FOREIGN economists have been at some pains to prove that presidential government in the United States is a failure, and this they attribute to the unwisdom of a "collective mediocrity." They felicitate us on our free institutions, but decry our method of selecting the chief magistrate of the nation.
M. de Tocqueville, who visited this country during the administration of Andrew Jackson, noted the paucity of great men here at that period, and philosophized concerning it:—
"On my arrival in the United States I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the subjects, and so little among the heads of the government. It is a well-authenticated fact that at the present day the most able men in the United States are very rarely placed at the head of affairs; and it must be acknowledged that such has been the result in proportion as democracy has outstepped all its former limits. The race of American statesmen has evidently dwindled most remarkably in the course of the last fifty years.... This is as much a consequence of the circumstances as of the laws of the country. When America was struggling, in the high cause of independence, to throw off the yoke of another country, and when it was about to usher a new nation into the world, the spirits of its inhabitants were roused to the height which their great efforts required. In this general excitement the most distinguished men were ready to forestall the wants of the community, and the people clung to them for support, and placed them at its head. But events of this magnitude are rare, and it is from an inspection of the ordinary course of affairs that our judgment must be formed."
If M. de Tocqueville could have foreseen the late civil war, he would have observed the same phenomenon. In that abnormal condition of affairs, the leadership of our armies and of our congressional bodies devolved upon the men most capable of grappling with the emergency. The bone, sinew, and brain of both sections were brought into play in that crucial contest, and all the latent power of the nation was developed. Most of the leaders of the struggle have passed away, and now the complaint is general that the void which they left has not been filled. The question arises, Are we dependent upon a crisis for the evolution of great men? Apparently so, although there is no valid reason for it. In England, the Pitts, George Canning, Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russell, Lord Palmerston, the Earl of Beaconsfield, and Mr. Gladstone form an almost continuous line of statesmen, than whom that country has never produced greater. There is good ground for belief that every country possesses at least one great man. In the United States his natural place is the presidential chair, the seat of power. As a matter of fact, the White House seems to stand upon a hill, gleaming like a Jack-o'-lantern, to lure public men to heights that are simply inaccessible. This anomaly in a popular government attracted the attention of John Stuart Mill, who found something intrinsically wrong in our method of choice. He says,—
"In the United States, at the election of President, the strongest party never dares put forward any of its strongest men, because every one of these, from the mere fact that he has been long in the public eye, has made himself objectionable to some portion or other of the party, and is therefore not so sure a card for rallying all their votes as a person who has never been heard of by the public at all until he is produced as the candidate. Thus, the man who is chosen, even by the strongest party, represents, perhaps, the real wishes only of the narrow margin by which that party outnumbers the other. Any section whose support is necessary to success possesses a veto on the candidate. Any section which holds out more obstinately than the rest can compel all the others to adopt its nominee; and this superior pertinacity is, unhappily, more likely to be found among those who are holding out for their own interest than for that of the public. The choice of the majority is therefore very likely to be determined by that portion of the body who are the most timid, the most narrow-minded and prejudiced, or who cling most tenaciously to the exclusive class interest; in which case the electoral rights of the minority, while useless for the purposes for which votes are given, serve only for compelling the majority to accept the candidate of the weakest or worst portion of themselves."
Mr. Mill here specifically attacks the convention, but he and M. de Tocqueville both concur in regarding the evil of unwise choice as in separable from the selection of a chief magistrate by Popular suffrage. They are right in their facts, but in their conclusion lies a fundamental error.
If democracy is responsible for the colorless character of its Presidents, it is a sin of omission, and not of commission. In truth, the people of this country have very little to do with the choice of the supreme magistrate, their option being restricted to two men, the creatures of two practically irresponsible conventions. If, in the selection of presidential candidates, democracy exhibits that indifference, singular and inexplicable to foreigners, which is the opportunity of intellectually small and ambitiously great men, and if its enthusiasm in the campaign preceding the election is mostly an artificial party product, it has the good and sufficient reason that it cannot be expected to take an interest in that which has passed beyond its control. Party organization is so strong and effectual that a revolt from the regular nominee is an act of impotency that serves only to strengthen the opposing party. Between Scylla and Charybdis, the prospect of the voter is not happy. The mischief is in the autocracy of the convention, and its correction necessitates a transfer of power from that body to the people. Mankind is governed by names, and the term "popular convention" still screens many abuses. Although the philosophical cause of the evil may have escaped the foreign critic, he has keenly apprehended the indisputable fact. Now what is so patent to outsiders must be well understood here. Nay, it is not only understood, but it has engendered a widespread dissatisfaction with the existing method, which invariably rejects men of national reputation, and compromises by evolving candidates out of obscurity. " Statesman X" has figured largely in the presidential annals of this country. Since the death of the last survivor of the founders of the republic, the list of Presidents, with few exceptions, presents a mournful and mediocre array, and has suggested the cant phrases " his obscurity" and "his accidency," which are of long standing, and contain much significance.
Dr. von Holst, an able if pessimistic historian of the American constitution, says, "In the person of Adams [John Quincy] the last statesman who was to occupy it for a long time left the White House;" and that "so many of the Presidents" who succeeded him "have worn as their only coat-of-arms the manufacturer's mark of the party 'machine ' that the rest of the world is sometimes tempted to estimate the dignity of the office too nearly in accordance with the worthiness of the person who holds it for the time being." Whether or not this severe reflection is deserved, a glance at the history of the convention and the character of its progeny will reveal.
The national convention is a modern outgrowth of a caucus of Congressmen which nominated presidential candidates from 1800 to 1824. The first of these was denounced by a Philadelphia editor, with grim felicity, as a "jacobinical conclave," and he was called to the bar of the Senate to answer for his "false, defamatory, scandalous, and malicious assertions." However, these bodies met popular expectation by choosing men whom the party sentiment had designated, until, in 1824, their attempt to dictate a nominee in the person of William H. Crawford was attended by their own inglorious demise. Andrew Jackson assisted at the obsequies, and was instrumental in raising the present convention on the ruins of the old system.
The methods by which the latter's candidacy for the presidency was advocated have been handed down as a sacred heritage to "machine" politicians, and may be best described in the words of Professor Sumner. Andrew Jackson had a powerful coadjutor in William B. Lewis. "Lewis was the great father of the wire-pullers. He first practiced in a masterly and scientific way the art of starting movements, apparently spontaneous, at a distance, and in a quarter from which they win prestige or popularity.... On this system political activity is rendered theatrical. The personal initiative is concealed. There is an adjustment of roles, a mise en scene, and a constant consideration of effect. Each person acts on the other in prearranged ways. Cues are given and taken, and the effect depends on the fidelity of each to his part. The perfection of the representation is reached when the audience or spectators are disregarded until the finale, when the chief actor, having reached the denoument towards which he and his comrades have so long been laboring, comes to the footlights and bows to 'the will of the people."
Jackson's successor was the last Vice-President who attained to the presidency by popular suffrage; and this he accomplished through a cut-and-dried arrangement. "Van Buren was nominated by two hundred and sixty votes out of three hundred and twenty-six. The 'spontaneous unanimity' of the convention was produced by the will of Andrew Jackson and the energetic discipline of the kitchen cabinet. It may well be doubted whether, without Jackson's support, Van Buren could have got two hundred and sixty votes for President or Vice-President in the whole United States, in 1832." It is worthy of remark that a newspaper, the Globe, "dragooned the whole Jackson party into the support of Van Buren," as the last instance on record in which a newspaper had anything to do with securing the nomination of a presidential candidate.
Mr. Harrison, who succeeded Mr. Van Buren as President, was nominated in 1839 by the Whig convention, which reluctantly abandoned Mr. Clay, the undoubted choice of the party.
On the death of Mr. Harrison, Vice-President Tyler became President, because nobody expected it, and, at the expiration of his term, found political oblivion, his party failing to indorse his administration by a re-nomination.
The mountain labored, and Mr. Polk became President, as the compromise nominee of a convention that did not give him a single vote on the first ballot.
On the death of General Taylor, who had been awarded the presidency for his splendid victories in Mexico, Mr. Fillmore succeeded. At the expiration of his time, he was offered as a candidate before the Whig convention, but could not obtain twenty votes from the free States.
Mr. Pierce was the accident of the Democratic convention of 1852. During the first thirty-five ballots his name was not even mentioned, but he gained the nomination on the forty-ninth.
Mr. Buchanan was nominated by his party's convention, after a very stubborn contest with Douglas.
That Mr. Lincoln proved equal to his responsibilities, Mr. Bagehot, an eminent English economist, does not ascribe to the merits of democratic choice as effected by a convention. He says:—
"The first election of Mr. Lincoln was a characteristic instance of the workings of such a government [presidential government] upon a great occasion. And what was that working? It may be summed up: it was government by an unknown quantity. Hardly any one in America had any living idea what Mr. Lincoln was like, or any definite notion what he would do. The leading statesmen, under the system of cabinet government, are not only household words, but household ideas.... We have simply no notion what it would be to be left with the visible sovereignty in the hands of an unknown man. The notion of employing a man of unknown smallness at a crisis of unknown greatness is to our minds simply ludicrous. Mr. Lincoln, it is true, happened to be a man, if not of eminent ability, yet of eminent justness. There was an inner depth of Puritan nature, which came out under suffering and was very attractive. But success in a lottery is no argument for lotteries. What were the chances against a person of Lincoln's antecedents, elected as he was, proving to be what he was? Such an incident is, however, natural to a presidential government. The President is elected by processes which forbid the election of known men, except at peculiar conjunctures, and in moments when public opinion is excited and despotic; and consequently, when a crisis comes upon us, inevitably we have government by an unknown quantity."
Mr. Bagehot leaves us the alternative of a government by a nonentity, comparatively speaking, or by a cabinet with a premier as its official head, the creation of Congress. It is needless to say that the latter solution of the problem would be as obnoxious to the people of this country as it would be impracticable. The remedy can undoubtedly be found in a measure less radical.
The renomination of Mr. Lincoln and the nomination and renomination of General Grant were due to those exceptional causes which M. de Tocqueville has described, when, in an event of such magnitude and peril as the late civil war, those who had found their way to the front, or by accident were there, became popular idols, defeated the machinations of politicians or attracted them by their overpowering strength, and received their just reward.
In 1876, Mr. Hayes was the compromise nominee of the Republican convention, although he was the least known of all the candidates.
The nomination of General Garfield in Chicago was another compromise, but a popular one; which again goes to show that a prize is occasionally drawn in lotteries, but affords no argument for their existence. That the convention could do so rational a thing, in so delirious a moment, as to select a man of long legislative experience, of recognized ability and capacity for the office which he was subsequently chosen to fill, was a matter of great surprise and equally great congratulation to the Republican party, and can only be explained by General Garfield's personal presence on the floor of the convention. Had it been known that he desired the presidency, a combination would have been effected immediately, which would no doubt have defeated him, regardless of his merits.
As usual, no account was taken by the Chicago convention of the contingency arising from the possible death of the President and a Vice-President almost entirely unknown was hastily nominated. Upon the assassination of President Garfield, Mr. Arthur succeeded to the chief magistracy for the remaining three and a half years—as unlooked-for an event as an unpredicted eclipse of the sun. The public mind, perturbed by President Garfield's untimely and deplorable end, viewed Mr. Arthur's accession with uneasiness and distrust, and permitted itself to harbor the most unworthy suspicions. The administration of President Johnson was still fresh in common memory. In such a crisis, to win the respect, confidence, and esteem of the American people required a man of refined sensibilities and consummate tact. Mr. Arthur was such a man, and has proved to be a capable executive; but this the convention could not possibly have foreseen, even had it looked at the contingency, because Mr. Arthur, previous to his nomination, had had no public career.
Who will be the next President? The people will arbitrate between the nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties, but who those nominees will be defies all reasonable prophecy. Will the forces of the candidates be marshaled by an iron hand, will a deadlock ensue, and will the nomination be conferred upon some man of mushroom growth, who has never rendered any service to the state that would entitle him to such an honor, and who is distinguished for nothing but his negative character and absence of opinion? The people are passive spectators of the intrigues and cabals of the convention; the newspapers, the vehicles of their opinions, serve only to record its proceedings, not to influence the result; and both are as far removed from the scene as though they were in another planet. We are told that "the eminent men of a party, in an election extending to the whole country, are never its most available candidates. All eminent men have made personal enemies, or have done something, or at the lowest professed some opinion, obnoxious to some local or other considerable division of the community, and likely to tell with fatal effect upon the number of votes; whereas a man without antecedents, of whom nothing is known but that he professes the creed of the party, is readily voted for by its entire strength." (J.S. Mill, Representative Government, chap. xiv.) If this is so beyond remedy, then presidential government is a failure; but the convention, and not the people, is responsible for the ignominy of it.
Stable government rests upon the confidence of the masses, and it follows that in America the masses must choose that government. The theory is that this Republic is "of the people, for the people, and by the people," and the practice should be made to conform to it. The prerogative, however, of naming the President has been usurped by nearly every convention, and the nominees rarely, if ever, represent the will of the parties. If the people can choose only between two men at an election, they have the right to say who those two men shall be. We have had a few able Presidents in the past, but it was in spite of, and not because of, the convention. The absolutism of this body, concerning whose action really nothing can be predicated, has become so intolerable that a future lease of life must depend upon a considerable modification of its powers. What Mr. Dickerson said in the Senate, sixty years ago, regarding the presidential election applies with equal force to the present mode of nomination: "The President should be elected by a majority, and not by a minority, of the people, and no one should held that office who has not with him the physical strength of the country. If he have it, all is safe, for the power that has created can protect and defend; If he have it not, his holding the office is an outrage upon the principles of our government, and is unsafe both for himself and the country. A strong majority will not patiently submit to a weak minority, who, taking advantage of the faults in our constitution, have succeeded in placing their man in the presidential chair." Mr. Benton once declared that "the only effectual mode of preserving our government from the corruptions which have undermined the liberty of so many nations is to confide the election of our chief magistrate to those who are farthest removed from the influence of his patronage; that is, to the whole body of American citizens," and he might have added, from the bribes of office and the allurements of designing candidates.
No particular reference has been made in this paper to that mode of nomination whereby a majority of a few votes—as in the state convention of New York in 1880—pledged the entire delegation to one man. The abrogation of the "unit rule," in the national Republican convention, and the subsequent change in representation made by the national Republican committee, tend to defeat this injustice. But the reform does not go far enough. It is believed that the. adoption of the following plan would be attended with benefit, as remedying many of the evils which have been enumerated:—
I. The candidates for President and Vice-President shall be balloted for by the congressional district conventions. The representation in these conventions shall be strictly proportional, and based on the party vote in the preceding presidential election. One delegate shall be sent to each convention for every fifty such votes, fraction thereof, cast in the district.
II. All the congressional district conventions shall meet on the same day, and, first, shall cast one ballot for President, and, second, one ballot for Vice-President. The vote of each delegate shall count one, and the votes of all the delegates shall be recorded in favor of their respective candidates.
III. A national convention shall be held not later than two weeks after the meeting of the congressional district conventions. To this convention each congressional district convention shall send one delegate for every one hundred delegates, or fraction thereof, of which it is composed; and each of the Territories, Indian Territory excepted, and the District of Columbia shall send two delegates.
IV. In this national body the party platform shall be adopted, and all the votes given for all the candidates in the congressional district conventions shall be counted. If any one candidate shall have received a majority of all votes cast; he shall be declared the nominee of the party; but if no one candidate shall have received a majority of such votes, the national convention shall proceed to choose a candidate from the five names which have received the five highest number of votes. In case of a tie, a sixth candidate shall not be excluded. The method of procedure shall be the same for Vice-President.
With the Republican presidential vote of 1880 as a basis of representation, the apportionment of delegates among the various States will be as shown in the table on the following page.
I. Removing the choice of President and Vice-President from one national convention, containing eight hundred and twenty delegates, to two hundred and ninety-three district conventions, containing about ninety thousand delegates, dethrones an oligarchy, and vests the power of nomination in a body of men sufficiently large to guarantee the choice of a popular candidate, and to render abortive all attempts at corruption or "machine" manipulation. The adoption of the Crawford County (Pennsylvania) system, which provides for the selection of candidates by the direct vote of the people, presents an insurmountable difficulty; since, as Horace Greeley has said, these preliminary elections, being unwarranted by law, are corrupted by systematic frauds. It need not, therefore, be considered here. The district convention, however, is open to no such objection. Delegates are chosen by the primaries, who assemble en masse. The proceedings of the convention are formal and public, and the officers are elected by a majority of its constituents. Consequently, the possibilities of fraud are greatly diminished.
The representation in each convention will, as has been said, be one delegate for every fifty votes cast for the party in the district in the preceding presidential election. The size of the conventions will, in consequence, vary in the different districts, and inequality be thus prevented.
The plan proposed in this paper involves neither extra expense nor extra trouble, since the scheme of representation recently adopted by the national Republican committee compels the meeting of a convention in every congressional district in the United States within ninety days previous to the meeting of the national convention, to send delegates thereto.
II. These conventions shall meet on the same day, in order that one may not be influenced by the action of another.
If more than one ballot each for President and Vice President were permitted, the prime object of the contemplated reform, namely, the expression of the free will of each delegate in every district convention, would be defeated; because continuous balloting would secure a majority, force a compromise nominee, and stifle the voice of the minority. To illustrate: If a district convention in the State of New York, consisting of three hundred delegates, should cast one hundred and twenty-five votes for A, one hundred votes for B, and seventy-five votes for C, under the system proposed by the national committee, the balloting would continue until one of the three candidates, say C, received a majority. This would be sufficient to pledge the delegates, who should represent this district convention in the national convention, to C, and thus the votes cast for A and B would go for naught. But, under the proposed system, the votes which each had would be added to those they might receive in other districts of their own State and of other States; and this combination might suffice to secure A or B the nomination. Of course the old formula of silencing the minority by making the nomination unanimous would not be permissible; and is not at all requisite, if the dissenting delegates have definite notions of their own regarding the merits of candidates, the presumption being that they have.
Since the result of the balloting in no one single district convention is decisive, it is a matter of indifference whether a candidate receives its majority or unanimous vote. The delegates to the national convention go unpledged, being permitted the latitude of the five highest names.
III. It will be observed that all state distinctions are swept away, including the four delegates at large; it being deemed unnecessary that the party voters, who have a just representation in the district, should be represented twice.
It will also be noted that the apportionment of delegates, for example, of the Republican party to the national convention is not based on the majority which the Republicans may obtain in any particular State, but, as a matter of equal justice, rests upon the number of Republican votes cast, and not upon the number of Democratic votes.
In the event of a nomination of President and Vice-President by the district conventions, the holding of national convention, to which in any event, delegates should be sent, will be merely a formality, such as is the meeting of presidential electors in a State after an election.
IV. Theoretically, the result of the balloting in the district conventions would not be known until the votes were formally counted in the national convention, two weeks later. Practically, the wires would acquaint every district with the issue of the contest within a few hours.
Should there be a choice, the national convention, after adopting the party platform, would without further preliminary ratify the nomination. Should there be no choice, the delegates would proceed to select a candidate from the five names which had received the highest popular sanction; a number small enough to insure the selection of a man of national reputation, and large enough to afford that latitude which the consideration of availability requires.
It may be objected that the limited number of candidates would cause a deadlock, lasting for days, out of which a compromise nomination now affords an egress. It is a sufficient answer that party harmony would forbid an inflexibly stubborn contest; and, further, that a public spectacle so demoralizing would in all probability defeat the ultimate nominee at the election.
This plan is not offered as a panacea for all the evils in American politics, nor is it so radical as to involve the abolition of a single existing institution, except the four delegates sent by the state conventions. Long-established customs are not to be destroyed at one fell swoop, especially when a certain degree of efficiency is the partial atonement for their abuses. The design is simply to cripple the power of the "machine" by limiting the discretion of the convention, and by conferring upon the great body of district conventions, which are now the mere handmaids of the national assembly, the right of first choice; and in the failure of that, the selection of five men, from whom the nominee must be taken. While it is not possible to do away with "wire-pulling," it can be so weakened by subdivision as to nullify the efforts of those political despots who are laconically called "bosses." To "pack" and control a state convention, say of New York, is one thing, and is conceivable; to "pack" and control thirty-three district conventions in that State is quite another thing, and is utterly inconceivable, even were the State held in fee-simple.
It may be urged that if, as under the proposed system, the power of choice were given to ninety thousand delegates, the number of candidates presented by them would be prodigious. This is exceedingly improbable, because every delegate would know that, should he vote for some local dignitary whose flame would have no likelihood of being among the highest five, his ballot would be thrown away. This salutary limit of five would also check the growing tendency, which is constantly displayed outside the convention, of putting in nomination a host of the illustrious obscure; and would correct that misapprehension existing in the minds of many which confuses the dignity and power of the presidency of fifty millions of people with that of a twelve-hundred-dollar clerkship.
It is reasonable to believe that, when the district conventions should have come to know the limits as well as the extent of their power, an earnest endeavor would be made to dispense with the arbitration of the national convention by securing that harmonious action which sacrifices personal feeling to the well-being of the state.
Lastly, if the election of the candidate for Vice-President depended on the suffrages of the many thousands in the district conventions, those would covet the honor by whom only it could be obtained, namely, men of national repute, and the office would become politically, what it is constitutionally, a stepping-stone to the presidency.