follows is used by the managers for hurried consultations. Aides-de-camp are sent to confirm a wavering delegation, or to urge one which has been supporting a now hopeless aspirant to seize this moment for dropping him and coming over to the winning standard. Or the aspirant himself, who, hundreds of miles away, sits listening to the click of the busy wires, is told how matters stand, and asked to advise forthwith what course his friends shall take. Forthwith it must be, for the next ballot is come, and may give the battlefield a new aspect, promising victory or presaging irretrievable defeat.

Anyone who has taken part in an election, be it the election of a pope by cardinals, of a town clerk by the city council, of a fellow by the dons of a college, of a schoolmaster by the board of trustees, of a pastor by a congregation, knows how much depends on generalship. In every body of electors there are men who have no minds of their own; others who cannot make up their minds till the decisive moment, and are determined by the last word or incident; others whose wavering inclination yields to the pressure or follows the example of a stronger colleague. There are therefore chances of running in by surprise an aspirant whom few may have desired,Edition: current; Page: [863] but still fewer have positively disliked, chances specially valuable when controversy has spent itself between two equally matched competitors, so that the majority are ready to jump at a new suggestion. The wary tactician awaits his opportunity; he improves the brightening prospects of his aspirant to carry him with a run before the opposition is ready with a counter move; or if he sees a strong antagonist, he invents pretexts for delay till he has arranged a combination by which that antagonist may be foiled. Sometimes he will put forward an aspirant destined to be abandoned, and reserve till several votings have been taken the man with whom he means to win. All these arts are familiar to the convention manager, whose power is seen not merely in the dealing with so large a number of individuals and groups whose dispositions he must grasp and remember, but in the cool promptitude with which he decides on his course amid the noise and passion and distractions of twelve thousand shouting spectators. Scarcely greater are the faculties of combination and coolness of head needed by a general in the midst of a battle, who has to bear in mind the position of every one of his own corps and to divine the positions of those of the enemy’s corps which remain concealed, who must vary his plan from hour to hour according to the success or failure of each of his movements and the new facts that are successively disclosed, and who does all this under the roar and through the smoke of cannon.

One balloting follows another till what is called “the break” comes. It comes when the weaker factions, perceiving that the men of their first preference cannot succeed, transfer their votes to that one among the aspirants whom they like best, or whose strength they see growing. When the faction of one aspirant has set the example, others are quick to follow, and thus it may happen that after thirty or forty ballots have been taken with few changes of strength as between the two leading competitors, a single ballot, once the break has begun, and the column of one or both of these competitors has been “staggered,” decides the battle.

If one favourite is much stronger from the first than any other, the break may come soon and come gently, i.e., each ballot shows a gain for him on the preceding ballot, and he marches so steadily to victory that resistance is felt to be useless. But if two well-matched rivals have maintained the struggle through twenty or thirty ballots, so that the long strain has wrought up all minds to unwonted excitement, the break, when it comes, comes with fierce intensity, like that which used to mark the charge of the Old Guard. The defeat becomes a rout. Battalion after battalion goes over to the victors, while the vanquished, ashamed of their candidate, try to concealEdition: current; Page: [864] themselves by throwing away their colours and joining in the cheers that acclaim the conqueror. In the picturesquely technical language of politicians, it is a stampede.

To stampede a convention is the steadily contemplated aim of every manager who knows he cannot win on the first ballot.14 He enjoys it as the most dramatic form of victory, he values it because it evokes an enthusiasm whose echo reverberates all over the Union, and dilates the party heart with something like that sense of supernatural guidance which Rome used to have when the cardinals chose a pope by the sudden inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it comes of itself, when various delegations, smitten at the same moment by the sense that one of the aspirants is destined to conquer, go over to him all at once.15 Sometimes it is due to the action of the aspirant himself. In 1880 Mr. Blaine, who was one of the two leading favourites, perceiving that he could not be carried against the resistance of the Grant men, suddenly telegraphed to his friends to transfer their votes to General Garfield, till then a scarcely considered candidate. In 1884 General Logan, also by telegraph, turned over his votes to Mr. Blaine between the third and fourth ballot, thereby assuring the already probable triumph of that favourite.

When a stampede is imminent, only one means exists of averting it, that of adjourning the convention so as to stop the panic and gain time for a combination against the winning aspirant. A resolute manager always tries this device, but he seldom succeeds, for the winning side resists the motion for adjournment, and the vote which it casts on that issue is practically a vote for its aspirant, against so much of “the field” as has any fight left in it. This is the most critical and exciting moment of the whole battle. A dozen speakers rise at once, some to support, some to resist the adjournment, some to protest against debate upon it, some to take points of order, few of which can be heard over the din of the howling multitude. Meanwhile, the managers who have kept their heads rush swiftly about through friendly delegations, trying at this supreme moment to rig up a combination which may resist the advancing tempest. Tremendous efforts are made to get the second favourite’s men to abandon their chief and “swing into line” forEdition: current; Page: [865] some dark horse or favourite son, with whose votes they may make head till other factions rally to them.

  • In vain, in vain, the all-consuming hour
  • Relentless falls—

The battle is already lost, the ranks are broken and cannot be rallied, nothing remains for brave men but to cast their last votes against the winner and fall gloriously around their still waving banner. The motion to adjourn is defeated, and the next ballot ends the strife with a hurricane of cheering for the chosen leader. Then a sudden calm falls on the troubled sea. What is done is done, and whether done for good or for ill, the best face must be put upon it. Accordingly the proposer of one of the defeated aspirants moves that the nomination be made unanimous, and the more conspicuous friends of other aspirants hasten to show their good humour and their loyalty to the party as a whole by seconding this proposition. Then, perhaps, a gigantic portrait of the candidate, provided by anticipation, is hoisted up, a signal for fresh enthusiasm, or a stuffed eagle is carried in procession round the hall.

Nothing further remains but to nominate a candidate for the vice-presidency, a matter of small moment now that the great issue has been settled. This nomination is frequently used to console one of the defeated aspirants for the presidential nomination, or is handed over to his friends to be given to some politician of their choice. If there be a contest, it is seldom prolonged beyond two or three ballots. The convention is at an end, and in another day the whole host of exhausted delegates and camp followers, hoarse with shouting, is streaming home along the railways.16

The fever heat of the convention is almost matched by that of the great cities, and indeed of every spot over the Union to which there runs an electric wire. Every incident, speech, vote, is instantly telegraphed to all the cities. Crowds gather round the newspaper offices, where frequent editions are supplemented by boards displaying the latest bulletins. In Washington, Congress can hardly be kept together, because every politicianEdition: current; Page: [866] is personally interested in every move of the game. When at last the result is announced, the partisans of the chosen candidate go wild with delight; salvos of artillery are fired off, processions with bands parade the streets, ratification meetings are announced for the same evening, “campaign clubs” bearing the candidate’s name are organized on the spot. The excitement is of course greatest in the victor’s own state, or in the city where he happens to be resident. A crowd rushes to his house, squeezes his hand to a quivering pulp, congratulates him on being virtually president, while the keen-eyed reporter telegraphs far and wide how he smiled and spoke when the news was brought. Defeated aspirants telegraph to their luckier rival their congratulations on his success, promising him support in the campaign. Interviewers fly to prominent politicians, and cross-examine them as to what they think of the nomination. But in two days all is still again, and a lull of exhaustion follows till the real business of the contest begins some while later with the issue of the letter of acceptance, in which the candidate declares his views and outlines his policy.

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chapter 71

The Presidential Campaign

A presidential election in America is something to which Europe can show nothing similar. Though the issues which fall to be decided by the election of a chamber in France or Italy, or of a House of Commons in England, are often far graver than those involved in the choice of A or B to be executive chief magistrate for four years, the commotion and excitement, the amount of “organization,” of speaking, writing, telegraphing, and shouting, is incomparably greater in the United States. It is only the salient features of these contests that I shall attempt to sketch, for the detail is infinite.

The canvass usually lasts about four months. It begins soon after both of the great parties have chosen their candidate, i.e., before the middle of July; and it ends early in November, on the day when the presidential electors are chosen simultaneously in and by all the states. The summer heats and the absence of the richer sort of people at the seaside or mountain resorts keep down the excitement during July and August; it rises in September, and boils furiously through October.

The first step is for each nominated candidate to accept his nomination in a letter, sometimes as long as a pamphlet, setting forth his views of the condition of the nation and the policy which the times require. Such a letter is meant to strike the keynote for the whole orchestra of orators. It is, of course, published everywhere, extolled by friendly and dissected by hostile journals. Together with the “platform” adopted at the national party convention, it is the official declaration of party principles, to be referred to as putting the party case, no less than the candidate himself, before the nation.

While the candidate is composing his address, the work of organization goes briskly forward, for in American elections everything is held to dependEdition: current; Page: [868] on organization. A central or national party committee nominated by the national convention, and consisting of one member from each state, gets its members together and forms a plan for the conduct of the canvass. It raises money by appealing to the wealthy and zealous men of the party for subscriptions, and, of course, presses those above all who have received something in the way of an office or other gratification from the party1 or who expect something from its action. The chairman of this committee is an important personage, who exercises great power and upon whose abilities much may depend. The treasurer is also always a prominent man, in whom both energy and discretion are required. It communicates with the leading statesmen and orators of the party, and arranges in what district of the country each shall take the stump. It issues shoals of pamphlets, and forms relations with party newspapers. It allots grants from the “campaign fund” to particular persons and state committees, to be spent by them for “campaign purposes,” an elastic term which may cover a good deal of illicit expenditure. Enormous sums are gathered and disbursed by this committee, and the accounts submitted do not, as may be supposed, answer all the questions they suggest. The committee directs its speakers and its funds chiefly to the doubtful states, those in which eloquence or expenditure may turn the balance either way. There are seldom more than six or seven such states at any one election, possibly fewer.

The efforts of the national committee are seconded not only by a congressional committee2 and by state committees, but by an infinite number of minor organizations over the country, in the rural districts no less than in the cities. Some of these are permanent. Others are created for the election alone; and as they contemplate a short life, they make it a merry one. These “campaign clubs,” which usually bear the candidates’ names, are formed on every imaginable basis, that of locality, of race, of trade or profession, of university affiliation. There are Irish clubs, Italian clubs, German clubs,Edition: current; Page: [869] Scandinavian clubs, Polish clubs, coloured (i.e., Negro) clubs, Orange clubs. There are young men’s clubs, lawyers’ clubs, dry-goods clubs, insurance men’s clubs, shoe and leather clubs. There are clubs of the graduates of various colleges. Their work consists in canvassing the voters, making up lists of friends, opponents, and doubtfuls, getting up processions and parades, holding meetings, and generally “booming all the time.”

This is mostly unpaid labour. But there are also thousands of paid agents at work, canvassing, distributing pamphlets or leaflets, lecturing on behalf of the candidate. It is in America no reproach to a political speaker that he receives a fee or a salary. Even men of eminence are permitted to receive not only their travelling expenses, but a round sum. Formerly a candidate, unless possessed of popular gifts, did but little speaking. Latterly he has been expected to take the field and stay in it fighting all the time, a terrible strain on health and voice. He is of course chiefly seen in the doubtful states, where he speaks for weeks together twice or thrice on most days, filling up the intervals with “receptions” at which he has to shake hands with hundreds of male callers, and be presented to ladies scarcely less numerous.3 The leading men of the party are, of course, pressed into the service. Even if they dislike and have opposed the nomination of the particular candidate, party loyalty and a lively sense of favours to come force them to work for the person whom the party has chosen. An eminent Irishman or an eminent German used to be deemed especially valuable for a stumping tour, because he influenced the vote of his countrymen. Similarly each senator is expected to labour assiduously at his own state, where presumably his influence is greatest, and any refusal to do so is deemed a pointed disapproval of the candidate.

The committees print and distribute great quantities of campaign literature, pamphlets, speeches, letters, leaflets, and one can believe that this printed matter is more serviceable than it would be in England, because a larger part of the voters live in quiet country places, and like something to read in the evening. Even novelettes are composed in the interests of a candidate, wherein lovers talk about tariffs under the moon. Sometimes a less ingenuous use is made of the press. On the very eve of the election of 1880, too late for a contradiction to obtain equal publicity, a forged letter, purporting to come from Mr. Garfield, and expressing views on Chinese immigration and labour, distasteful to the Pacific states, was lithographed and scattered broadcast over California, where it told heavily against him.

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Most constant and effective of all is the action of the newspapers. The chief journals have for two or three months a daily leading article recommending their own and assailing the hostile candidate, with a swarm of minor editorial paragraphs bearing on the election. Besides these there are reports of speeches delivered, letters to the editor with the editor’s comments at the end, stories about the candidates, statements as to the strength of each party in particular states, counties, and cities. An examination of a few of the chief newspapers during the two months before a hotly contested election showed that their “campaign matter” of all kinds formed between one-half and one-third of the total letterpress of the paper (excluding advertisements), and this, be it remembered, every day during those two months. The most readable part of this matter consists in the reports of the opinion of individual persons, more or less prominent, on the candidate. You find, for instance, a paragraph stating that the Rev. Dr. A., president of such and such a college, or Mr. B., the philanthropist who is head of the Y Z Bank, or ex-Governor C., or Judge D., has said he thinks the candidate a model of chivalric virtue, or fit only for a felon’s cell, as the case may be, and that he will vote for or against him accordingly.4 Occasionally the prominent man is called on by an interviewer and gives a full statement of his views, or he writes to a young friend who has asked his advice in a private letter, which is immediately published. The abundance of these expressions or citations of the opinions of private citizens supplies a curious evidence of the disposition of some sections in a democracy to look up to its intellectual and moral leaders. For the men thus appealed to are nearly all persons eminent by their character, ability, learning, or success in business; the merely rich man is cited but rarely, and as if his opinion did not matter, though of course his subscription may. Judges and lawyers, university dignitaries and literary men, are, next to the clergy,5 the persons most often quoted.

The function of the clergy in elections is very characteristic of the countryEdition: current; Page: [871] and the occasion. They used during the period from 1820 to 1856 to give politics a wide berth, for not only would their advocacy of any particular cause have offended a section among their flocks, but the general sentiment condemned the immixture in politics of a clerical element. The struggle against slavery, being a moral issue, brought them into more frequent public activity. Since the close of that struggle they have again tended to retire. However, the excitement of a presidential election suspends all rules; and when questions affecting the moral character of the candidates are involved, clerical intervention is deemed natural. Thus in the contest of 1884, the newspapers were full of the opinions of clergymen. Sermons were reported if they seemed to bear upon the issue. Paragraphs appeared saying that such and such a pastor would carry three-fourths of his congregation with him, whereas the conduct of another in appearing at a meeting on behalf of the opposing candidate was much blamed by his flock. Not many ministers actually took the platform, though there was a general wish to have them as chairmen. But one, the late Mr. Henry Ward Beecher, did great execution by his powerful oratory, artillery all the more formidable because it was turned against the candidate of the party to which he had through his long life belonged. Nor was there any feature in the canvass of that same candidate more remarkable than the assembly of 1,018 clergymen of all denominations (including a Jewish rabbi), which gathered at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York, to meet him and assure him of their support on moral grounds, immediately before the election day.6

From a class usually excluded from politics by custom to a class excluded by law, the transition is easy. Women as a rule (setting aside the four woman suffrage Western states) keep as much aloof from electoral contests in America as in continental Europe, and certainly more than in England, for I have never heard of their forming an organization to canvass the voters of a district in America, as the (Conservative) Primrose League and the Women’s Liberal Associations do in England. Nor are women appointed delegates from any ward primary,7 as they have lately been in some placesEdition: current; Page: [872] in England. However, the excitement of a close struggle sometimes draws even women into the vortex. Receptions are tendered by the ladies of each party to the candidate, and are reported in the public press as politically significant, while among the letters which appear in the newspapers not a few bear female signatures.

Speaking and writing and canvassing are common to elections all over the world. What is peculiar to America is the amazing development of the “demonstration” as a means for raising enthusiasm. For three months, processions, usually with brass bands, flags, badges, crowds of cheering spectators, are the order of the day and night from end to end of the country. The Young Men’s Pioneer club of a village in the woods of Michigan turns out in the summer evening; the Democrats or Republicans of Chicago or Philadelphia leave their business to march through the streets of these great cities many thousands strong.

When a procession is exceptionally large, it is called a parade. In New York City, on the 29th of October 1884, the businessmen who supported Mr. James Gillespie Blaine held such a demonstration. They were organized by profession or occupation: the lawyers, 800 strong, forming one battalion, the dry-goods men another, the produce exchange a third, the bankers a fourth, the brokers a fifth, the jewellers a sixth, the petroleum exchange a seventh, and so on ad infinitum. They started from the Bowling Green near the south end of Manhattan Island, and marched right up the city along Broadway to Madison Square, where Mr. Blaine reviewed and addressed them. Rain fell incessantly, and the streets were deep with mud, but neither rain above nor mud below damped the spirits of this great army, which tramped steadily along, chanting various “campaign refrains,” such as

  • Five, Five, Five Cent Fare;8

but most frequently

  • Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine,
  • We don’t care a bit for the rain,
  • O—O—O—O—HI—O.9

There were said to have been 25,000 businessmen in this parade, which was followed soon after by another more miscellaneous Blaine parade ofEdition: current; Page: [873] 60,000 Republicans, as well as (of course) by counter parades of Democrats. A European, who stands amazed at the magnitude of these demonstrations, is apt to ask whether the result attained is commensurate with the money, time, and effort give to them. His American friends answer that, as with advertising, it is not to be supposed that shrewd and experienced men would thus spend their money unless convinced that the expenditure was reproductive. The parade and procession business, the crowds, the torches, the badges, the flags, the shouting, all this pleases the participants by making them believe they are effecting something; it impresses the spectators by showing them that other people are in earnest, it strikes the imagination of those who in country hamlets read of the doings in the great city. In short, it keeps up the “boom,” and an American election is held to be, truly or falsely, largely a matter of booming.

If the cynical visitor smiles at these displays, he is constrained to admire the good humour and good order which prevail. Neither party in the Northern, Middle, and Western states dreams of disturbing the parades or meetings of the other. You might believe, from the acclamations which accompany a procession, that the whole population was with it, for if opponents are present they do not hoot or hiss, and there are always enough sympathizers to cheer. During the hotly contested elections of 1880 and 1896, hardly any collisions or disturbances reported from California to Maine. Even in Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, where the old Southern party is apt to let its angry passions rise against the Negroes and their white Republican allies, the breaches of order were neither numerous nor serious. Over five-sixths of the Southern states perfect quiet prevailed. It is true that one party could there count on an overwhelming majority, so that there was no excuse for the one to bully nor any inducement for the other to show fight. The elections of 1904 and 1908 were even more tranquil. If any disturbances occurred anywhere in the latter year no notice of them found its way into the press.

The maxim that nothing succeeds like success is nowhere so cordially and consistently accepted as in America. It is the cornerstone of all election work. The main effort of a candidate’s orators and newspapers is to convince the people that their side is the winning one, for there are sure to be plenty of voters anxious to be on that side, not so much from any advantage to be gained for themselves as because reverence for “the people” makes them believe that the majority are right. Hence the exertions to prove that the Germans, or the Irish, or the working men are going for candidate X or candidate Y. Hence the reports of specimen canvasses showing that 70 perEdition: current; Page: [874] cent of the clerks in a particular bank or 80 per cent of the professors in a particular theological college have declared themselves for X. Hence the announcements of the betting odds for a particular candidate, and the assertion that the supporters of the other man who had put large sums on him are now beginning to hedge.10 But the best evidence to which a party can appeal is its winning minor elections which come off shortly before the great presidential one. In three states, Vermont, Maine, and Oregon, the choice of a governor and other state officers takes place in September, i.e., within two months of the presidential contest. If the state is a safe one for the Republicans or the Democrats (as the case may be), the votes cast are compared with those cast at the last preceding similar election, and the inference drawn that one or other party is gaining. If it is a doubtful state the interest is still more keen, and every nerve is strained to carry an election whose issue will presage, and by presaging contribute to, success in the presidential struggle. Possibly the candidate or some of his ablest speakers stump this state; probably also it is drenched with money. The inferences from such a contest may be thought uncertain, because state elections are always complicated with local questions, and with the character of the particular candidates for state offices. But it is a maxim among politicians that in a presidential year local issues vanish, the voters being so warmed with party spirit that they go solid for their party in spite of all local or personal obstacles. The truth of this view was illustrated by the fact that Ohio used often to return a majority of Democrats to Congress and had a Democratic majority in her own legislature, but for several elections gave a majority for the presidential candidate of the Republican party. The eagerness shown to carry the October elections in this great and often doubtful state used to be scarcely second to that displayed in the presidential contest. She has now (and Indiana likewise) put her fall elections later, and makes them coincide (every second term) with the presidential election, in order to avoid the tremendous strain which they had been forced to bear. Before this change it was often made an argument why the party should select its candidate from Ohio, that this would give a better chance of winning the preliminary canter, and thereby securing the advantage of a presageful victory.11

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So far I have described the contest as one between two parties and two candidates only. But it is sometimes complicated by the appearance of other minor parties and minor candidates who, although they have no chance of success, affect the main struggle by drawing off strength from one side or the other. In the elections of 1880–92 the Prohibitionist party and the Greenback party each held a national convention, nominated candidates for presidency and vice-presidency, and obtained at the polls a number of votes far too small to carry any single state, and therefore, of course, too small to choose any presidential electors, but sufficient to affect, perhaps to turn, the balance of strength between Republicans and Democrats in two or three of the doubtful states. The Prohibitionist candidate drew most of his votes from the Republican side; a Greenbacker from the Democratic: and so more recently the appearance of a Populist or Socialist candidate has been supposed to injure the Democratic prospects. Hence there was apt to be a sort of tacit alliance during the campaign between the Republican organs and the Labour or Socialist party, between the Democratic organs and the Prohibitionist; and conversely much ill blood between Republicans and Prohibitionists, between Democrats and Labour men. Anyone can see what an opening for intrigue is given by these complications, and how much they add to the difficulty of predicting the result of the contest. The area of that contest is a continent, and in the various regions of the continent forces different in nature and varying in strength are at work.

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chapter 72

The Issues in Presidential Elections

Upon what does a presidential election turn? The presidential candidate has a double character. He is put forward as being individually qualified for the great place of executive head of the nation, because he is a man of integrity, energy, firmness, intellectual power, experience in affairs. He is also recommended as a prominent member of a great national party, inspired by its traditions, devoted to its principles, and prepared to carry them out not only in his properly executive capacity, but, what is more important, as the third branch of the legislature, armed with a veto on bills passed by Congress. His election may therefore be advocated or opposed either on the ground of his personal qualities or of his political professions and party affiliations. Here we have a marked difference between the American and European systems, because in England, and perhaps still more in France, Belgium, and Italy, elections turn chiefly on the views of the parties, secondarily on the character of individual leaders, seeing that the leaders are not chosen directly by the people, but are persons who have come to the top in the legislatures of those countries, or have been raised to office by the Crown. In America, therefore, we have a source of possible confusion between issues of two wholly distinct kinds—those which affect the personal qualifications of the candidate, and those which regard the programme of his party.

Whether, in any given presidential election, the former or the latter class of issues are the more conspicuous and decisive, depends partly on the political questions which happen to be then before the people, partly on the more or less marked individuality of the rival candidates. From about 1850 down to 1876, questions, first of the extension of slavery, then of its extinction, then of the reconstruction of the Union, had divided the nation, and made every contest a contest of principles and of practical measures. Since the controversies raised by the war have been settled, there were, tillEdition: current; Page: [877] the free silver question emerged in 1896, few real differences of political principle between the parties, and questions of personal fitness therefore became relatively more important. Now that both currency issues and those raised by the war with Spain have subsided, the qualities of the candidates seem again tending to be potent factors.

The object of each party naturally is to put forward as many good political issues as it can, claiming for itself the merit of having always been on the popular side. Anyone who should read the campaign literature of the Republicans would fancy that they were opposed to the Democrats on many important points. When he took up the Democratic speeches and pamphlets he would be again struck by the serious divergences between the parties, which, however, would seem to arise, not on the points raised by the Republicans, but on other points which the Republicans had not referred to. In other words, the aim of each party is to force on its antagonist certain issues which the antagonist rarely accepts, so that although there is a vast deal of discussion and declamation on political topics, there are few on which either party directly traverses the doctrines of the other. Each pummels, not his true enemy, but a stuffed figure set up to represent that enemy. During the presidential elections after that of 1876, the Republicans sought to force to the front the issue of protection versus free trade, which the Democrats sometimes hesitated to accept, having avowed Protectionists within their own ranks, and knowing that the bulk of the nation was (at most) prepared only for certain reductions in the tariff. Thus while Republican orators were advocating a protective tariff on a thousand platforms, hardly a Democrat ventured to refer to the subject except by saying that he would not refer to it. Both sides declared against monopolists and the power of corporations. Both professed to be the friends of civil service reform, though neither cared for it. Both promised to protect the rights of the Americans all over the world, to withstand Bismarck in his attacks on American bacon—this was in 1884—and to rescue American citizens from British dungeons. Both, however, were equally zealous for peace and goodwill among the nations, and had no idea of quarrelling with any European power. These appeals and professions made no great impression upon the voters. The American, like the Englishman, usually votes with his party, right or wrong, and when there is little distinction of view between the parties it becomes all the easier to stick to your old friends. The Republican party still had much support from those who remembered that it had saved the Union in the days of Secession. The Democratic party commanded a solid South.

The election of 1888 was remarkable for the fact that the victory of theEdition: current; Page: [878] party which had been defeated in 1884 was mainly due to a personal intrigue, a secret “deal,” which was believed to have turned over from the Democrats to the Republicans the thirty-six electoral votes of New York State. In the contest of 1892 the Democrats imitated the Republican tactics of 1884 by attacking the latter party upon an issue (that of the Federal Elections or so-called “Force” Bill) which the Republicans had carefully avoided, and which they refused to accept. The protective tariff did on this occasion raise a definite issue and materially affect the result. But as regards currency questions, profound and important as they were, the “platforms” of the two great parties differed but slightly, and neither could command the allegiance to its platform of the whole of its rank and file. In particular the strange spectacle was presented of a candidate avowing strong and clear views, who found himself in this weighty matter more in accordance with the bulk of his Republican opponents than with a large section of his Democratic supporters.

In the election of 1896 the section last referred to carried the Democratic Convention and nominated its candidate, so the contest turned upon the free silver issue. Here there was an economic question of capital importance, which divided the Republicans from the “regular” Democrats, for a part of the Democratic party, differing from the majority on the currency, had broken away and nominated its own candidates for presidency and vice-presidency. On this occasion campaign oratory and literature were directed to a tangible issue. Economic doctrines were forcibly argued; the intelligence of the electors was appealed to; the contest was splendidly stimulating and educative. In 1900 something similar happened, though the currency was then a less prominent issue. In 1904 that issue had disappeared. Both then and in 1908 there was a less sharp opposition of contending doctrines, and on many points the parties were practically agreed, though one stated its views in more “radical” terms than the other, and the Democrats kept almost silent on tariff questions while the Republicans talked of cautiously revising a scale of duties which they lauded as beneficial.

When political controversy is languid, personal issues come to the front. They are in one sense small, but not for that reason less exciting. Whoever has sat in any body of men, from a college debating society up to a legislative chamber, knows that no questions raise so much warmth, and are debated with so much keenness as questions affecting the character and conduct of individual men. They evoke some of what is best and much of what is worst in human nature. In a presidential election it is impossible to avoid discussing the personal merits of the candidates, because much dependsEdition: current; Page: [879] on those merits. It has also proved impossible to set limits to the discussion. Unmitigated publicity is a condition of eminence in America; and the excitement in one of these contests rises so high that (at elections in which personal issues are prominent) the canons of decorum which American custom at other times observes, are cast aside by speakers and journalists. The air is thick with charges, defences, recriminations, till the voter knows not what to believe.

These censures are referable to three classes.1 One used to include what was called the candidate’s “war record.” To have been disloyal to the Union in the hour of its danger was a reproach. To have fought for the North, still more to have led a Northern regiment or division, covered a multitude of sins. It is the greatest of blessings for America that she fights so seldom, for in no country do military achievements carry a candidate farther, not that the people love war, for they do not, but because success in a sphere so remote from their ordinary life touches their imagination, marks a man out from his fellows, associates his name with their passionate patriotism, gives him a claim on the gratitude, not of a party, but of the nation as a whole. His prowess in repulsing the British troops at New Orleans made Andrew Jackson twice president, in spite of grave faults of temper and judgment. Some Indian skirmishes fixed the choice of the Whig party in 1840 upon William H. Harrison, though his competitor for the nomination was Henry Clay. Zachary Taylor was known only by his conduct of the Mexican war, when he was elected by the same party in 1848. The failure of General Grant as president in his first term, a failure which those who most heartily recognized his honour and patriotism could not deny, did not prevent his reelection in 1872; and the memory of his services came near to giving him a third nomination in 1880.

More serious, however, than the absence of a war record, have been charges of the second class—those impeaching the nominee’s personal integrity. These few candidates used to escape. Few men can have passed years in a state legislature or state or city office, or Congress, without coming into contact with disreputable persons, and occasionally finding themselves in situations capable of being misrepresented. They may haveEdition: current; Page: [880] walked warily, they may not have swerved from the path of rectitude, but they must have been tempted to do so, and it requires no great invention to add details which give a bad look to the facts. As some men of note, from whom better things had been expected, have lapsed, a lapse by a man of standing seems credible. It was therefore an easy task for the unscrupulous passions which a contest rouses to gather up rumours, piece out old though unproved stories of corruption, put the worst meaning on doubtful words, and so construct a damning impeachment, which will be read in party journals by many voters who never see the defence. The worst of this habit of universal invective is that the plain citizen, hearing much which he cannot believe, finding foul imputations brought even against those he has reason to respect, despairs of sifting the evidence, and sets down most of the charges to malice and “campaign methods,” while concluding that the residue is about equally true of all politicians alike. The distinction between good and bad men may for many voters be practically effaced, and the spectacle be presented of half the honest men supporting for the headship of the nation a person whom the other half declare to be a knave. Extravagant abuse produces a reaction, and makes the honest supporters of a candidate defend even his questionable acts. And thus the confidence of the country in the honour of its public men was lowered.

Less frequent, but more offensive, have sometimes, though happily rarely, been the charges made against the private life of a candidate, particularly in his relations with women. American opinion is highly sensitive on this subject. Nothing damages a man more than a reputation for irregularity in these relations; nothing therefore opens a more promising field to slander, and to the coarse vulgarity which is scarcely less odious, even if less mendacious, than slander itself.

Though these have been the chief heads of attack, there is nothing in the life or habits of a candidate out of which materials for a reproach might not be drawn. Of one it is said that he is too fond of eating; of another that though he rents a pew in Dr. Y—’s church, he is more frequently seen in a Roman Catholic place of worship; of a third that he deserted his wife twenty-five years ago; of a fourth that he is an atheist. His private conversations may be reported; and when he denies the report, third persons are dragged in to refute his version. Nor does criticism stop with the candidate himself. His leading supporters are arraigned and dissected. A man’s surroundings do no doubt throw some light upon him. If you are shown into a library, you derive an impression from the books on the shelves and the pictures on the wall; much more then may you be influenced by theEdition: current; Page: [881] character of a man’s personal friends and political associates. But such methods of judging must be applied cautiously. American electioneering has now and then carried them beyond reasonable limits.

These personal issues do not always come to the front. The candidates may both be free from any reasonable possibility of reproach. This tends to be more and more the case; and there have in fact been few attacks on personal character in recent elections—practically none in 1908 and 1912.

Obviously, both the integrity and the abilities of the rival candidates deserve to be carefully weighed by the electors and ought to affect the result, for the welfare of the country may be profoundly affected by them. The personal qualities of a president generally make more difference to the United States than the personal qualities of a prime minister do to Britain. Sometimes, however, this quite proper regard to the personal merits or demerits of the candidates has tended to draw attention away from political discussions, and has thereby lessened what may be called the educational value of the campaign. A general election in England seems better calculated to instruct the masses of the people in the principles as well as the practical issues of politics, than the longer and generally hotter presidential contest in America. The average intelligence of the voter (excluding the Negroes) is higher in America than in Britain, and his familiarity not only with the passwords and catchwords of politics, but with the structure of his own government, is much greater. But in Britain the contest is primarily one of programmes and not of persons. The leaders on each side are freely criticized, and most people are largely influenced by their judgment of the prime minister, and of the person who will become prime minister if the existing ministry be dismissed. Still the men are almost always overshadowed by the principles which they respectively advocate, and as invective and panegyric have already been poured for years, there is little inducement to rake up or invent tales against them. Controversy turns on the needs of the country, and on the measures which each party puts forward; attacks on a ministry are levelled at their public acts instead of their private characters. Americans who watch general elections in England say that they find in the speeches of English candidates more appeal to reason and experience, more argument and less sentimental rhetoric, than in the discourses of their own campaign orators. To such a general judgment there are, of course, many exceptions. The campaign of 1896 was highly educative, and those of 1904, 1908, and 1912, turning largely on economic questions, were similarly valuable. There have always been in the United States public speakers such as Mr. Henry Ward Beecher was in the days of the Civil War, whoseEdition: current; Page: [882] vigorous thinking has been in the highest degree instructive as well as stimulative; and the oratory of English candidates is probably, regarded as mere oratory, less effective than that of the American stump.

An examination of the causes which explain this difference belongs to another part of this book. Here I will only remark that the absence from British elections of flags, uniforms, torches, brass bands, parades, and all the other appliances employed in America, for making the people “enthuse,” leaves the field more free for rational discussion. Add to this that whereas the questions discussed on British platforms during the last two generations have been mainly questions needing argument, such as that of the corn laws in the typical popular struggle which Cobden and Bright and Villiers led, the most exciting theme for an American speaker during a whole generation was one—the existence and extension of slavery—which specially called for emotional treatment. Such subjects as the regulation of the tariff, competing plans of liquor legislation, currency and labour questions of controlling or abolishing trusts, are so difficult to sift thoroughly before a popular audience that election speakers were long tempted to evade them or to deal in sounding commonplaces. Latterly, however, the growing gravity of the problems which the customs tariff and the national currency present, has induced a noteworthy change, a change strikingly apparent in 1896; and although these complex economic topics are often handled with little knowledge and in a declamatory way, it is a real gain that the popular mind should be constantly directed to them and forced to think seriously about them.

If the presidential contest may seem to have usually done less for the formation of political thought and diffusion of political knowledge than was to be expected from the immense efforts put forth and the intelligence of the voters addressed, it nevertheless rouses and stirs the public life of the country. One can hardly imagine what the atmosphere of American politics would be without this quadrennial storm sweeping through it to clear away stagnant vapours, and recall to every citizen the sense of his own responsibility for the present welfare and future greatness of his country. Nowhere does government by the people through the people for the people take a more directly impressive and powerfully stimulative form than in the choice of a chief magistrate by fifteen millions of citizens voting on one day.

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chapter 73

Further Observations on Nominations and Elections

Several questions may have occurred to the European reader who has followed the foregoing account of presidential nominations and elections.

The most obvious is—How comes it that a system of nomination by huge party assemblies has grown up so unlike anything which the free countries of Europe have seen?

The nominating convention is the natural and legitimate outgrowth of two features of the Constitution, the restricted functions of Congress and the absolute sovereignty of the people. It was soon perceived that under the rule of party, a party must be united on its candidate in order to have a prospect of success. There was therefore need for a method of selecting the candidate which the whole of a party would recognize as fair and entitled to respect. At first the representatives of the party in Congress assumed the right of nomination. But it was presently felt that they were not entitled to it, for they had not been chosen for any such purpose, and the president was not constitutionally responsible to them, but rather set up to check them. When the congressional caucus had been discredited, the state legislatures tried their hands at nominations; but acting irregularly, and with a primary regard to local sentiment, they failed to win obedience. The self-authorized and sometimes secret action of both these sets of persons caused resentment. It began to be held that whom the people were to elect the people must also nominate. Thus presently the tumultuous assemblies of active politicians were developed into regular representative bodies, modelled after Congress, and giving to the party in each state exactly the same weight in nominating as the state possessed in voting. The elaborate nominating scheme of primaries and conventions which was being constructed for theEdition: current; Page: [884] purpose of city, state, and congressional elections, was applied to the election of a president, and the national convention was the result. We may call it an effort of nature to fill the void left in America by the absence of the European parliamentary or cabinet system, under which an executive is called into being out of the legislature by the majority of the legislature. In the European system no single act of nomination is necessary, because the leader of the majority comes gradually to the top in virtue of his own strength.1 In America there must be a single and formal act: and this act must emanate from the people, since it is to them that the party leader, when he becomes chief magistrate, will be responsible. There is not quite so strong a reason for entrusting to the convention the function of declaring the aims and tenets of the party in its platform, for this might properly be done by a caucus of the legislature. But as the president is, through his veto power, an independent branch of the legislature, the moment of nominating him is apt for a declaration of the doctrines whereof the party makes him the standard-bearer.

What have been the effects upon the public life of the country of this practice of nomination by conventions? Out of several I select two. Politics have turned largely upon the claims of rival personalities. The victory of a party in a presidential election depends upon its being unanimous in its support of a particular candidate. It must therefore use every effort to find, not necessarily the best man, but the man who will best unite it. In the pursuit of him, it is distracted from its consideration of the questions on which it ought to appeal to the country, and may form its views on them hastily or loosely. The convention is the only body authorized to declare the tenets and practical programme of the party. But the duty of declaring them is commonly overshadowed by the other duty of choosing the candidate, which naturally excites warmer feelings in the hearts of actual or potential officeholders. Accordingly delegates are chosen by local conventions rather as the partisans of this or that aspirant than as persons of political ability or moral weight; and the function of formulating the views of the party may be left to, and ill discharged by, men of an inferior type.

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A further result will have been foreseen by those who have realized what these conventions are like. They are monster meetings. Besides the thousand delegates, there are some twelve to fifteen thousand spectators on the floor and in the galleries, while at Chicago in 1860, there were also thousands on the roof. It goes without saying that such a meeting is capable neither of discussing political questions and settling a political programme, nor of deliberately weighing the merits of rival aspirants for the nomination. Its platform must be presented to it cut and dry, and this is the work of a small committee. In choosing a candidate, it must follow a few leaders.2 And what sort of leaders do conventions tend to produce? Two sorts—the intriguer and the declaimer. There is the man who manipulates delegates and devises skilful combinations. There is also the orator, whose physical gifts, courage, and readiness enable him to browbeat antagonists, overawe the chairman, and perhaps, if he be possessed of eloquence, carry the multitude away in a fit of enthusiasm. For men of wisdom and knowledge, not seconded by a commanding voice and presence, there is no demand, and little chance of usefulness, in these tempestuous halls.

Why, however, it may also be asked, should conventions be so pre-eminently tempestuous, considering that they are not casual concourses, but consist of persons duly elected, and are governed by a regular code of procedure? The reason may be found in the fact that in them are united the two conditions which generate excitement, viz., very large numbers and important issues to be determined. In no other modern assemblies3 do these conditions concur. Modern deliberative assemblies are comparatively small—the House of Representatives has only 435 members; the French Chamber 584; while in the British House of Commons there is sitting space for only 400. Large popular gatherings, on the other hand, such as mass meetings, are excitable in virtue of their size, but have nothing to do but pass resolutions, and there is seldom controversy over these, because such meetings are attended only by those who agree with the summoners. But a national convention consists of about one thousand delegates, as many alternates, and some fourteen thousand spectators. It is the hugest massEdition: current; Page: [886] meeting the world knows of. Not only, therefore, does the sympathy of numbers exert an unequalled force, but this host, larger than the army with which the Greeks conquered at Marathon, has an issue of the highest and most exciting nature to decide, an issue which quickens the pulse even of those who read in cold blood afterwards how the votes fell as the roll of states was called, and which thrills those who see and listen, and, most of all, those who are themselves concerned as delegates, with an intensity of emotion surpassing, in proportion to the magnitude of the issue, that which attends the finish of a well-contested boat race. If you wish to realize the passionate eagerness of an American convention, take the House of Commons or the French Chamber during a division which is to decide the fate of a ministry, and a policy, and raising the numbers present twenty-fold, imagine the excitement twenty-fold hotter. Wanting those wonderful scenes which a great debate and division in Parliament provide the English with, America has evolved others not less dramatic. The contrast between the two countries is perhaps most marked in this, that in Parliament the strife is between two parties, in an American convention between the adherents of different leaders belonging to the same party. We might have expected that in the more democratic country more would turn upon principles, less upon men. It is exactly the other way. The struggle in a convention is over men, not over principles.

These considerations may serve to explain to a European the strange phenomena of a convention. But his inquiry probably extends itself to the electoral campaign which follows. “Why,” he asks, “is the contest so much longer, more strenuous, and more absorbing than the congressional elections, or than any election struggle in Europe, although Europe is agitated by graver problems than now occupy America? And why does a people externally so cool, self-contained, and unimpulsive as the American work itself up into a fever of enthusiasm over an issue which may not be permanently important between two men, neither of whom will do much good or can do much harm?”

The length of the contest is a survival. The Americans themselves regret it, for it sadly interrupts both business and pleasure. It is due to the fact that when communication was difficult over a rough and thinly settled country, several months were needed to enable the candidates and their orators to go round. Now railways and telegraphs have drawn the continent so much together that five or six weeks would be sufficient. That the presidential election is fought more vehemently than congressional elections seems due to its coming only half as often; to the fact that the president isEdition: current; Page: [887] the dispenser of federal patronage, and to the habit, formed in days when the president was the real head of the party, and his action in foreign affairs might be of transcendent importance, of looking on his election as the great trial of party strength. Besides, it is the choice of one officer by the whole country, a supreme political act in which every voter has a share, and the same share; an act which fills the whole of the party in all of the states with the sense that it is feeling and thinking and willing as one heart and mind. This simultaneity of effort, this concentration of interest upon one person and one polling day, gives to the struggle a sort of tension not to be looked for where a number of elections of different persons are going on in as many different spots, nor always at the same time. In congressional elections each constituency has to think first of itself and its own candidate. In the presidential elections all eyes are fixed on the same figure; the same personal as well as political issue is presented to the nation. Each polling district in a state, each state in the Union, emulates every other in the efforts it puts forth to carry the party ticket.

To explain why the hardheaded self-possessed Americans go so wild with excitement at election times is a more difficult task. See what the facts are: From Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 down to the end of the nineteenth century there had not been a single presidential candidate (always excepting General Grant) of whom his friends could say that he had done anything to command the gratitude of the nation. Some of these candidates had been skilful party leaders, others had served with credit in the Civil War. None could be called distinguished in the sense in which, I will not say, Hamilton, Jefferson, Marshall, Webster, but J. Q. Adams, Clay, Benton, Calhoun, Seward, Stanton, and Chase, were distinguished men. To avoid recent events let us go back to Mr. Blaine and Mr. Cleveland in the election of 1884. One had been Speaker of the House, and was a skilful debater in Congress, an effective speaker on a platform, a man socially attractive, never forgetting a face or a service. The other had made a shrewd and upright mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York State. Compare the services rendered to the country by them, or by any other candidate of recent times, with those of Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour, and Victor Emmanuel to Italy, of Bismarck and Moltke to Germany, even of Thiers and Gambetta to France in her hour of peril. Yet the enthusiasm shown for Mr. Blaine (who seems to have drawn out the precious fluid at a higher temperature than his rival), the demonstrations made in his honour wherever he appeared, equalled anything done, in their several countries, for these heroes of Italy, Germany, or France. As for England, where two great political leaders,Edition: current; Page: [888] towering far above their fellows, have of late years excited the warmest admiration and the bitterest dislike from friends and foes, imagine eight hundred English barristers turning out from the Temple and Lincoln’s Inn to walk in slow procession from London Bridge to South Kensington, shouting themselves hoarse for Gladstone or Disraeli!

In attempting an explanation, I will take the bull by the horns, and ask whether the world is right in deeming the Americans a cool and sober people? The American is shrewd and keen, his passion seldom obscures his reason; he keeps his head in moments when a Frenchman, or an Italian, or even a German, would lose it. Yet he is also of an excitable temper, with emotions capable of being quickly and strongly stirred. That there is no contradiction between these qualities appears from the case of the Scotch, who are both more logical and more cautious in affairs than the English, but are also more enthusiastic, more apt to be swept away by a passionate movement.4 Moreover, the Americans like excitement. They like it for its own sake, and go wherever they can find it. They surrender themselves to the enjoyment of this pleasure the more willingly because it is comparatively rare, and relieves the level tenor of their ordinary life. Add to this the further delight which they find in any form of competition. The passion which in England expresses itself in the popular eagerness over a boat race or a horse race, extends more widely in America to every kind of rivalry and struggle. The presidential election, in which two men are pitted against one another over a four months’ course for the great prize of politics, stirs them like any other trial of strength and speed; sets them betting on the issue, disposes them to make efforts for a cause in which their deeper feelings may be little engaged.

These tendencies are intensified by the vast area over which the contest extends, and the enormous multitude that bears a part in it. The American imagination is peculiarly sensitive to the impression of great size. “A big thing” is their habitual phrase of admiration. In Europe, antiquity is what chiefly commands the respect of some minds, novelty what rouses the interest of others. Beyond the Atlantic, the sense of immensity, the sense that the same thought and purpose are animating millions of other men in sympathy with himself, lifts a man out of himself, and sends him into transports of eagerness and zeal about things intrinsically small, but great through the volume of human feeling they have attracted. It is not theEdition: current; Page: [889] profoundity of an idea or emotion, but its lateral extension which most quickly touches the American imagination. For one man who can feel the former, a hundred are struck by the latter; and he who describes America must remember that he has always to think first of the masses.

These considerations may help to explain the disproportion that strikes a European between the merits of the presidential candidate and the blazing enthusiasm which he evokes. It is not really given to him as an individual, it is given to the party personified in him, because he bears its banner, and its fervour is due, not even so much to party passion as to the impressionist character of the people, who desire to be excited, desire to demonstrate, desire, as English undergraduates say, “to run with the boats,” and cheer the efforts of the rowers. As regards the details of the demonstrations, the parades and receptions, the badges and brass bands and triumphal arches, anyone can understand why the masses of the people—those who in Europe would be called the lower-middle and working classes—should relish these things, which break the monotony of their lives, and give them a sense of personal participation in a great movement. Even in London, least externally picturesque among European cities, when the working men turn out for a Hyde Park meeting they come marshalled in companies under the banners of their trade unions or other societies, carrying devices, and preceded by music. They make a somewhat scrubby show, for England does not know how to light up the dullness of her skies and streets by colour in costume or variety in design. But the taste for display is there as it is in human nature everywhere. In England, the upper class is shy of joining in any such “functions,” even when they have a religious tinge. Its fastidiousness and sense of class dignity are offended. But in America, the sentiment of equality is so pervading that the rich and cultivated do not think of scorning the popular procession; or if some do feel such scorn, they are careful to conceal it. The habit of demonstrating with bands and banners and emblems was formed in days when the upper class was very small, and would not have dreamt of standing aloof from anything which interested the crowd; and now, when the rich and cultivated have grown to be as numerous, and, in most respects, as fastidious as the parallel class in Europe, the habit is too deeply rooted to be shaken. Nobody thinks of sneering. To do as the people do is a tribute to the people’s majesty. And the thousand lawyers who shout “James G. Blaine, O-h-i-o,” as they march through the October mud of Broadway, have no more sense that they are making themselves ridiculous than the European noble who backs with repeated obeisances out of the presence of his sovereign.

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chapter 74

Types of American Statesmen

As trees are known by their fruits, and as different systems of government evidently tend to produce different types of statesmanship, it is pertinent to our examination of the American party system to inquire what are the kinds of statesmen which it engenders and ripens to maturity. A democracy, more perhaps than any other form of government, needs great men to lead and inspire the people. The excellence, therefore, of the methods democracy employs may fairly enough be tested by the excellence of the statesmen whom these methods call forth. Europeans are wont to go farther, and reason from the character of the statesmen to the character of the people, a convenient process, because it seems easier to know the careers and judge the merits of persons than of nations, yet one not universally applicable. In the free countries of Europe, the men who take the lead in public affairs may be deemed fair specimens of its best talent and character, and fair types, possibly of the virtues of the nation, though the temptations of politics are great, certainly of its practical gifts. But in two sorts of countries one cannot so reason from the statesmen to the masses. In despotic monarchies the minister is often merely the king’s favourite, who has risen by unworthy arts, or, at any rate, not by merit. And in a democracy where birth and education give a man little advantage in the race, a political career may have become so unattractive as compared with other pursuits that the finest or most ambitious spirits do not strive for its prizes, but generally leave them to men of the second order.

This second case is, as we have seen, to some extent the case of America. We must not therefore take her statesmen as types of the highest or strongest American manhood. The national qualities come out fully in them, but not always in their best form. I speak of the generations that have grown upEdition: current; Page: [891] since the great men of the Revolution epoch died off. Some of those men were the peers of the best European statesmen of the time: one of them rises in moral dignity above all his European contemporaries. The generation to which J. Q. Adams, Jackson, Webster, Clay, Calhoun, and Benton belonged is less impressive, perhaps because they failed to solve a question which may have been too hard for anyone to solve. Yet the men I have mentioned were striking personalities who would have made a figure in any country. Few of the statesmen of the third or Civil War period enjoyed more than a local reputation when it began, but in its course several of them developed remarkable powers, and one became a national hero. The fourth generation is now upon the stage, and it is too soon to attempt to conjecture the place they will hold in the judgment of posterity. Only a few who belong to it have as yet won high fame. The times, it is remarked, are comparatively quiet. What is wanted is not so much an impassioned popular leader nor a great philosophic legislator as men who will administer the affairs of the nation with skill and rectitude, and who, fortified by careful study and observation, will grapple with the economic problems which the growth of the country makes urgent. While admitting this, we must also ascribe something to the character of the party system which, as we have seen, is unfavourable to the development of the finest gifts. Let us note what are the types which that system displays to us.

In such countries as England, France, Germany, and Italy there is room and need for five sorts of statesmen. Men are wanted for the management of foreign and colonial policy, men combining the talents of a diplomatist with a wide outlook over the world’s horizon. The needs of social and economic reform, grave in old countries with the mistakes of the past to undo, require a second kind of statesman with an aptitude for constructive legislation. Thirdly there is the administrator who can manage a department with diligence and skill and economy. Fourthly comes the parliamentary tactician, whose function it is to understand men, who frames cabinets and is dexterous in humouring or spurring a representative assembly.1 Lastly we have the leader of the masses, who, whether or no he be a skilful parliamentarian, thinks rather of the country than of the chamber, knows how to watch and rouse the feelings of the multitude, and rally a great party to the standard which he bears aloft. The first of these has no need forEdition: current; Page: [892] eloquence; the second and third can get on without it; to the fourth it is almost, yet not absolutely, essential; it is the life breath of the fifth.2

Let us turn to America. In America there are few occasions for the first sort of statesman, while the conditions of a federal government, with its limited legislative sphere, are unfavourable to the second, as frequently changing cabinets are to the third. It is chiefly for persons of the fourth and fifth classes we must look. Persons of those classes we shall find, but in a different shape and guise from what they would assume in Europe. American politics seem at this moment to tend to the production of two types, the one of whom may be called par excellence the man of the desk or of the legislature, the other the man of the convention and the stump. They resemble the fourth and fifth of our European types, but with instructive differences.

The first of these types is usually a shrewd, cool, hardheaded man of business. He is such a man as one would find successful in the law or in commerce if he had applied his faculties to those vocations. He has mostly been, is often still, a practising counsel and attorney. He may lack imagination and width of view; but he has a tight grip of facts, a keen insight into men, and probably also tact in dealing with them. That he has come to the front shows him to possess a resolute and tenacious will, for without it he must have been trodden down in the fierce competition of a political career. His independence is limited by the necessity of keeping step with his party, for isolated action counts for little in America, but the tendency to go with one’s party is so inbred there that a man feels less humiliated by waiving his private views than would be the case in Europe. Such compliance does not argue want of strength. As to what is called “culture,” he has often at least a susceptibility to it, with a wish to acquire it which, if he has risen from humble beginnings, may contrast oddly with the superficial roughness of his manner. He is a ready and effective rather than a polished speaker, and is least agreeable when, forsaking the solid ground of his legal or administrative knowledge, he attempts the higher flights of eloquence.

Such a man does not necessarily make his first reputation in an assembly. He may begin as governor of a state or mayor of a large city, and if he earns a reputation there, can make pretty sure of going on to Congress if he desires it. In any case, it is in administration and the legislative work which deals with administration that he wins his spurs. The sphere of localEdition: current; Page: [893] government is especially fitted to develop such talents, and to give that peculiar quality I have been trying to describe. It makes able men of affairs; men fit for the kind of work which needs the combination of a sound business head and the power of working along with others. One may go further and say, that this talent is the sort of talent which during the last half century has been most characteristic of the American people. Their greatest achievements have lain in the internal development of their country by administrative shrewdness, ingenuity, promptitude, and an unequalled dexterity in applying the principle of association, whether by means of private corporations or of local public or quasi-public organisms. These national characteristics reappear in federal politics, not always accompanied by the largeness of vision and mastery of the political and economic sciences which that wider sphere demands.

The type I describe is less brilliant than those modern Europe has learned to admire in men like Bismarck or Cavour, perhaps one may add, Tisza or Minghetti or Castelar. But then the conditions required for the rise of the last-named men do not exist in America, nor is her need for them pressing. America would have all she wants if such statesmen as I have described were more numerous; and if a philosophic mind, capable of taking in the whole phenomena of transatlantic society, and propounding comprehensive solutions for its problems, were more common among the best of them. Persons of this type have hitherto been most frequently found in the Senate, to which they usually rise from the House of Representatives or from a state legislature. They are very useful there; indeed, it is they who have given it that authority which it long enjoyed but is now fast losing.

The other kind of statesman is the product of two factors which give to American politics their peculiar character, viz., an enormous multitude of voting citizens and the existence of a wonderful network of party organizations for the purpose of selecting and carrying candidates for office. To move the masses, a man must have the gifts of oratory; to rule party committees, he must be a master of intrigue. The stump and the committee room are his sphere. There is a great deal of campaign speaking to be done at state elections, at congressional elections, above all, in presidential campaigns. It does not flow in such a perennial torrent as in England, for England has since 1876 become the most speech-flooded country in the world, but it is more copious than in France, Italy, or Germany. The audiences are less ignorant than those of Europe, but their critical standard is not higher; and whereas in England it is Parliament that forms most speakers and creates the type of political oratory, Congress renders no such service to America.Edition: current; Page: [894] There is therefore, I think, less presumption in America than in Europe that the politician who makes his way by oratory is a man either of real eloquence or of vigorous thinking power. Able, however, he must be. He is sure to have fluency, a power of touching either the emotions or the imagination, a command of sonorous rhetoric. Probably he has also humour and a turn for quick retort. In fact, he must have the arts—we all know what they are—which please the multitude; arts not blamable in themselves, but needing to be corrected by occasional appearances before a critical audience. These arts joined to a powerful voice and a forcible personality will carry a man far. If he can join to them a ready and winning address, a geniality of manner if not of heart, he becomes what is called magnetic. Now, magnetism is among the highest qualities which an American popular leader can possess. Its presence may bring him to the top. Its absence may prevent him from getting there. It makes friends for him wherever he goes. It immensely enhances his powers in the region of backstairs politics.

For besides the visible work on the stump, there is the invisible work of the committee-room, or rather of the inner conclave, whose resolves are afterwards registered in the committee, to be still later laid before the convention. The same talent for intrigue which in monarchies or oligarchies is spent within the limits of a court or a knot of ruling families, here occupies itself with bosses and rings and leaders of political groups. To manipulate these men and groups, to know their weaknesses, their ambitions, their jealousies, to play upon their hopes and fears, attaching some by promises, entrapping others through their vanity, browbeating others into submission, forming combinations in which each partisan’s interest is so bound up with that of the aspiring statesman that he is sure to stand faithfully by his chief—all this goes a long way to secure advancement under the party system.

It may be thought that between such aptitudes and the art of oratory there is no necessary connection. There are intriguers who are nothing but intriguers, useless on the stump or on the platform of a convention; and such a man does occasionally rise to national prominence. First he gains command of his own state by a dexterous use of patronage; then he wins influence in federal politics by being able to dispose of his state vote in federal elections; finally he forces his way into the Senate, and possibly even aspires to the presidential chair, deluded by his own advancement, and by the applause of professionals who find in success sufficient evidence of worthiness. Recent instances of such careers are not wanting. But they are exceptions due to the special conditions of exceptionally demoralized states.Edition: current; Page: [895] Speaking generally, oratory is essential to distinction. Fluent oratory, however, as distinguished from eloquence, is an art which most able men can acquire with practice. In popularly governed countries it is as common as it is worthless. And a link between the platform and the committee-room is found in the quality of magnetism. The magnetic man attracts individuals just as he captivates masses. Where oratory does not need either knowledge or reflection, because the people are not intent upon great questions, or because the parties evade them, where power of voice and skill in words, and ready sympathy with the feelings and prejudices of the crowd, are enough to command the ear of monster meetings, there the successful speaker will pass for a statesman. He will seem a fit man to put forward for high office, if he can but persuade the managers to run him; and therefore the other side of his activity is spent among and upon the managers.

It sometimes happens that the owner of these gifts is also a shrewd, keen, practical man, so that the first type is blended with the second. Nor is there anything to prevent the popular speaker and skilled intriguer from also possessing the higher attributes of statesmanship. This generation has seen the conjunction both in America and in France. But the conjunction is rare; not only because these last-named attributes are themselves rare, but because the practice of party intrigue is unfavourable to their development. It narrows a man’s mind and distorts his vision. His eye, accustomed to the obscurity of committee-rooms, cannot range over the wide landscape of national questions. Habits of argument formed on the stump seldom fit a man to guide a legislature. In none of the greatest public men that have adorned America do we discern the features of the type just sketched. Hamilton was no intriguer, though he once executed a brilliant piece of strategy.3 Neither was Clay or Webster. Jefferson, who added an eminent talent for party organization and management to his powers as a thinker and writer, was no speaker; and one might go through the whole list without finding one man of the first historic rank in whom the art of handling committees and nominating conventions was developed to that pitch of excellence which it has now reached in the hands of far inferior men. National conventions offer the best field for the display of the peculiar kind of talent which this type of statesman exhibits. To rouse delegates and one thousand spectators needs powerful lungs, a striking presence, address, and courage. A man capable enough in Congress may fail in this arena. But less than half theEdition: current; Page: [896] work of a convention is done on the public stage. Delegates have to be seen in private, combinations arranged, mines laid and those of the opponent discovered and countermined, a distribution of the good things in the gift of the party settled with swarms of hungry aspirants. Easy manners, tact, and suppleness, a reputation for remembering and requiting good turns and ill turns—in fact, many of the qualities which make a courtier—are the qualities which the intrigues of a convention require, develop, and perfect.

Besides such causes inherent in the present party system as check the growth of first-class statesmen more rare than might be expected from the vastness of the nation and its boundless energy, there are two others which spring from the constitutional arrangements of the country. One is the disconnection of Congress from the executive. How this works to prevent true leadership has been already explained.4 Another is the existence of states, each of which has a political life and distinct party organization of its own. Men often rise to eminence in a state without making their mark in national politics. They may become virtual masters of the state either in a legitimate way by good service to it or in an illegitimate way as its bosses. In either case they have to be reckoned with when a presidential election comes round, and are able, if the state be a doubtful one, to dictate their terms. Thus they push their way to the front without having ever shown the qualities needed for guiding the nation; they crowd out better men, and they make party leadership and management even more of a game than the Spoils System and the convention system have tended to make it. The state vote comes to be in national politics what the ward vote is in city politics, a commodity which a boss or ring can dispose of; the man who can influence it has a power greater than his personal merits entitle him to; and the kind of skill which can make friends of these state bosses and bring them into a “pool” or working combination becomes valuable, if not essential, to a national party leader. In fact, the condition of things is not wholly unlike that of England in the middle of the eighteenth century, when a great boroughmonger like the Duke of Newcastle was a power in the country, who must be not only consulted and propitiated at every crisis, but even admitted to a ministry if it was to secure a parliamentary majority. When a crisis rouses the nation, the power of these organization-mongers or vote-owners vanishes, just as that of the English boroughowning magnate was checked on like occasions, because it is only when the people of a state are listless that their boss is potent. Unable to oppose a real wish of the masses,Edition: current; Page: [897] he can use their vote only by professing obedience while guiding it in the direction of the men or the schemes he favours.

This remark suggests another. I have remarked that among statesmen of the former of the two types described, there are always ability and integrity sufficient for carrying on the regular business of the country. Men with those still higher gifts which European nations look for in their prime ministers (though they do not always find them) have indeed never been absent, but they have been comparatively rare. The Americans admit the fact, but explain it by arguing that there has been no crisis needing those gifts. Whether this is true may be doubted. Men of constructive statesmanship were surely needed in the period after the Civil War; and it is possible that a higher statesmanship might have averted the war itself. The Americans, however, maintain that when the hour comes, it brings the man. It brought Abraham Lincoln. When he was nominated by the famous convention of 1860 his name had been little heard of beyond his own state. But he rose at once to the level of the situation, and that not merely by virtue of strong clear sense, but by his patriotic steadfastness and noble simplicity of character. If this was luck, it was just the kind of luck which makes a nation hopeful of its future, and inclined to overlook the faults of the methods by which it finds its leaders.

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chapter 75

What the People Think of It

The European reader who has followed thus far the description I have attempted to give of the working of party politics, of the nominating machine, of the Spoils System, of elections and their methods, of venality in some legislative and municipal bodies, may have been struck by its dark lines. He sees in this new country evils which savour of Old World corruption, even of Old World despotism. He is reminded sometimes of England under Sir Robert Walpole, sometimes of Russia under the czar Nicholas I. Assuming, as a European is apt to do, that the working of political machinery fairly reflects the temper, ideas, and moral standard of the governing class, and knowing that America is governed by the whole people, he may form a low opinion of the people. Perhaps he leaps to the conclusion that they are corrupt. Perhaps he more cautiously infers that they are heedless. Perhaps he conceives that the better men despair of politics and wash their hands of it, while the mass of the people, besotted with a self-confidence born of their rapid material progress, are blind to the consequences which the degradation of public life must involve. All these views one may hear pronounced by persons who have visited the United States, and of course more confidently by persons who have not. It is at any rate a plausible view that whatever public opinion there may be in America upon religion, or morality, or literature, there can be little public opinion about politics, and that the leading minds, which in all countries shape and direct opinion, have in America abdicated that function, and left the politicians to go their own way.

Such impressions are far from the truth. In no country is public opinion stronger or more active than in the United States; in none has it the field so completely to itself, because aristocracies like those of Europe do not exist, and because the legislative bodies are relatively less powerful and lessEdition: current; Page: [899] independent. It may seem a paradox to add that public opinion is on the whole wholesome and upright. Nevertheless, this also is true.

Here we are brought face to face with the cardinal problem of American politics. Where political life is all-pervading, can practical politics be on a lower level than public opinion? How can a free people which tolerates gross evils be a pure people? To explain this is the hardest task which one who describes the United States sees confronting him. Experience has taught me, as it teaches every traveller who seeks to justify when he returns to Europe his faith in the American people, that it is impossible to get Englishmen at any rate to realize the coexistence of phenomena so unlike those of their own country, and to draw the inferences which those phenomena suggest to one who has seen them with his own eyes. Most English admirers of popular government, when pressed with the facts, deny them. But I have already admitted them.

To present a just picture of American public opinion one must cut deeper than the last few chapters have done, and try to explain the character and conditions of opinion itself beyond the Atlantic, the mental habits from which it springs, the organs through which it speaks. This is what I propose to do in the chapters which follow. Meanwhile it is well to complete the survey of the actualities of party politics by stating in a purely positive, or as the Germans say “objective,” way, what the Americans think about the various features of their system portrayed in these last chapters, about spoils and the machine, about corruption and election frauds. I omit attempts at explanation; I seek only to sum up the bare facts of the case as they strike one who listens to conversation and reads the newspapers.


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Most of it the people, by which I mean not the masses but all classes of the people, do not see. The proceedings of Congress excite less interest than those of legislative chambers do in France or England. Venality occurs chiefly in connection with private legislation, and even in Washington very little is known about this, the rather as committees deliberate with closed doors. Almost the only persons who possess authentic information as to what goes on in the Capitol are railroad men, land speculators, and manufacturers who have had to lobby in connection with the tariff. The same remark applies, though less forcibly, to the venality of certain state legislatures. A farmer of western New York may go through a long life without knowing how his representative behaves at Albany. Albany is not within his horizon.1

The people see little and they believe less. True, the party newspapers accuse their opponents, but the newspapers are always reviling somebody; and it is because the words are so strong that the tale has little meaning. For instance, in a hard fought presidential contest charges affecting the honour of one of the candidates were brought against him by journals supporting the other candidate, and evidence tendered in support of them. The immense majority of his supporters did not believe these charges. They read their own newspapers chiefly, which pooh-poohed the charges. They could not be at the trouble of sifting the evidence, against which their own newspapers offered counter arguments, so they quietly ignored them. I do not say that they disbelieved. Between belief and disbelief there is an intermediate state of mind.

The habit of hearing charges promiscuously bandied to and fro, but seldom probed to the bottom, makes men heedless. So does the fact that prosecutions frequently break down even where there can be little doubt as to the guilt of the accused. A general impression is produced that things are not as they should be, yet the line between honest men and dishonest men is not sharply drawn, because those who are probably honest are attacked, and those who are almost certainly dishonest escape punishment. The state of mind of the average citizen is a state rather of lassitude than of callousness. He comes to think that politicians have a morality of their own, and must be judged by it. It is not his morality; but because it is professional, he does not fear that it will infect other plain citizens like himself.

Some people shrug their shoulders and say that politicians have always been so. Others, especially among the cultivated classes, will tell you that they wash their hands of the whole affair. “It is only the politicians—what can you expect from the politicians?” Leaving out the cynics on the one side, and the perfectionist reformers on the other, and looking at the bulk of ordinary citizens, the fair conclusion from the facts is that many do not realize the evil who ought to realize it and be alarmed, and that those who do realize it are not sufficiently alarmed. They take it too easily. Yet now and then when roused they will inflict severe penalties on the receivers of bribes, as they did on the New York aldermen who were bribed to grant the right of laying a streetcar line in Broadway. The givers of bribes are apt to be more leniently dealt with.

Election Frauds.

As these are offences against popular government and injure the opposite party, they excite stronger, or at least more general disapproval than do acts of venality, from which only the public purse suffers. No one attempts to palliate them; but proof is difficult, andEdition: current; Page: [901] punishment therefore uncertain. Legislative remedies have been tried, and fresh ones are constantly being tried. If people are less indignant than they would be in England, it is because they are less surprised. There is one exception to the general condemnation of the practice. In the Southern states Negro suffrage produced, during the few years of “carpetbagging” and military government which followed the war, incredible mischief. When these states recovered full self-government, and the former “rebels” were readmitted to the suffrage, the upper class of the white population “took hold” again, and in order, as they expressed it, “to save civilization,” resolved that come what might the Negro and white Republican vote should not, by obtaining a majority in the state legislatures, be in a position to play these pranks further. The Negroes were at first roughly handled or, to use the technical term, “bulldozed,” but as this excited anger at the North, it was found better to attain the desired result by manipulating the elections in various ways, “using no more fraud than was necessary in the premises,” as the pleaders say. As few of the Negroes are fit for the suffrage, these services to civilization have been leniently regarded even at the North, and are justified at the South by men quite above the suspicion of personal corruption.

The Machine.

The perversion of rings and bosses of the nominating machinery of primaries and conventions excites a disgust which is proportioned to the amount of fraud and trickery employed, an amount not great when the “good citizens” make no counter exertions. The disgust is often mingled with amusement. The boss is a sort of joke, albeit an expensive joke. “After all,” people say, “it is our own fault. If we all went to the primaries, or if we all voted an independent ticket, we could make an end of the boss.” There is an odd sort of fatalism in their view of democracy. If a thing exists in a free country, it has a right to exist, for it exists by the leave of the people, who may be deemed to acquiesce in what they do not extinguish. Nevertheless, the disgust rose high enough to enable the reformers to secure the enactment of the new primary laws, which represent a real effort to smash the machine.

The Spoils System.

As to spoils and favouritism in patronage, I have already explained why the average citizen tolerates both. He has been accustomed to think rotation in office a recognition of equality, and a check on the growth of that old bugbear, an “aristocracy of officeholders.” Favouritism seemed natural, and competitive examinations pedantic. Usage sanctioned a certain amount of jobbery, so you must not be too hard on a man who does no more than others have done before him.

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The conduct, as well as the sentiment, of the people is so much better than the practice of politicians that it is hard to understand why the latter are judged so leniently. No ordinary citizen, much less a man of social standing and high education, would do in his private dealings what many politicians do with little fear of disgrace. The career of the latter is not destroyed, while the former would lose the respect of his neighbours, and probably his chances in the world. Europe presents no similar contrast between the tone of public and that of private life.

There is, however, one respect in which a comparison of the political morality of the United States with that of England does injustice to the former.

The English have two moralities for public life, the one conventional or ideal, the other actual. The conventional finds expression not merely in the pulpit, but also in the speeches of public men, in the articles of journalists. Assuming the normal British statesman to be patriotic, disinterested, truthful, and magnanimous, it treats every fault as a dereliction from a well-settled standard of duty, a quite exceptional dereliction which disentitles the culprit to the confidence even of his own party, but does not affect the generally high tone of British political life. The actual morality, as one gathers it in the lobbies of the legislative chambers, or the smoking rooms of political clubs, or committee-rooms at contested elections, is a different affair. It regards (or lately regarded) the bribery of voters as an offence only when detection has followed; it assumes that a minister will use his patronage to strengthen his party or himself; it smiles at election pledges as the gods smiled at lovers’ vows; it defends the abuse of parliamentary rules; it tolerates equivocations and misleading statements proceeding from an official even when they have not the excuse of state necessity. It is by this actual standard that Englishmen do in fact judge one another; and he who does not sink below it need not fear the conventional ideality of press and pulpit.

Perhaps this is only an instance of the tendency in all professions to develop a special code of rules less exacting than those of the community at large. As a profession holds some things to be wrong, because contrary to its etiquette, which are in themselves harmless, so it justifies other things in themselves blamable. In the mercantile world, agents play sad tricks on their principals in the matter of commissions, and their fellow merchants are astonished when the courts of law compel the ill-gotten gains to be disgorged. At the University of Oxford, everybody who took a Master of Arts degree was, until 1871, required to sign the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. Hundreds of men signed who did not believe, andEdition: current; Page: [903] admitted that they did not believe, the dogmas of this formulary; but nobody thought the worse of them for a solemn falsehood. We know what latitude, as regards truth, a “scientific witness,” honourable enough in his private life, permits himself in the witness box. Each profession indulges in deviations from the established rule of morals, but takes pains to conceal these deviations from the general public, and continues to talk about itself and its traditions with an air of unsullied virtue. What each profession does for itself most individual men do for themselves. They judge themselves by themselves, that is to say, by their surroundings and their own past acts, and thus erect in the inner forum of conscience a more lenient code for their own transgressions than that which they apply to others. A fault which a man has often committed seems to him slighter than one he has refrained from and sees others committing. Often he gets others to take the same view. “It is only his way,” they say; “it is just like Roger.” The same thing happens with nations. The particular forms in which faults like corruption, or falsehood, or unscrupulous partisanship have appeared in the recent political history of a nation shock its moral sense less than similar offences which have taken a different form in some other country.

Each country, while accustomed to judge her own statesmen, as well as her national behaviour generally, by the actual standard, and therefore to overlook many deflections from the ideal, always applies the conventional or absolute standard to other countries. Europeans have done this to America, subjecting her to that censorious scrutiny which the children of an emigrant brother receive on their return from aunts and uncles.

How then does America deal with herself?

She is so far lenient to her own defects as to judge them by her past practice; that is to say, she is less shocked by certain political vices, because these vices are familiar, than might have been expected from the generally high tone of her people. But so far from covering things up as the English do, professing a high standard, and applying it rigorously to other countries, but leniently to her own offspring, she gives an exceptionally free course to publicity of all kinds, and allows writers and speakers to paint the faults of her politicians in strong, not to say exaggerated, colours. Such excessive candour is not an unmixed gain. It removes the restraint which the maintenance of a conventional standard imposes. There is almost too little of make-believe about Americans in public writing, as well as in private talk, and their dislike to humbug, hypocrisy, and what they call English pharisaism, not only tends to laxity, but has made them wrong in the eyes of the Old World their real moral sensitiveness. Accustomed to see constantEdition: current; Page: [904] lip service rendered to a virtue not intended to be practised, Europeans naturally assume that things are in the United States several shades darker than they are painted, and interpret frankness as cynicism. Were American politics judged by the actual and not the conventional standard of England, the contrast between the demerits of the politicians and the merits of the people would be less striking.

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Supplementary Note to Editions of 1910 and 1914


It may be well to add here a few further observations, suggested by recent events, on the party system.

The government of the United States, and of every state, and of every city, was originally intended and expected to be conducted by the people as a whole through their elected representatives, who, being the best and wisest, were to act for the whole people in their common interest. But, within a few years of its establishment, the government, both in the nation and in the states, and subsequently in the cities also, was seized upon by party, which has ever since controlled it and worked it, so that no other way of working it has even been thought of, or can now be easily imagined. Out of party there naturally grew the machine, i.e., an elaborate system of party organization created for the purpose of selecting candidates and securing their election by the people. The machine is the offspring of two phenomena, both natural, though both unforeseen. One was the deficiency of public zeal among the citizens, a deficiency not indeed more marked here than in other countries but here more unfortunate. The other was the excess of private zeal among the politicians, who perceived that public work could be turned to private gain. Thus the Spoils System sprang into being, office being the prize of party victory.

But the action of these factors was mightily increased by the influence of democratic theory pushed to extremes. The doctrine of human equality was taken to imply that one man was just as good as another for public office. The doctrine of popular sovereignty was applied by giving the election of nearly all officials in state, county, and city to the voters and by choosing the officials for very short terms. The consequence of this was that it became impossible for the voters, in such large communities as states and great cities, to know who were the fittest men to choose for the large number of elective offices. Hence the action and power of the machine became inevitable. Since the voters could not possibly select the numerous candidates needed, it stepped in and selected them. Since the incessant elections required a great deal of work, it stepped in and conducted the elections.

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These evils grew with the increasing size of the communities and the increasing wealth of the country, which threw into the hands of legislatures and officials immense opportunities for bestowing favours on unscrupulous groups of men bent on gain. It is easy for such men to influence a legislature, and it was well worth their while to do so.

At last a point was reached at which the evils aroused the public conscience and were felt to be injuring the whole community. How were they to be dealt with? Human intelligence, by a sort of natural law, chooses the path of least resistance, and instead of trying to root out an evil altogether, oftens seeks to discover some expedient which will get round the evil and avoid its worst consequences. So in this instance the voters, instead of destroying the machine or setting it right by ejecting the professionals and making a party organization truly represent the whole party and the principles the party stands for, resorted to the plan of creating statutory primaries, that is to say, of duplicating elections by holding a party election to choose candidates as preliminary to the general election for choosing officials. Already, instead of trying to reform the legislatures, which had largely lost public confidence by their subservience to the machine and to powerful private interests, they had limited the powers and shortened the sittings of the legislatures; and were turning to the state governor whenever he happened to be a strong and upright man, encouraging him to lead and restrain the legislature so far as his legal powers went. And now at last they have begun to supersede the legislature by taking to themselves the direct power of lawmaking through the institution of the referendum and the initiative, these being in their essence an effort to get rid, not only of the evils incident to the selfishness of legislatures and their amenability to improper influences, but also of party itself, as a force which divides the people and prevents them from taking the shortest way to accomplish their will.

All this beautiful series of constitutional developments in state and city government has evolved itself naturally and logically within little more than a century. The constant element in the series has been democractic theory, i.e., the faith in unlimited and direct popular choice and the doctrine that one man is as fit for public office as another. These doctrines, largely abstract in their origin, rooted themselves in mens’ minds, under conditions which made them seem reasonable, in small communities, where the citizens were nearly on a level in education and intelligence, and where the questions of government that arose were within the range of an ordinary man’s knowledge. When such notions came to be applied to huge communities like the states and the vast modern cities, their inapplicability was manifest, while at the same time the need for an organization to work the party system became more evident. Improvements in the representative system might have seemed to be the obvious remedy, but unfortunately the same changes had so injured, and at last discredited, the legislatures of states and cities that the efforts for reform took a different line.

Since 1894, when the preceding chapters on the party system were last revised,Edition: current; Page: [906] public opinion has become more impatient of the rule of the machine, and more sensitive to scandals, while “good citizens” have begun to show more activity in their campaign for purity. “Boss rule” seems to be losing its hold in some of the cities, and the tendency to emancipate them from the state legislatures and stimulate the inhabitants to frame better schemes of government and take a more constant interest in their working has gained ground. Accordingly, although the facts set forth above are still so far generally true that the statements can properly be allowed to stand, it may safely be said that the sky is brighter in 1914 than it was in 1894.

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Part IV: Public Opinion

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chapter 76

The Nature of Public Opinion

In no country is public opinion so powerful as in the United States: in no country can it be so well studied. Before I proceed to describe how it works upon the government of the nation and the states, it may be proper to consider briefly how it is formed, and what is the nature of the influence which it everywhere exercises upon government.

What do we mean by public opinion? The difficulties which occur in discussing its action mostly arise from confounding opinion itself with the organs whence people try to gather it, and from using the term, sometimes to denote everybody’s views, that is, the aggregate of all that is thought and said on a subject, sometimes merely the views of the majority, the particular type of thought and speech which prevails over other types.

The simplest form in which public opinion presents itself is when a sentiment spontaneously rises in the mind and flows from the lips of the average man upon his seeing or hearing something done or said. Homer presents this with his usual vivid directness in the line which frequently recurs in the Iliad when the effect produced by a speech or event is to be conveyed: “And thus anyone was saying as he looked at his neighbour.” This phrase describes what may be called the rudimentary stage of opinion. It is the prevalent impression of the moment. It is what any man (not every man) says i.e., it is the natural and the general thought or wish which an occurrence evokes. But before opinion begins to tell upon government, it has to go through several other stages. These stages are various in different ages and countries. Let us try to note what they are in England or America at the present time, and how each stage grows out of the other.

A businessman reads in his newspaper at breakfast the events of the preceding day. He reads that Prince Bismarck has announced a policy of protection for German industry, or that Mr. Henry George has beenEdition: current; Page: [910] nominated for the mayoralty of New York. These statements arouse in his mind sentiments of approval or disapproval, which may be strong or weak according to his previous predilection for or against protection or Mr. Henry George, and of course according to his personal interest in the matter. They rouse also an expectation of certain consequences likely to follow. Neither the sentiment not the expectation is based on processes of conscious reasoning—our businessman has not had time to reason at breakfast—they are merely impressions formed on the spur of the moment. He turns to the leading article in the newspaper, and his sentiments and expectations are confirmed or weakened according as he finds that they are or are not shared by the newspaper writer. He goes down to his office in the train, talks there to two or three acquaintances, and perceives that they agree or do not agree with his own still faint impressions. In his business office he finds his partner and a bundle of other newspapers which he glances at; their words further affect him, and thus by the end of the day his mind is beginning to settle down into a definite view, which approves or condemns Prince Bismarck’s declaration or the nomination of Mr. George. Meanwhile a similar process has been going on in the minds of others, and particularly of the journalists, whose business it is to discover what people are thinking. The evening paper has collected the opinions of the morning papers, and is rather more positive in its forecast of results. Next morning the leading journals have articles still more definite and positive in approval or condemnation and in prediction of consequences to follow; and the opinion of ordinary minds, hitherto fluid and undetermined, has begun to crystallize into a solid mass. This is the second stage. Then debate and controversy begin. The men and the newspapers who approve Mr. George’s nomination argue with those who do not; they find out who are friends and who opponents. The effect of controversy is to drive the partisans on either side from some of their arguments, which are shown to be weak; to confirm them in others, which they think strong; and to make them take up a definite position on one side. This is the third stage. The fourth is reached when action becomes necessary. When a citizen has to give a vote, he votes as a member of a party; his party prepossessions and party allegiance lay hold on him, and generally stifle any individual doubts or repulsions he may feel. Bringing men up to the polls is like passing a steam roller over stones newly laid on a road: the angularities are pressed down, and an appearance of smooth and even uniformity is given which did not exist before. When a man has voted, he is committed: he has thereafter an interest in backing the view which he has sought to make prevail. Moreover, opinion, which mayEdition: current; Page: [911] have been manifold till the polling, is thereafter generally twofold only. There is a view which has triumphed and a view which has been vanquished.

In examining the process by which opinion is formed, we cannot fail to note how small a part of the view which the average man entertains when he goes to vote is really of his own making. His original impression was faint and perhaps shapeless; its present definiteness and strength are mainly due to what he has heard and read. He has been told what to think, and why to think it. Arguments have been supplied to him from without, and controversy has imbedded them in his mind. Although he supposes his view to be his own, he holds it rather because his acquaintances, his newspapers, his party leaders all hold it. His acquaintances do the like. Each man believes and repeats certain phrases, because he thinks that everybody else on his own side believes them, and of what each believes only a small part is his own original impression, the far larger part being the result of the commingling and mutual action and reaction of the impressions of a multitude of individuals, in which the element of pure personal conviction, based in individual thinking, is but small.

Everyone is of course predisposed to see things in some one particular light by his previous education, habits of mind, accepted dogmas, religious or social affinities, notions of his own personal interest. No event, no speech or article, ever falls upon a perfectly virgin soil: the reader or listener is always more or less biased already. When some important event happens, which calls for the formation of a view, these preexisting habits, dogmas, affinities, help to determine the impression which each man experiences, and so far are factors in the view he forms. But they operate chiefly in determining the first impression, and they operate over many minds at once. They do not produce variety and independence; they are soon overlaid by the influences which each man derives from his fellows, from his leaders, from the press.

Orthodox democratic theory assumes that every citizen has, or ought to have, thought out for himself certain opinions, i.e., ought to have a definite view, defensible by arguments, of what the country needs, of what principles ought to be applied in governing it, of the men to whose hands the government ought to be entrusted. There are persons who talk, though certainly very few who act, as if they believed this theory, which may be compared to the theory of some ultra-Protestants that every good Christian has or ought to have, by the strength of his own reason, worked out for himself from the Bible a system of theology. But one need only try the experiment of talking to that representative of public opinion whom theEdition: current; Page: [912] Americans call “the man in the cars,” to realize how uniform opinion is among all classes of people, how little there is of that individuality in the ideas of each individual which they would have if he had formed them for himself, how little solidity and substance there is in the political or social beliefs of nineteen persons out of every twenty. These beliefs, when examined, mostly resolve themselves into two or three prejudices and aversions, two or three prepossessions for a particular leader or section of a party, two or three phrases or catchwords suggesting or embodying arguments which the man who repeats them has not analyzed. It is not that these nineteen persons are incapable of appreciating good arguments, or are unwilling to receive them. On the contrary, and this is especially true of the working classes, an audience is usually pleased when solid arguments are addressed to it, and men read with most relish the articles or leaflets, supposing them to be smartly written, which contain the most carefully sifted facts and the most exact thought. But to the great mass of mankind in all places, public questions come in the third or fourth rank among the interests of life, and obtain less than a third or a fourth of the leisure available for thinking. It is therefore rather sentiment than thought that the mass can contribute, a sentiment grounded on a few broad considerations and simple trains of reasoning; and the soundness and elevation of their sentiment will have more to do with their taking their stand on the side of justice, honour, and peace, than any reasoning they can apply to the sifting of the multifarious facts thrown before them, and to the drawing of the legitimate inferences therefrom.

It may be suggested that this analysis, if true of the uneducated, is not true of the educated classes. It is less true of that small class which in Europe specially occupies itself with politics; which, whether it reasons well or ill, does no doubt reason. But it is substantially no less applicable to the commercial and professional classes than to the working classes; for in the former, as well as in the latter, one finds few persons who take the pains, or have the leisure, or indeed possess the knowledge, to enable them to form an independent judgment. The chief difference between the so-called upper, or wealthier, and humbler strata of society is that the former are less influenced by sentiment and possibly more influenced by notions, often erroneous, of their own interest. Having something to lose, they imagine dangers to their property or their class ascendency. Moving in a more artificial society, their sympathies are less readily excited, and they more frequently indulge the tendency to cynicism natural to those who lead a life full of unreality and conventionalisms.

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The apparent paradox that where the humbler classes have differed in opinion from the higher, they have often been proved by the event to have been right and their so-called betters wrong (a fact sufficiently illustrated by the experience of many European countries during the last half-century1), may perhaps be explained by considering that the historical and scientific data on which the solution of a difficult political problem depends are really just as little known to the wealthy as to the poor. Ordinary education, even the sort of education which is represented by a university degree, does not fit a man to handle these questions, and it sometimes fills him with a vain conceit of his own competence which closes his mind to argument and to the accumulating evidence of facts. Education ought, no doubt, to enlighten a man; but the educated classes, speaking generally, are the property-holding classes, and the possession of property does more to make a man timid than education does to make him hopeful. He is apt to underrate the power as well as the worth of sentiment; he overvalues the restraints which existing institutions impose; he has a faint appreciation of the curative power of freedom, and of the tendency which brings things right when men have been left to their own devices, and have learnt from failure how to attain success. In the less-educated man a certain simplicity and openness of mind go some way to compensate for the lack of knowledge. He is more apt to be influenced by the authority of leaders; but as, at least in England and America, he is generally shrewd enough to discern between a great man and a demagogue, this is more a gain than a loss.

While suggesting these as explanations of the paradox, I admit that it remains a paradox. But the paradox is not in the statement, but in the facts. Nearly all great political and social causes have made their way first among the middle or humbler classes. The original impulse which has set the cause in motion, the inspiring ideas that have drawn men to it, have no doubt come from lofty and piercing minds, and minds generally belonging to the cultivated class. But the principles and precepts these minds have delivered have waxed strong because the masses have received them gladly, while the wealthiest and educated classes have frowned on or persecuted them.Edition: current; Page: [914] The most striking instance of all is to be found in the early history of Christianity.

The analysis, however, which I have sought to give of opinion applies only to the nineteen men out of twenty, and not to the twentieth. It applies to what may be called passive opinion—the opinion of those who have no special interest in politics, or concern with them beyond that of voting, of those who receive or propagate, but do not originate, views on public matters. Or, to put the same thing in different words, we have been considering how public opinion grows and spreads, as it were, spontaneously and naturally, But opinion does not merely grow; it is also made. There is not merely the passive class of persons; there is the active class, who occupy themselves primarily with public affairs, who aspire to create and lead opinion. The processes which these guides follow are too well known to need description. There are, however, one or two points which must be noted, in order to appreciate the reflex action of the passive upon the active class.

The man who tries to lead public opinion, be he statesman, journalist, or lecturer, finds in himself, when he has to form a judgment upon any current event, a larger measure of individual prepossession, and of what may be called political theory and doctrine, than belongs to the average citizen. His view is therefore likely to have more individuality, as well as more intellectual value. On the other hand, he has also a stronger motive than the average citizen for keeping in agreement with his friends and his party, because if he stands aloof and advocates a view of his own, he may lose his influence and his position. He has a past, and is prevented, by the fear of seeming inconsistent, from departing from what he has previously said. He has a future, and dreads to injure it by severing himself ever so little from his party. He is accordingly driven to make the same sort of compromise between his individual tendencies and the general tendency which the average citizen makes. But he makes it more consciously, realizing far more distinctly the difference between what he would think, say, and do, if left to himself, and what he says and does as a politician, who can be useful and prosperous only as a member of a body of persons acting together and professing to think alike.

Accordingly, though the largest part of the work of forming opinion is done by these men—whom I do not call professional politicians, because in Europe many of them are not solely occupied with politics, while in America the name of professionals must be reserved for another class—we must not forget the reaction constantly exercised upon them by the passiveEdition: current; Page: [915] majority. Sometimes a leading statesman or journalist takes a line to which he finds that the mass of those who usually agree with him are not responsive. He perceives that they will not follow him, and that he must choose between isolation and a modification of his own views. A statesman may sometimes venture on the former course, and in very rare cases succeed in imposing his own will and judgment on his party. A journalist, however, is almost invariably obliged to hark back if he has inadvertently taken up a position disagreeable to his clientèle, because the proprietors of the paper have their circulation to consider. To avoid so disagreeable a choice, a statesman or a journalist is usually on the alert to sound the general opinion before he commits himself on a new issue. He tries to feel the pulse of the mass of average citizens; and as the mass, on the other hand, look to him for initiative, this is a delicate process. In European countries it is generally the view of the leaders which prevails, but it is modified by the reception which the mass give it; it becomes accentuated in the points which they appreciate; while those parts of it, or those ways of stating it, which have failed to find popular favour, fall back into the shade.

This mutual action and reaction of the makers or leaders of opinion upon the mass, and of the mass upon them, is the most curious part of the whole process by which opinion is produced. It is also that part in which there is the greatest difference between one free country and another. In some countries, the leaders count for, say, three-fourths of the product, and the mass for one-fourth only. In others we may find these proportions reversed. In some countries the mass of the voters are not only markedly inferior in education to the few who lead, but also diffident, more disposed to look up to their betters. In others the difference of intellectual level between those who busy themselves with politics and the average voter is far smaller. Perhaps the leader is not so well instructed a man as in the countries first referred to; perhaps the average voter is better instructed and more self-confident. Where both of these phenomena coincide, so that the difference of level is inconsiderable, public opinion will evidently be a different thing from what it is in countries where, though the constitution has become democratic, the habits of the nation are still aristocratic. This is the difference between America and the countries of Western Europe.

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chapter 77

Government by Public Opinion

We talk of public opinion as a new force in the world, conspicuous only since governments began to be popular. Statesmen, even in the last generation, looked on it with some distrust or dislike. Sir Robert Peel, for instance, in a letter written in 1820, speaks with the air of a discoverer, of “that great compound of folly, weakness, prejudice, wrong feeling, right feeling, obstinacy, and newspaper paragraphs, which is called public opinion.”

Yet opinion has really been the chief and ultimate power in nearly all nations at nearly all times. I do not mean merely the opinion of the class to which the rulers belong. Obviously the small oligarchy of Venice was influenced by the opinion of the Venetian nobility, as the absolute czar is influenced now by the opinion of his court and army. I mean the opinion, unspoken, unconscious, but not the less real and potent, of the masses of the people. Governments have always rested and, in special cases apart, must rest, if not on the affection, then on the reverence or awe, if not on the active approval, then on the silent acquiescence, of the numerical majority. It is only by rare exception that a monarch or an oligarchy has maintained authority against the will of the people. The despotisms of the East, although they usually began in conquest, did not stand by military force but by popular assent. So did the feudal kingdoms of mediaeval Europe. So do the despotisms of the sultan (so far, at least, as regards his Mussulman subjects), of the shah, and of the Chinese emperor. The cases to the contrary are chiefly those of military tyrannies, such as existed in many of the Greek cities of antiquity, and in some of the Italian cities of the Renaissance, and such as exist now in the so-called republics of Central and South America. That even the Roman Empire, that eldest child of war and conquest, did not rest on force but on the consent and goodwill of its subjects is shownEdition: current; Page: [917] by the smallness of its standing armies, nearly the whole of which were employed against frontier enemies, because there was rarely any internal revolt or disturbance to be feared. Belief in authority, and the love of established order, are among the strongest forces in human nature, and therefore in politics. The first supports governments de jure, the latter governments de facto. They combine to support a government which is de jure as well as de facto. Where the subjects are displeased, their discontent may appear perhaps in the epigrams which tempered the despotism of Louis XV in France, perhaps in the sympathy given to bandits like Robin Hood, perhaps in occasional insurrections like those of Constantinople under the Eastern emperors. Of course, where there is no habit of combination to resist, discontent may remain for some time without this third means of expressing itself. But, even when the occupant of the throne is unpopular, the throne as an institution is in no danger so long as it can command the respect of the multitude and show itself equal to its duties.

In the earlier or simpler forms of political society public opinion is passive. It acquiesces in, rather than supports, the authority which exists, whatever its faults, because it knows of nothing better, because it sees no way to improvement, probably also because it is overawed by some kind of religious sanction. Human nature must have something to reverence, and the sovereign, because remote and potent and surrounded by pomp and splendour, seems to it mysterious and half divine. Worse administrations than those of Asiatic Turkey and Persia at this moment can hardly be imagined, yet the Mohammedan population show no signs of disaffection. The subjects of Darius and the subjects of Theebaw obeyed as a matter of course. They did not ask why they obeyed, for the habit of obedience was sufficient. They could, however, if disaffected, have at any moment overturned the throne, which had only, in both cases, an insignificant force of guards to protect it. During long ages the human mind did not ask itself—in many parts of the world does not even now ask itself—questions which seem to us the most obvious. Custom, as Pindar said, is king over all mortals and immortals, and custom prescribed obedience. When in any society opinion becomes self-conscious, when it begins to realize its force and question the rights of its rulers, that society is already progressing, and soon finds means of organizing resistance and compelling reform.

The difference, therefore, between despotically governed and free countries does not consist in the fact that the latter are ruled by opinion and the former by force, for both are generally ruled by opinion. It consists rather in this, that in the former the people instinctively obey a power which they do notEdition: current; Page: [918] know to be really of their own creation, and to stand by their own permission; whereas in the latter the people feel their supremacy, and consciously treat their rulers as their agents, while the rulers obey a power which they admit to have made and to be able to unmake them—the popular will. In both cases force is seldom necessary, or is needed only against small groups, because the habit of obedience replaces it. Conflicts and revolutions belong to the intermediate stage, when the people are awakening to the sense that they are truly the supreme power in the state, but when the rulers have not yet become aware that their authority is merely delegated. When superstition and the habit of submission have vanished from the whilom subjects, when the rulers, recognizing that they are no more than agents for the citizens, have in turn formed the habit of obedience, public opinion has become the active and controlling director of a business in which it was before the sleeping and generally forgotten partner. But even when this stage has been reached, as has now happened in most civilized states, there are differences in the degree and mode in and by which public opinion asserts itself. In some countries the habit of obeying rulers and officials is so strong that the people, once they have chosen the legislature or executive head by whom the officials are appointed, allow these officials almost as wide a range of authority as in the old days of despotism. Such people have a profound respect for government as government, and a reluctance, due either to theory or to mere laziness, perhaps to both, to interfere with its action. They say, “That is a matter for the administration; we have nothing to do with it;” and stand as much aside or submit as humbly as if the government did not spring from their own will. Perhaps they practically leave themselves, as did the Germans of Bismarck’s day, in the hands of a venerated monarch and a forceful minister, giving these rulers a free hand so long as their policy moves in accord with the general sentiment of the nation, and maintains its glory. Perhaps while frequently changing their ministries, they nevertheless yield to each ministry, and to its executive subordinates all over the country, an authority great while it lasts, and largely controlling the action of the individual citizen. This seems to be still true of France. There are other countries in which, though the sphere of government is strictly limited by law, and the private citizen is little inclined to bow before an official, the habit has been to check the ministry chiefly through the legislature, and to review the conduct of both ministry and legislature only at long intervals, when an election of the legislature takes place. This has been, and to some extent is still, the case in Britain. Although the people rule, they rule not directly, but through the House of Commons, which they choose only onceEdition: current; Page: [919] in four or five years, and which may, at any given moment, represent rather the past than the present will of the nation.

I make these observations for the sake of indicating another form which the rule of the people may assume. We have distinguished three stages in the evolution of opinion from its unconscious and passive into its conscious and active condition. In the first it acquiesces in the will of the ruler whom it has been accustomed to obey. In the second conflicts arise between the ruling person or class, backed by those who are still disposed to obedience, on the one hand, and the more independent or progressive spirits on the other; and these conflicts are decided by arms. In the third stage the whilom ruler has submitted, and disputes are referred to the sovereign multitude, whose will is expressed at certain intervals upon slips of paper deposited in boxes, and is carried out by the minister or legislature to whom the popular mandate is entrusted. A fourth stage would be reached, if the will of the majority of the citizens were to become ascertainable at all times, and without the need of its passing through a body of representatives, possibly even without the need of voting machinery at all. In such a state of things the sway of public opinion would have become more complete, because more continuous, than it is in those European countries which, like France, Italy, and Britain, look chiefly to parliaments as exponents of national sentiment. The authority would seem to remain all the while in the mass of the citizens. Popular government would have been pushed so far as almost to dispense with, or at any rate to anticipate, the legal modes in which the majority speaks its will at the polling booths; and this informal but direct control of the multitude would dwarf, if it did not supersede, the importance of those formal but occasional deliverances made at the elections of representatives. To such a condition of things the phrase, “rule of public opinion,” might be most properly applied, for public opinion would not only reign but govern.

The mechanical difficulties, as one may call them, of working such a method of government are obvious. How is the will of the majority to be ascertained except by counting votes? How, without the greatest inconvenience, can votes be frequently taken on all the chief questions that arise? No country has yet surmounted these inconveniences, though little Switzerland with its referendum and initiative has faced and partially dealt with some of them, and some of the American states are treading in the same path. But what I desire to point out is that even where the machinery for weighing or measuring the popular will from week to week or month to month has not been, and is not likely to be, invented, there may neverthelessEdition: current; Page: [920] be a disposition on the part of the rulers, whether ministers or legislators, to act as if it existed; that is to say, to look incessantly for manifestations of current popular opinion, and to shape their course in accordance with their reading of those manifestations. Such a disposition will be accompanied by a constant oversight of public affairs by the mass of the citizens, and by a sense on their part that they are the true governors, and that their agents, executive and legislative, are rather servants than agents. Where this is the attitude of the people on the one hand and of the persons who do the actual work of governing on the other, it may fairly be said that there exists a kind of government materially, if not formally, different from the representative system as it presented itself to European thinkers and statesmen of the last generation. And it is to this kind of government that democratic nations seem to be tending.

The state of things here noted will find illustration in what I have to say in the following chapters regarding opinion in the United States. Meanwhile a few remarks may be hazarded on the rule of public opinion in general.

The excellence of popular government lies not so much in its wisdom—for it is as apt to err as other kinds of government—as in its strength. It has been compared, ever since Sir William Temple, to a pyramid, the firmest based of all buildings. Nobody can be blamed for obeying it. There is no appeal from its decisions. Once the principle that the will of the majority, honestly ascertained, must prevail, has soaked into the mind and formed the habits of a nation, that nation acquires not only stability, but immense effective force. It has no need to fear discussion and agitation. It can bend all its resources to the accomplishment of its collective ends. The friction that exists in countries where the laws or institutions handed down from former generations are incompatible with the feelings and wishes of the people has disappeared. A key has been found that will unlock every door.

On the other hand, such a government is exposed to two dangers. One, the smaller one, yet sometimes troublesome, is the difficulty of ascertaining the will of the majority. I do not mean the difficulty of getting all citizens to vote, because it must be taken that those who do not vote leave their will in the hands of those who do, but the difficulty of obtaining by any machinery yet devised a quite honest record of the results of voting. Where the issues are weighty, involving immense interests of individual men or groups of men, the danger of bribery, of force, and still more of fraud in taking and counting votes, is a serious one. When there is reason to think that ballots have been tampered with, the value of the system is gone; and men are remitted to the old methods of settling their differences.

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The other danger is that minorities may not sufficiently assert themselves. Where a majority has erred, the only remedy against the prolongation or repetition of its error is in the continued protests and agitation of the minority, an agitation which ought to be conducted peaceably, by voice and pen, but which must be vehement enough to rouse the people and deliver them from the consequences of their blunders. But the more complete the sway of majorities is, so much the less disposed is a minority to maintain the contest. It loses faith in its cause and in itself, and allows its voice to be silenced by the triumphant cries of its opponents. How are men to acquiesce promptly and loyally in the decision of a majority, and yet to go on arguing against it? How can they be at once submissive and aggressive? That conceit of his own goodness and greatness which intoxicates an absolute monarch besets a sovereign people also, and the slavishness with which his ministers approach an Oriental despot may reappear in the politicians of a Western democracy. The duty, therefore, of a patriotic statesman in a country where public opinion rules, would seem to be rather to resist and correct than to encourage the dominant sentiment. He will not be content with trying to form and mould and lead it, but he will confront it, lecture it, remind it that it is fallible, rouse it out of its self-complacency. Unfortunately, courage and independence are plants which a soil impregnated with the belief in the wisdom of numbers does not tend to produce; nor is there any art known to statesmen whereby their growth can be fostered.

Experience has, however, suggested plans for lessening the risks incident to the dominance of one particular set of opinions. One plan is for the people themselves to limit their powers, i.e., to surround their own action and the action of their agents with restrictions of time and method which compel delay. Another is for them so to parcel out functions among many agents that no single one chosen indiscreetly, or obeying his mandate overzealously, can do much mischief, and that out of the multiplicity of agents differences of view may spring which will catch the attention of the citizens.

The temper and character of a people may supply more valuable safeguards. The country which has worked out for itself a truly free government must have done so in virtue of the vigorous individuality of its children. Such an individuality does not soon yield even to the pressure of democratic conditions. In a nation with a keen moral sense and a capacity for strong emotions, opinion based on a love of what is deemed just or good will resist the multitude when bent on evil; and if there be a great variety of social conditions, of modes of life, of religious beliefs, these will prove centresEdition: current; Page: [922] of resistance to a dominant tendency, like rocks standing up in a river, at which he whom the current sweeps downwards may clutch. Instances might be cited even from countries where the majority has had every source of strength at its command—physical force, tradition, the all but universal persuasions and prejudices of the lower as well as of the higher classes—in which small minorities have triumphed, first by startling and then by leavening and convincing the majority. This they have done in virtue of that intensity of belief which is oftenest found in a small sect or group, not because it is small, but because if its belief were not intense it would not venture to hold out at all against the adverse mass. The energy of each individual in the minority makes it in the long run a match for a majority huger but less instinct with vitality. In a free country more especially, ten men who care are worth a hundred who do not.

Such natural compensations as this occur in the physical as well as in the spiritual and moral world, and preserve both. But they are compensations on which the practical statesman cannot safely rely, for they are partial, they are uncertain, and they probably tend to diminish with the progress of democracy. The longer public opinion has ruled, the more absolute is the authority of the majority likely to become, the less likely are energetic minorities to arise, the more are politicians likely to occupy themselves, not in forming opinion, but in discovering and hastening to obey it.

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chapter 78

How Public Opinion Rules in America

It was observed in last chapter that the phrase “government by public opinion” is most specifically applicable to a system wherein the will of the people acts directly and constantly upon its executive and legislative agents. A government may be both free and good without being subject to this continuous and immediate control. Still this is the goal toward which the extension of the suffrage, the more rapid diffusion of news, and the practice of self-government itself, necessarily lead free nations; and it may even be said that one of their chief problems is to devise means whereby the national will shall be most fully expressed, most quickly known, most unresistingly and cheerfully obeyed. Delays and jerks are avoided, friction and consequent waste of force are prevented, when the nation itself watches all the play of the machinery and guides its workmen by a glance. Towards this goal the Americans have marched with steady steps, unconsciously as well as consciously. No other people now stands so near it.

Of all the experiments which America has made, this is that which best deserves study, for her solution of the problem differs from all previous solutions, and she has shown more boldness in trusting public opinion, in recognizing and giving effect to it, than has yet been shown elsewhere. Towering over presidents and state governors, over Congress and state legislatures, over conventions and the vast machinery of party, public opinion stands out, in the United States, as the great source of power, the master of servants who tremble before it.

For the sake of making clear what follows, I will venture to recapitulate what was said in an earlier chapter as to the three forms which government has taken in free countries. First came primary assemblies, such as those of the Greek republics of antiquity, or those of the early Teutonic tribes, which have survived in a few Swiss cantons. The whole people met, debatedEdition: current; Page: [924] current questions, decided them by its votes, chose those who were to carry out its will. Such a system of direct popular government is possible only in small communities, and in this day of large states has become a matter rather of antiquarian curiosity than of practical moment.

In the second form, power belongs to representative bodies, parliaments and chambers. The people in their various local areas elect men, supposed to be their wisest or most influential, to deliberate for them, resolve for them, choose their executive servants for them. They give these representatives a tolerably free hand, leaving them in power for a considerable space of time, and allowing them to act unchecked, except in so far as custom, or possibly some fundamental law, limits their discretion. This is done in the faith that the chamber will feel its responsibility and act for the best interests of the country, carrying out what it believes to be the wishes of the majority, unless it should be convinced that in some particular point it knows better than the majority what the interests of the country require. Such a system has long prevailed in England, and the English model has been widely imitated on the continent of Europe and in the British colonies.

The third is something between the other two. It may be regarded either as an attempt to apply the principle of primary assemblies to large countries, or as a modification of the representative system in the direction of direct popular sovereignty. There is still a legislature, but it is elected for so short a time and checked in so many ways that much of its power and dignity has departed. Ultimate authority is not with it, but with the people, who have fixed limits beyond which it cannot go, and who use it merely as a piece of machinery for carrying out their wishes and settling points of detail for them. The supremacy of their will is expressed in the existence of a constitution placed above the legislature, although capable of alteration by a direct popular vote. The position of the representatives has been altered. They are conceived of, not as wise and strong men chosen to govern, but as delegates under specific orders to be renewed at short intervals.

This is the form established in the United States. Congress sits for two years only. It is strictly limited by the Constitution, and by the coexistence of the state governments, which the Constitution protects. It has (except by way of impeachment) no control over the federal executive, which is directly named by and responsible to the people. So, too, the state legislatures sit for short periods, do not appoint the state executives, are hedged in by the prohibitions of the state constitutions. The people frequently legislate directly by enacting or altering a constitution. The principle of popular sovereignty could hardly be expressed more unmistakably. Allowing for the differences to which the vast size of the country gives rise, the mass of the citizensEdition: current; Page: [925] may be deemed as directly the supreme power in the United States as the Assembly was at Athens or Syracuse.1 The only check on the mass is that which they have themselves imposed, and which the ancient democracies did not possess, the difficulty of changing a rigid constitution. And this difficulty is serious only as regards the federal Constitution.

As this is the most developed form of popular government, so is it also the form which most naturally produces what I have called government by public opinion. Popular government may be said to exist wherever all power is lodged in and issues from the people. Government by public opinion exists where the wishes and views of the people prevail, even before they have been conveyed through the regular law-appointed organs, and without the need of their being so conveyed. As in a limited monarchy the king, however powerful, must act through certain officers and in a defined legal way, whereas in a despotism he may act just as he pleases, and his initial written on a scrap of paper is as sure of obedience as his full name signed to a parchment authenticated by the Great Seal or the countersignature of a minister, so where the power of the people is absolute, legislators and administrators are quick to catch its wishes in whatever way they may be indicated, and do not care to wait for the methods which the law prescribes. This happens in America. Opinion rules more fully, more directly, than under the second of the systems described above.

A consideration of the nature of the state governments as of the national government will show that legal theory as well as popular self-confidence gives birth to this rule of opinion. Supreme power resides in the whole mass of citizens. They have prescribed, in the strict terms of a legal document, the form of government. They alone have the right to change it, and that only in a particular way. They have committed only a part of their sovereignty to their executive and legislative agents, reserving the rest to themselves. Hence their will, or in other words, public opinion, is constantly felt by these agents to be, legally as well as practically, the controlling authority. In England, Parliament is the nation, not merely by a legal fiction, but because the nation looks to Parliament only, having neither reserved any authority to itself nor bestowed any elsewhere. In America, Congress is not the nation, and does not claim to be so.

The ordinary functions and business of government, the making of laws, the imposing of taxes, the interpretation of laws and their execution, the administration of justice, the conduct of foreign relations, are parcelled outEdition: current; Page: [926] among a number of bodies and persons whose powers are so carefully balanced and touch at so many points that there is a constant risk of conflicts, even of deadlocks. Some of the difficulties thence arising are dealt with by the courts, as questions of the interpretation of the Constitution. But in many cases the intervention of the courts, which can act only in a suit between parties, comes too late to deal with the matter, which may be an urgent one; and in some cases there is nothing for the courts to decide, because each of the conflicting powers is within its legal right. The Senate, for instance, may refuse the measures which the House thinks necessary. The president may veto bills passed by both houses, and the houses may not have a two-thirds majority to pass them over his veto. Congress may urge the president to adopt a certain course of action, and the president may refuse. The president may propose a treaty to the Senate and the Senate may reject it. In such cases there is a stoppage of governmental action which may involve loss to the country. The master, however, is at hand to settle the quarrels of his servants. If the question be a grave one, and the mind of the country clear upon it, public opinion throws its weight into one or other scale, and its weight is decisive. Should opinion be nearly balanced, it is no doubt difficult to ascertain, till the next election arrives, which of many discordant cries is really the prevailing voice. This difficulty must, in a large country, where frequent plebiscites are impossible, be endured; and it may be well, when the preponderance of opinion is not great, that serious decisions should not be quickly taken. The general truth remains that a system of government by checks and balances specially needs the presence of an arbiter to incline the scale in favour of one or other of the balanced authorities, and that public opinion must therefore be more frequently invoked and more constantly active in America than in other countries.

Those who invented this machinery of checks and balances were anxious not so much to develop public opinion as to resist and build up breakwaters against it. No men were less revolutionary in spirit than the heroes of the American Revolution. They had made a revolution in the name of Magna Charta and the Bill of Rights: they were penetrated by a sense of the dangers incident to democracy. They conceived of popular opinion as aggressive, revolutionary, unreasoning, passionate, futile, and a breeder of mob violence. We shall presently inquire whether this conception has been verified. Meantime be it noted that the efforts made in 1787 to divide authority and, so to speak, force the current of the popular will into many small channels instead of permitting it to rush down one broad bed, have really tended to exalt public opinion above the regular legally appointed organs of government. Each of these organs is too small to form opinion, too narrow toEdition: current; Page: [927] express it, too weak to give effect to it. It grows up not in Congress, not in state legislatures, not in those great conventions which frame platforms and choose candidates, but at large among the people. It is expressed in voices everywhere. It rules as a pervading and impalpable power, like the ether which, as physicists say, passes through all things. It binds all the parts of the complicated system together and gives them whatever unity of aim and action they possess.

There is also another reason why the opinion of the whole nation is a more important factor in the government of the United States than anywhere in Europe. In Europe there has always been a governing class, a set of persons whom birth, or wealth, or education has raised above their fellows, and to whom has been left the making of public opinion together with the conduct of administration and the occupancy of places in the legislature. The public opinion of Germany, Italy, France, and England has been substantially the opinion of the class which wears black coats and lives in good houses, though in the two latter countries it has begun of late years to be affected by the opinion of the classes socially lower. Although the members of the British Parliament now obey the mass of their constituents when the latter express a distinct wish, still the influence which plays most steadily on them and permeates them is the opinion of a class or classes and not of the whole nation. The class to which the great majority of members of both houses belong (i.e., the landowners and the persons occupied in professions and in the higher walks of commerce) is the class which chiefly forms and expresses what is called public opinion. Even in these days of vigilant and exacting constituencies one sees many members of the House of Commons the democratic robustness or provincial crudity of whose ideas melts like wax under the influence of fashionable dinner parties and club smoking rooms. It is a common complaint that it is hard for a member to “keep touch” with the opinion of the masses.

In the United States public opinion is the opinion of the whole nation, with little distinction of social classes. The politicians, including the members of Congress and of state legislatures, are, perhaps not (as Americans sometimes insinuate) below, yet certainly not above the average level of their constituents. They find no difficulty in keeping touch with outside opinion. Washington or Albany may corrupt them, but not in the way of modifying their political ideas. They do not aspire to the function of forming opinion. They are like the Eastern slave who says “I hear and obey.” Nor is there any one class or set of men, or any one “social layer,” which more than another originates ideas and builds up political doctrine for the mass. The opinion of the nation is the resultant of the views, not of a number ofEdition: current; Page: [928] classes, but of a multitude of individuals, diverse, no doubt, from one another, but, for the purposes of politics far less diverse than if they were members of groups defined by social rank or by property.

The consequences are noteworthy. Statesmen cannot, as in Europe, declare any sentiment which they find telling on their friends or their opponents in politics to be confined to the rich, or to the governing class, and to be opposed to the general sentiment of the people. In America you cannot appeal from the classes to the masses. What the employer thinks, his workmen think.2 What the wholesale merchant feels, the retail storekeeper feels, and the poorer customers feel. Divisions of opinion are vertical and not horizontal. Obviously this makes opinion more easily ascertained, while increasing its force as a governing power, and gives the people, that is to say, all classes in the community, a clearer and stronger consciousness of being the rulers of their country than European peoples have. Every man knows that he is himself a part of the government, bound by duty as well as by self-interest to devote part of his time and thoughts to it. He may neglect this duty, but he admits it to be a duty. So the system of party organizations already described is built upon this theory; and as this system is more recent, and is the work of practical politicians, it is even better evidence of the general acceptance of the doctrine than are the provisions of constitutions. Compare European countries, or compare the other states of the New World. In the so-called republics of Central and South America a small section of the inhabitants pursue politics, while the rest follow their ordinary avocations, indifferent to elections and pronunciamentos and revolutions. In Germany, and in the German and Slavonic parts of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, people think of the government as a great machine which will go on, whether they put their hand to it or not, a few persons working it, and all the rest paying and looking on. The same thing is largely true of republican France, and of semi-republican Italy, where free government is still a novelty, and local self-government in its infancy. Even in England, though the eighty years that have passed over her since the great Reform Act have brought many new ideas with them, the ordinary voter is still far from feeling, as the American does, that the government is his own, and he individually responsible for its conduct.

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chapter 79

Organs of Public Opinion

How does this vague, fluctuating, complex thing we call public opinion—omnipotent yet indeterminate, a sovereign to whose voice everyone listens, yet whose words, because he speaks with as many tongues as the waves of a boisterous sea, it is so hard to catch—how does public opinion express itself in America? By what organs is it declared, and how, since these organs often contradict one another, can it be discovered which of them speak most truly for the mass? The more completely popular sovereignty prevails in a country, so much the more important is it that the organs of opinion should be adequate to its expression, prompt, full, and unmistakable in their utterances. And in such European countries as England and France, it is now felt that the most successful party leader is he who can best divine from these organs what the decision of the people will be when a direct appeal is made to them at an election.

I have already observed that in America public opinion is a power not satisfied with choosing executive and legislative agents at certain intervals, but continuously watching and guiding those agents, who look to it, not merely for a vote of approval when the next general election arrives, but also for directions which they are eager to obey, so soon as they have learnt their meaning. The efficiency of the organs of opinion is therefore more essential to the government of the United States than even to England or to France.

An organ of public opinion is, however, not merely the expression of views and tendencies already in existence, but a factor in further developing and moulding the judgment of the people. Opinion makes opinion. Men follow in the path which they see others treading; they hasten to adopt the view that seems likely to prevail. Hence every weighty voice, be it that of a speaker, or an association, or a public meeting, or a newspaper, is at onceEdition: current; Page: [930] the disclosure of an existing force and a further force influencing others. This fact, while it multiplies the organs through which opinion is expressed, increases the difficulty of using them aright, because every voice seeks to represent itself as that of the greater, or at least of a growing number.

The press, and particularly the newspaper press, stands by common consent first among the organs of opinion. Yet few things are harder than to estimate its power, and state precisely in what that power consists.

Newspapers are powerful in three ways—as narrators, as advocates, and as weathercocks. They report events, they advance arguments, they indicate by their attitude what those who conduct them and are interested in their circulation take to be the prevailing opinion of their readers. In the first of these regards the American press is the most active in the world. Nothing escapes it which can attract any class of readers. It does not even confine itself to events that have happened, but is apt to describe others which may possibly have happened, however slight the evidence for them: pariter facta atque infecta canebat. This habit affects its worth as an historic record and its influence with sober-minded people. Statesmen may be heard to complain that once an untrue story has been set flying they cannot efface the effect however complete the contradiction they may give it; and injustice is thus frequently done. Sometimes, of course, there is deliberate misrepresentation. But more often the erroneous statements are the natural result of the high pressure under which the newspaper business is carried on. The appetite for news, and for highly spiced or “sensational” news, is enormous, and journalists working under keen competition and in unceasing haste are disposed to take their chance of the correctness of the information they receive.

Much harm there is, but sometimes good also. It is related of an old barrister that he observed: “When I was young I lost a good many causes which I ought to have won, and now, that I have grown old and experienced, I win a good many causes which I ought to lose. So, on the whole, justice has been done.” If in its heedlessness the press often causes pain to the innocent, it does a great and necessary service in exposing evildoers, many of whom would escape were it never to speak except upon sufficient evidence. It is a watchdog whose noisy bark must be tolerated, even when the person who approaches has no bad intent. No doubt charges are so promiscuously and often so lightly made as to tell less than they would in a country where the law of libel was more frequently appealed to. But many abuses are unveiled, many more prevented by the fear of publicity.

Although the leading American newspapers contain far more nonpoliticalEdition: current; Page: [931] matter than those of Europe, they also contain, especially of course before any important election, more domestic political intelligence than any, except perhaps two or three, of the chief English journals. Much of it is inaccurate, but partisanship distorts it no more than in Europe, perhaps less. The public has the benefit of hearing everything it can wish, and perhaps more than it ought to wish, to know about every occurrence and every personality. The intelligence is not quite of the same kind as in England or France. There are fewer reports of speeches, because fewer speeches of an argumentative nature are made, but more of the schemes and doings of conventions and political cliques, as well as of the sayings of individuals.

As the advocates of political doctrines, newspapers are of course powerful, because they are universally read and often ably written. They are accused of unfairness and vituperation, but I doubt if there is any marked difference in this respect between their behaviour and that of European papers at a time of excitement. Nor could I discover that their arguments were any more frequently than in Europe addressed to prejudices rather than to reason; indeed they are less markedly party organs than are those of Britain. In America, however, a leading article carries less weight of itself, being discounted by the shrewd reader as the sort of thing which the paper must of course be expected to say, and is effective only when it takes hold of some fact (real or supposed), and hammers it into the public mind. This is what the unclean politician has to fear. Mere abuse he does not care for, but constant references to and comments on misdeeds of which he cannot clear himself tell in the long run against him.

The influence attributed to the press is evidenced not only by the posts (especially foreign legations) frequently bestowed upon the owners or editors of leading journals, but by the current appeals made to good party men to take in only stanch party papers, and by the threats to “read out” of the party journals which show a dangerous independence. Nevertheless, if the party press be estimated as a factor in the formation of opinion, whether by argument or by authority, it must be deemed less powerful in America than in Europe, because its average public is shrewder, more independent, less readily impressed by the mysterious “we.” I doubt if there be any paper by which any considerable number of people swear; and am sure that comparatively few quote their favourite journal as an oracle in the way many persons still do in England. The vast area of the republic and the absence of a capital prevent any one paper from winning its way to predominance, even in any particular section of the country. Herein one notes a remarkable contrast to the phenomena of the Old World. Although the chief American newspapersEdition: current; Page: [932] are, regarded as commercial properties, “bigger things” than those of Europe, they do not dominate the whole press as a few journals do in most European countries. Or, to put the same thing differently, in England, and much the same may be said of France and Germany, some twenty newspapers cover nine-tenths of the reading public, whereas in America any given twenty papers would not cover one-third.

In those cities, moreover, where one finds really strong papers, each is exposed to a severer competition than in Europe, for in cities most people look at more than one newspaper. The late Mr. Horace Greeley, who for many years owned and edited the New York Tribune, is probably the only case of an editor who, by his journalistic talent and great self-confidence, acquired such a personal influence over multitudes of readers as to make them watch for and follow his deliverances. He was to the later Whig party and the earlier Republican party much what Katkoff was to the National party in Russia between 1870 and 1880, and had, of course, a far greater host of readers.

It is chiefly in its third capacity, as an index and mirror of public opinion, that the press is looked to. This is the function it chiefly aims at discharging; and public men feel that in showing deference to it they are propitiating, and inviting the commands of, public opinion itself. In worshipping the deity you learn to conciliate the priest. But as every possible view and tendency finds expression through some organ in the press, the problem is to discover which views have got popular strength behind them. Professed party journals are of little use, though one may sometimes discover from the way they advance an argument whether they think it will really tell on the opposite party, or use it only because it falls within their own programme. More may therefore be gleaned from the independent or semi-independent journals, whereof there are three classes: papers which, like two or three in the great cities, generally support one party, but are apt to fly off from it when they disapprove its conduct, or think the people will do so; papers which devote themselves mainly to news, though they may give editorial aid to one or other party according to the particular issue involved; and papers not professedly, or primarily political. Of this last class the most important members are the religious weeklies, to whose number and influence few parallels can be discovered in Europe. They are mostly either neutral or somewhat loosely attached to their party, usually the Republican party, because it began as the Free Soil party, and includes, in the North, the greater number of serious-minded people. It is only on great occasions, such as a presidential election, or when some moral issue arises, that they discussEdition: current; Page: [933] current politics at length. When they do, great is their power, because they are deemed to be less “thirled” to a party or a leader, because they speak from a moral standpoint, and because they are read on Sunday, a time of leisure, when their seed is more likely to take root. The other weekly and monthly magazines used to deal less with politics than did the three leading English monthlies, but some of them are now largely occupied with political or politico-social topics, their influence seems to grow with the increasing amount of vigorous writing they contain.

During presidential contests much importance is attributed to the attitude of the leading papers of the great cities, for the revolt of anyone from its party—as, for instance, the revolt of several Republican papers during the election of 1884 and that of many Democratic papers in 1896—indicates discontent and danger. Where a schism exists in a state party, the bosses of one or other section will sometimes try to capture and manipulate the smaller country papers so as to convey the impression that their faction is gaining ground. Newspapers take more notice of one another, both by quoting from friendly sheets and by attacking hostile ones, than is usual in England, so that any incident or witticism which can tell in a campaign is at once taken up and read in a day or two in every city from Detroit to New Orleans.

The Americans have invented an organ for catching, measuring, and indicating opinion, almost unknown in Europe, in their practice of citing the private deliverances of prominent men. Sometimes this is done by publishing a letter, addressed not to the newspaper but to a friend, who gives it the publicity for which it was designed. Sometimes it is announced how the prominent man is going to vote at the next election. One may often notice short paragraphs stating that Judge So-and-So, or Dr. Blank, an eminent clergyman, is going to “bolt” the presidential or state ticket of his party; and perhaps the reasons assigned for his conduct follow. Of the same nature, but more elaborate, is the interview, in which the prominent man unbosoms himself to a reporter, giving his view of the political position in a manner less formal and obtrusive but not less effective than that of a letter to the editor. Sometimes, at the editor’s suggestion, or of his own motion, a brisk reporter waits on the leading citizen and invites the expression of his views, which is rarely refused, though, of course, it may be given in a guarded and unsatisfying way. Sometimes the leading citizen himself, when he has a fact on which to comment, or views to communicate, sends for the reporter, who is only too glad to attend. The plan has many conveniences, among which is the possibility of disavowing any particular phrase as one which has failed to convey the speaker’s true meaning. All these devicesEdition: current; Page: [934] serve to help the men of eminence to impress their ideas on the public, while they show that there is a part of the public which desires such guidance.

Taking the American press all in all, it seems to serve the expression, and subserve the formation, of public opinion more fully than does the press of any part of the European continent, and not less fully than that of England. Individual newspapers and those who write in them may enjoy less power than is the case in some countries of the Old World; but if this be so, the cause is to be found in the fact that the journals lay themselves out to give news rather than views, that they are less generally bound to a particular party, and that readers are, except at critical moments, less warmly interested in politics than are educated Englishmen, because other topics claim a relatively larger part of their attention. The American press may not be above the moral level of the average good citizen—in no country does one either expect or find it to be so—but it is above the level of the machine politicians in the cities. In the war waged against these worthies the bolder and stronger newspapers have on occasion given powerful aid to the cause of reform by dragging corruption to light.

While believing that a complete picture of current opinion can be more easily gathered from American than from English journals, I do not mean to imply that they supply all a politician needs. Anyone who has made it his business to feel the pulse of his own must be sensible that when he has been travelling abroad for a few weeks, he is sure, no matter how diligently he peruses the leading home papers of all shades, to “lose touch” of the current sentiment of the country in its actuality. The journals seem to convey to him what their writers wish to be believed, and not necessarily what the people are really thinking; and he feels more and more as weeks pass the need of an hour’s talk with four or five discerning friends of different types of thought, from whom he will gather how current facts strike and move the minds of his countrymen. Every prudent man keeps a circle of such friends, by whom he can test and correct his own impressions better than by the almost official utterances of the party journals. So in America there is much to be learnt from conversation with judicious observers outside politics and typical representatives of political sections and social classes, which the most diligent study of the press will not give, not to add that it occasionally happens that the press of a particular city may fall, for a time, under potent local influences which prevent it from saying all that ought to be said.

Except during electoral campaigns, public meetings play a smaller partEdition: current; Page: [935] in the political life of the United States than in that of Western Europe. Meetings were, of course, more frequent during the struggle against slavery than they need be in these quieter times, yet the difference between European and American practice cannot be wholly due to the more stirring questions which have latterly roused Europeans. A meeting in America is usually held for some practical object, such as the selection of candidates or the creation of an organization, less often as a mere demonstration of opinion and means of instruction. When instruction is desired, the habit is to bring down a man of note to give a political lecture, paying him from $75 to $100, or perhaps even $150, nor is it thought unbecoming for senators and ex-senators to accept such fees. The meetings during an election campaign, which are numerous enough, do not always provide argumentative speaking, for those who attend are assumed to be all members of one party, sound already, and needing nothing but an extra dose of enthusiasm; but since first the protective tariff and thereafter silver and the currency became leading issues, the proportion of reasoning to declamation has increased. Members of Congress do not deliver such annual discourses to their constituents as it has become the fashion for members of the House of Commons to deliver in England; and have indeed altogether an easier time of it as regards speaking, though a far harder one as regards the getting of places for their constituents. American visitors to England seem surprised and even a little edified when they find how much meetings are made to do there in the way of eliciting and cultivating opinion among the electors. I have often heard them praise the English custom, and express the wish that it prevailed in their own country.

As the ceaseless desire of every public man is to know which way the people are going, and as the polls are the only sure index of opinion, every election, however small, is watched with close attention. Now elections are in the United States as plentiful as revolutions in Peru. The vote cast for each party in a city, or state legislature district, or congressional district, or state, at the last previous election, is compared with that now cast, and inferences drawn as to what will happen at the next state or presidential election. Special interest attaches to the state pollings that immediately precede a presidential election, for they not only indicate the momentary temper of the particular voters but tell upon the country generally, affecting that large number who wish to be on the winning side. As happens in the similar case of what are called “by-elections” to the House of Commons in England, too much weight is generally attributed to these contests, which are sometimes, though less frequently than in England, decided by purelyEdition: current; Page: [936] local causes. Such elections, however, give the people opportunities of expressing their displeasure at any recent misconduct chargeable to a party, and sometimes lead the party managers to repent in time and change their course before the graver struggle arrives.

Associations are created, extended, and worked in the United States more quickly and effectively than in any other country. In nothing does the executive talent of the people better shine than in the promptitude wherewith the idea of an organization for a common object is taken up, in the instinctive discipline that makes everyone who joins in starting it fall into his place, in the practical, businesslike turn which the discussions forthwith take. Thus in 1884, the cattlemen of the farther West, finding difficulties in driving their herds from Texas to Wyoming and Montana, suddenly convoked a great convention in Chicago which presented a plan for the establishment of a broad route from South to North, and resolved on the steps proper for obtaining the necessary legislation. Here, however, we are concerned with associations only as organs for focussing and propagating opinion. The greater ones, such as the temperance and total abstinence societies, ramify over the country and constitute a species of political organization which figures in state and even in presidential contests. Nearly every “cause,” philanthropic, economic, or social, has something of the kind. Local associations or committees are often formed in cities to combat the machine politicians in the interests of municipal reform; while every important election calls into being a number of “campaign clubs,” which work while the struggle lasts, and are then dissolved. For these money is soon forthcoming; it is more plentiful than in Europe, and subscribed more readily for political purposes.

Such associations have great importance in the development of opinion, for they rouse attention, excite discussion, formulate principles, submit plans, embolden and stimulate their members, produce that impression of a spreading movement which goes so far towards success with a sympathetic and sensitive people. Possunt quia posse videntur is doubly true in America as regards the spectators as well as the actors, because the appearance of strength gathers recruits as well as puts heart into the original combatants. Unexpected support gathers to every rising cause. If it be true that individuality is too weak in the country, strong and self-reliant statesmen or publicists too few, so much the greater is the value of this habit of forming associations, for it creates new centres of force and motion, and nourishes young causes and unpopular doctrines into self-confident aggressiveness. But in any case they are useful as indications of theEdition: current; Page: [937] tendencies at work and the forces behind these tendencies. By watching the attendance at the meetings, the language held, the amount of zeal displayed, a careful observer can discover what ideas are getting hold of the popular mind.

One significant difference between the formation and expression of opinion in the United States and in Europe remains to be noted. In England and Wales over half of the population was in 1911 to be found in sixty cities with a population exceeding 50,000. In France opinion is mainly produced in, and policy, except upon a few of the broadest issues, dictated by, the urban population, though its number falls much below that of the rural. In America the cities with a population exceeding 50,000 inhabitants were in 1910 one hundred and nine with an aggregate population of about 24,500,000, little more than 25 percent of the total population. The number of persons to the square mile was in 1911 618 in England and Wales, and was in the continental United States (1910), 30.9. Hence those influences formative of opinion which city life produces, the presence of political leaders, the influence they personally diffuse, the striking out and testing of ideas in conversation, may tell somewhat less on the American than on the English people, crowded together in their little island, and would tell much less but for the stronger social instincts of the Americans and the more general habit of reading daily newspapers.

In endeavouring to gather the tendencies of popular opinion, the task of an American statesman is in some respects easier than that of his English compeer. As social distinctions count for less in America, the same tendencies are more generally and uniformly diffused through all classes, and it is not necessary to discount so many special points of difference which may affect the result. As social intercourse is easier, and there is less gêne between a person in the higher and one in the humbler ranks, a man can better pick up in conversation the sentiments of his poorer neighbours. Moreover, the number of persons who belong to neither party, or on whom party allegiance sits loosely, is relatively smaller than in England, so the unpredictable vote—the doubtful element which includes those called in England “armchair politicians”—does not so much disturb calculations. Nevertheless, the task of discerning changes and predicting consequences is always a difficult one, in which the most skilful observers may err. Public opinion does not tell quite so quickly or quite so directly upon legislative bodies as in England, not that legislators do not wish to know it, but that the interposition of the machine acts to some extent as a sort of nonconductor. The din of voices is incessant, the parties are in many places nearly balanced. There areEdition: current; Page: [938] frequent small changes from which it would be rash to infer any real movement of opinion, even as he who comes down to the beach must watch many wavelets break in ripples on the sand before he can tell whether the tide be ebbing or flowing.

It may be asked how, if the organs of public opinion give so often an uncertain sound, public opinion can with truth be said not only to reign but to govern. The answer is that a sovereign is not the less a sovereign because his commands are sometimes misheard or misreported. In America everyone listens for them. Those who manage the affairs of the country obey to the best of their hearing. They do not, as has been heretofore the case in Europe, act on their own view, and ask the people to ratify: they take the course which they believe the people at the moment desire. Leaders do not, as sometimes still happens in England, seek to force or anticipate opinion; or if they do, they suffer for the blunder by provoking a reaction. The people must not be hurried. A statesman is not expected to move ahead of them; he must rather seem to follow, though if he has the courage to tell the people that they are wrong, and refuse to be the instrument of their errors, he will be all the more respected. Those who fail because they mistake eddies and cross currents for the main stream of opinion, fail more often from some personal bias, or from vanity, or from hearkening to a clique of adherents, than from want of materials for observation. A man who can disengage himself from preconceptions, who is in genuine sympathy with his countrymen, and possesses the art of knowing where to look for typical manifestations of their sentiments, will find the organs through which opinion finds expression more adequate as well as more abundant in America than they are in any other country.

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chapter 80

National Characteristics as Moulding Public Opinion

As the public opinion of a people is even more directly than its political institutions the reflection and expression of its character, it is convenient to begin the analysis of opinion in America by noting some of those general features of national character which give tone and colour to the people’s thoughts and feelings on politics. There are, of course, varieties proper to different classes, and to different parts of the vast territory of the Union; but it is well to consider first such characteristics as belong to the nation as a whole, and afterwards to examine the various classes and districts of the country. And when I speak of the nation I mean the native Americans. What follows is not applicable to the recent immigrants from Europe, and, of course, even less applicable to the Southern Negroes.

The Americans are a good-natured people, kindly, helpful to one another, disposed to take a charitable view even of wrongdoers. Their anger sometimes flames up, but the fire is soon extinct. Nowhere is cruelty more abhorred. Even a mob lynching a horse thief in the West has consideration for the criminal, and will give him a good drink of whisky before he is strung up. Cruelty to slaves was rare while slavery lasted, the best proof of which is the quietness of the slaves during the war when all the men and many of the boys of the South were serving in the Confederate armies. As everybody knows, juries are more lenient to offences of all kinds but one, offences against women, than they are anywhere in Europe. The Southern “rebels” were soon forgiven; and though civil wars are proverbially bitter, there have been few struggles in which the combatants did so many little friendly acts for one another, few in which even the vanquished have so quickly buried their resentments. It is true that newspapers and public speakers say hardEdition: current; Page: [940] things of their opponents; but this is a part of the game, and is besides a way of relieving their feelings: the bark is sometimes the louder in order that a bite may not follow. Vindictiveness shown by a public man excites general disapproval, and the maxim of letting bygones be bygones is pushed so far that an offender’s misdeeds are often forgotten when they ought to be remembered against him.

All the world knows that they are a humorous people. They are as conspicuously the purveyors of humour to the nineteenth century as the French were the purveyors of wit to the eighteenth. Nor is this sense of the ludicrous side of things confined to a few brilliant writers. It is diffused among the whole people; it colours their ordinary life, and gives to their talk that distinctively new flavour which a European palate enjoys. Their capacity for enjoying a joke against themselves was oddly illustrated at the outset of the Civil War, a time of stern excitement, by the merriment which arose over the hasty retreat of the Federal troops at the battle of Bull Run. When William M. Tweed was ruling and robbing New York, and had set on the bench men who were openly prostituting justice, the citizens found the situation so amusing that they almost forgot to be angry. Much of President Lincoln’s popularity, and much also of the gift he showed for restoring confidence to the North at the darkest moments of the war, was due to the humorous way he used to turn things, conveying the impression of not being himself uneasy, even when he was most so.

That indulgent view of mankind which I have already mentioned, a view odd in a people whose ancestors were penetrated with the belief in original sin, is strengthened by this wish to get amusement out of everything. The want of seriousness which it produces may be more apparent than real. Yet it has its significance; for people become affected by the language they use, as we see men grow into cynics when they have acquired the habit of talking cynicism for the sake of effect.

They are a hopeful people. Whether or no they are right in calling themselves a new people, they certainly seem to feel in their veins the bounding pulse of youth. They see a long vista of years stretching out before them, in which they will have time enough to cure all their faults, to overcome all the obstacles that block their path. They look at their enormous territory with its still only half-explored sources of wealth, they reckon up the growth of their population and their products, they contrast the comfort and intelligence of their labouring classes with the condition of the masses in the Old World. They remember the dangers that so long threatened the Union from the slave power, and the rebellion it raised, and see peace andEdition: current; Page: [941] harmony now restored, the South more prosperous and contented than at any previous epoch, perfect good feeling between all sections of the country. It is natural for them to believe in their star. And this sanguine temper makes them tolerant of evils which they regard as transitory, removable as soon as time can be found to root them up.

They have unbounded faith in what they call the people and in a democratic system of government. The great states of the European continent are distracted by the contests of republicans and monarchists, and of rich and poor—contests which go down to the foundations of government, and in France are further embittered by religious passions. Even in England the ancient Constitution is always under repair, and while many think it is being ruined by changes, others hold that still greater changes are needed to make it tolerable. No such questions trouble American minds, for nearly everybody believes, and everybody declares, that the frame of government is in its main lines so excellent that such reforms as seem called for need not touch those lines, but are required only to protect the Constitution from being perverted by the parties. Hence a further confidence that the people are sure to decide right in the long run, a confidence inevitable and essential in a government which refers every question to the arbitrament of numbers. There have, of course, been instances where the once insignificant minority proved to have been wiser than the majority of the moment. Such was eminently the case in the great slavery struggle. But here the minority prevailed by growing into a majority as events developed the real issues, so that this also has been deemed a ground for holding that all minorities which have right on their side will bring round their antagonists, and in the long run win by voting power. If you ask an intelligent citizen why he so holds, he will answer that truth and justice are sure to make their way into the minds and consciences of the majority. This is deemed an axiom, and the more readily so deemed because truth is identified with common sense, the quality which the average citizen is most confidently proud of possessing.

This feeling shades off into another, externally like it, but at bottom distinct—the feeling not only that the majority, be it right or wrong, will and must prevail, but that its being the majority proves it to be right. This idea, which appears in the guise sometimes of piety and sometimes of fatalism, seems to be no contemptible factor in the present character of the people. It will be more fully dealt with in a later chapter.

The native Americans are an educated people, compared with the whole mass of the population in any European country except Switzerland, parts of Germany, Norway, Iceland, and Scotland; that is to say, the average ofEdition: current; Page: [942] knowledge is higher, the habit of reading and thinking more generally diffused, than in any other country. They know the Constitution of their own country, they follow public affairs, they join in local government and learn from it how government must be carried on, and in particular how discussion must be conducted in meetings, and its results tested at elections. The town meeting was for New England the most perfect school of self-government in any modern country. In villages, men used to exercise their minds on theological questions, debating points of Christian doctrine with no small acuteness. Women in particular, pick up at the public schools and from the popular magazines far more miscellaneous information than the women of any European country possess, and this naturally tells on the intelligence of the men. Almost everywhere one finds women’s clubs in which literary, artistic, and social questions are discussed, and to which men of mark are brought to deliver lectures.

That the education of the masses is nevertheless a superficial education goes without saying. It is sufficient to enable them to think they know something about the great problems of politics; insufficient to show them how little they know. The public elementary school gives everybody the key to knowledge in making reading and writing familiar, but it has not time to teach him how to use the key, whose use is in fact, by the pressure of daily work, almost confined to the newspaper and the magazine. So we may say that if the political education of the average American voter be compared with that of the average voter in Europe, it stands high; but if it be compared with the functions which the theory of the American government lays on him, which its spirit implies, which the methods of its party organization assume, its inadequacy is manifest. This observation, however, is not so much a reproach to the schools, which at least do what English schools omit—instruct the child in the principles of the Constitution—as a tribute to the height of the ideal which the American conception of popular rule sets up.

For the functions of the citizen are not, as has hitherto been the case in Europe, confined to the choosing of legislators, who are then left to settle issues of policy and select executive rulers. The American citizen is virtually one of the governors of the Republic. Issues are decided and rulers selected by the direct popular vote. Elections are so frequent that to do his duty at them a citizen ought to be constantly watching public affairs with a full comprehension of the principles involved in them, and a judgment of the candidates derived from a criticism of their arguments as well as a recollection of their past careers. The instruction received in the common schools andEdition: current; Page: [943] from the newspapers, and supposed to be developed by the practice of primaries and conventions, while it makes the voter deem himself capable of governing, does not completely fit him to weigh the real merits of statesmen, to discern the true grounds on which questions ought to be decided, to note the drift of events and discover the direction in which parties are being carried. He is like a sailor who knows the spars and ropes of the ship and is expert in working her, but is ignorant of geography and navigation; who can perceive that some of the officers are smart and others dull, but cannot judge which of them is qualified to use the sextant or will best keep his head during a hurricane.

They are a moral and well-conducted people. Setting aside the colluvies gentium which one finds in Western mining camps, and which popular literature has presented to Europeans as far larger than it really is, setting aside also the rabble of a few great cities and the Negroes of the South, the average of temperance, chastity, truthfulness, and general probity is somewhat higher than in any of the great nations of Europe. The instincts of the native farmer or artisan are almost invariably kindly and charitable. He respects the law; he is deferential to women and indulgent to children; he attaches an almost excessive value to the possession of a genial manner and the observance of domestic duties.

They are also—and here again I mean the people of native American stock, especially in the Eastern and Middle states, on the whole, a religious people. It is not merely that they respect religion and its ministers, for that one might say of Russians or Sicilians, not merely that they are assiduous churchgoers and Sunday school teachers, but that they have an intelligent interest in the form of faith they profess, are pious without superstition, and zealous without bigotry. The importance which some still, though all much less than formerly, attach to dogmatic propositions, does not prevent them from feeling the moral side of their theology. Christianity influences conduct, not indeed half as much as in theory it ought, but probably more than it does in any other modern country, and far more than it did in the so-called ages of faith.

Nor do their moral and religious impulses remain in the soft haze of self-complacent sentiment. The desire to expunge or cure the visible evils of the world is strong. Nowhere are so many philanthropic and reformatory agencies at work. Zeal outruns discretion, outruns the possibilities of the case, in not a few of the efforts made, as well by legislation as by voluntary action, to suppress vice, to prevent intemperance, to purify popular literature.

Religion apart, they are an unreverential people. I do not mean irreverent—Edition: current; Page: [944] far from it; nor do I mean that they have not a great capacity for hero worship, as they have many a time shown. I mean that they are little disposed, especially in public questions—political, economical, or social—to defer to the opinions of those who are wiser or better instructed than themselves. Everything tends to make the individual independent and self-reliant. He goes early into the world; he is left to make his way alone; he tries one occupation after another, if the first or second venture does not prosper; he gets to think that each man is his own best helper and adviser. Thus he is led, I will not say to form his own opinions, for even in America few are those who do that, but to fancy that he has formed them, and to feel little need of aid from others towards correcting them. There is, therefore, less disposition than in Europe to expect light and leading on public affairs from speakers or writers. Oratory is not directed towards instruction, but towards stimulation. Special knowledge, which commands deference in applied science or in finance, does not command it in politics, because that is not deemed a special subject, but one within the comprehension of every practical man. Politics is, to be sure, a profession, and so far might seem to need professional aptitudes. But the professional politician is not the man who has studied statesmanship, but the man who has practised the art of running conventions and winning elections.

Even that strong point of America, the completeness and highly popular character of local government, contributes to lower the standard of attainment expected in a public man, because the citizens judge of all politics by the politics they see first and know best—those of their township or city—and fancy that he who is fit to be selectman, or county commissioner, or alderman, is fit to sit in the great council of the nation. Like the shepherd in Virgil, they think the only difference between their town and Rome is in its size, and believe that what does for Lafayetteville will do well enough for Washington. Hence when a man of statesmanlike gifts appears, he has little encouragement to take a high and statesmanlike tone, for his words do not necessarily receive weight from his position. He fears to be instructive or hortatory, lest such an attitude should expose him to ridicule; and in America ridicule is a terrible power. Nothing escapes it. Few have the courage to face it. In the indulgence of it even this humane race can be unfeeling.

They are a busy people. I have already observed that the leisured class is relatively small, is in fact confined to a few Eastern cities. The citizen has little time to think about political problems. Engrossing all the working hours, his avocation leaves him only stray moments for this fundamentalEdition: current; Page: [945] duty. It is true that he admits his responsibilities, considers himself a member of a party, takes some interest in current events. But although he would reject the idea that his thinking should be done for him, he has not leisure to do it for himself, and must practically lean upon and follow his party. It astonished me in 1870 and 1881 to find how small a part politics play in conversation among the wealthier classes and generally in the cities. Since 1896 there has been a livelier and more constant interest in public affairs; yet even now business matters so occupy the mind of the financial and commercial classes, and athletic competitions the minds of the uneducated classes and of the younger sort in all classes, that political questions are apt, except at critical moments, to fall in the background.1 In a presidential year, and especially during the months of a presidential campaign, there is, of course, abundance of private talk, as well as of public speaking, but even then the issues raised are largely personal rather than political in the European sense. But at other times the visitor is apt to feel—more, I think, than he feels anywhere in Britain—that his host has been heavily pressed by his own business concerns during the day, and that when the hour of relaxation arrives he gladly turns to lighter and more agreeable topics than the state of the nation. This remark is less applicable to the dwellers in villages. There is plenty of political chat round the store at the cross roads, and though it is rather in the nature of gossip than of debate, it seems, along with the practice of local government, to sustain the interest of ordinary folk in public affairs.2

The want of serious and sustained thinking is not confined to politics. One feels it even more as regards economical and social questions. To it must be ascribed the vitality of certain prejudices and fallacies which could scarcely survive the continuous application of such vigorous minds as one finds among the Americans. Their quick perceptions serve them so well in business and in the ordinary affairs of private life that they do not feel the need for minute investigation and patient reflection on the underlying principles of things. They are apt to ignore difficulties, and when they canEdition: current; Page: [946] no longer ignore them, they will evade them rather than lay siege to them according to the rules of art. The sense that there is no time to spare haunts an American even when he might find the time, and would do best for himself by finding it.

Someone will say that an aversion to steady thinking belongs to the average man everywhere. True. But less is expected from the average man in other countries than from a people who have carried the doctine of popular sovereignty further than it has ever been carried before. They are tried by the standard which the theory of their government assumes. In other countries statesmen or philosophers do, and are expected to do, the solid thinking for the bulk of the people. Here the people are supposed to do it for themselves. To say that they do it imperfectly is not to deny them the credit of doing it better than a European philosopher might have predicted.

They are a commercial people, whose point of view is primarily that of persons accustomed to reckon profit and loss. Their impulse is to apply a direct practical test to men and measures, to assume that the men who have got on fastest are the smartest men, and that a scheme which seems to pay well deserves to be supported. Abstract reasonings they dislike, subtle reasonings they suspect; they accept nothing as practical which is not plain, downright, apprehensible by an ordinary understanding. Although openminded, so far as willingness to listen goes, they are hard to convince, because they have really made up their minds on most subjects, having adopted the prevailing notions of their locality or party as truths due to their own reflection.

It may seem a contradiction to remark that with this shrewdness and the sort of hardness it produces, they are nevertheless an impressionable people. Yet this is true. It is not their intellect, however, that is impressionable, but their imagination and emotions, which respond in unexpected ways to appeals made on behalf of a cause which seems to have about it something noble or pathetic. They are capable of an ideality surpassing that of Englishmen or Frenchmen.

They are an unsettled people. In no state of the Union is the bulk of the population so fixed in its residence as everywhere in Europe; in some it is almost nomadic. Except in the more stagnant parts of the South, nobody feels rooted to the soil. Here today and gone tomorrow, he cannot readily contract habits of trustful dependence on his neighbours. Community of interest, or of belief in such a cause as temperance, or protection for native industry, unites him for a time with others similarly minded, but congenial spirits seldom live long enough together to form a school or type of localEdition: current; Page: [947] opinion which develops strength and becomes a proselytizing force. Perhaps this tends to prevent the growth of variety in opinion. When a man arises with some power of original thought in politics, he is feeble if isolated, and is depressed by his insignificance, whereas if he grows up in favourable soil with sympathetic minds around him, whom he can in prolonged intercourse permeate with his ideas, he learns to speak with confidence and soars on the wings of his disciples. One who considers the variety of conditions under which men live in America may certainly find ground for surprise that there should be so few independent schools of opinion.

But even while an unsettled, they are nevertheless an associative, because a sympathetic people. Although the atoms are in constant motion, they have a strong attraction for one another. Each man catches his neighbour’s sentiment more quickly and easily than happens with the English. That sort of reserve and isolation, that tendency rather to repel than to invite confidence, which foreigners attribute to the Englishman, though it belongs rather to the upper and middle class than to the nation generally, is, though not absent, yet less marked in America.3 It seems to be one of the notes of difference between the two branches of the race. In the United States, since each man likes to feel that his ideas raise in other minds the same emotions as in his own, a sentiment or impulse is rapidly propagated and quickly conscious of its strength. Add to this the aptitude for organization which their history and institutions have educed, and one sees how the tendency to form and the talent to work combinations for a political or any other object has become one of the great features of the country. Hence, too, the immense strength of party. It rests not only on interest and habit and the sense of its value as a means of working the government, but also on the sympathetic element and instinct of combination ingrained in the national character.

They are a changeful people. Not fickle, for they are if anything too tenacious of ideas once adopted, too fast bound by party ties, too willing to pardon the errors of a cherished leader. But they have what chemists call low specific heat; they grow warm suddenly and cool as suddenly; they are liable to swift and vehement outbursts of feeling which rush like wildfire across the country, gaining glow, like the wheel of a railway car, by theEdition: current; Page: [948] accelerated motion. The very similarity of ideas and equality of conditions which makes them hard to convince at first makes a conviction once implanted run its course the more triumphantly. They seem all to take flame at once, because what has told upon one, has told in the same way upon all the rest, and the obstructing and separating barriers which exist in Europe scarcely exist here. Nowhere is the saying so applicable that nothing succeeds like success. The native American or so-called Know-Nothing party had in two years from its foundation become a tremendous force, running, and seeming for a time likely to carry, its own presidential candidate. In three years more it was dead without hope of revival. Now and then, as for instance in the elections of 1874–75, and again in those of 1890, there comes a rush of feeling so sudden and tremendous, that the name of tidal wave has been invented to describe it.

After this it may seem a paradox to add that the Americans are a conservative people. Yet anyone who observes the power of habit among them, the tenacity with which old institutions and usages, legal and theological formulas, have been clung to, will admit the fact. Moreover, prosperity helps to make them conservative. They are satisfied with the world they live in, for they have found it a good world, in which they have grown rich and can sit under their own vine and fig tree, none making them afraid. They are proud of their history and of their Constitution, which has come out of the furnace of civil war with scarcely the smell of fire upon it. It is little to say that they do not seek change for the sake of change, because the nations that do this exist only in the fancy of alarmist philosophers. There are nations, however, whose impatience of existing evils, or whose proneness to be allured by visions of a brighter future, makes them underestimate the risk of change, nations that will pull up the plant to see whether it has begun to strike root. This is not the way of the Americans. They are no doubt ready to listen to suggestions from any quarter. They do not consider that an institution is justified by its existence, but admit everything to be matter for criticism. Their keenly competitive spirit and pride in their own ingenuity have made them quicker than any other people to adopt and adapt inventions. Telephones were in use in every little town over the West, while in the city of London men were just beginning to wonder whether they could be made to pay. The Americans have doubtless of late years become, especially in the West, an experimental people, so far as politics and social legislation are concerned, and there is today less reverence for the national Constitution itself than there was in the generation that fought through the Civil War. The growing discontent with existingEdition: current; Page: [949] social conditions, the growing resentment at the power which the possessors of great wealth have been able to exercise, have disposed many persons to desire changes in political arrangements under which such things are possible.

Yet we may still say that as respects the fundamentals of their government, the American people are still a conservative people, in virtue both of the deep instincts of their race and of that practical shrewdness which recognizes the value of permanence and solidity in institutions. They are conservative in their fundamental beliefs, in the structure of their governments, in their social and domestic usages. They are like a tree whose pendulous shoots quiver and rustle with the lightest breeze, while its roots enfold the rock with a grasp which storms cannot loosen.

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chapter 81

Classes as Influencing Opinion

These are some of the characteristics of American opinion in general, and may, if I am right in the description given, be discovered in all classes of the native white population. They exist, however, in different measure in different classes, and the above account of them needs to be supplemented by some remarks on the habits and tendencies of each class. I do not, of course, propose to describe the present opinions of classes, for that would require an account of current political questions: my aim is merely to state such general class characters as go to affect the quality and vigour of opinion. Classes are in America by no means the same thing as the greater nations of Europe. One must not, for political purposes, divide them as upper and lower, richer and poorer, but rather according to the occupations they respectively follow and the conditions of life that constitute their environment. Their specific characters, as a naturalist would say, are less marked even in typical individuals than would be the case in Europe, and are in many individuals scarcely recognizable. Nevertheless, the differences between one class and another are sufficient to produce distinctly traceable influences on the political opinion of the nation, and to colour the opinions, perhaps even to determine the political attitude, of the district where a particular class predominates.

I begin with the farmers, because they are, if not numerically the largest class, at least the class whose importance is most widely felt. As a rule they are owners of their land; and as a rule the farms are small, running from forty or fifty up to three hundred acres. In a few places, especially in the West, large landowners let farms to tenants, and in some parts of the South one finds big plantations cultivated by small tenants, often Negroes. But far more frequently the owner tills the land and the tiller owns it. The proportion of hired labourers to farmers is therefore very much smaller than in England,Edition: current; Page: [951] partly because farms are usually of a size permitting the farmer and his family to do much of the work by themselves, partly because machinery is more extensively used, especially in the level regions of the West. The labourers, or, as they are called, the “hired men,” do not, taking the country as a whole, form a social stratum distinct from the farmers, and there is so little distinction in education or rank between them that one may practically treat employer and employed as belonging to the same class.

The farmer is a keener and more enterprising man than in Europe, with more of that commercial character which one observes in Americans, far less anchored to a particular spot, and of course subject to no such influences of territorial magnates as prevail in England, Germany, or Italy. He has now, in such states as Illinois and Wisconsin, realized what applied science can do for agriculture. He is so far a businessman as sometimes to speculate in grain or bacon. Yet he is not free from the usual defects of agriculturists. He is obstinate, tenacious of his habits, not readily accessible to argument. His way of life is plain and simple, and he prides himself on its simplicity, holding the class he belongs to to be the mainstay of the country, and regarding city folk with a mixture of suspicion and jealousy, because he deems them as inferior to himself in virtue as they are superior in adroitness, and likely to outwit him. Sparing rather than stingy in his outlays, and living largely on the produce of his own fields, he has so little ready money that small sums appear large to him; and as he fails to see why everybody cannot thrive and be happy on $1,500 a year, he thinks that figure a sufficient salary for a county or district official, and regulates his notions of payment for all other officials, judges included, by the same standard. To belong to a party and support it by his vote, seems to him part of a citizen’s duty, but his interests in national politics are secondary to those he feels in agriculturists’ questions, particularly in the great war against monopolies and capitalists, which the power and in some cases the tyranny of the railroad companies has provoked in the West. Naturally a grumbler, as are his brethren everywhere, finding his isolated life dull, and often unable to follow the causes which depress the price of produce, he is the more easily persuaded that his grievances are due to the combinations of designing speculators. The agricultural newspaper to which he subscribes is of course written up to his prejudices, and its adulation of the farming class confirms his belief that he who makes the wealth of the country is tricked out of his proper share in its prosperity. Thus he now and then makes desperate attempts to right himself by legislation, lending too ready an ear to politicians who promise him redress by measures possibly unjust and usually unwise.Edition: current; Page: [952] In his impatience with the regular parties, he has been apt to vote for those who call themselves a people’s or farmer’s party, and who dangled before him the hope of getting “cheap money,” of reducing the expenses of legal proceedings, and of compelling the railroads to carry his produce at unremunerative rates. However, after all said and done, he is an honest, kindly sort of man, hospitable, religious, patriotic: the man whose hard work has made the West what it is. It is chiefly in the West that one must now look for the well-marked type I have tried to draw, yet not always in the newer West; for, in regions like northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Dakota, the farming population is mainly foreign—Scandinavian and German—while the native Americans occupy themselves with trading and railroad management. However, the Scandinavians and Germans acquire in a few years many of the characteristics of the native farmer, and follow the political lead given by the latter. In the early days of the Republic, the agriculturists were, especially in the middle and the newer parts of the Southern states, the backbone of the Democratic party, sturdy supporters of Jefferson, and afterwards of Andrew Jackson. When the opposition of North and South began to develop itself and population grew up beyond the Ohio, the pioneers from New England who settled in that country gave their allegiance to the Whig party; and in the famous “log cabin and hard cider” campaign, which carried the election of General Harrison as president, that worthy, taken as a type of the hardy backwoodsman, made the Western farmer for the first time a noble and poetical figure to the popular imagination. Nowadays he is less romantic, yet still one of the best elements in the country. He stood by the Union during the war, and gave his life freely for it. For many years afterwards his vote now carried the Western, and especially the Northwestern states for the Republican party, which is to him still the party which saved the Union and protected the Negro.

The shopkeepers and small manufacturers may be said to form a second class, though in the smaller towns, of the West especially, their interests are so closely interwoven with those of the cultivators, and their way of life so similar, that there is little special to remark about them. In the larger towns they are sharper and more alive to what is passing than the rural population, but their intellectual horizon is not much wider. A sort of natural selection carries the more ambitious and eager spirits into the towns, for the native American dislikes the monotony and isolation of a farm life with its slender prospect of wealth. To keep a store in a “corner lot” is the ambition of the keen-witted lad. The American shopkeeper, it need hardly be said,Edition: current; Page: [953] has not the obsequiousness of his European congener, and is far from fancying that retail trade has anything degrading about it. He is apt to take more part in local politics than the farmer, but less apt to become a member of a state legislature, because he can seldom leave his store as the farmer can at certain seasons leave his land. He reads more newspapers than the farmer does, and of course learns more from current talk. His education has been better, because city schools are superior to country ones. He is perhaps not so certain to go solid for his party. He has less ground of quarrel with the railroads, but if connected with a manufacturing industry, is of course more likely to be interested in tariff questions, or, in other words, to be a Protectionist. His occupation, however, seldom gives him any direct personal motive for supporting one party more than another, and he has less of that political timidity which Europeans take to be the note of the typical bourgeois than the retail dealer of France or England.

The working men, by which I mean those who toil with their hands for wages, form a less well-marked class than is the case in most parts of Europe, and have not so many subclasses within their own body, though of course the distinction between skilled and unskilled labour makes itself felt, and one may say, speaking generally, that all unskilled labourers are comparatively recent immigrants. The native workpeople are of course fairly educated; they read the daily newspapers, while their women may take a weekly religious journal and a weekly or monthly magazine; many of them, especially in the smaller cities, belong to a congregation in whose concerns they are generally interested. Many are total abstainers. Their wives have probably had a longer schooling and read more widely than they do themselves. In the smaller towns both in New England and the West, and even in some of the large cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago, the better part of them own the houses they live in, wooden houses in the suburbs with a little verandah and a bit of garden, and thus feel themselves to have a stake in the country. Their womankind dress with so much taste that on Sunday, or when you meet them in the steam cars, you would take them for persons in easy circumstances. Till the latter part of last century, strikes were less frequent than in England, nor, in spite of the troubles of recent years, has there hitherto existed any general sense of hostility to employers. This is due partly to the better circumstances of the workmen, partly to the fact that the passage from the one class to the other is easy and frequent. Thus, notwithstanding the existence of so-called Labour parties, and the recent creation of a vast organization embracing all tradesEdition: current; Page: [954] over the whole Union, there has been less of collective class feeling and class action among workmen than in England,1 certainly much less than in France or Germany. Politicians have of late years begun to pose as the special friends of the working man. Although in a country where the popular vote is omnipotent there seems something absurd in assuming that the working man is weak and stands in need of special protection, still the great power of capital, the illegitimate means by which that power acts upon legislatures, the growing disparities of fortune, and the fact that rich men bear less than their due share of taxation, have furnished a basis for labour agitation. While contributing as many recruits to the army of professional politicians as do the other classes, the wage-earning class is no more active in political work than they are, and furnishes few candidates for state or federal office. Till recently little demand was made for the representation of labour as labour either in Congress or in state legislatures. There are of course many members who have begun life as operatives; but very few in Congress (though some in the state legislatures) whose special function or claim it is to be the advocates of their whilom class. Such progress as Communistic or Socialistic movements have made has been chiefly among the immigrants from Central Europe, Germans, Slavs, and Italians, with a smaller contingent of Irish and Swedish support, but it is not easy to say how great this progress is, for the educated classes had known and cared very little about the growth of new doctrines among the workers until the recent outbreak of Anarchist violence at Chicago in 1886 turned all eyes upon a new source of peril to civilization. One question, however, which never fails to excite the workmen is the introduction of cheap foreign labour, and the bringing in of workmen to fill the place of strikers. A statute forbids the landing in the country of persons coming under a contract to work. In the Pacific states the feeling against the Chinese, who took lower wages, often one-half of what whites obtain, was for a time not merely the prime factor in Californian state politics, but induced the Senate to ratify treaties and Congress to pass acts, the last one extremely stringent, forbidding their entry. One trade, however, the Chinese are permitted to follow, and have now almost monopolized, that of washermen—one cannot say, washerwomen. Even a small city rarely wants its Chinese laundry. TheEdition: current; Page: [955] entry, early in the present century, of a large number of Japanese, roused similar antagonism, and led to negotiations with the government of Japan by which the influx was stopped.

It will be gathered from what I have said that there is no want of intelligence or acuteness among the working people. For political purposes, and setting apart what are specifically called labour questions, there is really little difference between them and other classes. Their lights are as good as those of farmers or traders, their modes of thinking similar. They are, however, somewhat more excitable and more easily fascinated by a vigorous personality, as the success of General Benjamin F. Butler among the shoemakers of his Massachusetts district proved. A powerful speaker with a flow of humour and audacity will go farther with them than with the more commercially minded shopkeeper, or the more stolid agriculturist, if indeed one can call any American stolid.

The ignorant masses of such great cities as New York, Cincinnati, Chicago, San Francisco, together with the dangerously large “tramp” class, are hardly to be reckoned with the working class I have been describing, but answer better to what is called in England “the residuum.” They are no longer Irish and Germans, for these races have moved upward in the social scale, but chiefly Poles and other Slavs, Italians, Negroes, and such native Americans as have fallen from their first estate into drink and penury. The most recent immigrants can hardly be said to possess political opinions, for they have not had time to learn to know the institutions of their new country. But as to the earlier incomers, and especially the Irish, Germans, and Scandinavians, one may note three sentiments which have affected them, besides adhesion to the party which snapped them up when they landed, or which manipulates them by leaders of their own race. One of these sentiments is religious sympathy. Such of them as are Roman Catholics are ready to stand by whichever party may obtain the favour, or be readiest to serve the interests, of their church.2 Another is the protection of the liquor traffic. The German loves his beer, and deems a land where this most familiar of pleasures is unattainable no land of freedom, while the Irishman stands by a trade in which his countrymen are largely engaged. And, thirdly, the American-Irish were for a time largely swayed by dislike of England, which has made them desire to annoy her, and if possible to stir up a quarrel between her and the land of their adoption. This feeling began to declineEdition: current; Page: [956] after 1886, and is now confined to a comparatively small part of the population of Irish origin.

The European reader must not suppose that this lowest section of the labouring class is wholly composed of immigrants, nor that all of the city-dwelling immigrants belong to it, for there are many foreigners whose education and skill places them at once on a level with the native American workmen.3 Its importance in politics arises less from its number, than from the cohesion, in every great city, of so much of it as is massed there. Being comparatively ignorant, and for the most part not yet absorbed into the American population, it is not moved by the ordinary political forces, nor amenable to the ordinary intellectual and moral influences, but “goes solid” as its leaders direct it, a fact which gives these leaders exceptional weight, and may enable them, when parties are nearly balanced, to dictate their terms to statesmen. The disposition to truckle to the forces of disorder, and to misuse the power of pardoning offenders, which prominent state officials have sometimes evinced, is due to the fear of the so-called “Labour vote,” a vote which would have much less power were the suffrage restricted to persons who have resided fifteen or twenty years in the country. Nevertheless the immigrants are not so largely answerable for the faults of American politics as the stranger might be led by the language of many Americans to believe. There is a disposition in the United States to use the immigrants, and especially the Irish, much as the cat is used in the kitchen to account for broken plates and food which disappears. The cities have no doubt suffered from the immigrant vote. But New York was not an Eden before the Irish came; and would not become an Eden were they all return to green Erin, or move on to arid Arizona.

The capitalist class consists of large merchants, manufacturers, bankers, and railroad men, with a few great land speculators and directors of trading or carrying companies. How much capacity and energy, how much wealth and influence there is in this small class everybody knows. It includes the best executive ability of the country, and far more ability than is devoted to the public service of the state. Though such persons do not, and hardly could, hold aloof from politics—some of them are indeed zealous party men—their interest lies chiefly in using politics for their own purposes, and especially in resisting the attacks with which they are threatened, sometimes by the popular movement against monopolists and great corporations, sometimes by men anxious to reduce the present high tariff which theEdition: current; Page: [957] manufacturers declare to be essential to their industries. One-half of the capitalists are occupied in preaching laissez faire as regards railroad control, the other half in resisting it in railroad rate matters, in order to have their goods carried more cheaply, and in tariff matters in order to protect industries threatened with foreign competition. Yet they manage to hold well together. Their practical talent does not necessarily imply political insight, any more than moral elevation, nor have they generally the taste or leisure to think seriously about the needs of the state. In no country does one find so many men of eminent capacity for business, shrewd, inventive, forcible, and daring, who have so few interests and so little to say outside the sphere of their business knowledge.

But the wealthy have many ways of influencing opinion and the course of events. Some of them own, others find means of inspiring, newspapers. Many are liberal supporters of universities and colleges, and it is alleged that they occasionally discourage the promulgation, by college teachers, of opinions they dislike. Presidents of great corporations have armies of officials under their orders, who cannot indeed be intimidated, for public opinion would resent that, yet may be suffered to know what their superior thinks and expects. Cities, districts of country, even states or territories, have much to hope or fear from the management of a railway, and good reason to conciliate its president. Moreover, as the finance of the country is in the hands of these men and every trader is affected by financial changes, as they control enormous joint-stock enterprises whose shares are held and speculated in by hosts of private persons of all ranks, their policy and utterances are watched with anxious curiosity, and the line they take determines the conduct of thousands not directly connected with them. A word from several of the great financiers would go a long way with leading statesmen. They are for the most part a steadying influence in politics, being opposed to sudden changes which might disturb the money market or depress trade, and especially opposed to complications with foreign states. They are therefore par excellence the peace party in America, for though some might like to fish in troubled waters, the majority would have far more to lose than to gain.

There remains the group of classes loosely called professional men, of whom we may dismiss the physicians as neither bringing any distinctive element into politics, nor often taking an active interest therein, and the journalists, because they have been considered in treating of the organs of opinion, and the clergy as inhibited by public feeling from direct immixture in political strife. In the antislavery and Free Soil struggles, ministers ofEdition: current; Page: [958] religion were prominent, as they are now in the temperance movement, and indeed will always be when a distinctly moral issue is placed before the country. But in ordinary times, and as regards most questions, they find it prudent to rest content with inculcating such sound principles as will elevate their hearers’ views and lead them to vote for the best men. Some few, however, of exceptional zeal or unusually well-assured position do appear on political platforms, and, like the late Mr. Henry Ward Beecher, justify their courage by their success. The Roman Catholic prelates have great influence with their flocks, but are so sensible of the displeasure which its exercise would cause among the native Americans as to be guarded in political action, allowing themselves a freer hand in promoting temperance or other moral causes. Some of them have been among the most prominent and influential figures in the country.

The lawyers, who are both barristers and attorneys in one, there being no such distinction of the profession into two branches as exists in Britain and France, are of all classes that which has most to do with politics.4 From their ranks comes a large part, probably a half, and apparently the better half, of the professional politicians. Those who do not make politics a business have usually something to do with it, and even those who have little to do with it enjoy opportunities of looking behind the scenes. The necessities of their practice oblige them to study the federal Constitution and the constitution of their own state, as well as to watch current legislation. It is therefore from the legal profession that most of the leading statesmen have been drawn, from the days of Patrick Henry, John Jay, and John Adams down to those of Abraham Lincoln and the presidential candidates of the last generation. Hence both in great cities and in small ones the lawyer is favourably placed for influencing opinion. If he be a man of parts, he is apt to be the centre of local opinion, as Lincoln was in Springfield, where he practised law and made his reputation.5 When in some great community like New York or Boston a demonstration is organized, some distinguished advocate, such as Charles O’Conor was in New York, such as Rufus Choate was in Boston, used to be selected for the oration of the day, because he had the power of speech, and because everybody knew him. Thus the lawyers, if less powerful in proportion to their numbers than the capitalists, are perhaps equally powerful as a whole, since more numerousEdition: current; Page: [959] and more locally active. Of course it is only on a very few professional questions that they act together as a class. Their function is to educate opinion from the technical side, and to put things in a telling way before the people. Whether the individual lawyer is or is not a better citizen than his neighbours, he is likely to be a shrewder one, knowing more about government and public business than most of them do, and able at least to perceive the mischiefs of bad legislation, which farmers or shopkeepers may faintly realize. Thus on the whole the influence of the profession makes for good, and though it is often the instrument by which harm is wrought, it is as often the means of revealing and defeating the tricks of politicians, and of keeping the wholesome principles of the Constitution before the eyes of the nation. Its action in political life may be compared with its function in judicial proceedings. Advocacy is at the service of the just and the unjust equally, and sometimes makes the worse appear the better cause, yet experience shows that the sifting of evidence and the arguing of points of law tend on the whole to make justice prevail.

There remain the men of letters and artists, an extremely small class outside a few Eastern cities, and the teachers, especially those in colleges and universities. The influence of literary men has been felt more through magazines than through books, for native authorship suffered severely, till the enactment of the Copyright Act of 1891, from the deluge of cheap English reprints. That of the teachers tells primarily on their pupils and indirectly on the circles to which those pupils belong, or in which they work when they have left college. For a long time, and especially during the struggle between free trade and protection and in the earlier days of the municipal reform movement in the latter part of last century, “college professors” used to be denounced by the professional politicians as unpractical, visionary, pharisaical, “kid-gloved,”“high-toned,”“un-American,” the fact being that an impulse towards the improvement of party methods, civil service reform and tariff reform, was coming from the universities, and was felt in the increased political activity of the better educated youth. The new generation of lawyers, clergymen, and journalists, of teachers in the higher schools and indeed of businessmen also, many of whom now receive a university education, have been inspired by the universities, at first chiefly by the older and more highly developed institutions of the Eastern states, but latterly by the universities of the West also, with a more serious and earnest view of politics than has prevailed among the richer classes since the strain of the Civil War passed away. Their horizon has been enlarged, their patriotism tempered by a sense of national shortcomings, and quickenedEdition: current; Page: [960] by a higher ideal of national well-being. The confidence that all other prosperity will accompany material prosperity, the belief that good instincts are enough to guide nations through practical difficulties, errors which led astray so many worthy people in the last generation, are being dispelled, and a juster view of the great problems of democratic government presented. The seats of learning and education are at present among the most potent forces making for progress and the formation of sound opinion in the United States, and they increase daily in the excellence of their teachers no less than in the number of their students.

Before quitting this part of the subject a few general observations are needed to supplement or sum up the results of the foregoing inquiry.

There is in the United States no such general opposition as in continental Europe of richer and poorer classes, no such jealousy or hostility as one finds in France between the bourgeoisie and the operatives, not even that touch of antagonism which may now be noted in Australia. Class distinctions do exist for the purposes of social intercourse. But it is only in the larger cities that the line is sharply drawn between those who call themselves gentlemen and those others to whom, in talk among themselves, the former set would refuse this epithet.

There is no one class or set of men whose special function it is to form and lead opinion. The politicians certainly do not. Public opinion leads them.

Still less is there any governing class. The class whence most officeholders come corresponds, as respects education and refinement, to what would be called the lower middle class in Europe. But officeholders are not governors.

Such class issues as now exist or have recently existed, seldom, or to a small extent, coincide with issues between the two great parties. They are usually toyed with by both parties alike, or if such a question becomes strong enough to be made the basis of a new party, such a party will usually stand by itself apart from the two old and regular organizations.

In Europe, classes have become factors in politics either from interest or from passion. Legislation or administration may have pressed hardly on a class, and the class has sought to defend and emancipate itself. Or its feelings may have been wounded by past injury or insult, and it may seek occasions for revenge. In America the latter cause has never existed, and till recently neither was the former apparent, though of late years complaints have been made that the law deals unfairly with labour unions.6 HenceEdition: current; Page: [961] classes are not prime factors in American politics or in the formation of native political opinion. In the main, political questions proper have held the first place in a voter’s mind, and questions affecting his class the second.7 The great strikes which have of late years convulsed large sections of the country, and the labour agitation which has accompanied them, have brought new elements of class passion and class interest upon the scene.

The nation is not an aggregate of classes. They exist within it, but they do not make it up. You are not struck by their political significance as you would be in any European country. The people is one people, although it occupies a wider territory than any other nation, and is composed of elements from many quarters.

Even education makes less difference between various sections of the community than might be expected. One finds among the better instructed many of those prejudices and fallacies to which the European middle classes are supposed peculiarly liable. Among the less instructed of the native Americans, on the other hand, there is a comprehension of public affairs, a shrewdness of judgment, and a generally diffused interest in national welfare, exceeding that of the humbler classes in Europe. They have shown, and notably on several occasions within the present century, a power of responding to the appeals made to them by a highminded and courageous leader which has startled and quelled the machine politicians, and cheered the hearts of those who have faith in popular government.

This is the strong point of the nation. This is what gives buoyancy to the vessel of the state, enabling her to carry with apparent ease the dead weight of ignorance which European immigration continues to throw upon her decks.

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chapter 82

Local Types of Opinion—East, West, and South

Both the general tendencies and the class tendencies in the development of public opinion which I have attempted to sketch, may be observed all over the vast area of the Union. Some, however, are more powerful in one region, others in another, while the local needs and feelings of each region tend to give a particular colour to its views and direction to its aims. One must therefore inquire into and endeavour to describe these local differences, so as, by duly allowing for them, to correct what has been stated generally with regard to the conditions under which opinion is formed, and the questions which evoke it.

In an earlier chapter I have classified the states into five groups, the Northeastern or New England states, the Middle states, the Northwestern states, the Southern states, and the states of the Pacific slope. For the purposes of our present inquiry there is no material difference between the first two of these groups, but the differences between the others are significant. It is needless to add that there are, of course, abundance of local differences within these divisions. Pennsylvania, for instance, is for many purposes unlike Ohio. Georgia stands on a higher level than Louisiana. Idaho is more raw than Illinois. To go into these minor points of divergence would involve a tedious discussion, and perhaps confuse the reader after all, so he must be asked to understand that this chapter endeavours to present only the general aspect which opinion wears in each section of the country, and that what is said of a section generally, is not meant to be taken as equally applicable to every state within it.

In the Eastern states the predominant influence is that of capitalists, manufacturers, merchants—in a word, of the commercial classes. The EastEdition: current; Page: [963] finds the capital for great undertakings all over the country, particularly for the making of railroads, the stock of which is chiefly held by Eastern investors, and the presidents whereof often have their central office in New York, though the line may traverse the Western or Southern states. The East also conducts the gigantic trade with Europe. It ships the grain and the cattle, the pork and the petroleum, it finances the shipping of much of the cotton, it receives and distributes nearly all the manufactured goods that Europe sends, as well as most of the emigrants from the ports of the Old World.1 The arms of its great bankers and merchants stretch over the whole Union, making those commercial influences which rule in their own seat potent everywhere. Eastern opinion is therefore the most quickly and delicately sensitive to financial movements and to European influences, as well as the most firmly bound to a pacific policy. As in the beginning of the century, trade interests made Massachusetts and Connecticut anxious to avoid a breach with England, to whose ports their vessels plied, so now, though the shipping which enters Eastern ports is chiefly European (British, Norwegian, German, French), the mercantile connections of American and European merchants and financiers are so close that an alarm of war might produce widespread disaster.

The East is also, being the oldest, the best educated and if no longer the most intellectually active yet perhaps the most intellectually polished, quarter of the country.2 Not only does it contain more men of high culture, but the average of knowledge and thought (excluding the mob of the great cities and some backward districts in the hills of Pennsylvania) is higher than elsewhere. Its literary men and eminent teachers labour for the whole country, and its cities, which show the lowest element of the population in their rabble, show also the largest number of men of light and leading in all professions. Although very able newspapers are published in the West as well as in the East, still the tone of Eastern political discussion is more generally dignified and serious than in the rest of the Union. The influences of Europe, which, of course, play first and chiefly upon the East, are, so far as they affect manners and morality, by no means an unmixed good. But in the realm of thought Europe and its criticism are a stimulative force, which corrects any undue appreciation of national virtues, and helps forward sound views in economics and history. The leisured and well-read class toEdition: current; Page: [964] be found in some Eastern cities is as cosmopolitan in tone as can be found anywhere in the world, yet has not lost the piquancy of its native soil. Its thought appropriates what is fresh and sound in the literature or scientific work of Germany, England, and France more readily than any of those countries seems to learn from each of the others. These causes, added to the fact that the perversions of party government have been unusually gross among the irresponsible masses that crowd these very cities, has roused a more strenuous opposition to the so-called “machine” than in other parts of the country. The Eastern voter is less bound to his party, more accustomed to think for himself, and to look for light, when he feels his own knowledge defective, to capable publicists. When, either in federal or state or city politics, an independent party arises, repudiating the bad nominations of one or both of the regular organizations, it is here that it finds its leaders and the greatest part of its support. There has also been in New England something of the spirit of Puritanism, cold and keen as glacier air, with its high standard of public duty and private honour, its disposition to apply the maxims of religion to the conduct of life, its sense, much needed in this tenderhearted country, that there are times when Agag must be hewn in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal. If the people of New England and rural New York had been left unpolluted by the turbid flood of foreign immigration, they would be the fittest of any in the world for a pure democratic government. Evils there would still be, as in all governments, but incomparably less grave than those which now tax the patriotism of the party which from these states holds up the banner of reform for the whole Union.

It is impossible to draw a line between the East and the West, because the boundary is always moving westward. In 1870 Ohio was typically Western in character; now it has as much in common with Connecticut or New York as with Kansas or Minnesota. The most distinctive elements in the Western states are the farming class, which here attains its greatest strength, and the masses of Germans and Scandinavians, who fill whole districts, often outnumbering the native Americans. For many years these immigrants contributed so much more largely to the voting than to the thinking power of the newer states, that their presence was one of the main reasons why the political power of the West exceeded its political capacity. They are honest, industrious, and worthy people, the parents of good American citizens, useful men to clear the woods and break up the prairie, and now, having learnt the institutions of the country, they are no longer behind their native born neighbors in political intelligence, nor less ready to try experiments in legislation and in the reform of election methods. TheEdition: current; Page: [965] predominance of the agricultural interest has the faults and merits indicated in the account already given of the farming class. Western opinion is politically unenlightened, still dislikes theory, and holds the practical man to be the man who, while discerning keenly his own interest, discerns nothing else beyond the end of his nose. It has boundless confidence in the future of the country, of the West in particular, of its own state above all, caring not much for what the East thinks, and still less for the judgment of Europe. It feels sure everything will come right, and thinks “cheap transportation” to be the one thing needful. Reckless in enterprises, it is stingy in paying its officials, judges included. Good-natured and indulgent to a fault, it is nevertheless displeased to hear that its senator lives in luxury at Washington. Its townsfolk are so much occupied in pushing their towns, between whose newspapers there is a furious rivalry—they hate one another as Athens hated Thebes, or Florence, Pisa—its rich men in opening up railroads, its farmers in their household and field toil, labour being scarce and dear, that politics were for a long time left to the politicians, who, however, were not the worst specimens of their class, and the ordinary voter stuck steadily to his party, disliking “independents” and “bolters.” Now, however, the wave of what is called “radicalism” which has from time to time surged up along and beyond the Mississippi, has brought a keener interest into political reform and legislative work, and that splendid energy which the Western men showed when, in the Civil War days, their stouthearted, large-limbed regiments poured down to Southern battlefields has thrown more of itself than it had done since those days, into plans for improving the methods of politics and curbing what is held to be the excessive power of combined wealth. The Western man is no more disposed than formerly to listen to philosophical reasonings, or trouble himself about coming dangers, but his sentiment as well as his interest has been so enlisted in these plans, that he is not likely soon to drop them.

The West may be called the most distinctively American part of America, because the points in which it differs from the East are the points in which America as a whole differs from Europe. But the character of its population differs in different regions, according to the parts of the country from which the early settlers came. Now the settlers have generally moved along parallels of latitude, and we have therefore the curious result that the characteristics of the older states have propagated themselves westward in parallel lines, so that he who travels from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains will find fewer differences to note than he who, starting from Texas, travels north to Manitoba. Thus northern Ohio was filled from New England and westernEdition: current; Page: [966] New York, and in its turn colonized northern Illinois, Michigan, and much of the farther Northwest. Southern Ohio and Illinois, together with a great part of Indiana, were peopled from Virginia and Kentucky, and the somewhat inferior quality of these early settlers is still traceable. Missouri was colonized from the slave states, and retains traces of their character.3 Kansas lies just west of Missouri, but it received in the days of the Free Soil struggle many Puritan immigrants from the free states, and shows, though it used to be called the state of “cranks,” a high type of political intelligence. The Scandinavians are chiefly in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the two Dakotas, the Germans numerous in Iowa also, and indeed all over these newer states, including Texas. So far back as 1870 Milwaukee was a German rather than an American city,4 and in 1890 it appeared that there were townships in Wisconsin in which the tax lists had for years been kept in German, and counties in which a paid interpreter was required to enable the business of the courts to be transacted. Oklahoma, into which settlers have swarmed from all parts of the Northwest as well as the Southwest, is preeminently the land of sanguine radicalism and experimental legislation. New Mexico and Arizona were, till Congress in 1910 passed an act for their admission as states, still Territories, and the former has a large Mexican element. Yet over them, too, the network of party organization has been spread, though, of course, the sparser population feeds a feebler political life.

The Pacific slope, as its inhabitants call it, geographically includes the states of Oregon and Washington, but Oregon and Washington resemble the Northwestern states in so many respects that she may better be classed therewith. California and Nevada on the other hand, to whom we may now add Arizona, are distinctly peculiar. They are more Western than the states I have just been describing, with the characteristics of those states intensified and some new features added. They are cut off by deserts and barren mountain ranges from the agricultural part of the Mississippi basin, nor is population ever likely to become really continuous across this wilderness. Mining industries play a larger part in them than in any other state, except Colorado. Their inhabitants are unsettled and fluctuating, highly speculative, as one may expect those who mine and gamble in mining stocks to be.Edition: current; Page: [967] They used to be chiefly occupied with questions of their own, such as Oriental immigration, the management of the great Central and Southern Pacific railroad system, which has been accused of dominating the trade and industries of California; and the reconcilement of the claims of miners and agriculturists to the waters of the rivers, which each set seeks to appropriate, and which the former claims the right to foul. Now forces and tendencies, generally similar, are at work on both sides of the Rocky Mountains, and so are the issues which occupy men’s minds. Yet public opinion is here, in spite of the proverbial shrewdness, energy, and hardihood of the men of the Pacific, somewhat more fitful and gusty, less amenable to the voice of sober reason, and less deferential to the authority of statesmen, or even of party than anywhere else in the Union. “Interests,” such as those of a great mine-owning group, or of a railroad, are immensely powerful, and the reactions against them not less so.

Of the South, the solid South, as it is often called, because its presidential vote has since 1876 been cast almost entire for the Democrats, some account will be found in three later chapters, one sketching its history since the war ended, two others describing the condition of the Negro and his relations to the whites. Here, therefore, I will speak only of the general character of political opinion and action in the former slave states. The phenomena they present are unexampled. Equality before the law is in theory absolute and perfect, being secured by the federal Constitution. Yet the political subjection of a large part (in one state a majority) of the population is no less complete.

There are three orders of men in the South.

The first is the upper or educated class, including the children of the planting aristocracy which ruled before the Civil War, together with the Northern men who have since 1865 settled in the towns for the purposes of trade or manufacture. Of this order more than nine-tenths—those in fact who have survived from the old aristocracy, together with those who have since arisen from the humbler class, and with most of the newer arrivals—belong to the Democratic party. Along with the high spirit and self-confidence which belong to a ruling race, these Southern men showed an enlargement of view and an aptitude for grasping decided and continuous lines of policy, in fact, a turn for statesmanship as contrasted with mere politics, which was less common in the North, because less favoured by the conditions under which ambition has in the North to push its way. The Southern man who entered public life had a more assured position than his rival from a Northern state, because he represented the opinion of a united body who stood by him, regarding him as their champion, and who expectedEdition: current; Page: [968] from him less subservience to their instructions. He did not need to court so assiduously the breath of popular favour. He was not more educated or intelligent; and had lived in a less stimulating atmosphere. But he had courage and a clear vision of his objects, the two gifts essential for a statesman; while the united popular impulse behind him supplied a sort of second patriotism. The element of gain entered somewhat less into Southern politics, partly because the country is poor and though the South begins to be commercialized, the sensitiveness on the “point of honour” and a flavour of punctiliousness in manners, recall the olden time. Opinion in the slave states before the war, in spite of the divisions between Democrats and Whigs, was generally bold, definite, and consistent, because based on a few doctrines. It was the opinion of a small class who were largely occupied with public affairs, and fond of debating them upon first principles and the words of the federal constitution. It has preserved this quality, while losing its old fierceness and better recognizing the conditions under which it must work in a federal republic. On the other hand, the extreme strength of party feeling, due to the extreme sensitiveness regarding the Negro, has prevented the growth of independent opinion, and of the tendency which in the North is called Mugwumpism. And although the leading statesmen are not inferior to those whom the North sends to Washington, the total number of thoughtful and enlightened men is, in proportion to the population, smaller than in the Northeast, smaller even than in such Western states as Illinois or Ohio.

I have used the past tense in describing these phenomena, because the South is changing, and the process is now scarcely swifter in the West than in those parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama where the coal and iron deposits have recently been opened up. Most parts, however, are still thinly settled by whites, and so poor that a traveller finds it hard to understand how, when still poorer, the people managed to resist for four years the armies of the wealthy and populous North. There is therefore less eagerness and hopefulness than in the West, less searching discussion and elaborate organization than in the East, less of everything that is characteristically democratic. The machine has, in some states, been brought to no such terrible perfection as in the North, because the need of it was not felt where one party was sure of victory, and because talent or social position usually designated the men to be selected as candidates, or the men whose voice would determine the selection. Of late years, however, the aristocratic element in Southern politics has grown weaker, and merits that were deemed characteristic of Southern statesmen are more rarely seen. Those who regret that there has not been, since the Civil War generationEdition: current; Page: [969] died out, a stronger group of leaders sent from the South to Washington, attribute the fact to the superior attractions of a business career in a region which is growing and developing so fast and to the departure of some of the ablest intellects to Northern cities where they expect to find a larger field for their talents.

The second order consists of those who used to be called the mean whites. Their condition strengthens the impression of half civilization which the rural districts of the South produce upon the traveller, and which comes painfully home to him in the badness of the inns. While slavery lasted, these whites were, in the lowlands of the planting states, a wretched, because economically superfluous, class. There was no room for them as labourers, because the slaves did the work on the plantations; they had not the money to purchase land and machinery for themselves, nor the spirit to push their way in the towns, while the system of large slave-worked properties made, as the latifundia did long ago in Italy, the cultivation of small farms hopeless, and the existence of a thriving free peasantry impossible. The planters disliked these whites and kept them off their estates as much as possible; the slaves despised them, and called them “poor white trash.” In South Carolina and the Gulf states, they picked up a wretched livelihood by raising some vegetables near their huts, and killing the wild creatures of the woods, while a few hung round the great houses to look out for a stray job. Shiftless, ignorant, improvident, with no aims in the present nor hopes for the future, citizens in nothing but the possession of votes, they were a standing reproach to the system that produced them, and the most convincing proof of its economic as well as moral failure. In the northerly slave states, they were better off, and in the highlands of Western Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, where there were few or no slaves, they had, along with much rudeness and ignorance, the virtues of simple mountaineers. Their progress since the war has been marked, both near the mining and manufacturing towns, which give work and furnish markets, and in the cotton-bearing uplands, where many have acquired farms and prospered as tillers of the soil. Everywhere, however, they remain, in point of education and enlightenment, behind the small farmers or artisans of the North and West. Before the war they followed, as a matter of course (except in the mountains, where the conditions were different), the lead of the planting class, not more out of deference to it than from aversion to the Negroes. The less a man had to be proud of, the more proud was he of his colour. Since the war, they have been no less anxious than their richer neighbours to exclude the Negroes from any share in the government. But they are noEdition: current; Page: [970] longer mere followers. They have begun to think and act for themselves, and, though one of the first signs of independence was shown in the acceptance of the impractiable projects that were for a time advocated by the Farmers’ Alliance, they have become a body which has views, and with whose views it is necessary to reckon.

The Negroes constitute nearly one-third of the population of the old slave states, and in two states (Mississippi and South Carolina) they are in a majority, being nearly equal to the whites in Louisiana and Georgia. Though their presence is the dominant factor in Southern politics, they cannot be said to form or influence opinion; and it is not their votes, but the efforts made to prevent them from voting, that have influenced the course of events. I reserve for subsequent chapters an account of their singular positions.

Remembering that of the whole population of the Union, nearly one-third is in the Southern states, and that the majority of that one-third, viz., the lower part of the poor whites and nearly all the Negroes, has no political knowledge or capacity, nothing that can be called rational opinion, and remembering also the large mass of recently arrived and ignorant immigrants, it will be seen how far the inhabitants of the United States are from being a democracy enlightened through and through. If one part of the people is as educated and capable as that of Switzerland, another is as ignorant and politically untrained as that of Russia.

Of the four divisions of the country above described, the West (including Oregon and Washington) has already the largest vote, and since it grows faster than the others, will soon be indisputably sovereign. But as it grows, it loses some of its distinctive features, becoming more like the East, and falling more and more under Eastern influences, both intellectual and financial. It must not therefore be supposed that what is now typically Western opinion will be the reigning opinion of the future. The Pacific states will in time be drawn closer to those of the Mississippi Valley, losing something of such specific quality as they still possess; and centres of literary activity, such as now exist chiefly in the Atlantic states, will be more and more scattered over the whole country. Opinion will therefore be more homogeneous, or at least less local, in the future than it has been in the past; even as now it is less determined by local and state influences than it was in the earlier days of the Republic.

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chapter 83

The Action of Public Opinion

The last few chapters have attempted to explain what are the conditions under which opinion is formed in America, what national qualities it reflects, how it is affected by class interests or local circumstances, as well as through what organs it manifests itself. We must now inquire how it acts, and for this purpose try to answer three questions.

By whom is public opinion formed? i.e., by the few or by the many?

How does it seek to grasp and use the legal machinery which the constitutions (federal and state) provide?

What means has it of influencing the conduct of affairs otherwise than through the regular legal machinery?

It may serve to illustrate the phenomena which mark the growth of opinion in America if we compare them with those of some European country. As Britain is the country in which public opinion has been longest and with least interruption installed in power, and in which the mass of the people are more largely than elsewhere interested in public affairs,1 Britain supplies the fittest materials for a comparison.

In Britain political supremacy belongs to the householder voters, who number (over the whole United Kingdom) about 7,500,000, being rather less than two-thirds of the adult male population. Public opinion ought in theory to reside in them. Practically, however, as everybody knows, most of them have little that can be called political opinion. It is the creation and possession of a much smaller number.

An analysis of public opinion in Britain will distinguish three sets of persons—I do not call them classes, for they do not coincide with socialEdition: current; Page: [972] grades—those who make opinion, those who receive and hold opinion, those who have no opinions at all.

The first set consists of practical politicians (i.e., a certain number of members of the Lower House and a smaller fraction of members of the Upper, together with men taking an active part in local party organizations), journalists and other public writers, and a small fringe of other persons, chiefly professional men, who think and talk constantly about public affairs. Within this set of men, who are to be counted by hundreds rather than by thousands, it is the chiefs of the great parties who have the main share in starting opinion, the journalists in propagating it. Debates in Parliament do something, and the speeches which custom, recent, but strong and increasing, requires the leaders to deliver up and down the country, and which are of course reported, replace Parliament when it is not sitting. The function of the dozen best thinkers and talkers in each party is now not merely, as in the last generation, to know and manage Parliament, to watch foreign affairs, and prepare schemes of domestic legislation, but to inspire, instruct, stimulate, and attach the outside public. So too members of the houses of Parliament find that the chief utility of their position lies in its enabling them to understand the actualities of politics better than they could otherwise do, and to gain a hearing outside for what they may have to say to their fellow countrymen. This small set of persons constitutes what may be called the working staff of the laboratory; it is among them, by the reciprocal action and reaction on one another of the chiefs, the followers, and the press, that opinion receives its first shape.2

The second set of persons consists of those who watch public affairs with a certain measure of interest. When an important question arises, they look at the debates in Parliament or some platform deliverance by a leader, and they have at all times a notion of what is passing in the political world. They now and then attend a public meeting. They are not universally, butEdition: current; Page: [973] now pretty largely, enrolled as members of some political association. When an election arrives they go to vote of their own accord. They talk over politics after dinner or coming into town by a suburban train. The proportion of such persons is larger in the professional classes (and especially among the lawyers) than in the mercantile, larger in the upper mercantile than among the working men of the towns, larger among skilled than unskilled artisans, larger in the North than in the South, larger among the town workmen than among the newly enfranchised agricultural labourers. It varies in different parts of the country, and is perhaps relatively smaller in London than in other cities. If still less than a third of the total number of voters, it is nevertheless an increasing proportion.3

The third set includes all the rest of the voters. Though they possess political power, and are better pleased to have it, they do not really care about it—that is to say, politics occupy no appreciable space in their thoughts and interests. Some of them vote at elections because they consider themselves to belong to a party, or fancy that on a given occasion they have more to expect from the one party than from the other; or because they are brought up on election day by someone who can influence them. The number who vote tends to increase with the importation of party into municipal and other local contests; and from the same cause some now enrol themselves in party associations. Others will not take the trouble to go to the polls. No one, except on the stump, can attribute independent political thinking to this mass of persons, because their knowledge and interest, though growing under the influence of the privileges they enjoy, are still slight. Many have not even political prepossessions, and will stare or smile when asked to which party they belong. They count for little except at elections, and then chiefly as instruments to be used by others. So far as the formation or exercise of opinion goes, they may be left out of sight.4

It is obviously impossible to draw a sharp line between the second setEdition: current; Page: [974] and the third, or to estimate their relative numbers, because when politics are dull many persons subside into indifference whom the advent of a crisis may again arouse. And of course there are plenty of people in the second set who though interested in politics, have no sort of real knowledge or judgment about them. Such considerations, however, do not touch the point of the present analysis, which is to distinguish between the citizens who originate opinion (the first set), those who hold and somewhat modify it (the second set), and those who are rather to be deemed, and then only when they come to the poll, mere ballot markers. The first set do the thinking; they scatter forth the ideas and arguments. The second set receive and test what is set before them. What their feeling or judgment approves they accept and give effect to by their votes; what they dislike or suspect is refused and falls dead, or possibly sets them the other way. The measure of the worth of a view or proposal—I do not mean its intrinsic worth, but its power of pleasing the nation—is however not merely the breadth of the support it obtains, but also the zeal which it inspires in those who adopt it. Although persons in the second set usually belong to one or other party,5 and are therefore prima facie disposed to accept whatever comes from their party leaders, yet the degree of cordiality with which they accept indicates to a leader how their minds are moving, and becomes an element in his future calculations. Thus the second set, although rather receptive than creative, has an important function in moulding opinion, and giving it the shape and colour it finally takes when it has crystallized under the influence of a party struggle. The third set can scarcely be called a factor in the formation of opinion, except in so far as one particular proposal or cry may sometimes prove more attractive to it than another. It has some few fixed ideas or prejudices which a statesman must bear in mind, but in the main it is passive, consisting of persons who either follow the lead of members of the first or second set, or who are so indifferent as to refuse to move at all.

The United States present different phenomena. There what I have called the first set is extremely small. The third set is relatively smaller than in Britain, and but for the recent immigrants and the Negroes would be insignificant. It is in the second set that opinion is formed as well as tested, created as well as moulded. Political light and heat do not radiate out fromEdition: current; Page: [975] a centre as in England. They are diffused all through the atmosphere, and are little more intense in the inner sphere of practical politicians than elsewhere. The ordinary citizens are interested in politics, and watch them with intelligence, the same kind of intelligence (though a smaller quantity of it) as they apply to their own business. They are forced by incessant elections to take a more active part in public affairs than is taken by any European people. They think their own competence equal to that of their representatives and officebearers; and they are not far wrong. They do not therefore look up to their statesmen for guidance, but look around to one another, carrying to its extreme the principle that in the multitude of counsellors there is wisdom.

In America, therefore, opinion is not made but grows. Of course it must begin somewhere; but it is often hard to say where or how. As there are in the country a vast number of minds similar in their knowledge, beliefs, and attitude, with few exceptionally powerful minds applying themselves to politics, it is natural that the same idea should occur to several or many persons at the same time, that each event as it occurs should produce the same impression and evoke the same comments over a wide area. When everybody desires to agree with the majority, and values such accord more highly than the credit of originality, this tendency is all the stronger. An idea once launched, or a view on some current question propounded, flies everywhere on the wings of a press eager for novelties. Publicity is the easiest thing in the world to obtain; but as it is attainable by all notions, phrases, and projects, wise and foolish alike, the struggle for existence—that is to say, for public attention—is severe.

I do not, of course, deny that here, as everywhere else in the world, some one person or group must make a beginning, but seek to point out that, whereas in Europe it is patent who does make the beginning, in America a view often seems to arise spontaneously, and to be the work of many rather than of few. The individual counts for less, the mass counts for more. In propagating a doctrine not hitherto advocated by any party the methods used are similar to those of England. A central society is formed, branch societies spring up over the country, a journal (perhaps several journals) is started, and if the movement thrives, an annual convention of its supporters is held, at which speeches are made and resolutions adopted. If any striking personality is connected with the movement as a leader, as Garrison was with Abolitionism, he cannot but become a sort of figurehead. Yet it happens more rarely in America than in England that an individual leader gives its character to a movement, partly because new movementsEdition: current; Page: [976] less often begin among, or are taken up by, persons already known as practical politicians.

As regards opinion on the main questions of the hour, such as the extension of slavery long was, and questions affecting railways, trusts, the currency, the tariff, are now, it rises and falls, much as in any other country, under the influence of events which seem to make for one or other of the contending views. There is this difference between America and Europe, that in the former speeches seem to influence the average citizen less, because he is more apt to do his own thinking; newspaper invective less, because he is used to it; current events rather more, because he is better informed of them. Party spirit is probably no stronger in America than in England, so far as a man’s thinking and talking go, but it tells more upon him when he comes to vote.

An illustration of what has been said may be found in the fact that the proportion of persons who actually vote at an election to those whose names appear on the voting list is larger in America than in Europe. In some English constituencies this percentage is from 60 to 70 per cent, though at exciting moments it is larger than this, taking the country as a whole. At the general election of 1910 it exceeded 80 per cent. In America 80 per cent may be a fair average, taking presidential elections, which call out the heaviest vote, and in some recent contests this proportion was exceeded. Something may be ascribed to the more elaborate local organization of American parties; but against this ought to be set the fact that the English voting mass includes not quite two-thirds, the American nearly the whole, of the adult male population, and that the English voters are the more solid and well-to-do part of the population.

Is there, then, in the United States, no inner sphere of thinkers, writers, and speakers, corresponding to what we have called the “first set” in England?

There are individual men corresponding to individuals in that English set, and probably quite as numerous. There are journalists of great ability, there are a few literary men, clergymen and teachers, a good many lawyers, some businessmen, some few politicians. But they are isolated and unorganized, and do not constitute a class. Most of them are primarily occupied with their own avocations, and have only spare time to give to political thinking or writing. They are nearly all resident in or near the Eastern and four or five of the largest Western cities, and through many large tracts of country scarce any are to be found. In England the profession of opinion-making and leading is the work of specialists; in America, except as regards theEdition: current; Page: [977] few journalists and statesmen aforesaid, of amateurs. As the books of amateurs have merits which those of professional book writers are apt to want, so something is gained by the absence of the professional element from American political opinion. But that which these amateurs produce is less coherent, less abundant, and less promptly effective upon the mass of the citizens than the corresponding English product. In fact, the individual Americans whom we are considering can (except the journalists and statesmen aforesaid) be distinguished from the mass of citizens only by their superior intellectual competence and their keener interest in public affairs. (Of the “professional politicians” there is no question, because it is in the getting and keeping of places that these gentlemen are occupied.) We may therefore repeat the proposition, that in America opinion does not originate in a particular class, but grows up in the nation at large, though, of course, there are leading minds in the nation who have more to do with its formation than the run of their fellow citizens. A good instance of the power such men may exercise is afforded by the success of the civil service reform movement, which began among a few enlightened citizens in the Eastern states, who by degrees leavened, or were thought to be leavening, the minds of their fellows to such an extent that the politicians were forced, sorely against the grain, to bring in and pass the appropriate legislation. Other instances may be found in the swift success obtained by those who advocated the secret or “Australian” ballot, a measure not specially desired by the “politicians,” and in the spread of the recent legislation establishing statutory primaries, which was advocated in the West by a comparatively small number of reformers and then found support from a large body of citizens who had come to dislike the machine and its ways.

An illustration of a different kind, but not less striking, was the victory of the agitation for international copyright. A few literary men, seconded after a while by a very few publishers, had for weary years maintained what seemed a hopeless struggle for the extension to foreign authors of the right to acquire copyright in America, theretofore reserved to citizens only. These men were at first ridiculed. People asked how they could expect that the nation, whose chief reading was in European books, sold very cheap because the author received no profit, would raise the price of these books against itself? Neither Republicans nor Democrats had anything to gain by passing the bill, and Congress, by large majorities, rejected or refused to advance (which came to the same thing) every bill presented to it. The agitators, however, persevered, receiving help from a sympathetic press, and so worked upon the honour and good sense of the people that Congress at lastEdition: current; Page: [978] came round. The hostile interests fought hard, and extorted some concessions. But in 1891 the bill was passed.6

We may now ask in what manner opinion, formed or forming, is able to influence the conduct of affairs?

The legal machinery through which the people are by the constitution (federal and state) invited to govern is that of elections. Occasionally, when the question of altering a state constitution comes up, the citizen votes directly for or against a proposition put to him in the form of a constitutional amendment; but otherwise it is only by voting for a man as candidate that he can (except of course in the states which have adopted the initiative and referendum) give expression to his views, and directly support or oppose some policy. Now, in every country, voting for a man is an inadequate way of expressing one’s views of policy, because the candidate is sure to differ in one or more questions from many of those who belong to the party. It is especially inadequate in the United States, because the strictness of party discipline leaves little freedom of individual thought or action to the member of a legislature, because the ordinary politician has little interest in anything but the regular party programme, and because in no party are the citizens at large permitted to select their candidate, seeing that he is found for them and forced on them by the professionals of the party organization. While, therefore, nothing is easier than for opinion which runs in the direct channel of party to give effect to itself frequently and vigorously, nothing is harder than for opinion which wanders out of that channel to find a legal and regular means of bringing itself to bear upon those who govern either as legislators or executive officers. This is the weak point of the American party system, perhaps of every party system, from the point of view of the independent-minded citizen, as it is the strong point from that of the party manager. A body of unorganized opinion is therefore helpless in the face of compact parties. It is obliged to organize. When organized for the promotion of a particular view or proposition it has in the United States three courses open to it.

The first is to capture one or other of the great standing parties, i.e., to persuade or frighten that party into adopting this view as part of its programme, or, to use the technical term, making it a plank of the platform, in which case the party candidates will be bound to support it. This is the most effective course, but the most difficult; for a party is sure to haveEdition: current; Page: [979] something to lose as well as to gain by embracing a new dogma. Why should such parties as those of America have lately been troubling themselves with taking up new questions, unless they are satisfied they will gain thereby? Their old dogmas are indeed worn threadbare, but have been hitherto found sufficient to cover them.

The second course is for the men who hold the particular view to declare themselves a new party, put forward their own programme, run their own candidates. Besides being costly and troublesome, this course would be thought ridiculous where the view or proposition is not one of first-rate importance, which has already obtained wide support. Where however it is applicable, it is worth taking, even when the candidates cannot be carried, for it serves as an advertisement, and it alarms the old party, from which it withdraws voting strength in the persons of the dissidents.

The third is to cast the voting weight of the organized promoters of the doctrine or view in question into the scale of whichever party shows the greatest friendliness, or seems most open to conversion. As in many states the regular parties are pretty equally balanced, even a comparatively weak body of opinion may decide the result. Such a body does not necessarily forward its own view, for the candidates whom its vote carries are nowise pledged to its programme.7 But it has made itself felt, shown itself a power to be reckoned with, improved its chances of capturing one or other of the regular parties, or of running candidates of its own on some future occasion. When this transfer of the solid vote of a body of agitators is the result of a bargain with the old party which gets the vote, it is called “selling out”; and in such cases it sometimes happens that the bargain secures one or two offices for the incoming allies in consideration of the strength they have brought. But if the new group be honestly thinking of its doctrines and not of the offices, the terms it will ask will be the nomination of good candidates, or a more friendly attitude towards the new view.

These are the ways in which either the minority of a party, holding some doctrine outside the regular party programme, or a new group aspiring to be a party, may assert itself at elections. The third is applicable wherever the discipline of the section which has arisen within a party is so good thatEdition: current; Page: [980] its members can be trusted to break away from their former affiliation, and vote solid for the side their leaders have agreed to favour. It is a potent weapon, and liable to be abused. But in a country where the tide runs against minorities and small groups it is most necessary. The possibility of its employment acts as a check on the regular parties, disposing them to abstain from legislation which might irritate any body of growing opinion and tend to crystallize it as a new organization, and making them more tolerant of minor divergences from the dogmas of the orthodox programme than their fierce love of party uniformity would otherwise permit.

So far we have been considering the case of persons advocating some specific opinion or scheme. As respects the ordinary conduct of business by officials and legislators, the fear of popular displeasure to manifest itself at the next elections is, or course, the most powerful of restraining influences. Under a system of balanced authorities, such fear helps to prevent or remove deadlocks as well as the abuse of power by any one authority. A president (or state governor) who has vetoed bills passed by Congress (or his state legislature) is emboldened to go on doing so when he finds public opinion on his side; and Congress (or the state legislature) will hesitate, though the requisite majority may be forthcoming, to pass these bills over the veto. A majority in the House of Representatives, or in a state legislative body, which has abused the power of closing debate by the “previous question” rule, may be frightened by expressions of popular disapproval from repeating the offence. When the two branches of a legislature differ, and a valuable bill has failed, or when there has been vexatious filibustering, public opinion fixes the blame on the party primarily responsible for the loss of good measures or public time, and may punish it at the next election. Thus, in many ways and on many occasions, though not so often or so fully as is needed, the vision of the polls, seen some months or even years off, has power to terrify and warn selfish politicians. As the worth of courts of law is to be estimated not merely by the offences they punish and the causes they try, but even more by the offences from which the fear of penalties deters bad men, and by the payments which the prospect of a writ extracts from reluctant debtors, so a healthy and watchful public opinion makes itself felt in preventing foolish or corrupt legislation and executive jobbery. Mischief is checked in America more frequently than anywhere else by the fear of exposure, or by newspaper criticisms on the first stage of a bad scheme. And, of course, the frequency of elections—in most respects a disadvantage to the country—has the merit of bringing the prospect of punishment nearer.

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It will be asked how the fear is brought home, seeing that the result of a coming election must usually be uncertain. Sometimes it is not brought home. The erring majority in a legislature may believe they have the people with them, or the governor may think his jobs will be forgotten. Generally, however, there are indications of the probable set of opinion in the language held by moderate men and the less partisan newspapers. When some of the organs of the party which is in fault begin to blame it, danger is in the air, for the other party is sure to use the opening thus given to it. And hence, of course, the control of criticism is most effective where parties are nearly balanced. Opinion seems to tell with special force when the question is between a legislative body passing bills or ordinances, and a president, or governor, or mayor, vetoing them, the legislature recoiling whenever they think the magistrate has got the people behind him. Even small fluctuations in a vote produce a great impression on the minds of politicians.

The constancy or mutability of electoral bodies is a difficult phenomenon to explain, especially where secret voting prevails, and a dangerous one to generalize on. The tendency of the electoral vote in any constituency to shift from Tory to Whig or Whig to Tory, used in England to be deemed to indicate the presence of a corrupt element. It was a black mark against a borough. In America it sometimes deserves the same interpretation, for there are corruptible masses in not a few districts. But there are also cases in which it points to the existence of an exceptionally thoughtful and unprejudiced element in the population, an element which rejects party dictation, and seeks to cast its vote for the best man. The average American voter is more likely to consider himself attached to a party than the English, and is, I think, less capricious, and therefore if a transfer of votes from one party to the other does not arise from some corrupt influence, it betokens serious disapproval on the part of the bolters. In the United States fluctuations are most frequent in some of the less sober and steady Western states, and in some of the most enlightened, such as New York and Massachusetts. In the former the people may be carried away by a sudden impulse; in the latter there is a section which judges candidates more by personal merits than by party professions.

These defects which may be noted in the constitutional mechanism for enabling public opinion to rule promptly and smoothly, are, in a measure, covered by the expertness of Americans in using all kinds of voluntary and private agencies for the diffusion and expression of opinion. Where the object is to promote some particular cause, associations are formed and federated to one another, funds are collected, the press is set to work,Edition: current; Page: [982] lectures are delivered. When the law can profitably be invoked (which is often the case in a country governed by constitutions standing above the legislature), counsel are retained and suits instituted, all with the celerity and skill which long practice in such work has given. If the cause has a moral bearing, efforts are made to enlist the religious or semireligious magazines, and the ministers of religion.8 Deputations proceed to Washington or to the state capital, and lay siege to individual legislators. Sometimes a distinct set of women’s societies is created, whose action on and through women is all the more powerful because the deference shown to the so-called weaker sex enables them to do what would be resented in men. Once in Iowa, when a temperance ticket was being run at the elections, parties of ladies gathered in front of the polling booths and sang hymns all day while the citizens voted. Everyone remembers what was called the “Women’s Whisky War” when, in several Western states, bands of women entered the drinking saloons and, by entreaties and reproaches, drove out the customers. In no country has any sentiment which touches a number of persons so many ways of making itself felt; though, to be sure, when the first and chief effort of every group is to convince the world that it is strong, and growing daily stronger, great is the difficulty of determining whether those who are vocal are really numerous or only noisy.

For the promotion of party opinion on the leading questions that divide or occupy parties, there exist, of course, the regular party organizations, whose complex and widely ramified mechanism has been described in an earlier chapter. Opinion is, however, the thing with which this mechanism is at present least occupied. Its main objects are the selection of the party candidates and the conduct of the canvass at elections. Traces of the other purpose remain in the practice of adopting, at state and national conventions, a platform, or declaration of principles and views, which is the electoral manifesto of the party, embodying the tenets which it is supposed to live for. A convention is a body fitted neither by its numbers nor its composition for the discussion and sifting of political doctrines; but, even if it were so fitted, that is not the work to which its masters would set it. A “platform” is invariably prepared by a small committee, and usually adopted by the general committee, and by the convention, with little change. Its tendency is neither to define nor to convince, but rather to attract and to confuse. It is a mixture of denunciation, declamation, and conciliation. It reprobatesEdition: current; Page: [983] the opposite party for their past misdeeds, and “views with alarm” their present policy. It repeats the tale of the services which the party of those who issue it has rendered in the past, is replete with sounding democratic generalities, and attempts so to expand and expound the traditional party tenets as to make these include all sound doctrines, and deserve the support of all good citizens. Seldom in recent years have either platforms or the process that produces them had a powerful influence on the maturing and clarification of political opinion. However, in such times as that which immediately preceded the Civil War, and again in the silver struggle of 1896, conventions have recorded the acceptance of certain vital propositions, and rejection of certain dangerous proposals, by one or other of the great parties, and they may again have to do so, not to add that an imprudent platform may lay a party open to damaging attacks. When any important election comes off, the party organization sends its speakers out on stumping tours, and distributes a flood of campaign literature. At other times opinion moves in a different plane from that of party machinery, and is scarcely affected by it.

One might expect that in the United States the thoughts of the people would be more equably and uniformly employed on politics than in European countries. The contrary is the case. Opinion, no doubt, is always alive and vigilant, always in process of formation, growth, and decay. But its activity is less continuous and sustained than in Europe, because there is a greater difference between the spring tide of a presidential campaign year and the neap tides of the three off years than there is between one year and another under the European system of chambers which may be dissolved and ministries which may be upset at any moment. Excitement at one time is succeeded by exhaustion at another. America suffers from a sort of intermittent fever—what one may call a quintan ague. Every fourth year there come terrible shakings, passing into the hot fit of the presidential election; then follows what physicians call “the interval”; then again the fit. In Europe the persons who move in what I have called the inner sphere of politics, give unbroken attention to political problems, always discussing them both among themselves and before the people. As the corresponding persons in America are not organized into a class, and to some extent not engaged in practical politics, the work of discussion has been left to be done, in the three “off years,” by the journalists and a few of the more active and thoughtful statesmen, with casual aid from such private citizens as may be interested. Now many problems require uninterrupted and what may be called scientific or professional study. Foreign policy obviouslyEdition: current; Page: [984] presents such problems. The shortcomings of modern England in the conduct of foreign affairs have been not unreasonably attributed to the fact that, while the attention of her statesmen is constantly distracted from them by domestic struggles, her people have not been accustomed to turn their eyes abroad except when some exciting event, such as the Egyptain troubles of 1882–85 or the Bulgarian massacre of 1876, forces them to do so. Hence a state like Germany, where a strong throne keeps a strong minister permanently in power for a long period, obtains advantages which must be credited not wholly to the wisdom of the statesmen but also to the difficulties under which their rivals in more democratic countries labour. America has had few occasions for giving her attention to foreign affairs, but some of her domestic problems are such as to demand that careful observation and unbroken reflection which neither her executive magistrates, nor her legislatures, nor any leading class among her people now give.

Those who know the United States and have been struck by the quantity of what is called politics there, may think that this description underrates the volume and energy of public political discussion. I admit the endless hubbub, the constant elections in one district or another, the paragraphs in the newspapers as to the movements or intentions of this or that prominent man, the reports of what is doing in Congress and in the state legislatures, the decisions of the federal courts in constitutional questions, the rumours about new combinations, the revelations of ring intrigues, the criticisms on appointments. It is nevertheless true that in proportion to the number of words spoken, articles printed, telegrams sent, and acts performed, less than is needed is done to form serious political thought, and bring practical problems towards a solution. I once travelled through Transylvania with Mr. Leslie Stephen in a peasant’s wagon, a rude, long, low structure filled with hay. The roads were rough and stony, the horses jangled their bells, the driver shouted to the horses and cracked his whip, the wheels clanked, the boards rattled, we were deafened and shaken and jolted. We fancied ourselves moving rapidly so long as we looked straight in front, but a glance at the trees on the roadside showed that the speed was about three miles an hour. So the pother and din of American politics keep the people awake, and give them a sense of stir and motion, but the machine of government carries them slowly onward. Fortunately they have no need to hurry. It is not so much by or through the machinery of government as by their own practical good sense, which at last finds a solution the politicians may have failed to find, that the American people advance. When a European visitor dines with a company of the best citizens in such a city as Chicago orEdition: current; Page: [985] Boston, Cleveland or Baltimore, he is struck by the acuteness, the insight, the fairness with which the condition and requirements of the country are discussed, the freedom from such passion or class feeling as usually clouds equally able Europeans, the substantial agreement between members of both the great parties as to the reforms that are wanted, the patriotism which is so proud of the real greatness of the Union as frankly to acknowledge its defects, the generous appreciation of all that is best in the character or political methods of other nations. One feels what a reserve fund of wisdom and strength the country has in such men, who so far from being aristocrats or recluses, are usually the persons whom their native fellow townsmen best know and most respect as prominent in business and in the professions. In ordinary times the practical concern of such men with either national or local politics is no greater, possibly less, than that of the leaders of business in an English town towards its municipal affairs. But when there comes an uprising against the bosses, it is these men who are called upon to put themselves at the head of it; or when a question like that of civil service reform has been before the nation for some time, it is their opinion which strikes the keynote for that of their city or district, and which shames or alarms the professional politicians. Men of the same type, though individually less conspicuous than those whom I take as examples, are to be found in many of the smaller towns, especially in the Eastern and Middle states, and as time goes on their influence grows. Much of the value of this most educated and reflective class in America consists in their being no longer blindly attached to their party, because more alive to the principles for which parties ought to exist. They may be numerically a small minority of the voters, but as in many states the two regular parties command a nearly equal normal voting strength, a small section detached from either party can turn an election by throwing its vote for the candidate, to whichever party he belongs, whom it thinks capable and honest. Thus a comparatively independent group wields a power in elections altogether disproportionate to its numbers, and by a sort of side wind can not only make its hostility feared, but secure a wider currency for its opinions. What opinion chiefly needs in America in order to control the politicians is not so much men of leisure, for men of leisure may be dilettantes and may lack a grip of realities, but a more sustained activity on the part of the men of vigorously independent minds, a more sedulous effort on their part to impress their views upon the masses, and a disposition on the part of the ordinary well-meaning but often inattentive citizens to prefer the realities of good administration to outworn party cries.

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chapter 84

The Tyranny of the Majority

The expression “tyranny of the majority” is commonly used to denote any abuse by the majority of the powers which they enjoy, in free countries under and through the law, and in all countries outside the law. Such abuse will not be tyrannous in the sense of being illegal, as men called a usurper like Dionysius of Syracuse or Louis Napoleon in France a tyrant, for in free countries whatever the majority chooses to do in the prescribed constitutional way will be legal. It will be tyrannous in the sense of the lines

  • O it is excellent
  • To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
  • To use it like a giant.

That is to say, tyranny consists in the wanton and improper use of strength by the stronger, in the use of it to do things which one equal would not attempt against another. A majority is tyrannical when it decides without hearing the minority, when it suppresses fair and temperate criticism on its own acts, when it insists on restraining men in matters where restraint is not required by the common interest, when it forces men to contribute money to objects which they disapprove and which the common interest does not demand, when it subjects to social penalties persons who disagree from it in matters not vital to the common welfare. The element of tyranny lies in the wantonness of the act, a wantonness springing from the insolence which sense of overwhelming power breeds, or in the fact that it is a misuse for one purpose of authority granted for another. It consists not in the form of the act, which may be perfectly legal, but in the spirit and temper it reveals, and in the sense of injustice and oppression which it evokes in the minority.

Philosophers have long since perceived that the same tendencies to aEdition: current; Page: [987] wanton or unjust abuse of power which exist in a despot or a ruling oligarchy may be expected in a democracy from the ruling majority, because they are tendencies incidental to human nature.1 The danger was felt and feared by the sages of 1787, and a passage in the Federalist (No. 50) dwells on the safeguards which the great size of a federal republic, and the diverse elements of which it will be composed, offer against the tendency of a majority to oppress a minority.

Since Tocqueville dilated upon this as the capital fault of the American government and people, Europeans, already prepared to expect to find the tyranny of the majority a characteristic sin of democratic nations, have been accustomed to think of the United States as disgraced by it, and on the strength of this instance have predicted it as a necessary result of the growth of democracy in the Old World. It is therefore worth while to inquire what foundation exists for the reproach as addressed to the Americans of today.

We may look for signs of this tyranny in three quarters: firstly, in the legislation of Congress; second, in the constitutions and statutes of the states; third, in the action of public opinion and sentiment outside the sphere of law.

The federal Constitution, which has not only limited the competence of Congress but hedged it round with many positive prohibitions, has closed some of the avenues by which a majority might proceed to abuse its powers. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, opportunities for debate, are all amply secured. The power of taxation, and that of regulating commerce, might conceivably be used to oppress certain classes of persons, as, for instance, if a prohibitory duty were to be laid on certain articles which a minority desired and the majority condemned the use of. But nothing of the sort has been attempted. Whatever may be thought of the expediency of the present tariff, which, no doubt, favours one class, it cannot be said to oppress any class. In its political action, as, for instance, during the struggle over slavery, when for a while it refused to receive Abolitionist petitions, and even tried to prevent the transmission by mail of Abolitionist matter, and again during and after the war in some of its reconstruction measures, the majority, under the pressure of excitement, exercised its powers harshly and unwisely. But such political action is hardly the kind of action to which the charge we are examining applies.

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In the states, a majority of the citizens may act either directly in enacting (or amending) a constitution, or through their legislature by passing statutes. We might expect to find instances of abuse of power more in the former than in the latter class of cases, because though the legislature is habitually and the people of the state only intermittently active, the legislatures have now been surrounded by a host of constitutional limitations which a tyrannical majority would need some skill to evade. However, one discovers wonderfully little in the state constitutions now in force of which a minority can complain. These instruments contain a great deal of ordinary law and administrative law. If the tendency to abuse legislative power to the injury of any class were general, instances of it could not fail to appear. One does not find them. There are some provisions strictly regulating corporations, and especially railroads and banks, which may perhaps be unwise, and which in limiting the modes of using capital apply rather to the rich than to the masses. But such provisions cannot be called wanton or oppressive.

The same remark applies to the ordinary statutes of the states, so far as I have been able to ascertain their character. They can rarely be used to repress opinion or its expression, because the state constitutions contain ample guarantees for free speech, a free press, and the right of public meeting. For the same reason, they cannot encroach on the personal liberty of the citizen, nor on the full enjoyment of private property. In all such fundamentals the majority has prudently taken the possible abuse of its power out of the hands of the legislature.

When we come to minor matters, we are met by the difficulty of determining what is a legitimate exercise of legislative authority. Nowhere are men agreed as to the limits of state interference. Some few think that law ought not to restrict the sale of intoxicants at all; many more that it ought not to make the procuring of them, for purposes of pleasure, difficult or impossible. Others hold that the common welfare justifies prohibition. Some deem it unjust to tax a man, and especially an unmarried man, for the support of public schools, or at any rate of public schools other than elementary. To most Roman Catholics it seems unjust to refuse denominational schools a share of the funds raised by taxing, among other citizens, those who hold it a duty to send their children to schools in which their own faith is inculcated. Some think a law tyrannical which forbids a man to exclude others from ground which he keeps waste and barren, while others blame the law which permits a man to reserve, as they think, tyrannically, large tracts of country for his own personal enjoyment. So any form of state establishment or endowment of a particular creed or religiousEdition: current; Page: [989] body will by some be deemed an abuse, by others a wise and proper use of state authority. Remembering such differences of opinion, all I can say is that even those who take the narrower view of state functions will find little to censure in the legislation of American states. They may blame the restriction or prohibition of the sale of intoxicants. They may think that the so-called “moral legislation” for securing the purity of literature, and for protecting the young against various temptations, attempts too much. They may question the expediency of the legislation intended for the benefit of working men. But there are few of these provisions which can fairly be called wanton or tyrannical, which display a spirit that ignores or tramples on the feelings or rights of a minority. The least defensible statutes are perhaps those which California has aimed at the Chinese (who are not technically a minority since they are not citizens at all), and those by which some Southern states have endeavoured to accentuate the separation between whites and Negroes, forbidding them to be taught in the same schools or colleges or to travel in the same cars.

We come now to the third way in which a majority may tyrannize, i.e., by the imposition of purely social penalties, from mere disapproval up to insult, injury, and boycotting. The greatest of Athenian statesmen claimed for his countrymen that they set an example to the rest of Greece in that enlightened toleration which does not even visit with black looks those who hold unpopular opinions, or venture in any wise to differ from the prevailing sentiment. Such enlightenment is doubtless one of the latest fruits and crowns of a high civilization, and all the more to be admired when it is not the result of indifference, but coexists with energetic action in the field of politics or religion or social reform.

If social persecution exists in the America of today, it is only in a few dark corners. One may travel all over the North and West, mingling with all classes and reading the newspapers, without hearing of it. As respects religion, so long as one does not openly affront the feelings of one’s neighbours, one may say what one likes, and go or not go to church. Doubtless a man, and still more a woman, will be better thought of, especially in a country place or small town, for being a church member and Sunday school teacher. But no one is made to suffer in mind, body, or estate for simply holding aloof from a religious or any other voluntary association. He would be more likely to suffer in an English village. Even in the South, where a stricter standard of orthodoxy is maintained among the clergy of the Protestant bodies than in the North or West, a layman may think as he pleases. It is the same as regards social questions, and of courseEdition: current; Page: [990] as regards politics. To boycott a man for his politics, or even to discourage his shop in the way not uncommon in some parts of rural England and Ireland, would excite indignation in America; as the attempts of some labour organizations to boycott firms resisting strikes have aroused strong displeasure. If in the South a man took to cultivating the friendship of Negroes and organizing them in clubs, or if in the Far West a man made himself the champion of the Indians, he might find his life become unpleasant, though one hears little of recent instances of the kind. In any part of the country he who should use his rights of property in a hard or unneighbourly way, who, for instance, should refuse all access to a waterfall or a beautiful point of view, would be reprobated and sent to Coventry. I do not know of such cases; perhaps the fear of general disapproval prevents their arising.

In saying that there is no social persecution, I do not deny that in some places, as, for instance, in the smaller towns of the West, there may sometimes have been too little allowance for difference of tastes and pursuits, too much disposition to expect every family to conform to the same standard of propriety, and follow the same habits of life. A person acting, however innocently, without regard to the beliefs and prejudices of his neighbours might be talked about, and perhaps looked askance upon. Many a man used to the variety of London or Washington would feel the monotony of Western life, and the uniform application of its standards, irksome and even galling. But, so far as I could ascertain, he would have nothing specific to complain of. And these Western towns become every day more like the cities of the East. Taking the country all in all, it is hard to imagine more complete liberty than individuals or groups enjoy either to express and propagate their views, or to act as they please within the limits of the law, limits which, except as regards the sale of intoxicants, are drawn as widely as in Western Europe.

In the earlier half of last century it was very different. Congress was then as now debarred from oppressive legislation. But in some Northern states the legislatures were not slow to deal harshly with persons or societies who ran counter to the dominant sentiment. The persecution by the legislature of Connecticut, as well as by her own townsfolk, of Miss Prudence Crandall, a benevolent Quakeress who had opened a school for Negro children, is a well-remembered instance. A good many rigidly Puritanic statutes stood unrepealed in New England, though not always put in force against the transgressor. In the slave states laws of the utmost severity punished whosoever should by word or act assail the “peculiar institution.” Even more tyrannical than the laws was the sentiment of the masses. In BostonEdition: current; Page: [991] a mob, a well-dressed mob, largely composed of the richer sort of people, hunted Garrison for his life through the streets because he was printing an Abolitionist journal; a mob in Illinois shot Elijah Lovejoy for the same offence; and as late as 1844 another Illinois crowd killed Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, who, whatever may be thought of his honesty or his doctrines, was as much entitled to the protection of the laws as any other citizen. In the South, as everyone knows, there was a reign of terror as regards slavery. Anyone suspected of Abolitionism might think himself lucky if he escaped with tar and feathers, and was not shot or flogged almost to death. This extreme sensitiveness was of course confined to a few burning questions; but the habit of repressing by law or without law obnoxious opinions was likely to spread, and did spread, at least in the South, to other matters also. As regards thought and opinion generally over the Union, Tocqueville declares:

Je ne connais pas de pays où il règne, en général, moins d’indépendance d’esprit et de véritable liberté de discussion qu’en Amerique. La majorité trace un cercle formidable autour de la pensée. Au dedans de ces limites, l’écrivain est libre, mais malheur a lui s’il ose en sortir! Ce n’est pas qu’il ait à craindre un auto-da-fé, mais il est en butte à des dégoûts de tout genre et à des persécutions de tous les jours. La carrière politique lui est fermée: il a offensé la seule puissance qui ait la faculté de l’ouvrir. On lui refuse tout, jusqu’à la gloire.—Vol. ii, ch. 7.

He ascribes not only the want of great statesmen, but the low level of literature, learning, and thought, to this total absence of intellectual freedom.

It is hard for anyone who knows the Northern states now to believe that this can have been a just description of them so lately as 1832. One is tempted to think that Tocqueville’s somewhat pessimistic friends in New England, mortified by the poverty of intellectual production around them, may have exaggerated the repressive tendencies in which they found the cause of that poverty. We can now see that the explanation was erroneous. Freedom does not necessarily increase fertility. As they erred in their diagnosis, they may have erred in their observation of the symptoms.

Assuming, however, that the description was a just one, how are we to explain the change to the absolute freedom and tolerance of today, when every man may sit under his own vine and fig tree and say and do (provided he drink not the juice of that vine) what he pleases, none making him afraid?

One may suspect that Tocqueville, struck by the enormous power of general opinion, may have attributed too much of the submissiveness whichEdition: current; Page: [992] he observed to the active coercion of the majority, and too little to that tendency of the minority to acquiescence which will be discussed in the next succeeding chapter. Setting this aside, however, and assuming that the majority did in those days really tyrannize, several causes may be assigned for its having ceased to do so. One is the absence of violent passions. Slavery, the chief source of ferocity, was to the heated minds of the South a matter of life or death; Abolitionism seemed to many in the North a disloyal heresy, the necessary parent of disunion. Since the Civil War there has been no crisis calculated to tempt majorities to abuse their legal powers. Partisanship has for years past been more intense in Great Britain—not to say Ireland—and France than in America. When Tocqueville saw the United States, the democratic spirit was in the heyday of its youthful strength, flushed with self-confidence, intoxicated with the exuberance of its own freedom. The first generation of statesmen whose authority had restrained the masses, had just quitted the stage. The anarchic teachings of Jefferson had borne fruit. Administration and legislation, hitherto left to the educated classes, had been seized by the rude hands of men of low social position and scanty knowledge. A reign of brutality and violence had set in over large regions of the country. Neither literature nor the universities exercised as yet any sensible power. The masses were so persuaded of their immense superiority to all other peoples, past as well as present, that they would listen to nothing but flattery, and their intolerance spread from politics into every other sphere. Our European philosopher may therefore have been correct in his description of the facts as he saw them: he erred in supposing them essential to a democratic government. As the nation grew, it purged away these faults of youth and inexperience, and the stern discipline of the Civil War taught it sobriety, and in giving it something to be really proud of, cleared away the fumes of self-conceit.

The years which have passed since the war have been years of immensely extended and popularized culture and enlightenment. Bigotry in religion and in everything else has been broken down. The old landmarks have been removed: the habits and methods of free inquiry, if not generally practised, have at least become superficially familiar; the “latest results,” as people call them, of European thought have been brought to the knowledge of native Americans more fully than to the masses of Europe. At the same time, as all religious and socio-religious questions, except those which relate to education, are entirely disjoined from politics and the state, neither those who stand by the old views, nor those who embrace the new, carry that bitterness into their controversies which is natural in countries where religiousEdition: current; Page: [993] questions are also party questions, where the clergy are a privileged and salaried order, where the throne is held bound to defend the altar, and the workman is taught to believe that both are leagued against him. The influence of these causes will, it may be predicted, be permanent. Should passion again invade politics, or should the majority become convinced that its interests will be secured by overtaxing the few, one can imagine the tendency of fifty years ago reappearing in new forms. But in no imaginable future is there likely to be any attempt to repress either by law or by opinion the free exercise and expression of speculative thought on morals, on religion, and indeed on every matter not within the immediate range of current politics.

If the above account be correct, the tyranny of the majority is no longer a blemish on the American system, and the charges brought against democracy from the supposed example of America are groundless. As tyranny is one of those evils which tends to perpetuate itself, those who had been oppressed revenging themselves by becoming oppressors in their turn, the fact that a danger once dreaded has now disappeared is no small evidence of the recuperative forces of the American government, and the healthy tone of the American people.

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chapter 85

The Fatalism of the Multitude

One feature of thought and sentiment in the United States needs special examination because it has been by most observers either ignored or confounded with a phenomenon which is at bottom quite different. This is a fatalistic attitude of mind, which, since it disposes men to acquiesce in the rule of numbers, has been, when perceived, attributed to or identified with what is commonly called the tyranny of the majority. The tendency to fatalism is never far from mankind. It is one of the first solutions of the riddle of the earth propounded by metaphysics. It is one of the last propounded by science. It has at all times formed the background to religions. No race is naturally less disposed to a fatalistic view of things than is the Anglo-American, with its restless self-reliant energy,

  • Nil actum reputans dum quid restaret agendum,

its slender taste for introspection or meditation. Nevertheless even in this people the conditions of life and politics have bred a sentiment or tendency which seems best described by the name of fatalism.

In small and rude communities, every free man, or at least every head of a household, feels his own significance and realizes his own independence. He relies on himself, he is little interfered with by neighbours or rulers.1 His will and his action count for something in the conduct of the affairs of the community he belongs to, yet common affairs are few compared to those in which he must depend on his own exertions. The most striking pictures of individualism that literature has preserved for us are those of theEdition: current; Page: [995] Homeric heroes, and of the even more terrible and self-reliant warriors of the Norse sagas, men like Ragnar Lodbrog and Egil, son of Skallagrim, who did not regard even the gods, but trusted to their own might and main. In more developed states of society organized on an oligarchic basis, such as were the feudal kingdoms of the Middle Ages, or in socially aristocratic countries such as most parts of Europe have remained down to our own time, the bulk of the people are no doubt in a dependent condition, but each person derives a certain sense of personal consequence from the strength of his group and of the person or family at the head of it. Moreover, the upper class, being the class which thinks and writes, as well as leads in action, impresses its own type upon the character of the whole nation, and that type is still individualistic, with a strong consciousness of personal free will, and a tendency for each man, if not to think for himself, at least to value and to rely on his own opinion.

Let us suppose, however, that the aristocratic structure of society has been dissolved, that the old groups have disappeared, that men have come to feel themselves members rather of the nation than of classes, or families, or communities within the nation, that a levelling process has destroyed the ascendency of birth and rank, that large landed estates no longer exist, that many persons in what was previously the humbler class have acquired possession of property, that knowledge is easily accessible and the power of using it not longer confined to the few. Under such conditions of social equality the habit of intellectual command and individual self-confidence will have vanished from the leading class, which creates the type of national character, and will exist nowhere in the nation.

Let us suppose, further, that political equality has gone hand in hand with the levelling down of social eminence. Every citizen enjoys the same right of electing the representatives and officials, the same right of himself becoming a representative or an official. Everyone is equally concerned in the conduct of public affairs, and since no man’s opinion, however great his superiority in wealth, knowledge, or personal capacity, is legally entitled to any more weight than another’s, no man is entitled to set special value on his own opinion, or to expect others to defer to it; for pretensions to authority will be promptly resented. All disputes are referred to the determination of the majority, there being no legal distinction between the naturally strong and the naturally weak, between the rich and the poor, between the wise and the foolish. In such a state of things the strong man’s self-confidence and sense of individual force will inevitably have been lowered, because he will feel that he is only one of many, that his vote orEdition: current; Page: [996] voice counts for no more than that of his neighbour, that he can prevail, if at all, only by keeping himself on a level with his neighbour and recognizing the latter’s personality as being every whit equal to his own.

Suppose, further, that all this takes place in an enormously large and populous country, where the governing voters are counted by so many millions that each individual feels himself a mere drop in the ocean, the influence which he can exert privately, whether by his personal gifts or by his wealth, being confined to the small circle of his town or neighbourhood. On all sides there stretches round him an illimitable horizon; and beneath the blue vault which covers that horizon there is everywhere the same busy multitude with its clamour of mingled voices which he hears close by. In this multitude his own being seems lost. He has the sense of insignificance which overwhelms us when at night we survey the host of heaven and know that from even the nearest star this planet of ours is invisible.

In such a country, where complete political equality is strengthened and perfected by complete social equality, where the will of the majority is absolute, unquestioned, always invoked to decide every question, and where the numbers which decide are so vast that one comes to regard them as one regards the largely working forces of nature, we may expect to find certain feelings and beliefs dominant in the minds of men.

One of these is that the majority must prevail. All free government rests on this belief, for there is no other way of working free government. To obey the majority is, therefore, both a necessity and a duty, a duty because the alternative would be ruin and the breaking up of laws.

Out of this dogma there grows up another which is less distinctly admitted, and indeed held rather implicitly than consciously, that the majority is right. And out of both of these there grows again the feeling, still less consciously held, but not less truly operative, that it is vain to oppose or censure the majority.

It may seem that there is a long step from the first of these propositions to the second and third; and that, in fact, the very existence of a minority striving with a majority implies that there must be many who hold the majority to be wrong, and are prepared to resist it. Men do not at once abandon their views because they have been outvoted; they reiterate their views, they reorganize their party, they hope to prevail, and often do prevail in a subsequent trial of strength.

All this is doubtless involved in the very methods of popular government. But it is, nevertheless, true that the belief in the rights of the majority lies very near to the belief that the majority must be right. As self-governmentEdition: current; Page: [997] is based on the idea that each man is more likely to be right than to be wrong, and that one man’s opinion must be treated as equally good with another’s, there is a presumption that when twenty thousand vote one way and twenty-one thousand another, the view of the greater number is the better view. The habit of deference to a decision actually given strengthens this presumption, and weaves it into the texture of every mind. A conscientious citizen feels that he ought to obey the determination of the majority, and naturally prefers to think that which he obeys to be right. A citizen languidly interested in the question at issue finds it easier to comply with and adopt the view of the majority than to hold out against it. A small number of men with strong convictions or warm party feeling will, for a time, resist. But even they feel differently towards their cause after it has been defeated from what they did while it had still a prospect of success. They know that in the same proportion in which their supporters are dismayed, the majority is emboldened and confirmed in its views. It will be harder to fight a second battle than it was to fight the first, for there is (so to speak) a steeper slope of popular disapproval to be climbed. Thus, just as at the opening of a campaign, the event of the first collisions between the hostile armies has great significance, because the victory of one is taken as an omen and a presage by both, so in the struggles of parties success at an incidental election works powerfully to strengthen those who succeed, and depress those who fail, for it inspires self-confidence or self-distrust, and it turns the minds of waverers. The very obscurity of the causes which move opinion adds significance to the result. So in the United States, when the elections in any state precede by a few weeks a presidential contest, their effect has sometimes been so great as virtually to determine that contest by filling one side with hope and the other with despondency. Those who prefer to swim with the stream are numerous everywhere, and their votes have as much weight as the votes of the keenest partisans. A man of convictions may insist that the arguments on both sides are after the polling just what they were before. But the average man will repeat his arguments with less faith, less zeal, more of a secret fear that he may be wrong, than he did while the majority was still doubtful; and after every reassertion by the majority of its judgment, his knees grow feebler till at last they refuse to carry him into the combat.

The larger the scale on which the majority works, the more potent are these tendencies. When the scene of action is a small commonwealth, the individual voters are many of them personally known to one another, and the causes which determine their votes are understood and discounted. WhenEdition: current; Page: [998] it is a moderately sized country, the towns or districts which compose it are not too numerous for reckoning to overtake and imagination to picture them, and in many cases their action can be explained by well-known reasons which may be represented as transitory. But when the theatre stretches itself to a continent, when the number of voters is counted by many millions, the wings of imagination droop, and the huge voting mass ceases to be thought of as merely so many individual human beings no wiser or better than one’s own neighbours. The phenomenon seems to pass into the category of the phenomena of nature, governed by far-reaching and inexorable laws whose character science has only imperfectly ascertained, and which she can use only by obeying. It inspires a sort of awe, a sense of individual impotence, like that which man feels when he contemplates the majestic and eternal forces of the inanimate world. Such a feeling is even stronger when it operates, not on a cohesive minority which had lately hoped, or may yet hope, to become a majority, but on a single man or small group of persons cherishing some opinion which the mass disapproves. Thus out of the mingled feelings that the multitude will prevail, and that the multitude, because it will prevail, must be right, there grows a self-distrust, a despondency, a disposition to fall into line, to acquiesce in the dominant opinion, to submit thought as well as action to the encompassing power of numbers. Now and then a resolute man will, like Athanasius, stand alone against the world. But such a man must have, like Athanasius, some special spring of inward strength; and the difficulty of winning over others against the overwhelming weight of the multitude will, even in such a man, dull the edge of hope and enterprise. An individual seeking to make his view prevail, looks forth on his hostile fellow countrymen as a solitary swimmer, raised high on a billow miles from land, looks over the countless waves that divide him from the shore, and quails to think how small the chance that his strength can bear him thither.

This tendency to acquiescence and submission, this sense of the insignificance of individual effort, this belief that the affairs of men are swayed by large forces whose movement may be studied but cannot be turned, I have ventured to call the fatalism of the multitude. It is often confounded with the tyranny of the majority, but is at bottom different, though, of course, its existence makes abuses of power by the majority easier, because less apt to be resented. But the fatalistic attitude I have been seeking to describe does not imply any compulsion exerted by the majority. It may rather seem to soften and make less odious such an exercise of their power, may even dispense with that exercise, because it disposes a minority to submit withoutEdition: current; Page: [999] the need of a command, to renounce spontaneously its own view and fall in with the view which the majority has expressed. In the fatalism of the multitude there is neither legal nor moral compulsion; there is merely a loss of resisting power, a diminished sense of personal responsibility and of the duty to battle for one’s own opinions, such as has been bred in some peoples by the belief in an overmastering fate. It is true that the force to which the citizen of the vast democracy submits is a moral force, not that of an unapproachable Allah, nor of the unchangeable laws of matter. But it is a moral force acting on so vast a scale, and from causes often so obscure, that its effect on the mind of the individual may well be compared with that which religious or scientific fatalism engenders.

No one will suppose that the above sketch is intended to apply literally to the United States, where in some matters legal restrictions check a majority, where local self-government gives the humblest citizen a sphere for public action, where individualism is still in many forms and directions so vigorous. An American explorer, an American settler in new lands, an American man of business pushing a great enterprise, is a being as bold and resourceful as the world has ever seen. All I seek to convey is that there are in the United States signs of such a fatalistic temper, signs which one must expect to find wherever a vast population governs itself under a system of complete social and political equality, and which may grow more frequent as time goes on.

There exist in the American Republic several conditions which specially tend to create such a temper.

One of these is the unbounded freedom of discussion. Every view, every line of policy, has its fair chance before the people. No one can say that audience has been denied him, and comfort himself with the hope that, when he is heard, the world will come round to him. Under a repressive government, the sense of grievance and injustice feeds the flame of resistance in a persecuted minority. But in a country like this, where the freedom of the press, the right of public meeting, the right of association and agitation have been legally extended, and are daily exerted, more widely than anywhere else in the world, there is nothing to awaken that sense. He whom the multitude condemns or ignores has no further court of appeal to look to. Rome has spoken. His cause has been heard and judgment has gone against him.

Another is the intense faith which the Americans have in the soundness of their institutions, and in the future of their country. Foreign critics have said that they think themselves the special objects of the care of DivineEdition: current; Page: [1000] Providence. If this be so, it is matter neither for surprise nor for sarcasm. They are a religious people. They are trying, and that on the largest scale, the most remarkable experiment in government the world has yet witnessed. They have more than once been surrounded by perils which affrighted the stoutest hearts, and they have escaped from these perils into peace and prosperity. There is among pious persons a deep conviction—one may often hear it expressed on platforms and from pulpits with evident sincerity—that God has specially chosen the nation to work out a higher type of civilization than any other state has yet attained, and that this great work will surely be brought to a happy issue by the protecting hand that has so long guided it. And, even when the feeling does not take a theological expression, the belief in what is called the “mission of the Republic” for all humanity is scarcely less ardent. But the foundation of the Republic is confidence in the multitude, in its honesty and good sense, in the certainty of its arriving at right conclusions. Pessimism is the luxury of a handful; optimism is the private delight, as well as public profession, of nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every thousand, for nowhere does the individual associate himself more constantly and directly with the greatness of his country.

Now, such a faith in the people, and in the forces that sway them, disposes a man to acquiescence and submission. He cannot long hold that he is right and the multitude wrong. He cannot suppose that the country will ultimately suffer because it refuses to adopt what he urges upon it. As he comes of an energetic stock, he will use all proper means to state his views, and give them every chance of prevailing. But he submits more readily than an Englishman would do, ay, even to what an Englishman would think an injury to his private rights. When his legal right has been infringed, he will confidently proceed to enforce at law his claim to redress, knowing that even against the government a just cause will prevail. But if he fails at law, the sense of his individual insignificance will still his voice. It may seem a trivial illustration to observe that when a railway train is late, or a waggon drawn up opposite a warehouse door stops the streetcar for a few minutes, the passengers take the delay far more coolly and uncomplainingly than Englishmen would do. But the feeling is the same as that which makes good citizens bear with the tyranny of bosses. It is all in the course of nature. Others submit; why should one man resist? What is he that he should make a fuss because he loses a few minutes, or is taxed too highly? The sense of the immense multitude around him presses down the individual; and, after all, he reflects, “things will come out right” in the end.

It is hard adequately to convey the impression which the vastness of theEdition: current; Page: [1001] country and the swift growth of its population make upon the European traveller. I well remember how it once came on me after climbing a high mountain in an Eastern state. All around was thick forest; but the setting sun lit up peaks sixty or seventy miles away, and flashed here and there on the windings of some river past a town so far off as to seem only a spot of white. I opened my map, a large map, which I had to spread upon the rocks to examine, and tried to make out, as one would have done in England or Scotland, the points in the view. The map, however, was useless, because the whole area of the landscape beneath me covered only two or three square inches upon it. From such a height in Scotland the eye would have ranged from sea to sea. But here when one tried to reckon how many more equally wide stretches of landscape lay between this peak and the Mississippi, which is itself only a third of the way across the continent, the calculation seemed endless and was soon abandoned. Many an Englishman comes by middle life to know nearly all England like a glove. He has travelled on all the great railroads; there is hardly a large town in which he has not acquaintances, hardly a county whose scenery is not familiar to him. But no American can be familiar with more than a small part of his country, for his country is a continent. And all Americans live their life through under the sense of this prodigious and daily growing multitude around them, which seems vaster the more you travel, and the more you realize its uniformity.

We need not here inquire whether the fatalistic attitude I have sought to sketch is the source of more good or evil. It seems at any rate inevitable; nor does it fail to produce a sort of pleasure, for what the individual loses as an individual he seems in a measure to regain as one of the multitude. If the individual is not strong, he is at any rate as strong as anyone else. His will counts for as much as any other will. He is overborne by no superiority. Most men are fitter to make part of the multitude than to strive against it. Obedience is to most sweeter than independence; the Roman Catholic church inspires in its children a stronger affection than any form of Protestantism, for she takes their souls in charge, and assures them that, with obedience, all will be well.

That which we are presently concerned to note is how greatly such a tendency as I have described facilitates the action of opinion as a governing power, enabling it to prevail more swiftly and more completely than in countries where men have not yet learned to regard the voice of the multitude as the voice of fate. Many submit willingly; some unwillingly, yet they submit. Rarely does anyone hold out and venture to tell the great majority of his countrymen that they are wrong.

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Moreover, public opinion acquires a solidity which strengthens the whole body politic. Questions on which the masses have made up their minds pass out of the region of practical discussion. Controversy is confined to minor topics, and however vehemently it may rage over these, it disturbs the great underlying matters of agreement no more than a tempest stirs the depths of the Atlantic. Public order becomes more easily maintained, because individuals and small groups have learned to submit even when they feel themselves aggrieved. The man who murmurs against the world, who continues to preach a hopeless cause, incurs contempt, and is apt to be treated as a sort of lunatic. He who is too wise to murmur and too proud to go on preaching to unheeding ears, comes to think that if his doctrine is true, yet the time is not ripe for it. He may be in error; but if he is right, the world will ultimately see that he is right even without his effort. One way or another he finds it hard to believe that this vast mass and force of popular thought in which he lives and moves can be ultimately wrong. Securus judicat orbis terrarum.

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chapter 86

Wherein Public Opinion Fails

Without anticipating the criticism of democratic government to be given in a later chapter, we may wind up the examination of public opinion by considering what are its merits as a governing and overseeing power, and, on the other hand, what defects, due either to inherent weakness or to the want of appropriate machinery, prevent it from attaining the ideal which the Americans have set before themselves. I begin with the defects.

The obvious weakness of government by opinion is the difficulty of ascertaining it. English administrators in India lament the impossibility of learning the sentiments of the natives, because in the East the populations, the true masses, are dumb. The press is written by a handful of persons who, in becoming writers have ceased to belong to the multitude, and the multitude does not read. The difficulties of Western statesmen are due to an opposite cause. The populations are highly articulate. Such is the din of voices that it is hard to say which cry prevails, which is swelled by many, which only by a few, throats. The organs of opinion seem almost as numerous as the people themselves, and they are all engaged in representing their own view as that of the “people.” Like other valuable articles, genuine opinion is surrounded by many counterfeits. The one positive test applicable is that of an election, and an election can at best do no more than test the division of opinion between two or three great parties, leaving subsidiary issues uncertain, while in many cases the result depends so much on the personal merits of the candidates as to render interpretation difficult. An American statesman is in no danger of consciously running counter to public opinion, but how is he to discover whether any particular opinion is making or losing way, how is he to gauge the voting strength its advocates can put forth, or the moral authority which its advocates can exert? Elections cannot be further multiplied, for they are too numerous already. The referendum,Edition: current; Page: [1004] or plan of submitting a specific question to the popular vote, is the logical resource, but it is troublesome and costly to take the votes of millions of people over an area so large as that of one of the greater states; much more then is this method difficult to apply in federal matters. This is the first drawback to the rule of public opinion. The choice of persons for offices is only an indirect and often unsatisfactory way of declaring views of policy, and as the elections at which such choices are made come at fixed intervals, time is lost in waiting for the opportunity of delivering the popular judgment.

The framers of the American Constitution may not have perceived that in labouring to produce a balance, as well between the national and state governments as between the executive and Congress, in weakening each single authority in the Government by dividing powers and functions among each of them, they were throwing upon the nation at large, that is, upon unorganized public opinion, more work than it had ever discharged in England, or could duly discharge in a country so divided by distances and jealousies as the United States then were. Distances and jealousies have been lessened. But as the progress of democracy has increased the self-distrust and submission to the popular voice of legislators, so the defects incident to a system of restrictions and balances have been aggravated. Thus the difficulty inherent in government by public opinion makes itself seriously felt. It can express desires, but has not the machinery for turning them into practical schemes. It can determine ends, but is less fit to examine and select means. Yet it has weakened the organs by which the business of finding appropriate means ought to be discharged.

American legislatures are bodies with limited powers and sitting for short terms. Their members are less qualified for the work of constructive legislation, than are those of most European chambers. They are accustomed to consider themselves delegates from their respective states and districts, responsible to those districts, rather than councillors of the whole nation labouring for its general interests; and they have no executive leaders, seeing that no official sits either in Congress or in a state legislature. Hence if at any time the people desire measures which do not merely repeal a law or direct an appropriation, but establish some administrative scheme, or mark out some positive line of financial policy, or provide some body of rules for dealing with such a topic as bankruptcy, railroad or canal communications, the management of public lands, and so forth, the people cannot count on having their wishes put into tangible workable shape. When members of Congress or of a state legislature think the country desires legislation, they begin to prepare bills, but the want of leadership and of constructive skillEdition: current; Page: [1005] often prevents such bills from satisfying the needs of the case, and a timidity which fears to go beyond what opinion desires, may retard the accomplishment of the public wish; while, in the case of state legislatures, constructive skill is seldom present. Public opinion is slow and clumsy in grappling with large problems. It looks at them, talks incessantly about them, complains of Congress for not solving them, is distressed that they do not solve themselves. But they remain unsolved. Vital decisions have usually hung fire longer than they would have been likely to do in European countries. The war of 1812 seemed on the point of breaking out over and over again before it came at last. The absorption of Texas was a question of many years. The extension of slavery question came before the nation in 1819; after 1840 it was the chief source of trouble; year by year it grew more menacing; year by year the nation was seen more clearly to be drifting towards the breakers. Everybody felt that something must be done. But it was the function of no one authority in particular to discover a remedy, as it would have been the function of a cabinet in Europe. I do not say the sword might not in any case have been invoked, for the temperature of Southern feeling had been steadily rising to war point. But the history of 1840–60 leaves an impression of the dangers which may result from fettering the constitutional organs of government, and trusting to public sentiment to bring things right. Some other national questions, less dangerous, but serious, are now in the same condition. The currency question has been an incessant source of disquiet, and it is now many years since the campaign against trusts began. The question of reducing the surplus national revenue puzzled statesmen and the people at large longer than a similar question would be suffered to do in Europe, and when solved in 1890 by the passage of the dependent pension bill, was solved to the public injury in a purely demagogic or electioneering spirit. I doubt whether any European legislature would have so openly declined the duty of considering the interests of the country, and abandoned itself so undisguisedly to the pursuit of the votes of a particular section of the population. And the same thing holds, mutatis mutandis, of state governments. In them also there is no set of persons whose special duty it is to find remedies for admitted evils. The structure of the government provides the requisite machinery neither for forming nor for guiding a popular opinion, disposed of itself to recognize only broad and patent facts, and to be swayed only by such obvious reasons as it needs little reflection to follow. Admirable practical acuteness, admirable ingenuity in inventing and handling machinery, whether of iron and wood or of human beings, coexist, in the United States, with an aversion to the investigationEdition: current; Page: [1006] of general principles as well as to trains of systematic reasoning.1 The liability to be caught by fallacies, the inability to recognize facts which are not seen but must be inferentially found to exist, the incapacity to imagine a future which must result from the unchecked operation of present forces, these are indeed the defects of the ordinary citizen in all countries, and if they are conspicuous in America, it is only because the ordinary citizen, who is more intelligent there than elsewhere, is also more potent.

It may be replied to these observations, which are a criticism as well upon the American frame of government as upon public opinion, that the need for constructive legislation is small in America, because the habit of the country is to leave things to themselves. This is not really the fact. A great state has always problems of administration to deal with; these problems do not become less grave as time runs on, and the hand of government has for years past been more and more invoked in America for many purposes thought to be of common utility with which legislation did not formerly intermeddle.

There is more force in the remark that we must remember how much is gained as well as lost by the slow and hesitating action of public opinion in the United States. So tremendous a force would be dangerous if it moved rashly. Acting over and gathered from an enormous area, in which there exist many local differences, it needs time, often a long time, to become conscious of the preponderance of one set of tendencies over another. The elements both of local difference and of class difference must be (so to speak) well shaken up together, and each part brought into contact with the rest, before the mixed liquid can produce a precipitate in the form of a practical conclusion. And in this is seen the difference between the excellence as a governing power of opinion in the whole Union, and opinion within the limits of a particular state. The systems of constitutional machinery by which public sentiment acts are similar in the greater and in the smaller area; the constitutional maxims practically identical. But public opinion, which moves slowly, and, as a rule, temperately, in the field of national affairs, is sometimes hasty and reckless in state affairs. The population of a state may be of one colour, as that of the Northwestern states is preponderantly agricultural, or may contain few persons of education and political knowledge, or may fall under the influence of a demagogue or a clique, or may be possessed by some local passion. Thus its opinion mayEdition: current; Page: [1007] want breadth, sobriety, wisdom, and the result be seen in imprudent or unjust measures. The constitution of California of 1879, the legislation of Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin, which beginning with the Granger movement has from time to time annoyed and harassed the railroads without establishing a useful control over them, the tampering with their public debts by several states, are familiar instances of follies, to use no harder name, which local opinion approved, but which would have been impossible in the federal government, where the controlling opinion is that of a large and complex nation, and where the very deficiencies of one section or one class serve to correct qualities which may exist in excess in some other.

The sentiment of the nation at large, being comparatively remote, acts but slowly in restraining the vagaries or curing the faults of one particular state. The dwellers on the Pacific coast care very little for the criticism of the rest of the country on their anti-Hindu or anti-Japanese violence; Pennsylvania and Virginia disregarded the best opinions of the Union when they so dealt with their debts as to affect their credit; those parts of the South in which homicide goes unpunished, except by the relatives of the slain, are unmoved by the reproaches and jests of the more peaceable and well-regulated states. The fact shows how deep the division of the country into self-governing commonwealths goes, making men feel that they have a right to do what they will with their own, so long as the power remains to them, whatever may be the purely moral pressure from those who, though they can advise, have no title to interfere. And it shows also, in the teeth of the old doctrine that republicanism was fit for small communities, that evils peculiar to a particular district, which might be ruinous in that district if it stood alone, become less dangerous when it forms part of a vast country.

We may go on to ask how far American opinion succeeds in the simpler duty, which opinion must discharge in all countries, of supervising the conduct of business, and judging the current legislative work which Congress and other legislatures turn out.

Here again the question turns not so much on the excellence of public opinion as on the adequacy of the constitutional machinery provided for its action. That supervision and criticism may be effective, it must be easy to fix on particular persons the praise for work well done, the blame for work neglected or ill-performed. Experience shows that good men are the better for a sense of their responsibility and ordinary men useless without it. The free governments of Europe and the British colonies have gone on the principle of concentrating power in order to be able to fix responsibility. The American plan of dividing powers, eminent as are its other advantages,Edition: current; Page: [1008] makes it hard to fix responsibility. The executive can usually allege that it had not received from the legislature the authority necessary to enable it to grapple with a difficulty; while in the legislature there is no one person or group of persons on whom the blame due for that omission or refusal can be laid. Suppose some gross dereliction of duty to have occurred. The people are indignant. A victim is wanted, who, for the sake of the example to others, ought to be found and punished, either by law or by general censure. But perhaps he cannot be found, because out of several persons or bodies who have been concerned, it is hard to apportion the guilt and award the penalty. Where the sin lies at the door of Congress, it is not always possible to arraign either the Speaker or the dominant majority, or any particular party leader. Where a state legislature or a city council has misconducted itself, the difficulty is greater, because party ties are less strict in such a body, proceedings are less fully reported, and both parties are apt to be equally implicated in the abuses of private legislation. Not uncommonly there is presented the sight of an exasperated public going about like a roaring lion, seeking whom it may devour, and finding no one. The results in state affairs would be much worse were it not for the existence of the governor with his function of vetoing bills, because in many cases, knowing that he can be made answerable for the passage of a bad measure, he is forced up to the level of a virtue beyond that of the natural man in politics. This tendency to look to him has recently tended to increase his power; and the disposition to seek a remedy for municipal misgovernment in enlarging the functions of the mayor illustrates the same principle.

Although the failures of public opinion in overseeing the conduct of its servants are primarily due to the want of appropriate machinery, they are increased by its characteristic temper. Quick and strenuous in great matters, it is heedless in small matters, overkindly and indulgent in all matters. It suffers weeds to go on growing till they have struck deep root. It has so much to do in looking after both Congress and its state legislature, a host of executive officials, and perhaps a city council also, that it may impartially tolerate the misdoings of all till some important issue arises. Even when jobs are exposed by the press, each particular job seems below the attention of a busy people or the anger of a good-natured people, till the sum total of jobbery becomes a scandal. To catch and to hold the attention of the people is the chief difficulty as well as the first duty of an American reformer.

The long-suffering tolerance of public opinion towards incompetence and misconduct in officials and public men generally, is a feature which hasEdition: current; Page: [1009] struck recent European observers. It is the more remarkable because nowhere is executive ability more valued in the management of private concerns, in which the stress of competition forces every manager to secure at whatever price the most able subordinates. We may attribute it partly to the good nature of the people, which makes them overlenient to nearly all criminals, partly to the preoccupation with their private affairs of the most energetic and useful men, who therefore cannot spare time to unearth abuses and get rid of offenders, partly to an indifference induced by the fatalistic sentiment which I have already sought to describe. This fatalism acts in two ways. Being optimistic, it disposes each man to believe that things will come out right whether he “takes hold” himself or not, and that it is therefore no great matter whether a particular ring or boss is suppressed. And in making each individual man feel his insignificance, it disposes him to leave to the multitude the task of setting right what is everyone else’s business just as much as his own. An American does not smart under the same sense of personal wrong from the mismanagement of his public business, from the exaction of high city taxes and their malversation, as an Englishman would in the like case. If he suffers, he consoles himself by thinking that he suffers with others, as part of the general order of things, which he is no more called upon than his neighbours to correct.

It may be charged as a weak point in the rule of public opinion, that by fostering this habit it has chilled activity and dulled the sense of responsibility among the leaders in political life. It has made them less eager and strenuous in striking out ideas and plans of their own, less bold in propounding those plans, more sensitive to the reproach, even more feared in America than in England, of being a crotchet-monger or a doctrinaire. That new or unpopular ideas are more frequently started by isolated thinkers, economists, social reformers, than by statesmen, may be set down to the fact that practical statesmanship indisposes men to theorizing. But in America the practical statesman is apt to be timid in advocacy as well as infertile in suggestion. He seems to be always listening for the popular voice, always afraid to commit himself to a view which may turn out unpopular. It is a fair conjecture that this may be due to his being by his profession a far more habitual worshipper as well as observer of public opinion, than will be the case with men who are by profession thinkers and students, men who are less purely Americans of today, because under the influence of the literature of past times as well as of contemporary Europe. Philosophy, taking the word to include the historical study of the forces which work upon mankind at large, is needed by a statesman not only as a consolation for theEdition: current; Page: [1010] disappointments of his career, but as a corrective to the superstitions and tremors which the service of the multitude implants.

The enormous force of public opinion is a danger to the people themselves, as well as to their leaders. It no longer makes them tyrannical, but it fills them with an undue confidence in their wisdom, their virtue, and their freedom. It may be thought that a nation which uses freedom well can hardly have too much freedom; yet even such a nation may be too much inclined to think freedom an absolute and all-sufficient good, to seek truth only in the voice of the majority, to mistake prosperity for greatness. Such a nation, seeing nothing but its own triumphs, and hearing nothing but its own praises, seems to need a succession of men like the prophets of Israel to rouse the people out of their self-complacency, to refresh their moral ideals, to remind them that the life is more than meat, and the body more than raiment, and that to whom much is given of them shall much also be required. If America has no prophets of this order, she fortunately possesses two classes of men who maintain a wholesome irritation such as that which Socrates thought it his function to apply to the Athenian people. These are the instructed critics who exert a growing influence on opinion through the higher newspapers, and by literature generally, and the philanthropic reformers who tell more directly upon the multitude, particularly through the churches. Both classes combined may not as yet be doing all that is needed. But the significant point is that their influence represents not an ebbing but a flowing tide. If the evils they combat exist on a larger scale than in past times, they, too, are more active and more courageous in rousing and reprehending their fellow countrymen.

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chapter 87

Wherein Public Opinion Succeeds

In the examination of the actualities of politics as well as of forms of government, faults are more readily perceived than merits. Everybody is struck by the mistakes which a ruler makes, or by evils which a constitution fails to avert, while less praise than is due may be bestowed in respect of the temptations that have been resisted, or the prudence with which the framers of the government have avoided defects from which other countries suffer. Thus the general prosperity of the United States and the success of their people in all kinds of private enterprises, philanthropic as well as gainful, throws into relief the blemishes of their government, and makes it the more necessary to point out in what respects the power of public opinion overcomes those blemishes, and maintains a high level of good feeling and well-being in the nation.

The European observer of the working of American institutions is apt to sum up his conclusions in two contrasts. One is between the excellence of the Constitution and the vices of the party system that has laid hold of it, discovered its weak points, and brought in a swarm of evils. The Fathers, he says, created the Constitution good, but their successors have sought out many inventions.1 The other contrast is between the faults of the political class and the merits of the people at large. The men who work the machine are often selfish and unscrupulous. The people, for whose behoof it purports to be worked, and who suffer themselves to be “run” by the politicians, are honest, intelligent, fair-minded. No such contrast exists anywhere else in the world. Either the politicians are better than they are in America, or the people are worse.

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The causes of this contrast, which to many observers has seemed the capital fact of American politics, have been already explained. It brings out the truth, on which too much stress cannot be laid, that the strong point of the American system, the dominant fact of the situation, is the healthiness of public opinion, and the control which it exerts. As Abraham Lincoln said in his famous contest with Douglas, “With public sentiment on its side, everything succeeds; with public sentiment against it, nothing succeeds.”

The conscience and common sense of the nation as a whole keep down the evils which have crept into the working of the Constitution, and may in time extinguish them. Public opinion is a sort of atmosphere, fresh, keen, and full of sunlight, like that of the American cities, and this sunlight kills many of those noxious germs which are hatched where politicians congregate. That which, varying a once famous phrase, we may call the genius of universal publicity, has some disagreeable results, but the wholesome ones are greater and more numerous. Selfishness, injustice, cruelty, tricks, and jobs of all sorts shun the light; to expose them is to defeat them. No serious evils, no rankling sore in the body politic, can remain long concealed, and when disclosed, it is half destroyed. So long as the opinion of a nation is sound, the main lines of its policy cannot go far wrong, whatever waste of time and money may be incurred in carrying them out. It was observed in the last chapter that opinion is too vague and indeterminate a thing to be capable of considering and selecting the best means for the end on which it has determined. The counterpart of that remark is that the opinion of a whole nation, a united and tolerably homogeneous nation, is, when at last it does express itself, the most competent authority to determine the ends of national policy.2 In European countries, legislatures and cabinets sometimes take decisions which the nation, which had scarcely thought of the matter till the decision has been taken, is ultimately found to disapprove. In America, men feel that the nation is the only power entitled to say what it wants, and that, till it has manifested its wishes, nothing must be done to commit it. It may sometimes be long in speaking, but when it speaks, it speaks with a weight which the wisest governing class cannot claim.

The frame of the American government has assumed and trusted to theEdition: current; Page: [1013] activity of public opinion, not only as the power which must correct and remove the difficulties due to the restrictions imposed on each department, and to possible collisions between them, but as the influence which must supply the defects incidental to a system which works entirely by the machinery of popular elections. Under a system of elections one man’s vote is as good as another, the vicious and ignorant have as much weight as the wise and good. A system of elections might be imagined which would provide no security for due deliberation or full discussion, a system which, while democratic in name, recognizing no privilege, and referring everything to the vote of the majority, would in practice be hasty, violent, tyrannical. It is with such a possible democracy that one has to contrast the rule of public opinion as it exists in the United States. Opinion declares itself legally through elections. But opinion is at work at other times also, and has other methods of declaring itself. It secures full discussion of issues of policy and of the characters of men. It suffers nothing to be concealed. It listens patiently to all the arguments that are addressed to it. Eloquence, education, wisdom, the authority derived from experience and high character, tell upon it in the long run, and have, perhaps not always their due influence, but yet a great and growing influence. Thus a democracy governing itself through a constantly active public opinion, and not solely by its intermittent mechanism of elections, tends to become patient, tolerant, reasonable, and is more likely to be unembittered and unvexed by class divisions.

It is the existence of such a public opinion as this, the practice of freely and constantly reading, talking, and judging of public affairs with a view to voting thereon, rather than the mere possession of political rights, that gives to popular government that educative and stimulative power which is so frequently claimed as its highest merit. Those who, in the last generation, were forced to argue for democratic government against oligarchies or despots, were perhaps inclined, if not to exaggerate the value of extended suffrage and a powerful legislature, at least to pass too lightly over the concomitant conditions by whose help such institutions train men to use liberty well. History does not support the doctrine that the mere enjoyment of power fits large masses of men, any more than individuals or classes, for its exercise. Along with that enjoyment there must be found some one or more of various auspicious conditions, such as a direct and fairly equal interest in the common welfare, the presence of a class or group of persons respected and competent to guide, an absence of religious or race hatreds, a high level of education, or at least of intelligence, old habits of local self-government, the practice of unlimited free discussion. In America it is notEdition: current; Page: [1014] simply the habit of voting but the briskness and breeziness of the whole atmosphere of public life, and the process of obtaining information and discussing it, of hearing and judging each side, that form the citizen’s intelligence. True it is that he would not gain much from this process did it not lead up to the exercise of voting power: he would not learn so much on the road did not the polling booth stand at the end of it. But if it were his lot, as it is that of the masses in some European countries, to exercise his right of suffrage under few of these favouring conditions, the educational value of the vote would become comparatively small. It is the habit of breathing as well as helping to form public opinion that cultivates, develops, trains the average American. It gives him a sense of personal responsibility stronger, because more constant, than exists in those free countries of Europe where he commits his power to a legislature. Sensible that his eye ought to be always fixed on the conduct of affairs, he grows accustomed to read and judge, not indeed profoundly, sometimes erroneously, usually under party influences, but yet with a feeling that the judgment is his own. He has a sense of ownership in the government, and therewith a kind of independence of manner as well as of mind very different from the demissness of the humbler classes of the Old World. And the consciousness of responsibility which goes along with this laudable pride, brings forth the peaceable fruits of moderation. As the Greeks thought that the old families ruled their households more gently than upstarts did, so citizens who have been born to power, born into an atmosphere of legal right and constitutional authority, are sobered by their privileges. Despite their natural quickness and eagerness, the native Americans are politically patient. They are disposed to try soft means first, to expect others to bow to that force of opinion which they themselves recognize. Opposition does not incense them; danger does not, by making them lose their heads, hurry them into precipitate courses. In no country does a beaten minority take a defeat so well. Admitting that the blood of the race counts for something in producing that peculiar coolness and self-control in the midst of an external effervescence of enthusiasm, which is the most distinctive feature of the American masses, the habit of ruling by public opinion and obeying it counts for even more. It was far otherwise in the South before the war, but the South was not a democracy, and its public opinion was that of a passionate class.

The best evidence for this view is to be found in the educative influence of opinion on newcomers. Anyone can see how severe a strain is put on democratic institutions by the influx every year of nearly a million of untrained Europeans. Being in most states admitted to full civic rights beforeEdition: current; Page: [1015] they have come to shake off European notions and habits, these strangers enjoy political power before they either share or are amenable to American opinion.3 They follow blindly leaders of their own race, are not moved by discussion, exercise no judgment of their own. This lasts for some years, probably for the rest of life with those who are middle-aged when they arrive. It lasts also with those who, belonging to the more backward races, remain herded together in large masses, and makes them a dangerous element in manufacturing and mining districts. But the younger sort, when, if they be foreigners, they have learnt English, and when, dispersed among Americans so as to be able to learn from them, they have imbibed the sentiments and assimilated the ideas of the country, are thenceforth scarcely to be distinguished from the native population. They are more American than the Americans in their desire to put on the character of their new country. This peculiar gift which the Republic possesses of quickly dissolving and assimilating the foreign bodies that are poured into her, imparting to them her own qualities of orderliness, good sense, and a willingness to bow to the will of the majority, is mainly due to the all-pervading force of opinion, which the newcomer, so soon as he has formed social and business relations with the natives, breathes in daily till it insensibly transmutes him. Their faith, and a sentiment of resentment against England, long kept among the Irish a body of separate opinion, which for a time resisted the solvent power of its American environment. But the public schools finished the work of the factory and the newspapers. The Irish immigrant’s son is now an American citizen for all purposes.

It is chiefly the faith in publicity that gives to the American public their peculiar buoyancy, and what one may call their airy hopefulness in discussing even the weak points of their system. They are always telling you that they have no skeleton closets, nothing to keep back. They know, and are content that all the world should know, the worst as well as the best of themselves. They have a boundless faith in free inquiry and full discussion. They admit the possibility of any number of temporary errors and delusions. But to suppose that a vast nation should, after hearing everything, canvassing everything, and trying all the preliminary experiments it has a mind to, ultimately go wrong by mistaking its own true interests, seems to them a sort of blasphemy against the human intelligence and its Creator.

They claim for opinion that its immense power enables them to get on with but little government. Some evils which the law and its officers are inEdition: current; Page: [1016] other countries required to deal with are here averted or cured by the mere force of opinion, which shrivels them up when its rays fall on them. As it is not the product of any one class, and is unwilling to recognize classes at all, for it would stand self-condemned as un-American if it did, it discourages anything in the nature of class legislation. Where a particular section of the people, such, for instance, as the Western farmers or the Eastern operatives, think themselves aggrieved, they clamour for the measures thought likely to help them. The farmers legislated against the railroads, the labour party asks an eight-hour law. But whereas on the European continent such a class would think and act as a class, hostile to other classes, and might resolve to pursue its own objects at whatever risk to the nation, in America national opinion, which everyone recognizes as the arbiter, mitigates these feelings, and puts the advocates of the legislation which any class demands upon showing that their schemes are compatible with the paramount interest of the whole community. To say that there is no legislation in America which, like the class legislation of Europe, has thrown undue burdens on the poor, while jealously guarding the pleasures and pockets of the rich, is to say little, because where the poorer citizens have long been a numerical majority, invested with political power, they will evidently take care of themselves. But the opposite danger might have been feared, that the poor would have turned the tables on the rich, thrown the whole burden of taxation upon them, and disregarded in the supposed interest of the masses what are called the rights of property. Not only has this not been attempted—it has been scarcely even suggested (except, of course, by professed Collectivists as part of a reconstruction of society), and it excites no serious apprehension. Thee is nothing in the machinery of government that could do more than delay it for a time, did the masses desire it. What prevents it is the honesty and common sense of the citizens generally, who are convinced that the interests of all classes are substantially the same, and that justice is the highest of those interests. Equality, open competition, a fair field to everybody, every stimulus to industry, and every security for its fruits, these they hold to be the self-evident principles of national prosperity.

If public opinion is heedless in small things, it usually checks measures which, even if not oppressive, are palpably selfish or unwise. If before a mischievous bill passes, its opponents can get the attention of the people fixed upon it, its chances are slight. All sorts of corrupt or pernicious schemes which are hatched at Washington or in the state legislatures are abandoned because it is felt that the people will not stand them, although they could be easily pushed through those not too scrupulous assemblies.Edition: current; Page: [1017] There have been instances of proposals which took people at first by their plausibility, but which the criticism of opinion riddled with its unceasing fire till at last they were quietly dropped. It was in this way that President Grant’s attempt to annex San Domingo failed. He had made a treaty for the purpose, which fell through for want of the requisite two-thirds majority in the Senate, but he persisted in the scheme until at last the disapproval of the general public, which had grown stronger by degrees and found expression through the leading newspapers, warned him to desist. After the war, there was at first in many quarters a desire to punish the Southern leaders for what they had made the North suffer. But by degrees the feeling died away, the sober sense of the whole North restraining the passions of those who had counselled vengeance; and, as everyone knows, there was never a civil war or rebellion, whichever one is to call it, followed by so few severities.

Public opinion often fails to secure the appointment of the best men to places, but where undivided responsibility can be fixed on the appointing authority, it prevents, as those who are behind the scenes know, countless bad appointments for which politicians intrigue. Considering the power of party managers over the federal executive, and the low sense of honour and public duty as regards patronage among politicians, the leading posts are filled, if not by the most capable men, yet seldom by bad ones. The judges of the Supreme Court, for instance, are, and have always been, men of high professional standing and stainless character. The same may be, though less generally, said of the upper federal officials in the North and West. That no similar praise can be bestowed on the exercise of federal patronage in the Southern states since the war, is an illustration of the view I am stating. As the public opinion of the South (that is to say, of the whites who make opinion there) was steadily hostile to the Republican party, which commanded the executive during the twenty years from 1865 to 1885, the Republican party managers were indifferent to it, because they had nothing to gain or to lose from it. Hence they made appointments without regard to it. Northern opinion knows comparatively little of the details of Southern politics and the character of officials who act there, so that they might hope to escape the censure of their supporters in the North. Hence they jobbed their patronage in the South with unblushing cynicism, using federal posts there as a means not merely of rewarding party services, but also of providing local white leaders and organizers to the coloured Southern Republicans. Their different behaviour there and in the North therefore showed that it was not public virtue, but the fear of public opinion, that was making theirEdition: current; Page: [1018] Northern appointments on the whole respectable, while those in the South were at that time so much the reverse. The same phenomenon has been noticed in Great Britain. Jobs are frequent and scandalous in the inverse ratio of the notice they are likely to attract.4

In questions of foreign policy, opinion is a valuable reserve force. When demonstrations are made by party leaders intended to capture the vote of some particular section, the native Americans only smile. But they watch keenly the language held and acts done by the State Department (Foreign Office), and, while determined to support the president in vindicating the rights of American citizens, would be found ready to check any demand or act going beyond their legal rights which could tend to embroil them with a foreign power. There is still a touch of spread-eagleism and an occasional want of courtesy and taste among public speakers and journalists when they refer to other countries; and there is a determination in all classes to keep European interference at a distance. But among the ordinary native citizens one finds (I think) less obtrusive selfishness, less chauvinism, less cynicism in declaring one’s own national interests to be paramount to those of other states, than in any of the great states of Europe. Justice and equity are more generally recognized as binding upon nations no less than on individuals. Whenever humanity comes into question, the heart of the people is sound. The treatment of the Indians reflects little credit on the Western settlers who have come in contact with them, and almost as little on the federal government, whose efforts to protect them have been often foiled by the faults of its own agents, or by its own want of promptitude and foresight. But the wish of the people at large has always been to deal generously with the aborigines, nor have appeals on their behalf, such as those made by the late Mrs. Helen Jackson, ever failed to command the sympathy and assent of the country.

Throughout these chapters I have been speaking chiefly of the Northern states and chiefly of recent years, for America is a country which changes fast. But the conduct of the Southern people, since their defeat in 1865, illustrates the tendency of underlying national traits to reassert themselves when disturbing conditions have passed away. Before the war the publicEdition: current; Page: [1019] opinion of the slave states, and especially of the planting states, was practically the opinion of a class—the small and comparatively rich landowning aristocracy. The struggle for the defence of their institution had made this opinion fierce and intolerant. To a hatred of the Abolitionists, whom it thought actuated by the wish to rob and humiliate the South, it joined a misplaced contempt for what it deemed the moneygrubbing and peace-at-any-price spirit of the Northern people generally. So long as the subjugated states were ruled by arms, and the former “rebels” excluded by disfranchisement from the government of their states, this bitterness remained. When the restoration of self-government, following upon the liberation of the Confederate prisoners and the amnesty, had shown the magnanimity of the North, its clemency, its wish to forget and forgive, its assumption that both sides would shake hands and do their best for their common country, the hearts of the Southern men were conquered. Opinion went round. Frankly, one might almost say cheerfully, it recognized the inevitable. It stopped those outrages on the Negroes which the law had been unable to repress. It began to regain “touch” of, it has now almost fused itself with, the opinion of the North and West. No one Southern leader or group can be credited with this; it was the general sentiment of the people that brought it about. Still less do the Northern politicians deserve the praise of the peacemakers, for many among them tried for political purposes to fan or to rekindle the flame of suspicion in the North. It was the opinion of the North generally, more liberal than its guides, wich dictated not merely forgiveness, but the restoration of equal civic rights. Nor is this the only case in which the people have proved themselves to have a higher and a truer inspiration than the politicians.

It has been observed that the all-subduing power of the popular voice may tell against the appearance of great statesmen by dwarfing aspiring individualities, by teaching men to discover and obey the tendencies of their age rather than rise above them and direct them. If this happens in America, it is not because the American people fail to appreciate and follow and exalt such eminent men as fortune bestows upon it. It has a great capacity for loyalty, even for hero worship. “Our people,” said an experienced American publicist to me, “are in reality hungering for great men, and the warmth with which even pinchbeck geniuses, men who have anything showy or taking about them, anything that is deemed to betoken a strong individuality, are followed and glorified in spite of intellectual emptiness, and perhaps even moral shortcomings, is the best proof of the fact.” Henry Clay was the darling of his party for many years, as Jefferson, with less of personalEdition: current; Page: [1020] fascination, had been in the preceding generation. Daniel Webster retained the devotion of New England long after it had become clear that his splendid intellect was mated to a far from noble character. A kind of dictatorship was yielded to Abraham Lincoln, whose memory is cherished almost like that of Washington himself. Whenever a man appears with something taking or forcible about him, he becomes the object of so much popular interest and admiration that those cooler heads who perceive his faults, and perhaps dread his laxity of principle, reproach the proneness of their less discerning countrymen to make an idol out of wood or clay. The career of Andrew Jackson is a case in point, though it may be hoped that the intelligence of the people would estimate such a character more truly today than it did in his own day. I doubt if there be any country where a really brilliant man, confident in his own strength, and adding the charm of a striking personality to the gift of popular eloquence, would find an easier path to fame and power, and would exert more influence over the minds and emotions of the multitude. Such a man, speaking to the people with the independence of conscious strength, would find himself appreciated and respected.

Controversy is still bitter, more profuse in personal imputations than one expects to find it where there are no grave issues to excuse excitement. But in this respect also there is an improvement. Partisans are reckless, but the mass of the people lends itself less to acrid partisanship than it did in the times just before the Civil War, or in those first days of the Republic which were so long looked back to as a sort of heroic age. Public opinion grows more temperate, more mellow, and assuredly more tolerant. Its very strength disposes it to bear with opposition or remonstrance. It respects itself too much to wish to silence any voice.

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Part V: Illustrations & Reflections

[This Part contains some illustrations, drawn from recent American history, of the working of political institutions and public opinion, together with observations on several political questions for which no suitable place could be found in the preceding Parts.]

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chapter 88

The Tammany Ring in New York City

Although I have described in previous chapters the causes which have induced the perversion and corruption of democratic government in great American cities, it seems desirable to illustrate more fully, from passages in the history of two such cities, the conditions under which those causes work and the forms which that perversion takes. The phenomena of municipal democracy in the United States are the most remarkable and least laudable which the modern world has witnessed; and they present some evils which no political philosopher, however unfriendly to popular government, appears to have foreseen, evils which have scarcely showed themselves in the cities of Europe, and unlike those which were thought characteristic of the rule of the masses in ancient times. I take New York and Philadelphia as examples because they are older than Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, larger than Boston and Baltimore. And I begin with New York, because she displayed on the grandest scale phenomena common to American cities, and because the plunder and misgovernment from which she has suffered have become specially notorious over the world.

From the end of the eighteenth century the state and (somewhat later) the city of New York were, more perhaps than any other state or city, the seat of intrigues and the battleground of factions. Party organizations early became powerful in them, and it was by a New York leader—Marcy, the friend of President Jackson—that the famous doctrine of “the Spoils to the Victors” was first formulated as already the practice of New York politicians. These factions were for a long time led, and these intrigues worked, by men belonging to the upper or middle class, to whom the emoluments of office were desirable but not essential. In the middle of the century, however, there came a change. The old native population of the city was more and more swollen by the immigration of foreigners: first of the Irish, especiallyEdition: current; Page: [1024] from 1846 onwards; then also of the Germans from 1849 onwards; finally of Polish and Russian Jews, as well as of Italians and of Slavs from about 1883 onwards. Already in 1870 the foreign population, including not only the foreign both but a large part of their children who, though born in America, were still virtually Europeans, constituted a half or perhaps even a majority of the inhabitants; and the proportion of foreigners has since then grown still larger.1 These newcomers were as a rule poor and ignorant. They knew little of the institutions of the country, and had not acquired any patriotic interest in it. But they received votes. Their numbers soon made them a power in city and state politics, and all the more so because they were cohesive, influenced by leaders of their own race, and not, like the native voters, either disposed to exercise, or capable of exercising, an independent judgment upon current issues. From among them there soon emerged men whose want of book-learning was overcome by their natural force and shrewdness, and who became apt pupils in those arts of party management which the native professional politicians had already brought to perfection.

While these causes were transferring power to the rougher and more ignorant element in the population, the swift developments of trade which followed the making of the Erie Canal and opening up of railway routes to the West, with the consequent expansion of New York as a commercial and financial centre, had more and more distracted the thoughts of the wealthier people from local politics, which required more time than busy men could give, and seemed tame compared with that struggle over slavery, whereon, from 1850 to 1865, all patriotic minds were bent. The leading men, who fifty years earlier would have watched municipal affairs and perhaps borne a part in them, were now so much occupied with their commercial enterprises or their legal practice as to neglect their local civic duties, and saw with unconcern the chief municipal offices appropriated by persons belonging to the lower strata of society.

Even had these men of social position and culture desired to retain a hold in city politics, the task would not have been easy, for the rapid growth of New York, which from a population of 108,000 in 1820 had risen toEdition: current; Page: [1025] 209,000 in 1830, to 813,000 in 1860, and to 942,000 in 1870, brought in swarms of strangers who knew nothing of the old residents, and it was only by laboriously organizing these newcomers that they could be secured as adherents. However laborious the work might be, it was sure to be done, because the keenness of party strife made every vote precious. But it was work not attractive to men of education, nor suited to them. It fell naturally to those who themselves belonged to the lower strata, and it became the source of the power they acquired.

Among the political organizations of New York the oldest and most powerful was the Tammany Society. It is as old as the federal government, having been estabished under the name of the Columbian Society in 1789, just a fortnight after Washington’s inauguration, by an Irish American called William Mooney, and its purposes were at first social and charitable rather than political. In 1805 it entitled itself the Tammany Society, adopting, as is said, the name of an Indian chief called Tammanend or Tammany, and clothing itself with a sort of mock Indian character. There were thirteen tribes, with twelve “sachems” under a grand sachem, a “sagamore” or master of ceremonies, and a “wiskinski” or doorkeeper. By degrees, and as the story goes, under the malignant influence of Aaron Burr, it took a strongly political tinge as its numbers increased. Already in 1812 it was a force in the city, having become a rallying centre for what was then called the Republican and afterwards the Democratic party; but the element of moral aspiration does not seem to have become extinct, for in 1817 it issued an address deploring the spread of the foreign game of billiards among young men of the upper classes. At one time, too, it possessed a sort of natural history museum, which was ultimately purchased by the well-known showman, P. T. Barnum. Till 1822 it had been governed by a general meeting of its members, but with its increased size there came a representative system; and though the Society proper continued to be governed and its property held by the “sachems,” the control of the political organization became vested in a general committee consisting of delegates elected at primary meetings throughout the city, which that organization was now beginning to overspread. This committee, originally of thirty-three members, numbered seventy-five in 1836, by which time Tammany Hall had won its way to a predominant influence on city politics. Of the present organization I shall speak later.

The first sachems had been men of some social standing, and almost entirely native Americans. The general democratization, which was unfortunately accompanied by a vulgarization, of politics that marked the time of AndrewEdition: current; Page: [1026] Jackson, lowered by degrees the character of city politicians, turning them into mere professionals whose object was lucre rather than distinction or even power. This process told on the character of Tammany, making it more and more a machine in the hands of schemers, and thus a dangerous force, even while its rank and file consisted largely of persons of some means, who were interested as direct taxpayers in the honest administration of municipal affairs. After 1850, however, the influx from Europe transformed its membership while adding to its strength. The Irish immigrants were, both as Roman Catholics and in respect of such political sympathies as they brought with them, disposed to enter the Democratic party. Tammany laid hold of them, enrolled them as members of its district organizations, and rewarded their zeal by admitting a constantly increasing number to posts of importance as district leaders, committeemen, and holders of city offices. When the Germans arrived, similar efforts were made to capture them, though with a less complete success. Thus from 1850 onwards Tammany came more and more to lean upon and find its chief strength in the foreign vote. Of the foreigners who have led it, most have been Irish. Yet it would be wrong to represent it, as some of its censors have done, as being predominantly Irish in its composition. There have always been and are now a vast number of native Americans among the rank and file, as well as a few conspicuous among its chiefs. It contains many Germans, possibly one-half of the German voters who can be reckoned as belonging to any party. And today the large majority of the Russian and Polish Jews (very numerous in some parts of the city), of the Czechs and other Austro-Hungarian Slavs, and possibly also of the Italians, obey its behests, even if not regularly enrolled as members. For the majority of these immigrants are Democrats, and Tammany has been and is the standard bearer of the Democratic party in the city. It has had rivals and enemies in that party. Two rival machines (now long since extinct)—Mozart Hall, formerly led by Mr. Fernando Wood, and the “County Democracy,” guided for some years by the late Mr. Hubert O. Thompson—at different times confronted, and sometimes even defeated it; while at other times “making a deal” with it for a share in municipal spoils. Once, as we shall presently see, it incurred the wrath of the best Democrats of the city. Still it has on the whole stood for and been at most times practically identified with the Democratic party, posing on the Fourth of July as the traditional representative of Jeffersonian principles; and it has in that capacity grown from the status of a mere private club to be an organization commanding a number of votes which used to be sufficient not only to give it the mastery of the city but even to turn theEdition: current; Page: [1027] balance in the great State of New York, and thereby, perhaps, to determine the result of a presidential election.

I must, however, return to those early days when Tammany was young and comparatively innocent, days when the machine system and the Spoils System were still but half developed, and when Chancellor Kent could write (in 1835), that “the office of assistant alderman could be pleasant and desirable to persons of leisure, of intelligence, and of disinterested zeal for the wise and just regulation of the public concerns of the city”! In 1834 the mayoralty was placed in the direct gift of the people. In 1842 all restrictions on the suffrage in the city were removed, just before the opening of an era when they would have been serviceable. In 1846 the new constitution of the state transferred the election of all judges to the people. In 1857 the state legislature, which had during the preceding twenty years been frequently modifying the municipal arrangements, enacted a new charter for the city. The practice of New York state had been to pass special laws regulating the frame of government for each of its cities, instead of having one uniform system for all municipalities. It was an unfortunate plan, for it went far to deprive New York of self-government by putting her at the mercy of the legislature at Albany, which, already corrupt, has been apt to be still further corrupted by the party leaders of the city, who could usually obtain from it such statutes as they desired. As I am not writing a municipal history of New York, but merely describing the action in that history of a particular party club, no more need be said of the charter and statutes of 1857 than that they greatly limited the powers of the Common Council. The chief administrative functions were vested in the mayor and the heads of various departments, while the power of raising and appropriating revenues was divided between a body called the Board of Supervisors and the legislature. Of the heads of the departments, some were directly chosen by the people, others appointed by the mayor, who himself held office for two years. To secure for their adherents some share in the offices of a city with a large Democratic majority, the legislature, then controlled by the Republicans, created a number of new boards for city administration, most of these members were to be appointed by the governor of the state. The police of the city in particular, whose condition had been unsatisfactory, were now placed under such a board, wholly independent of the municipal authorities, a change which excited strong local opposition and led to a sanguinary conflict between the old and the new police.

This was the frame of municipal government when the hero who was to make Tammany famous appeared upon the scene. The time was ripe, forEdition: current; Page: [1028] the lowest class of voters, foreign and native, had now been thoroughly organized and knew themselves able to control the city. Their power had been shown in the success of a demagogue, the first of the city demagogues, named Fernando Wood, who by organizing them had reached the mayoral chair from beginnings so small that he was currently reported to have entered New York as the leg of an artificial elephant in a travelling show. This voting mob were ready to follow Tammany Hall. It had become the Acropolis of the city; and he who could capture it might rule as tyrant.2

William Marcy Tweed was born in New York in 1823, of a Scotch father and an American mother. His earliest occupation was that of a chairmaker—his father’s trade; but he failed in business, and first became conspicuous by his energy in one of the volunteer fire companies of the city, whereof he was presently chosen foreman. These companies had a good deal of the club element in them, and gave their members many opportunities for making friends and becoming known in the district they served. Tweed had an abounding vitality, free and easy manners, plenty of humour, though of a coarse kind, and a jovial, swaggering way which won popularity for him among the lower and rougher sort of people. His size and corpulency made it all the easier for him to support the part of the genial good fellow; and it must be said to his credit, that though he made friends lightly, he was always loyal to his friends. Neither shame nor scruples restrained his audacity. Forty years earlier these qualities would no more have fitted him to be a popular leader than Falstaff’s qualities would have fitted him to be the chancellor of King Henry V; and had anyone predicted to the upper classes of New York that the boisterous fireman of 1845, without industry, eloquence, or education, would in 1870 be ruler of the greatest city in the western world, they would have laughed him to scorn. In 1850, however, Tweed was elected alderman, and soon became noted in the Common Council, a body already so corrupt (though the tide of immigration had only just begun to swell) that they were commonly described as the forty thieves. He came out of it a rich man, and was presently sent to Washington as member for a district of the city. In the wider arena of Congress, however, he cut but a poor figure. He seems to have spoken only once, and then without success. In 1857 he began to repair his fortunes, shattered at the national capital, by obtaining the post of public school commissioner in New York, and soon afterwards he was elected to the Board of Supervisors,Edition: current; Page: [1029] of which he was four times chosen president. There his opportunities for jobbery and for acquiring influence were much enlarged. “Heretofore his influence and reputation had both been local, and outside of his district he had hardly been known at all. Now his sphere of action embraced the whole city, and his large figure began to loom up in portentous magnitude through the foul miasma of municipal politics.”3

Tweed was by this time a member of Tammany Hall, and in 1863 he was elected permanent chairman of the general committee. Not long after he and his friends captured the inner stronghold of the Tammany Society, a more exclusive and hitherto socially higher body; and he became grand sachem, with full command both of the Society, with its property and traditional influence, and of the political organization. This triumph was largely due to the efforts of another politician, whose fortunes were henceforward to be closely linked with Tweed’s, Mr. Peter B. Sweeny, a lawyer of humble origin but with some cultivation and considerable talent. The two men were singularly unlike, and each fitted to supply the other’s defects. Sweeny was crafty and taciturn, unsocial in nature and saturnine in aspect, with nothing to attract the crowd, but skilful in negotiation and sagacious in his political forecasts. He was little seen, preferring to hatch his schemes in seclusion; but his hand was soon felt in the arrangement by which the hostility of Mozart Hall, the rival Democratic organization, was removed, its leader Fernando Wood, obtaining a seat in Congress, while Tammany was thus left in sole sway of the Democratic vote of the city. The accession of Mozart Hall brought in another recruit to the Tammany group, Mr. A. Oakey Hall. This person was American by origin, better born and educated than his two associates. He was a lawyer by profession, and had occasionally acted as a lobbyist at Albany, working among the Republican members, for he then professed Republican principles—as Mr. Sweeny had worked occasionally among the Democrats. He had neither the popular arts, such as they were, of Tweed nor the stealthy astuteness of Sweeny, and as he never seemed to take himself seriously, he was not taken seriously by others. But he was quick and adroit, he had acquired some influence among the Mozart Hall faction; and his position as member of a well-known legal firm seemed to give a faint tinge of respectability to a group which stood sadly in need of that quality. He had been elected district attorney (public prosecutor) in 1862, by a combination of Mozart Hall with the Republicans (having been previously assistant district attorney), and hadEdition: current; Page: [1030] thus become known to the public. A fourth member was presently added in the person of Richard B. Connolly, who had become influential in the councils of Tammany. This man had been an auctioneer, and had by degrees risen from the secretaryship of a ward committee to be, in 1851, elected county clerk (although not then yet naturalized as a citizen), and in 1859 state senator. His friends, who had seen reason to distrust his exactness as a counter of votes, called him Slippery Dick. His smooth manner and insinuating ways inspired little confidence, nor do his talents seem to have gone beyond a considerable skill in figures, a skill which he was soon to put to startling uses. Another man of importance, who was drawn over from the Mozart Hall faction, was Albert Cardozo, a Portuguese Jew, only twenty-six years of age, but with legal talents only less remarkable than the flagrant unscrupulousness with which he prostituted them to party purposes. He was now, through Tammany influence, rewarded for this adhesion by being elected to one of the chief judgeships of the city; and two other equally dishonest minions of the Tweed group were given him as colleagues in the persons of George Barnard and John H. McCunn.

In 1865 Tweed and the other Tammany chiefs, to whom fortune and affinity of aims had linked him, carried for the mayoralty one of their number, Mr. John T. Hoffman, a man of ability, who might have had a distinguished career had he risen under better auspices; and at the election of 1868 they made a desperate effort to capture both the state and the city. Frauds of unprecedented magnitude, both in the naturalizing of foreigners before the election and in the conduct of the election itself, were perpetrated. The average number of persons naturalized by the city courts had been, from 1856 to 1867, 9,200. In 1868 this number rose to 41,000, and the process was conducted with unexampled and indecent haste by two of the judges whom Tammany had just placed on the bench to execute its behests. False registrations, repeating on a large scale, and fraudulent manipulation of the votes given rolled up for Tammany a majority sufficient to secure for its friend Hoffman the governorship of the state. The votes returned as cast in New York City were 8 per cent in excess of its total voting population. The vacancy caused by Hoffman’s promotion was filled by the election of Mr. Hall. Thus at the beginning of 1869 the group already mentioned found itself in control of the chief offices of the city, and indeed of the state also.4 Hall was mayor; Sweeny was city chamberlain, that is to say, treasurer ofEdition: current; Page: [1031] the city and county; Tweed was street commissioner and president of the Board of Supervisors; Connolly, comptroller, and thus in charge of the city finances. Meanwhile their nominee, Hoffman, was state governor, able to veto any legislation they disliked, while on the city bench they had three apt and supple tools in Cardozo, Barnard, and McCunn. Other less conspicuous men held minor offices, or were leagued with them in managing Tammany Hall, and through it, the city. But the four who have been first named stood out as the four ruling spirits of the faction, to all of whom, more or less, though not necessarily in equal measure, the credit or discredit for its acts attached; and it was to them primarily, though not exclusively, that the name of the Tammany Ring came to be thenceforth applied.5

Having a majority in the state legislature, the ring used it to procure certain changes in the city charter which, while in some respects beneficial, as giving the city more control over its own local affairs, also subserved the purposes of its actual rulers. The elective Board of Supervisors was abolished, and its financial functions transferred to the recorder and aldermen. The executive power was concentrated in the hands of the mayor, who also obtained the power of appointing the chief municipal officers, and that for periods varying from four to eight years. He exercised this power (April 1870) by appointing Tweed commissioner of public works, Sweeny commissioner of parks, and (in pursuance of a subsequent enactment) Connolly comptroller. In a new board, called the Board of Apportionment, and composed of the mayor (Hall), the comptroller (Connolly), the commissioner of public works (Tweed), and the president of the board of parks (Sweeny), nearly all authority was now practically vested, for they could levy taxes, appoint the subordinate officials, lay down and enforce ordinances.6 Besides his power of appointing heads of departments, the mayor had the right to call for reports from them in whatever form he pleased, and also the sole right of impeachment, and he had further, in conjunction with the comptroller, to allow or revise the estimate the board was annually to submit, and to fix the salary of the civil judges. The undisguised supremacy which this newEdition: current; Page: [1032] arrangement, amounting almost to dictatorship (purchased, as was believed, by gross bribery conducted by Tweed himself in the state legislature at Albany), conferred upon the quattuorvirate was no unmixed advantage, for it concentrated public attention on them, and in promising them impunity it precipitated their fall.

In the reign of the ring there is little to record beyond the use made by some of them of the opportunities for plunder, which this control of the municipal funds conferred. Plunder of the city treasury, especially in the form of jobbing contracts, was no new thing in New York, but it had never before reached such colossal dimensions. Two or three illustrations may suffice.

Large schemes of street-opening were projected, and for this purpose it became necessary to take and pay compensation for private property, and also, under the state laws, to assess betterment upon owners whose property was to be benefited. Sweeny, who knew something of the fortunes amassed in the rebuilding of Paris under the prefecture of Baron Haussmann, and was himself an admirer (and, as was said, an acquaintance) of Louis Napoleon, was credited with knowing how to use public improvements for private profit. Under the auspices of some members of the ring, commissioners for the carrying out of each improvement were appointed by the ring judges—in the famous case of the widening of Broadway by Cardozo in a perfectly novel manner. Those members and their friends then began quietly to purchase property in the spots which were eventually taken by the commissioners, and extravagant compensation was thereupon awarded to them, while other owners, who enjoyed no secret means of predicting the action of the commissioners, received for similar pieces of land far smaller sums, the burden of betterment also being no less unequally distributed as between the ringsters and other proprietors. In this way great sums passed from the city to those whom the ring favoured, in certain cases with commissions to some of its members.7 Among the numerous contracts by which the city treasury was depleted, not a few were afterwards discovered to have been given for printing to three companies in which Tweed and his intimates were interested. Nearly $3,000,000 were paid to them within two years for city printing and stationery. Other contracts for wood-paving and concrete were hardly less scandalous.

The claims outstanding against the Board of Supervisors, previous to 1870, furnished another easy and copious source of revenue, for under aEdition: current; Page: [1033] statute which the ring had procured these claims, largely fraudulent or fictitious, were to be examined and audited by an ad interim board of audit composed of the mayor, the comptroller, and Tweed. The board delegated the duties of auditing to an ex-bankrupt creature of Tweed’s named Watson, who had been appointed city auditor, and who went to work with such despatch that in three and a half months he had presented warrants for claims to the amount of $6,312,000 to the members of the ad interim board—for the board itself seems to have met only once—on whose signature these bills were accordingly paid out of the city treasury.8 Subsequent investigation showed that from 65 to 85 per cent of the bills thus passed were fictitious, and of the whole Tweed appears to have received 24 per cent. But all the other financial achievements of the ring pale their ineffectual fires beside those connected with the erection and furnishing of the county courthouse. When designed in 1868 its cost was estimated at $250,000. Before the end of 1871 a sum variously estimated at from $8,000,000 to $13,000,000 (£1,600,000 to £2,600,000) had been expended upon it, and it was still unfinished. This was effected, as was afterwards proved in judicial proceedings, by the simple method of requiring the contractors, many of whom resisted for a time, to add large sums to their bills, sums which were then appropriated by Tweed, Connolly, and their minions or accomplices.9 Nothing could have been more direct or more effective. The orders were given by Tweed, the difference between the real and the nominal charge was settled by the contractor with him or with the auditor, and the bills, passed and signed by the members of the Board of Supervisors or Board of Apportionment (as the case might be), were approved by the auditor Watson and were paid out of the city funds at the bank. The proceeds were then duly divided, his real charges, or perhaps a little more, going to the contractor, and the rest among the boss and his friends.

Under such a system there was nothing surprising in the growth of the city debt. Fresh borrowing powers as well as taxing powers had been obtained from the state legislature, and they were freely used. According to the published report of the committee which subsequently investigated the city finances, the bonded debt of the city rose from $36,293,000 at the beginning of 1869, to $97,287,000 in September 1871; that is, by $61,000,000. Adding to this the floating debt incurred during the same twoEdition: current; Page: [1034] years and eight months, viz., $20,000,000, the total price which the city paid for the privilege of being ruled by Tammany during those thirty-two months reached $81,000,000, or more than twice the amount of the debt as it stood in 1868.10 And for all this there was hardly anything in the way of public improvements to show.

What, it may be asked, did the people of New York, and in particular the taxpayers at whose expense these antics were proceeding, think of their rulers, and how did they come to acquiesce in such a government, which, not content with plundering them, had degraded justice itself in the person of the ring judges, and placed the commerce and property of the city at the mercy of unscrupulous and venal partisans? I was in New York in the summer of 1870, and saw the ring flourishing like a green bay tree. Though the frauds just described were of course still unknown, nobody had a word of respect for its members. Tweed, for instance, would never have been invited to any respectable house. I was taken to look at Justices Barnard and Cardozo as two of the most remarkable sights of the city; and such indeed they were. I inquired why such things were endured, not merely patiently, but even with a sort of amused enjoyment, as though the citizens were proud of having produced a new phenomenon the like whereof no other community could show. It was explained to me that these things had not come suddenly, but as the crown of a process of degradation prolonged for some fifteen years or more which had made corruption so familiar as to be no longer shocking. The respectable leaders of the Democratic party had, with few exceptions, winked at the misdeeds of those who commanded a vote which they needed for state and national purposes. The press had been largely muzzled by lavish payments made to it for advertising, and a good many minor journals were actually subsidized by the ring. The bench, though only partially corrupt, was sufficiently in league with the ring for the sanction which the law required from it in certain cases to be unavailable as a safeguard. As for the mass of citizens, on whose votes this structure of iniquity had been reared, nearly half of them were practically strangers to America, amenable to their own clubs and leaders, but with no sense ofEdition: current; Page: [1035] civic duty to their new country nor likely to respond to any appeals from its statesmen. Three-fourths or more of them paid little or nothing in the way of direct taxes and did not realize that the increase of civil burdens would ultimately fall upon them as well as upon the rich. Moreover, the ring had cunningly placed on the payrolls of the city a large number of persons rendering comparatively little service, who had become a body of janizaries, bound to defend the government which paid them, working hard for it at elections, and adding, together with the regular employees, no contemptible quota to the total Tammany vote.11 As for the boss, those very qualities in him which repelled men of refinement made him popular with the crowd.

I asked what under such circumstances the respectable citizens proposed to do. My friends raised their eyebrows. One, of a historical turn, referred to the experience of Rome in the days of Clodius and Milo, and suggested the hiring of gladiators.

“These be thy gods, O Democracy: these are the fruits of abstract theory in politics. It was for this then that the yoke of George the Third was broken and America hailed as the dayspring of freedom by the peoples of Europe—that a robber should hold the keys of the public treasury, and a ruffian be set to pollute the seat of justice.” So might the shade of Alexander Hamilton have spoken, if permitted to revisit, after seventy years, the city his genius had adorned. Yet it was not such a democracy as Jefferson had sought to create and Hamilton to check that had delivered over to Tweed and to Barnard the greatest city of the Western world. That was the work of corruptions unknown to the days of Jefferson and Hamilton, of the Spoils System, of election frauds, of the gift of the suffrage to a host of ignorant strangers, and above all of the apathy of those wealthy and educated classes, without whose participation the best-framed government must speedily degenerate.

In the autumn of 1870 the ring seemed securely seated. Tweed, the master spirit, was content to scoop in money, and enjoy the licentious luxury which it procured him; though some declared that he had fixed his eyes upon the American legation in London. Sweeny preferred the substance to the ostentation of power; and Connolly’s tastes were as vulgar as Tweed’s, without the touch of open-handedness which seemed to palliate the latter’sEdition: current; Page: [1036] greed. Cardozo, however, had his ambitions, and hungered for a place on the supreme federal bench; while Hall, to whom no share in the booty was ever traced, and who may not have received any, was believed to desire to succeed Hoffman as governor of the state, when that official should be raised by the growing influence of Tammany to the presidency of the United States. No wonder the ring was intoxicated by the success it had already won. It had achieved a fresh triumph in reelecting Hall as mayor at the end of 1870; and New York seemed to lie at its feet.

Its fall came suddenly; and the occasion sprang from a petty personal quarrel. A certain O’Brien, conspicuous as a leader in a discontented section of the Democratic party, was also personally sore because he had received an office below his hopes, and cherished resentment against Sweeny, to whom he attributed his disappointment. A henchman of his named Copeland, employed in the auditor’s office, happened to find there some accounts headed “county liabilities” which struck him as suspicious. He copied them and showed them to O’Brien, who perceived their value, and made him copy more of them, in fact a large part of the fraudulent accounts relating to the furnishing of the court house. Threatening the ring, with the publication of these compromising documents, O’Brien tried to extort payment of an old claim he had against the city; but after some haggling the negotiations were interrupted by the accidental death of Watson, the auditor. Ultimately O’Brien carried his copies to the New York Times, a paper which had already for some months past been attacking Tammany with unwonted boldness. On the 8th of July, 1871, it exposed the operations of the ring; and denounced its members, in large capitals, as thieves and swindlers, defying them to sue it for libel. Subsequent issues contained extracts from the accounts copied by Copeland; and all were summed up in a supplement, published on July 29th and printed in German as well as English, which showed that a sum of nearly $10,000,000 in all had been expended upon the courthouse, whose condition everybody could see, and for armoury repairs and furnishings. Much credit is due to the proprietor of the Times, who resisted threats and bribes offered him on behalf of the ring to desist from his onslaught and perhaps even more to the then editor, the late Mr. Louis J. Jennings, whose conduct of the campaign was full of fire and courage. The better classes of the city were now fully aroused, for the denials or defences of the mayor and Tweed found little credence. On September 4th a meeting of citizens was held, and a committee of seventy persons, many of them eminent by ability, experience, or position, formed to investigate the frauds charged, which by this time had drawn the eyes ofEdition: current; Page: [1037] the whole state and country. It is needless to recount the steps by which Connolly, the person most directly implicated, and the one whom his colleagues sought to make a scapegoat of, was forced to appoint as deputy an active and upright man (Mr. A. H. Green), whose possession and examination of the records in the comptroller’s office proved invaluable. The leading part in the campaign was played by Mr. Samuel J. Tilden, chairman of the Democratic party in the state, afterwards governor of the state, and in 1876 candidate for the federal presidency against Mr. Hayes. Feeling acutely the disgrace which the ring had brought upon the Democratic party, he was resolved by pursuit and exposure to rid the party of them and their coterie once for all; and in this he was now seconded by all the better Democrats. But much was also due to the brilliant cartoons of Mr. Thomas Nast, whose rich invention and striking drawing presented the four leading members of the ring in every attitude and with every circumstance of ignominy.12 The election for state offices held in November was attended by unusual excitement. The remaining members of the ring, for Connolly was now extinct and some of the minor figures had taken to flight, faced in boldly, and Tweed in particular, cheered by his renomination in the Democratic state convention held shortly beforehand, and by his reelection to the chairmanship of the general committee of Tammany, now neither explained nor denied anything, but asked defiantly in words which in New York have passed into a proverb, “What are you going to do about it?” His reliance on his own district of the city, and on the Tammany masses as a whole, was justified, for he was reelected to the state senate and the organization gave his creatures its solid support. But the respectable citizens,who had for once been roused from their lethargy, and who added their votes to those of the better sort of Democrats and of the Republican party, overwhelmed the machine, notwithstanding the usual election frauds undertaken on its behalf. Few of the ring candidates survived, and the ring itself was irretrievably ruined. Public confidence returned, and the price of real estate advanced. Sweeny forthwith announced his withdrawal from public life, and retired to Canada. The wretched Connolly was indicted and found so few friends that he remained in jail for six weeks before he could procure bail. Tweed, though dispirited by the murder of his boon-companion, the notorious Fisk (who had been carrying through the scandalous ErieEdition: current; Page: [1038] railroad frauds by the help of the ring judges), stood his ground with characteristic courage, and refused to resign the office to which the mayor had appointed him. However, in December he was arrested,13 but presently released on insignificant bail by Judge Barnard. The state assembly, in which the reformers had now a majority, soon afterwards took steps to impeach Barnard, McCunn, and Cardozo. Cardozo resigned; the other two were convicted and removed from the bench. The endless delays and minute technicalities of the courts of New York protracted Tweed’s trial till January 1873, when, after a long hearing, the jury were discharged because unable to agree. He was thereupon rearrested, and upon his second trial in November, when special efforts had been made to secure a trustworthy jury, was found guilty and sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment. After a while the court of appeals released him, holding the sentence irregular, because cumulative; he was then rearrested in a civil suit by the city, escaped, was caught in Spain, identified by a caricature, and brought back to prison, where he died in 1876. Hall was thrice tried. On the first occasion the death of a juryman interrupted the proceedings; on the second the jury disagreed; on the third he obtained a favourable verdict. Connolly fled the country and died in exile. None of the group, nor of Tweed’s other satellites, ever again held office.

This was the end of the Tweed Ring. But it was not the end of Tammany. Abashed for the moment, the stooping earthward while the tempest swept by, that redoubtable organization never relaxed its grip upon the New York masses. It was only for a few months that the tempest cleared the air. The “good citizens” soon forgot their sudden zeal. Neglecting the primaries, where indeed they might have failed to effect much, they allowed nominations to fall back into the hands of spoilsmen, and the most important city offices to be fought for by factions differing only in their names and party badges, because all were equally bent upon selfish gain. Within five years from the overthrow of 1871, Tammany was again in the saddle, and the city government practically in the nomination of Mr. John Kelly, tempered by the rival influence of the ex-prize fighter Morrissey. In 1876 a vigorous pen, reviewing the history of the preceding eight years, and pointing out how soon the old mischiefs had reappeared, thus described the position:

A few very unscrupulous men, realizing thoroughtly the changed condition of affairs, had organized the proletariat of the city; and, through the form of suffrage,Edition: current; Page: [1039] had taken possession of its government. They saw clearly the facts of the case, which the doctrinaires, theorists, and patriots studiously ignored or vehemently denied. They knew perfectly well that New York City was no longer a country town, inhabited by Americans and church-goers, and officered by deacons. They recognized the existence of a very large class which had nothing, and availed themselves of its assistance to plunder those who had something. The only way to meet them effectually and prevent a recurrence of the experience is for the friends of good government equally to recognize facts and shape their course accordingly. The question then is a practical one.

If New York, or any other great city in America which finds itself brought face to face with this issue, were an independent autonomy,—like Rome or many of the free cities of the Middle Ages,—the question would at once be divested of all that which in America makes if difficult of solution. Under these circumstances the evil would run its course, and cure itself in the regular and natural way. New York would have a Cæsar within six months. Whether he came into power at the head of the proletariat or seized the government as the conservator of property would make no difference. The city would instinctively find rest under a strong rule. The connection which exists, and necessarily can never be severed, between the modern great city and the larger State, closes this natural avenue of escape. New York City is tied to New York State, and must stumble along as best it may at its heels. It is guaranteed a government republican in form, and consequently a radical remedy for the evil must be found within that form, or it cannot be found at all, and the evil must remain uncured.

The thing sought for then is to obtain a municipal government, republican in form, in which property, as well as persons, shall be secured in its rights, at the cost of a reasonable degree only of public service on the part of the individual citizen. The facts to be dealt with are few and patent. On the one side a miscellaneous population, made up largely of foreigners, and containing an almost preponderating element of vice, ignorance, and poverty, all manipulated by a set of unscrupulous professional politicians; on the other a business community, engrossed in affairs, amassing wealth rapidly, and caring little for politics. Between the two the usual civic population, good and bad, intent on pleasure, art, literature, science, and all the myriad other pursuits of metropolitan life. The two essential points are the magnitude and the diversified pursuits of the population, and its division into those who have and those who have not.

Bearing these facts, which cannot be changed, in mind, then a few cardinal principles on which any successful municipal government, republican in form, must rest, may safely be formulated. In the first place, the executive must be strong and responsible; in the second place, property must be entitled to a representation as well as persons; in the third place, the judiciary must be as far removed as possible from the political arena. In other words, justice must be made as much as possible to descend from above. Curiously enough, each ofEdition: current; Page: [1040] these principles, instead of being a novelty, is but a recurrence to the ancient ways.14

These counsels, and many others like them, were not taken to heart. Since 1871 the frame of municipal government was frequently tinkered with. A comprehensive scheme of reform, proposed by a strong commission which Governor Tilden appointed in 1876, failed to be carried; and though great progress has been made in the way of better ballot and election laws and some progress in the way of civil service reform, the Spoils System still throve, repeaters still voted in large numbers, and election returns could still be manipulated by those who control the city government. There have been some excellent mayors, such as Mr. Hewitt, for the catastrophe of 1871 has never been forgotten by Tammany, whose chieftains sometimes find it prudent to run reputable candidates. No more Barnards or Cardozos have disgraced the bench, for the bar association is vigorous and watchful; and when very recently a judge who had been too subservient to a suspected state boss was nominated by the influence of that gentleman to one of the highest judicial posts in the state, the efforts of the association, well supported in the city, procured his defeat by an overwhelming majority.

Nevertheless, Tammany has held its ground; and the august dynasty of bosses goes on. When Mr. John Kelly died some time ago, the sceptre passed to the hands of the not less capable and resolute Mr. Richard Croker, once the keeper of a liquor saloon, and for some short time the holder of a clerkship under Tweed himself.15 Mr. Croker, like Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, held no civic office, but, as chairman of the Tammany subcommittee on organization, controlled all city officials, while, by the public avowal of the Speaker of the House of Assembly, during the session of 1893, “all legislation (i.e., in the state legislature at Albany) emanated from Tammany Hall, and was dictated by that great statesman, Richard Croker.”16 Ultimately Mr. Croker, like the emperors Diocletian and Charles V, abdicated the crown. He retired to the enjoyment of an estate and a racing stud in Ireland, and Mr. Charles F. Murphy reigned in his stead.

Edition: current; Page: [1041]

The reader will expect some further words to explain how the Tammany of today is organized, by what means it holds its power, and what sort of government it gives the city.

Each of the thirty-five “assembly districts” in the boroughs of Manhattan and Bronx annually elects a certain number of members, varying from 60 to 270, to sit on the general committee of Tammany Hall, which has long claimed to be, and at present is, the “regular” Democratic organization of the city. The committee is thus large, numbering several thousand persons, and on it there also sit the great chiefs who are above taking district work. Each district has also a “leader” who is always on the general committee; and the thirty-five leaders form the executive committee of the Hall, which has also other committees, including that on finance, whereof Mr. Croker was chairman. Each election district has, moreover, a district committee, with the “leader” (appointed by the assembly district leader) as chairman and practically as director. This committee appoints a captain for every one of the voting precincts into which the district is divided. There are about 1,100 such precincts, and these 1,100 captains are held responsible for the vote cast in their respective precincts. The captain is probably a liquor seller, and as such has opportunities of getting to know the lower class of voters. He has often some small office, and usually some little patronage, as well as some money, to bestow. In each of the thirty-five districts there is a party headquarters for the committee and the local party work, and usually also a clubhouse, where party loyalty is cemented over cards and whiskey, besides a certain number of local “associations,” called after prominent local politicians, who are expected to give an annual picinic, or other kind of treat, to their retainers. A good deal of social life, including dances and summer outings, goes on in connection with these clubs.17

Such an organization as this, with its tentacles touching every point in a vast and amorphous city, is evidently a most potent force, especially as this force is concentrated in one hand—that of the boss of the Hall. He is practically autocratic; and under him these thousands of officers, controlling probably nearly 200,000 votes, move with the precision of a machine.18 However, it has been not only in this mechanism, which may be called a legitimate method of reaching the voters, that the strength of Tammany hasEdition: current; Page: [1042] lain. Its control of the city government gave it endless opportunities of helping its friends, of worrying its opponents, and of enslaving the liquor dealers. Their licenses were at its mercy, for the police could proceed against or wink at breaches of the law, according to the amount of loyalty the saloonkeeper shows to the Hall. From the contributions of the liquor interest a considerable revenue was raised; more was obtained by assessing officeholders, down to the very small ones; and, perhaps, most of all by blackmailing wealthy men and corporations, who found that the city authorities have so many opportunities of interfering vexatiously with their business that they preferred to buy them off and live in peace.19 The worst form of this extortion was the actual complicity with criminals which consists in sharing the profits of crime. A fruitful source of revenue, roughly estimated at $1,000,000 a year has been derived, when the party was supreme at Albany, from legislative blackmailing in the legislature, or, rather, from undertaking to protect the great corporations from the numerous “strikers,” who threaten them there with bills. A case has been mentioned in which as much as $60,000 was demanded from a great company; and the president of another is reported to have said (1893): “Formerly we had to keep a man at Albany to buy off the ‘strikers’ one by one. This year we simply paid over a lump sum to the Ring, and they looked after our interests.” But of all their engines of power none was so elastic as their command of the administration of criminal justice. The mayor appointed the police justices, now called city magistrates, usually selecting them from certain Tammany workers, sometimes from the criminal class, not often from the legal profession. These justices were often Tammany leaders in their respective districts.20 Said a distinguished publicist of those days:

The police captain of the precinct, the justice of the police court, and the district leader of the Tammany organization are all leagued together to keep the poor in subjection and prevent the rich from interfering. Their means of annoyance for a poor man are endless. They can arrest him on small pretences, prevent his getting employment from the city, or city contractors, pursue him for allowing his goods to remain on the sidewalk, and for not cleaning off the snow promptly, tax him heavily, or let him go free. All these means of persecution are freely resorted to, so that the poor, and