One of the oddities of human nature is its patient endurance of obvious, easily remedied inconveniences. No man ever spoke, and no man ever listened to a speech, in the Representatives’ Hall at Washington, without being painfully aware of its unsuitableness to the purpose for which it was intended. It was intended to afford accommodation for three hundred gentlemen while they debated public questions and conversed on public business. Almost all debate in a modern parliamentary body naturally takes the tone of conversation, because nearly every topic that arises is some question of detail the principle of which is not disputed. It is only on rare occasions that the voice of a speaker endowed with reason would naturally rise above the conversational tone. The main business of Congress is to determine how much money shall be raised, how it shall be raised, and for what objects it shall be spent. The stricter States-rights men of the early time used to say, that, when Congress had made the annual appropriations, only one duty remained, which was to adjourn and go home. This was an extreme statement. It is, I think, a most important part of the duty of Congressmen to converse together, in the presence of the whole people in reporters’ gallery assembled, on subjects of national concern; but even on a field-day of general debate, when principles are up for discussion, it is still calm, enlightened, dignified conversation that is most desirable. Members are well aware of this. Flights of oratory generally excite derisive smiles upon the floor of the House, and no man is much regarded by his fellow-members who is addicted to that species of composition.
But neither conversation nor calm debate is possible in the Representatives’ Chamber. It is large enough for a mass-meeting. The members are spread over a wide expanse of floor, each seated at a desk covered and filled with documents and papers, and they see themselves surrounded by vast galleries rising, row above row, to the ceiling. When a man begins to speak, though he may be the least oratorical of mortals, he is soon forced into an oratorical condition of mind by the physical difficulty of making himself heard. Compelled to exert his lungs violently, he endeavors to assist and relieve the muscles of his chest and throat by gesticulation, and this brings the color to his cheeks and contributes to work up the whole man into the oratorical frenzy that puts a stop to all useful, elucidating operation of the brain. Often, very often, have I seen a member of the House, superior by nature, age, and education to the clap-trap of harangue, rise in his place, full-charged with weighty matter on a subject utterly unsuited to oratory, and attempt to address the House in the temperate, serene manner which is alone proper when intelligent minds are sought to be convinced. At once he becomes conscious that no one can hear him beyond the fifth desk. His voice is lost in space. He raises it; but he cannot make the honorable member hear to whose argument he is replying. He calls upon the Speaker to come to his rescue, and Mr. Speaker uses his hammer with promptitude and vigor. The low roar of conversation, the rustle of paper, the loud clapping for the pages, subside for a moment, and the member resumes. But even during that instant of comparative silence, he is scarcely heard, — he is not heard unless he “orates,” — and, a moment after, his voice is drowned again in the multitudinous sea of noise. Still he will not give up the attempt, and he finishes with the wildest pump-handle oratory of the stump. It is not his fault. He is no fool. He would not naturally discuss army estimates in the style of Patrick Henry rousing his countrymen to arms. If he does so, it is because nature has so limited the reach and compass of the human voice, that he cannot make himself heard unless he roars; and no man can keep on roaring long without other parts of the body joining his lungs in the tumult.
This is really a matter of first-rate importance; for, whatever else man is or has, we are sure he possesses an animal nature, and hence is subject to physical conditions that are inexorable. If we could assemble in that enormous room the sages, statesmen, and orators of all the ages, we should not get from them much profitable debate. The hall is good enough; only it wants taking in. There is no need of such extensive accommodation for the chance visitors to the Capitol; since the whole people, as just remarked, as well as a respectable representation from foreign countries, are present in the gallery of the reporters. Three or four hundred gallery seats would answer better than the present thousand.
We ought not to be ashamed to learn something of the details of parliamentary management from a people who have had a Parliament for eight centuries. When the city of Washington was laid out, — 1790 to 1800, — the people of the United States had caught from the enthusiastic Republicans of France a certain infatuation for the ancient Romans; and hence the building for the accommodation of Congress was styled the Capitol; and, in furnishing the chambers for the Senate and House, the seats were arranged in semicircles, after the manner of the Roman senate-house. There was such a relish then for everything Roman, that it is rather surprising honorable members were not required to appear in their places wearing Roman togas. Nothing seems to have been copied from the British Parliament, except that object which Oliver Cromwell saw before him when he dissolved Parliament, one April day in 1653, and bade a soldier near him take away that fool’s bawble, — the mace. But perhaps there are one or two other features of the British House of Commons that might have been considered. Never would the House of Commons have formed a Fox, a Sheridan, a Canning, a Peel, a Palmerston, or a Gladstone, if those masters of parliamentary conversation had been obliged to speak in such an apartment as our present Representatives Hall. I have been in the House of Commons when important debates occurred, and every leading speaker on both sides did his best, but no man put forth any great physical exertion. Sir Robert Peel rarely, Palmerston never, departed from the easy manner and unforced tone of conversation. A great debate was only the more or less animated talk of able, experienced, well-informed gentlemen; and it retained this tone chiefly because the auditors were so close around the speakers that conversation could be heard. No desks obstructed and filled up the floor, tempting members to write. No heaps of pamphlets and newspapers rose before them, luring them to read. All reading and writing had been done before the House met, and nothing remained but to talk it over. Ministerial and opposition members sat on long benches, facing one another, with a mere alley between them; and the strangers’ gallery was a cockloft up near the ceiling, which would hold, when crammed, a hundred and twenty people.
The reader has perhaps not forgotten the astonishment that seized him when first he caught sight of the tumultuous scene afforded by the House of Representatives in session. I suppose we are all so used to it now, that we have ceased to see in it anything extraordinary. A deliberative body, indeed! From the gallery we look down upon semicircles of desks, at which members are writing, reading, and gossiping, apparently inattentive to what is going on. Outside of the outer semicircle is a crowd of men standing in groups talking together. The sofas that line the walls are usually occupied by men engaged in conversation; and in the lobbies beyond there is a dense crowd of talkers, who contribute their share to the volume of noise. Inside the inner row of desks, between the members and the Speaker’s lofty throne of marble, the business of the House Is brought to a focus. There, at a long row of marble desks, sit the shorthand reporters, who prepare for the “Globe” the official verbatim report of the proceedings. Above and behind them, at another row of marble desks, sit the clerks who keep an official record of whatever is done. Above and behind these, in his marble pulpit, with his mace at his right hand, his compass-like dock and excellent ivory hammer before him, behold the Speaker, most attentive of members, and the only one among them all who is expected to how at every instant the business before the House. On the marble steps connecting these three platforms are the pages, the circulating-medium of the House, who spring at the clapping of a member’s hands to execute his will. From the midst of the great chaos of members, members’ desks, boots, and litter of documents, a Voice is heard, — the voice of one who is supposed to be addressing the House. Not a member listens, perhaps, nor pretends to listen; not even the Speaker, who may be at the moment conversing with a stranger just presented to him, or may be signing documents. He knows that the Voice has seventeen minutes and three quarters longer to run, and his sole duty with regard to that Voice is, to bring down his well-made hammer with a good rap on the desk when its time is up. The only attentive persons are the shorthand reporters; but as they merely sit and write, without ever looking up, the absurd spectacle is often presented, of a distinguished gentleman delivering a most animated harangue to a great crowd of people, not one of whom appears to be regarding him. His right hand quivers in the air. He cries aloud. His body sways about like a tall pine in a torturing gale. “Yes, Mr. Speaker, I repeat the assertion”; — but Mr. Speaker is giving audience to three of his constituents, who stand, hat in hand, on the steps of his throne. “I appeal to gentlemen on the other side of the House”; — but no: neither the gentlemen on the other side of the House, nor his own intimate friends near by, pay him the poor compliment of laying down their newspapers or looking up from the letters they are writing.
Why these desks? why this general absorption of members in writing, reading, and conferring? Why the frequent necessity of hunting up members in their committee-rooms? It is because Congress meets four hours too soon! It meets at 12 P.M. instead of 4 P.M. It meets long before the daily work of members is done, before the morning’s news is stale, before the relish of the mind for excitement is sated, before the mood has come for interchange of ideas, for converse with other minds.
Every one knows that the hard labor of Congress is done in committee-rooms and in the private offices of members; but, I presume, few persons are aware of the great mount and variety of duty which now devolves upon members who are capable of industry and public spirit. There are idle members, of course; for in Congress, as everywhere else, it is the willing and generous mind that bears the burden and pulls the load. It is with members of Congress as with editors, — most of their labor consists in considering and quietly rejecting what the public never hears anything about. Beau Brummel wore but one necktie, but his servant carried down stairs half a dozen failures. A magazine contains twenty articles; but, in order to get that twenty, the editor may have had to examine four hundred. During the session, Washington being the centre of interest to forty millions of people, it is the common receptacle of the infinite variety of schemes, dreams, ideas, vagaries, notions, publications, which the year generates. When a citizen of the United States conceives an idea or plans an enterprise, one of the things he is likely to do is to write a pamphlet about it, and either send a copy to each member of Congress, or hire a small boy to place a copy upon each member’s desk just before twelve o’clock. The international-copyrightists, I remember, took that enlightened course, fondly believing that no member who called himself a human being could read such moving arguments without being impatient to vote for the measure proposed. But when I began to look into Washington affairs, I discovered that hundreds of other people were continually employing the same too obvious tactics. Pamphlets come raining down upon members in a pitiless storm. On going into the office of a member one morning, when he had been absent twenty four hours, I had the curiosity to glance at the mail which had accumulated in that short time. It consisted of one hundred and eight packages, — about one third letters, and two thirds newspapers and pamphlets. I think a member whose name is familiar to the country will usually receive, in the course of a long session, a good cart-load of printed matter designed expressly to influence legislation.
More vigorous schemers, or rather schemers with longer purses, soon discover that pamphlets are rather a drug in Washington, and send delegations or agents to “push” their projects by personal interviews. Nearly all these enterprises are either in themselves absurd, or else they are beyond the range of legislation; but members have to bestow attention enough upon them to ascertain their nature and claims. At least, many members do this, and by doing it effect a great deal of unrecorded good. Many a member of Congress does a fair day’s work for his country outside of the chamber in which he sits and the committee-rooms in which he labors. Many members, too, have extensive affairs of their own, — factories or banks to direct, causes to plead in the national courts, articles to write for their newspapers.
Let them get all this work and all committee work done before the Houses meet, and then come together at four o’clock in the afternoon, in snug convenient rooms without desks, and talk things over in the hearing of mankind. This would obviate the necessity for the two sessions which give the Sergeant-at-arms so much lucrative employment, and party-going members such annoyance. I think, too, it would discourage and finally abolish the pernicious custom of reading speeches, as well as that kindred falsehood of getting speeches printed in the “Globe” which have never been delivered at all. A distinguished senator remarked in conversation last winter, that when he came to Congress, fifteen years ago, not more than one speech in five was written out and read, but that now four in five are. I have known a member, who had an important speech prepared, seriously consider whether he should deliver it in the House of Representatives, or offer it as a contribution to the “Atlantic Monthly.” He concluded, after deliberation, to deliver the speech to the House, because he could reach the country quicker in that way; and he accordingly roared it, in the usual manner, from printed slips, few members regarding him. The next morning, the speech was printed in every important daily newspaper within fifteen hundred miles of Washington.
Among the great purposes of a national parliament are these two first, to train men for practical statesmanship; and, secondly, to exhibit them to the country, so that, when men of ability are wanted, they can be found without anxious search and perilous trial. The people of free countries can form little idea of the embarrassment which a patriotic despot suffers when he must have an able, commanding man for the public service, and there is no tried and tested body of public men from which to choose. The present Emperor of Russia, at more than one critical time, I have been assured, has experienced this difficulty: the whole vast empire with its teeming millions lies before him subject to his will; but it is dumb. Russia has no voice. Her able men have no arena. No man is celebrated, except as heir to an ancient name, or commandant of an important post. No class of men have had the opportunity to stand up before their countrymen, year after year, and show what they are, what they know, what they can hear, what they can do, and what they can refrain from doing, in keen, honorable, courteous encounter with their peers. One lamentable consequence is, that when an emperor, rising superior to the traditions of his order, strikes into a new and a nobler path, and looks about him for new men to carry out the new ideas, he has no knowledge to act upon. France has been muzzled for nearly twenty years. The time is at hand when the muzzle will fall off; but the controlling men who should have been formed and celebrated by twenty years of public life in a parliament are unformed and unknown. The people will want leaders; but leaders that can be trusted are not extemporized.
This congressional essay-writing threatens to reduce us to the same condition. The composition of an essay, in the quiet solitude of a library, is a useful and honorable exertion of the human mind; but it is a thing essentially different from taking part in public debate, and does not afford the kind of training which a public man needs. It does not give him nerve, self-command, and the habit of deference to the judgment of other minds. It does not give him practice in the art or convincing others. We cannot get in a library that intimate knowledge of human vanities, timidities, prejudices, ignorance, and habits, which shut the mind to unaccustomed truth, and turn the best-intentioned men into instruments of evil. The triumphant refutation of an opponent in a composition calmly written in the absence of that opponent, — how easy it is, compared with meeting him face to face, and so refuting him in the hearing of an empire, that if he be not convinced, tens of thousands of other men are! Essay-writing does not knock the conceit out of a man like open debate; nor yet does it fortify that just self-confidence which enables one to hold his own against eloquent error and witty invective, and sit unmoved amidst the applause and laughter that frequently follow them. It does really unfit a person for grappling with the homely, every-day difficulties of government. It tends to lessen that unnamed something in human beings which gives ascendency over others, and it diminishes a man’s power to decide promptly at a time when his decision is to take visible effect. Nor does a written essay give any trustworthy indication of its author’s character or force. A false, barren, unfeeling soul has been an “absolute monarch of words,” capable of giving most powerful expression to emotions which it never felt, and to thoughts imbibed from better and greater men.
The substitution of written essays, read from printed slips, for extemporized debate, deprives the public, therefore, of one of the means of knowing and weighing the men from whom the leading persons of the government would naturally be taken; and it deprives members of Congress of part of the training which public men peculiarly need. It is to be hoped that when the House of Representatives moves into a smaller room, and Congress meets at four in the afternoon, the reading of speeches will be coughed down, and that Congress will resume its place as one of the national parliaments of the world.
If the reader has ever been so unfortunate as to be personally interested in a measure before Congress, he has doubtless been exasperated by observing that, while Congress has much more to do than it can do, it wastes much more than half its time. The waste of time, in the last days of a short session, with the appropriation bills still to be acted upon, and a crowd of expectants in the lobbies waiting for their bills to “come up,” is sometimes excessive, absurd, and, to parties concerned, almost maddening. I shall long remember a certain day in the House of Representatives, when I chanced to it next to a gentleman whose whole fortune and entire future career, as he thought, depended upon the action of the House concerning a bill which was expected to come up in the course of the afternoon. He was a stranger to me, but I gathered from his conversation with his friends, who clustered around him on the floor before the session began, that he had been a waiter upon Congress for two years. Now, he thought, the decisive hour had come: that day, he believed, would send him home made or marred for life. Sitting so rear him as I did, I could not help regarding the proceedings of the House that day with his eyes and his feelings.
Punctually at twelve, the rap of the Speaker’s ivory hammer was heard above the din of conversation, the rustle of papers, and the noise of the ushers admonishing strangers to withdraw. A chaplin entered, who took his stand at the Clerk’s desk, just below the Speaker, and began the usual prayer. I had the curiosity to ascertain the exact number of persons who appeared to attend to this exercise. The number was three: first, the Speaker, who stood in a graceful attitude, with clapped hands and bowed bead, as though he felt the necessity of representing the House in a duty which it did not choose itself to perform; second, one member, who also stood; third, one spectator in the gallery. Scarcely any members were yet in their seats, and the hall exhibited a scene of faded morocco chair-backs, with a fringe of people in the distance walking, standing, conversing; the prayer being an extempore one, the chaplain grew warm, became unconscious of the lapse of time, and prolonged his prayer unusually. Never was there a religious service that seemed more ill-timed or more ill placed than that which opens the daily sessions of the House of Representatives. There is a time for all things; but members evidently think that the time to pray is not then nor there. The prayer can have no effect in calming members’ minds, opening them to conviction, or preparing them for the duties of the occasion, because members’ minds are absorbed, at the time, in hurrying the work of their committee-rooms to a conclusion. We might as well open the Gold-Room with prayer, or the daily sessions of the stock-brokers. Mr. Daniel Drew would probably assume an attitude of profound devotion, but other gentlemen would do what many members of Condo, — avoid going in until the prayer is finished. In fixing times and places for devotional acts, we are now advanced far enough, I trust, to use our sense of the becoming and the suitable, and to obey its dictates. Members should certainly come in and “behave,” or else abolish the chaplain.
My Expectant did not fret under the prolongation of the prayer. He had made up his mind to that apparently. Nor was he moved when a member rose and asked to have a totally unimportant error corrected in yesterday’s “Globe.” After this was done began a scene that wasted an hour and a half, and disgraced, not this House alone, but the country and its institutions. Two witnesses, who had refused to answer the questions of an investigating-committee, and had afterwards thought better of it, and given the information sought, were to be discharged from the custody of the Sergeant-at-arms. The prisoners were of the lowest grade of New York politician. One of them, a good-humored, dissolute ruffian of twenty-three, was so precocious in depravity that he had already been an alderman, and had afterwards been concerned in the congenial business of distributing forged naturalization-papers. I became acquainted with this fellow-citizen during his detention in the lobby, and he informed me, as I contemplated the diamond pin in his shirt, that he would have come on to Washington that winter, not as a prisoner, but as a member of Congress, if he had been old enough. This was a flight of the imagination. The despots of the Democratic party in the city of New York take excellent care that the really desirable things at their disposal fall to the men who can pay for them. They give the wretches whose votes they employ showers of Roman candles about election time, but they do not pave their streets, nor remove their heaps of garbage. They have no objections to a poor devil’s picking up a diamond pin or so as alderman or councilman; but when it comes to member of Congress—O dear, no I they rarely take such things even for themselves.
These prisoners being residents of New York, there was an opportunity for a few members to make a little home capital by publicly taking their part. One after another the city members, in the view of the whole House and the crowded galleries, went up to the ex-alderman, as he stood in front of the Speaker, shook hands with him, smiled upon him, and exchanged jocular observations with him. A chair was brought for his convenience, and while his case was under consideration, he held a levee in the aisle, sitting; while the Sergeant-at-arms, representing the authority of the House, stood behind him. Mr. James Brooks paid him his respects, nodding benignantly. Mr. Fernando Wood bowed with courtly grace, and uttered friendly words. Mr. Robinson (ah! Richelieu, you deserve better company!) was merry with him. A member moved that one of the prisoners be “discharged from custody.” “Why not say honorably discharged?” asked a Democratic brother; which, of course, led to the expected wrangle. But the main effort was to get the ex-alderman clear without his paying the costs of his arrest and transportation to Washington, — seventy-five dollars. Now mark the purposed waste of time. It was moved that the prisoner be discharged on paying the costs of his arrest. A Democratic member moved to amend by striking out the words, “on paying the costs of arrest,” alleging that the witness was a poor man, and could not procure so large a sum. The diamond pin glittered at this remark. I think, too, that the officer who had had charge of the prisoner the night before must have smiled; for the young alderman had not been abstemious, and he had broken one of the commandments In an expensive manner. The question was put. A few scattered ayes responded; and these were followed by such a simultaneous and emphatic roar of NOES as ought to have settled the question. A Democratic member demanded the yeas and nays; and, as it was doubtful whether this demand would be sustained, he called for tellers on the question whether the yeas and nays should be taken or not Monstrous robbery of precious time! First, two members take their stand in front of the Speaker, and the whole House, first the yeas and then the nays, pass between them, — a curious scene of huddle and confusion. The tellers reporting that the demand is sustained, the ayes and noes are ordered; which, with the time already consumed, wastes three quarters of an hour. The amendment, as every one knew it would be, was voted down.
Nothing had yet been done in the case. An amendment had been offered and rejected, — no more. The main question now recurred: Shall the prisoner be discharged on paying the costs? The sense of the House was hon to every creature; but the few Democrats from New York, not regarding the convenience and dignity of the House, but thinking only of the Sixth Ward and the possible effect of their conduct there, must needs repeat this costly farce. Again they forced members to file between tellers; again they condemned two thousand persons to endure the tedium of the roll-call; again they compelled anxious expectants to chafe and fret for three quarters of an hour. It was past two o’clock before this trifling matter was disposed of. The Horn was then in no mood for private business, and this unhappy man was kept in suspense till another day.
He received his quietus, however, before the session ended. I saw him, a few days after, come into a committee-room, followed by two or three members, who, I suppose, had been pleading his cause. His face was very red, and it betrayed in every lineament that the vote of the House had crushed his hopes. If any dramatist would like to know how a man comports himself under such a stroke, I will state that this gentleman did not thrust either of his hands into his hair, nor throw himself into a chair and bury his face in his hands, nor do any other of those acts which gentlemen in such circumstances do upon the stage. He walked hastily to the faucet, filled a glass with water, and drank it very fast. Then he filled another glass, and drank that very fast. He then said to the members present, who expressed sympathy with his disappointment, “Gentlemen, you did the best you could for me.” Next, he put on his overcoat, took up his hat, went out into the lobby, and so vanished from history.
It was not this unfortunate suitor alone, nor the class whom he represented, that suffered keenly upon the occasion before mentioned. Committees were anxious to report; members were watching for an opportunity to introduce matters of great pith and moment; foreign agents were waiting for the House to act upon the affairs which they had in charge; an important revision of the internal-revenue system, upon which a committee had expended months of labor, was pending, and was finally lost for want of the time thus wantonly wasted. Surely it is within the compass of human ingenuity to devise a method of preventing a handful of members from frustrating the wishes of a majority? Three fourths of the House desired to go on with the business of the day; and, of the remaining fourth, only half a dozen really cared to conciliate the class represented by the prisoner. Why not take the yeas and nays by a machine similar to the hotel indicator? From the remotest corner of the largest hotel, a traveller sends the number of his room to the office by a pull of the bell-rope. The inventor of that machine could doubtless arrange a system of wires and words by which the vote of the House could be taken, and even permanently recorded, by a click of a key on each member’s desk. In an instant every name might be exhibited in bold characters, — the ayes on the Speaker’s right, and the noes on his left, — legible to the whole House; or the ayes and noes might be printed on prepared lists. Until such a contrivance is completed, the Speaker might be empowered to put a stop to such obvious filibustering as that just described. There has never yet, I believe, been a Speaker of the House of Representatives who might not have been safely entrusted with much addition to his power. “All power is abused,” says Niebuhr; “and yet some one must have it.” Such Speakers as Henry Clay, General Banks, Mr. Colfax, and Mr. Blame would not be likely to abuse power so abominably as the minority of the House do whenever they fancy they can please sweet Buncombe there-by.
A good deal of precious time is consumed by Congress in misgoverning the District of Columbia, or in doing just enough to prevent the people of the District from governing themselves. Who invented the District of Columbia? Why a District of Columbia? It is a joke in Washington, that, for sixty-five years, Congress voted fifteen hundred dollars every session for the salary of the keeper of the crypt, because no member had the moral courage to confess his ignorance of the meaning of the word. The jokers say that many members thought it was some mysterious object, like the mace, without which Congress would not be Congress. Certain it is that the money was voted without question every year, until in 1868 the item caught the eye of General Butler, and he asked members of the Committee on Appropriations what it meant. No one being able to tell him, he went down forthwith into the crypt of the Capitol in search of its “keeper.” No such officer was known in those subterranean regions. After a prolonged inquiry, he discovered that soon after the death of General Washington, when it was expected that his remains would be deposited in the crypt under the dome, Congress created the office in question, for the better protection of the sacred vault. Mrs. Washington refusing her consent, the crypt remained vacant; but the office was not abolished, and the appropriation passed unchallenged until General Butler made his inquiry, when it was stricken out. Is not our District of Columbia a similar case? The District is instilled into the tender mind of infancy, and we have all taken it for granted. But what need is there of depriving a portion of the American people of part of their rights, or of compelling them to travel across a continent to vote? Why use an apparatus so costly, complicated, and cumbersome as the Congress of the United States to get a little paving done in Pennsylvania Avenue, or some soup given out to a few hundred hungry negroes? Do California and Oregon send members across the continent to attend to the lamp-posts of a country town? Are honorable gentlemen to travel all the way from the extremity of Florida or the farthest confines of Texas to order some new boards to be nailed down on the Long Bridge?
Unable to answer such questions as these, or get them answered, I thought that possibly there might be some military advantage arising from the system, which would serve as an offset to its manifest inconveniences. But the jurisdiction of Congress did not prevent officers of a hostile army from walking into the White House one very warm day in the summer of 1814, and Mrs. Madison’s excellent dinner, while the soldiers under their command were ravaging the town and burning the Capitol. Nor was it the authority of Congress that kept the Confederate Army on the other side of the Potomac after the battle of Bull Run. No harm appears to have come from giving back to Virginia the forty square miles which she contributed to the original hundred; and I cannot think of any evil or any inconvenience that would result if Congress were to restore to Maryland her sixty, and pay taxes on the property of the United States, like any other guardian or trustee.
This is a matter of much importance, because there seems to be some danger of the government’s repeating the stupendous folly of creating a Federal City. No less distinguished a person than General Sherman appears to take it for granted that there is some necessity for the government to be sovereign in a little principality around the public edifices. “In my opinion,” he lately wrote, “if the capital is changed from Washington to the West, a new place will be chosen on the Mississippi River, several hundred miles above St. Louis. … I have interests in St. Louis, and if allowed to vote on this question, I would vote against surrendering St. Louis city and county, with its vast commercial and manufacturing interests, to the exclusive jurisdiction of a Congress that would make these interests subordinate to the mere political uses of a Federal capital. Nor would any National Congress make the capital where it had not exclusive and absolute jurisdiction for its own protection and that of the employés of the government. Therefore, if the capital be moved at all, it must go to a place willing to surrender its former character and become a second Washington City.”
This is an appalling prospect for posterity, — a second Washington City! I could wish that General Sherman had given some reasons for his assumption; for while the good resulting from the jurisdiction of Congress is not apparent, the evils are manifest. The arriving stranger, who usually has the pain of riding a mile or two in Pennsylvania Avenue, naturally asks why that celebrated street is so ill paved, so dusty, so ill lighted. It is one of the widest streets in the world; and as it runs two miles without a bend and without a hill, the winds rushing along it from the distant gap in the mountains raise clouds of dust that are wonderful to behold and terrible to encounter. At other times the street is so muddy that people call a carriage to take them across. In the evening the whole city is dim, dismal, and dangerous from the short supply of gas. Ladies who intend to give a party endeavor to select an evening when there will be no evening session; because when the Capitol is lighted the gasworks are so overtasked that every drawing-room in the city is dull. The dilapidation of the bridges, the neglected appearance of the public squares, the general shabbiness and sprawling incompleteness of the town, strike every one who comes from the trim and vigorous cities of the North. In things of more importance there is equal inefficiency. Since the war closed, Washington has been a poverty-stricken place. The war gathered there several thousands of poor people, who became instantly helpless and miserable when the army was withdrawn, with its train of sutlers, storekeepers, embalmers, and miscellaneous hangers-on. In one of the last weeks of the last session, I remember the business of the nation was brought to a stand while a member coaxed and begged a small appropriation from Congress to keep several hundreds of colored people from starving. I myself saw the soup-houses surrounded by ragged, shivering wretches, with their pails and kettles, soon after ten in the morning, although the soup was not distributed until twelve. Washington, being peopled chiefly by under-paid clerks and their worse paid chiefs, the charity of the city was even more overtasked than its gas-works; and there seemed no way in which those poor people could be saved from starvation, except by a gift of public money, — national money, — the property of Maine, Oregon, Florida, California, and the other States. The absurdity of the act was undeniable; but when human beings are seen to be in the agonies of starvation, constitutional scruples generally give way. Congress might just as properly have voted thirty thousand dollars to relieve the suffering poor of San Francisco. The accidental proximity of those perishing people gave them no claim upon the national treasury which the poor of other cities did not possess.
The stranger, I repeat, observing these and many other evidences of inefficient government, naturally asks an explanation. The explanation is, that the unhappy city has two governments, namely, Congress, and its own Mayor and Aldermen, — one very rich and close, the other very poor and heavily burdened with expense. Between these two powers there is a chronic ill-feeling, similar to that which might exist between a rich uncle and a married nephew with a large family and many wants, — both living in the same house. The old man is under the impression that he makes his nephew a munificent allowance, to which he adds Christmas and other gifts on what he considers a liberal scale. His numerous other heirs and dependents share this opinion. They even reproach him for his lavish benefactions. They go so far as to say that he ought not to have paid that last heavy plumbing bill for letting the water into the house. The young man, on the other hand, so far from being grateful for his uncle’s generosity, is always grumbling at his parsimony; and every time an unusual expense has to be incurred, there is a struggle and a wrangle between them as to which shall pay it. “Pay it out of your income,” says Uncle Sam. “No, my dear sir: this is a permanent addition to your estate,” replies the nephew. “You require me,” he continues, “for your own convenience and advantage, to reside in this huge, rambling, expensive mansion, far away from towns and markets and I am thus compelled to live on a scale which is out of all proportion to my slender means. It is but fair that you should help me out.” The old gentleman assents to the principle; but he never can be brought to come down as handsomely as the young nephew feels he ought. Hence, the feud between the two.
This state of things is injurious to both; but to the city government it is demoralization and paralysis. After many years of silent and of vocal strife, there has come about a kind of “understanding” that Congress is to “take care” of Pennsylvania Avenue, and the city government is to do all the rest. But the real object of strife appears to be, which government shall most completely neglect the duty assigned it; and each excuses its neglect by pointing to the inefficiency of the other. The remedy appears simple and feasible. Let Congress restore to Maryland her sixty square miles, and pay taxes on the national property. By this inexpensive expedient, Congress would get rid of the troublesome task of misgoverning a small principality, and the city government would be put upon its good behavior, and supplied with adequate means and motive.
The question of the removal of the capital is scarcely ripe even for serious consideration, since we cannot know for ten years or more what effects will be produced by the Pacific railroads; built and to be built; nor whether the country is to extend northward, southward, in both directions, or in neither. If Canada is to come in, then Mr. Seward may be right in his conjecture that the final capital of the United States will be somewhere near the city of St. Paul. If Cuba is to be ours, if the other large islands of the West Indies are to follow, if we are to dig the Darien Canal, and the United States is to compete with Great Britain for the commerce of the world, then the future capital may properly be an Atlantic seaport, New York perhaps. If we are to take upon ourselves the grievous burden of Mexico, and extend our empire along the Pacific coast, then some central city yet to be created may be the predestined spot If none of these things is to happen, the beautiful and commodious city of St Louis presents almost every advantage that can be desired. Many years must probably elapse before any of these ifs are out of the way. In the mean time no reason appears why Congress should not gladly permit the people residing in the District of Columbia to take care of their own municipal affairs. There would then be one committee the less, one lobby the less, one whole class of ill-defined and undefinable claims the less. It would not require ten years of lobbying, under that system, to get Pennsylvania Avenue paved; nor would Congress have to spend precious time in providing soup for the poor.
But the greatest time-consumer of all is the frequently settled but always reopening controversy respecting the right of Congress to appropriate money for “internal improvements.” We are at sea again on this subject It will not remain settled. The stranger in the Capitol, who looks over the heaps of pamphlets and documents lying about on members’ desks and on committee-room tables, discovers that a large number of able and worthy people are under the impression that Congress may be reasonably asked to undertake anything, provided it is a desirable work, and will cost more money than parties interested find it convenient to raise, — anything, from a Darien Canal to the draining of a silver mine, from the construction of a whole system of railroads to the making of an experimental balloon. There are those who want Congress to buy all the telegraphic lines, and others who think that all the railroads should be public property. The strict-constructionists are reduced to a feeble cohort, and yet Congress adheres to the tradition of their doctrines, and is fain to employ devices and subterfuges to cover up its departures therefrom. But no one knows how far Congress will go, and this uncertainty lures to the capital many an expensive lobby, who wear out their hearts in waiting, and who waste at Washington the money and the energy that might have started their enterprise.
While waiting one day in the room of a Washington correspondent, I noticed upon the table a large, square, gilt-edged, handsomely hound volume, resembling in appearance the illustrated annuals which appear on the book-sellers’ counters during the month of December. Upon taking it up, I observed upon the cover a picture, in gold, of a miner gracefully swinging a pick-axe, with golden letters above and below him informing me that the work was upon the “Sutro Tunnel, Nevada.” I opened the volume. Upon one of the fly-leaves I had the pleasure of reading a letter, in fac-simile, signed Adolf Sutro, which showed that Mr. Sutro was an elegant penman and wrote in the French manner, — one sentence to a paragraph, — thus: —
“We have a vast mining-interest: we also have a large national debt.
“The development of the former will secure the early payment of the latter.
“The annexed book contains much information on the subject.
“A few hours devoted to its perusal will prove useful, interesting, and instructive.”
Having read this neat epistle, I turned over a leaf or two, and discovered an engraving of “Virginia City, N. T.,” and opposite to the same the title-page, of which the following is a copy: “The Mineral Resources of the United States,” and the Importance and Necessity of Inaugurating a Rational System of Mining, with Special Reference to the Comstock Lode and the Sutro Tunnel in Nevada. By Adolf Sutro. Baltimore: John Murphy & Co., 1868.” The work consisted of two hundred and thirty-two large pages, of which both the paper and the printing were of the most expensive kind. The substance of Mr. Sutro’s message can be given in a few sentences: 1. The Comstock Lode in Nevada, the most productive series of silver mines in the world, having yielded seventy-five million dollars’ worth of silver in six years, has now been dug so deep that it costs nearly as much to pump out the water as the mines yield. 2. Mr. Sutro wants Congress to tap the mountain by means of a tunnel, — the Sutro Tunnel, — so that the water will all run out at the bottom, far below the silver, leaving the mines dry. 3. If that is not done, the mines cannot be worked much longer at a profit. 4. Capitalists will not undertake the tunnel, because they are not sure there is silver enough in the lode to pay for it. 5. Mr. Sutro is perfectly sure there is. 6. There are many similar lodes in Nevada. 7. Therefore it is “the duty and interest of the government to aid in the construction of one tunnel as an index work,” to show that there is silver enough in such lodes to pay for such tunnels.
This is the milk in that magnificent cocoanut. The idea is ingenious and plausible. I should like to see it tried. But who needs to be told that, under the Constitution of the United States, as formerly interpreted, Congress has no more right to advance money—or, as the polite phrase now is, “lend the credit of the government”—for such an object as this, than it has to build a new kind of steamboat for the Fulton Ferry Company, because the company is not certain it will answer? The inventor is certain. He gets a great album printed, and goes to Washington to lobby for the money. Now, to produce a thousand copies of such a work as this costs ten thousand dollars; and it indicates a lobby that may have cost twenty thousand or fifty thousand more. What a waste is this And there are fifty lobbies every winter, in Washington, pushing for objects as obviously beyond the constitutional power of Congress as the Sutro Tunnel. These lobbies not only cost a great deal of money, but they demoralize, in some degree, almost every person who has anything to do with them. Nearly all of them fail, as a matter of course; but not until they have tempted, warped, perverted, corrupted, men who, but for such projects, would leave Washington as innocent as they came to it.
Take this scene for example. A Washington correspondent, sauntering towards the Capitol, is joined by the chief of one of these lobbies, to whom he has been casually introduced. There are about sixty correspondents usually residing in Washington during the winter, of whom fifty-five are honorable and industrious; having no object but to serve faithfully the newspapers to which they are attached; and generally no source of income but the salary which they draw from those newspapers, — from thirty to a hundred dollars a week. The other five are vulgar, unscrupulous, and rich. They belong to insignificant papers, and sell their paragraphs to inexperienced men who come to Washington to get things “through”, and desire the aid of the press. Lobbyists who understand their business seldom approach correspondents with illegitimate propositions, because they know that the representatives of influential newspapers cannot sell their columns, and would disdain to attempt doing so. The corrupt five, who prey generally upon the inexperienced, occasionally get lucrative jobs from men who ought to be ashamed to employ them. They make it a point to cultivate a certain kind of intimacy with members, — a billiard-room intimacy, a champagne-supper intimacy. They like to be seen on the floor of the House of Representatives, and may go so far as to slap a senatorial carpet-bagger on the back. it is part of their game to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue arm-in-arm with a member of Congress, and to get the entrée of as many members’ apartments as possible. Some members, who know and despise them, are yet in some degree afraid of them; for any man who can get access to a newspaper can do harm and give pain. To the publicity of the press there are as many avenues in the country as there are newspapers to exchange with; and any paper, even the most remote and least important, is competent to start a falsehood which the great thunderers of the press may copy, and which no denial can ever quite eradicate from the public mind. These jovial fellows, who treat green members to champagne, and ask them to vote for dubious measures, are also the chief calumniators of Congress. It is they who have caused so many timid and credulous people to think that the Congress of the United States is a corrupt body. They revenge themselves for their failure to carry improper measures by slandering the honest men whose votes defeated them. They thrive on the preposterous schemes to which a loose interpretation of the Constitution has given birth.
But my friend who was strolling to-ward the Capitol was not one of the scurvy five, but of the honorable fifty-five; and, strange to relate, the lobby chief who escorted and took him aside was a master of his art. But the scheme which he represented was in imminent peril, and it was deemed essential that the leading papers of the West should, at least, not oppose it. It was thought better that the papers should even leave the subject unmentioned. It were needless to give in detail the interview. The substance of what our lobbyist had to propose to this young journalist was this: Take this roll of greenbacks, and don’t send a word over the wires about our measure. From the appearance of the roll, it was supposed to contain about as much money as the correspondent would earn in the whole of a short session of Congress. What a temptation to a young married man and father a quarters salary for merely not writing a short paragraph, which, in any case, he need not have written, and might not have thought of writing. He was not tempted, however; but only blushed, and turned away with the remark that he was sorry the tempter thought so meanly of him. It is illegitimate schemes, such as ought never to get as far as Washington, that are usually sought to be advanced by such tactics as these.
Either by a new article of the Constitution, such as President Jefferson proposed sixty-five years ago, or by a clearly defined interpretation of existing articles, the people should be notified anew that Congress is not authorized to expend the public money, or “lend the public credit,” for any but strictly national objects, — objects necessary to the defence and protection of the whole people, and such as the State governments and private individuals cannot do for themselves. Any one who has been in Washington during the last few winters, and kept his eyes open, must have felt that this was a most pressing need of the time. It is sorrowful to see so much effort and so much money wasted in urging Congress to do what it cannot do without the grossest violation of the great charter that created it.
I fed all the difficulty of laying down a rule that will stand the test of strong temptation. The difficulty is shown by our failures hitherto; for this question of the power of Congress to do desirable works has been an “issue” in Presidential contests, and the theme of a hundred debates in both Houses. President Washington, influenced perhaps by his English-minded Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton, evidently thought that Congress could do almost anything which the British Parliament could do; and we see him urging Congress to realize Hamilton’s dream of a great National University. John Adams shared this opinion. When Mr. Jefferson came into power, in 1801, on a strict-constructionist issue, Republicans thought the thing was settled. But no: there occurred an opportunity to buy Louisiana, and that opportunity seemed transient. Napoleon wanted money desperately, and had sense enough to understand the uselessness of Louisiana to France. Jefferson yielded. He bought Louisiana, and then asked Congress to frame an amendment to the Constitution that would cover the act. I never could see the necessity for an amendment for that case; for it certainly belonged to “the common defence” for the United States to own its own back door. Then came that perplexing surplus of 1805, when Mr. Jefferson asked Congress to take the whole subject of internal improvements into consideration, and frame an article of the Constitution which would be a clear guide for all future legislation. It was not done. The war of 1812 betrayed the weakness of the country in some essential particulars, and broke down the strict-construction theory, while confirming in power the party of strict-constructionists. Madison revived the project of a National University, without asking for a new article; and the old Federalist ideas gained such ground, that, when John Quincy Adams came into power, in 825, Congress was asked to do more than Hamilton had so much as proposed in Cabinet-meeting. Jackson, impelled by his puerile hatred of Henry Clay, re-established the strict-construction principle; but it would not remain re-established. In 1843, Congress gave Professor Morse twenty thousand dollars with which to try his immortal experiment with the telegraph. Congress had no right to do this; but the splendor of the result dazzled every mind and silenced all reproach. Then came Mr. Douglas’s device by which a Democratic Congress was enabled to set up a railroad company with capital from the sale of the public lands, and leave to the railroad company all the profit upon the investment Finally was achieved the masterpiece of evasion called “lending the public credit.”
I never could see the necessity of any device to justify Congress in constructing one Pacific Railroad outright; because it was a cheap and necessary measure of “common defence.” That railroad defends the frontiers against the Indians better than mounted regiments, and defends the Pacific States better than costly fleets. But the most strained reading of the Constitution cannot make it authorize the building of a railroad beginning and ending in the same State, nor justify the voting of public money to make scientific experiments. Probably there are now in Washington at least fifty lobbies (or will be erelong) working for schemes suggested by those two violations of trust, to the sore tribulation of members of Congress, and to the grievous loss of persons interested.
The time is favorable for an attempt to settle this question, because it does not now enter into the conflict of parties. Perhaps the Congress of an empire like this ought to have power to aid in such a work as the Darien Canal. Perhaps the mere magnitude of the undertaking makes it exceptional, makes it necessarily national. It may properly belong to an imperial parliament to aid scientific experiments which are too costly for individuals to undertake. Perhaps a national Congress is incompletely endowed unless it can reward services that cannot otherwise be rewarded, — such a service, for example, as that rendered by the discoverers of the pain-suspending power of ether. If so, let the power be frankly granted, but carefully defined. If not, let the fact be known. There should be an end of evasions, devices, and tricks for doing what the Constitution does not authorize. A tolerably well-informed citizen of the United States should be able to ascertain with certainty, before going to Washington and publishing a gorgeous album, whether his enterprise is one which Congress has or has not the constitutional right to assist.
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